Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence


Movie theaters have been chockablock with ill-advised and hard-to-justify sequels in 2016, so Roland Emmerich’s bid to make a franchise out of INDEPENDENCE DAY seems like business as usual for Hollywood. Still, it’s some feat that INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE feels like a rush job even though twenty years have passed between the original and this sequel. Will Smith does not return, leaving his character’s absence to be explained with about as much elegance as Poochie being written off THE ITCHY & SCRATCHY SHOW on THE SIMPSONS. Some of the special effects impress, but a number of scenes don’t look much different than television dramas with conversations in front of chromakeyed backgrounds. The hash made from several weightless narrative threads does nothing to diminish the sense that this is a cash-in project timed to align with an anniversary ending in a zero.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE picks up two decades after the events of humanity’s defeat of the alien invaders. Knowing that a common enemy is out there among the stars, the world has become a more peaceful and unified place. Scientists have reverse engineered alien technology to improve Earth’s defenses in the event that another attack comes. Former President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is haunted by the the previous battle and worries another is imminent. His fears are confirmed when scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), among others, discovers that a distress signal is being sent by the first mothership.

When an unidentified vessel appears at the moon defense base, the snap judgment among world leaders is to destroy it. This victory is short-lived, as a ship three thousand miles in diameter follows and begins drilling into the Earth in pursuit of the molten core. Those fighting for Earth Space Defense against the aliens include Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe), the onetime First Daughter and pilot who assists the current Commander-in-Chief; her fiancé Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth); and her friend Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), the stepson of Will Smith’s INDEPENDENCE DAY character.

The aliens wipe out the United States’ East Coast, London, and presumably much of Europe and Asia, yet the massive toll doesn’t register at all. The lack of impact could be attributed to scenes of spectacular destruction becoming commonplace in comic book films and the like, so the imagery of large-scale catastrophes has become overly familiar to moviegoers. Emmerich doesn’t help matters by putting no emotional investment in these sections. There isn’t really any proportional human reaction to the incomprehensible carnage that occurs. Emmerich dispenses with the faceless masses and fleetingly recalled characters from the first film as if he’s stepping on an ant colony. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE goes even bigger than before, although perhaps not as near-extinction level as THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW or 2012, but the tragedy merits little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

Emmerich’s large-scale disaster films are knowingly outrageous and campy to a degree, and INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is no different even as it verges on self-parody. Brent Spiner hams it up as Dr. Brakish Okun, who has been in a coma since the previous film. Judd Hirsch is back as Julius Levinson, the father of Goldblum’s character, and he brings some levity via his matter-of-fact acceptance of all the nonsense happening around him. Spiner and Hirsch’s performances demonstrate awareness that this is all big and dumb, so why not have fun with it? The rest of the film subtracts fun from the equation and substitutes it with an earnest insistence that a good time is being had. Emmerich’s salesmanship is not convincing.

Grade: D-

Friday, June 24, 2016

Hot Rod

HOT ROD (Akiva Schaffer, 2007)

In the comedy HOT ROD, Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg) aspires to be a stuntman like his deceased father, an assistant for Evel Knievel who died trying to get out of his boss’ shadow. Rod is using a moped to attempt jumps, so it may not take long for him to follow in his father’s footsteps in dying a horrible death. Rod also desperately wants to earn the respect of his stepfather Frank (Ian McShane), a tough old coot who withholds his love until Rod can beat him in a fight. When Rod is told Frank is in need of a heart transplant that insurance won’t cover, he decides to stage a 15-bus jump to raise money to save Frank’s life so he can beat him to a pulp.

Supporting Rod in his pursuit of stunt glory and charitable fundraising are his younger half-brother Kevin (Jorma Taccone), who is also team manager and videographer, and his friends Dave (Bill Hader) and Rico (Danny McBride), who builds ramps and oversees the explosives used for showmanship. Rod also invites his next-door neighbor and crush Denise (Isla Fisher) to join the crew. She has a soft spot for Rod and helps with his training regimen, but to his chagrin, she’s dating Jonathan (Will Arnett), whose loathsomeness she somehow hasn’t noticed.

Like WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, HOT ROD successfully spoofs a film niche without requiring knowledge of what it’s sending up. In this instance the target is 1980s inspirational sports dramas about working class teenagers. As part of the meta humor about older actors playing high schoolers, like a 23-year-old Ralph Macchio in THE KARATE KID, Rod acts like a petulant adolescent but appears to be in his early twenties, although the character’s age is never clarified. The soundtrack swells to the bombastic music of Swedish hard rock band Europe, which establishes the period the film is trying to evoke even though it is seemingly set in the present day. Arnett hilariously plays every jerk boyfriend in teen movies standing in the way of the sensitive hero and the girl of his dreams.

The jokes favor the absurd over the referential. Rod’s punch-dancing scene in the forest calls back to Kevin Bacon doing something similar in FOOTLOOSE, but the weirdness of the comedy is paramount. That sequence concludes with Rod’s lengthy tumble down a hill. Director Akiva Schaffer extends the fall well past the usual point so that it becomes funnier as it seems like it may go on forever. The same strategy is at work with Samberg and Taccone’s surreal repetition of “cool beans” being transformed into a proto rap song. The exclamation points to scenes often break traditional rules of humor, and the punchy editing rhythm keeps the film moving without making it seem like a series of sketches.

HOT ROD was initially intended to be a Will Ferrell film. While the screenplay is attributed to Pam Brady from that version of the project, the uncredited rewriting by Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer adapts the script to The Lonely Island’s sensibility. There’s no denying that much of what gets laughs in HOT ROD is dumb, but the creativity and rambunctious spirit build a lot of momentum. This very funny film is remarkably consistent because of the strange chances it takes.

Grade: A-

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Central Intelligence

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2016)

Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Kevin Hart) was a star athlete, student, and all-around big man on campus at Central High School, but as his twentieth reunion approaches in CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE, he feels like his best days were when he was a teenager. Calvin married his high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) and is gainfully employed as an accountant, so it’s not like he’s a failure by any means; he just hasn’t done anything that would seem to fulfill being voted “most likely to succeed” by his classmates.

Calvin’s self-esteem gets a major boost when he meets up with Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson), another class of 1996 member who thinks the world of him. During a high school assembly Calvin helped Bob, then going by his eminently mockable given name Robbie Weirdicht, preserve some dignity when he was the victim of a cruel prank. Beyond the name change, Bob has since undergone a major transformation. The once-tubby teen has traded the flab for muscle so that he looks like a beefy action figure in the flesh.

After a fun night of reminiscing Bob asks Calvin to check some accounts he’s been having trouble with. The next morning three CIA agents, led by Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan), appear at Calvin’s front door looking for Bob, who they claim is a government operative gone rogue. When Bob turns up at Calvin’s workplace, he assures him that he’s really a good guy trying to stop terrorists from exchanging United States satellite codes. Calvin doesn’t want any part of this but finds himself dragged into it anyway.

When describing action comedies, charming isn’t the first word that typically comes to mind, although it suits CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE to a T. This very funny buddy movie is surprisingly sweet thanks in large part to Johnson. He looks like a superhuman warrior but portrays the character like a sensitive teenager on the inside. Bob’s reshaping of his body has not altered his tender soul. Johnson brings so much joy and enthusiasm in playing Bob like a child eager to win Calvin’s approval and show him what he can do. The humor stems from the disconnect between this hulking specimen of masculinity and his unabashed love of unicorns, SIXTEEN CANDLES, and 1990s girl groups, yet the film never judges him as being less manly because of his interests. Bob Stone is the character’s best self, and Johnson is a hoot as Bob demonstrates the confidence he’s gained since the most humiliating moment of his life.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber doesn’t use the size difference between Johnson and Hart for comedy. Instead he relies upon the chemistry the two have playing off one another. Calvin is a reluctant participant when Bob and the CIA place him in uncomfortable situations. Hart milks Calvin’s confusion and mounting exasperation for all it’s worth, resisting in the limited ways available to him.

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE doesn’t lack action sequences, but the showcase moments tend to be small and silly, like when a slap fight breaks out when Calvin and Bob role-play as husband and wife or when Calvin is forced to riff to distract an airport security guard while Bob steals a plane. This remarkably good-natured film lets its stars trade on their likability and is all the stronger for it.

Grade: B+

Friday, June 17, 2016


FAULTS (Riley Stearns, 2014)

If Dr. Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) hasn’t hit rock bottom as FAULTS begins, he doesn’t have much farther to fall. He gets booted from a hotel restaurant for trying to use an already-redeemed meal voucher he fished out of the trash. Presumably just about everything he owns fits into his compact hatchback, including the boxes of books he schleps to his speaking events in hotel meeting rooms. Ansel is an expert on mind control and cults, but the suicide of a woman he tried to deprogram cost him a television show, his wife, and virtually everything else of value.

He’s so tired of his specialty and the point it has brought him to that he initially declines an opportunity to assist a middle-aged couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) who are desperate to break the grip a cult named Faults has on their 28-year-old daughter. When his agent demands repayment of a large sum of money or else, Ansel reluctantly agrees to perform the expensive deprogramming work. He is upfront with the parents that the success rate is just fifty percent. He and two hired hands abduct Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from a grocery store parking lot. They take her to a motel room where, over five days, Ansel will attempt to weaken and sever the cult’s hold on her.

As Ansel is at wit’s end, he’s not exactly in the best state of mind to be facing off against someone with a newfound sense of inner strength. Naturally Claire is concerned about being snatched in public and kept captive, but it could be argued that she is better suited to withstand the immediate strains in the situation than her counselor. For all of his personal shortcomings, FAULTS shows Ansel to be professionally skilled, if somewhat of a bumbler. Writer-director Riley Stearns makes clear the seriousness of what’s at stake but uses a darkly comedic sensibility to toy with Ansel’s dignity. The scenario seems more fraught with danger because of the doctor’s vulnerability, not the patient’s.

To breed trust, Ansel alternates periods of intense discussion with restful time for Claire to reconnect with her parents. FAULTS also takes pauses so Ansel can address the increasing pressure he’s getting to set things right with his agent. Such moments are important in the process of bringing him even lower, but they don’t function so much as necessary releases from the tension but as interruptions. FAULTS rivets when Ansel and Claire duel in their cat-and-mouse confidence game, not quite knowing which is gaining the upper hand. The other stuff matters but is established well enough that returning to it isn’t essential.

A cult leader strives to strip a person of self-assurance and prior relationships and then take the place of what has been removed. A deprogrammer is essentially doing the same in reverse by attempting to clear away the cult-inspired certainty and connections so as to reestablish healthy foundation. Orser and Winstead’s performances convey the mental forces in opposition, with Ansel trying to weaken Claire’s defenses while her resistance rubs against the spots where he is exposed. Although Ansel is trying to present a rational, empathetic appearance, Orser plays him tightly coiled. The line between his suggestibility and his patient’s is narrow. Orser wears the demeaned nature of the character that can make it funny that Ansel is the one trying to eliminate someone else’s dysfunction.

Winstead brings a serene air to Claire that shows her capable of compliance as the circumstances demand yet not willing to yield her agency to the man aiming to shatter and reform how she views the world. In light of her role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, which opened two years after FAULTS debuted on the festival circuit, Winstead’s Claire stands as a fascinating variation of the woman held against her will. Both characters generate power in maintaining the impression of assenting to their antagonists’ commands, but watch out when the facade ruptures.

Grade: B-

Friday, June 10, 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, 2016)

Pop sensation Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) is preparing to release his second solo album and has a documentary crew around to capture every moment in POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING. Conner’s ascent started as a member of the Style Boyz with childhood friends Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer), but the rap trio breaks up when Lawrence gets angry about not receiving writing credit for Conner’s guest verse on an award-winning hit. Lawrence drops out of the music industry and becomes a farmer. Meanwhile Conner enjoys even greater success as a solo performer. Owen helps make beats for Conner’s tracks and DJs during his concerts, but for the next album and tour cycle Conner has reduced his contribution to pushing play on an iPod.

Questionable singles, bad reviews, and a backfiring release strategy that automatically pushes Conner’s new material to home appliances begin to erode his popularity. Album sales are suffering and his concerts aren’t selling out, so at the suggestion of his manager Harry (Tim Meadows), he agrees to take on underground hip-hop star Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd) as an opening act. Ticket sales get a boost, but a string of embarrassing incidents threaten to damage his career even more.

POPSTAR puts a poptimist twist on THIS IS SPINAL TAP. It takes the music and the industry seriously while goofing hard on both. As outlandish as much of the lyrics and behavior can be, the main joke is that a lot of it isn’t far removed from real songs or public artist missteps. The absurdity is certainly turned up, but the humor reflects what life looks like inside and outside the pop bubble. Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone employ a lot of referential jokes but have the good sense not to make the funniness contingent on being able to spot what they’re satirizing. It’s an added bonus if you recognize the film’s analogues to Tyler, The Creator and a Macklemore & Ryan Lewis hit, among many other zingers, but the jokes still land for those who don’t read Pitchfork or Stereogum every day. Considering the broad nature of the jokes, the film tends to relatively subtle, such as how Conner adapts his real last name for showbiz.

As members of The Lonely Island, Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone are pop stars in their own right, and their ties with popular artists surely helped in getting many of them to cameo in POPSTAR. Whether appearing as themselves or playing parts, like Justin Timberlake as Conner’s approval-seeking personal chef, the presence of so many celebrities may take some of the teeth out of the comedy. POPSTAR pokes fun at the music business, but it adopts more of an insider’s perspective. That quality doesn’t make the film less funny, but it does seem like the humor is somewhat soft-pedaled. One of the most savage and funniest bits is reserved for the vultures at a TMZ-like television show, which is indicative of where the film’s sympathies are.

Still, implicit criticism is found in POPSTAR and is identified through the form it takes and the recent slew of pop star documentaries it riffs on. The title calls back to JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER. The style suggests that, at face value, the film is an unvarnished look at an artist, as if Conner or any other pop act, like One Direction, are just humble folks with ordinary origins even as such statements celebrate their excess and inspire envy. POPSTAR slyly draws attention to the fact that social media postings and theatrically-released documentaries for fans as ostensible promotional campaigns are just the current way of managing perception to keep revenue flowing. There’s a reason why artists authorize something unflattering being distributed widely. The joke may seem like it’s on the pop stars, but if we believe it, isn’t it on us?

Grade: B

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Me Before You

ME BEFORE YOU (Thea Sharrock, 2016)

In broad strokes the romantic drama ME BEFORE YOU is a fairy tale of a sort. A sad young man rarely leaves the grounds of the castle where he lives. His parents worry about him to the point where the mother hires an exuberant young woman from the small English town to try and lift his spirit. In time she does. Whether they will continue together happily ever after is quite a bit trickier than it is in storybooks, though.

Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke), or Lou for short, gets knocked down when she loses her job, but she gets up again and is willing to take virtually anything that can help support the parents, sister, and nephew she lives with. Although she’s never assisted a quadriplegic before, Lou is offered a well-paying position and six-month contract to be a caregiver for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) in the family castle. She’s to be more of a companion than a home health care worker, which in its own way can be a greater challenge as there isn’t a medication or procedure for how she can make him feel better. Before he was hit by someone on a motorcycle, Will was a big mover and shaker in the London business world and highly active in his free time. The two years since he lost almost total use of his limbs and became confined to a wheelchair have not diminished the grief the 31-year-old feels over what his life has become.

Lou’s bubbliness and Will’s prickliness put them in opposition for awhile, but she is undeterred in wanting to make him happy. Eventually her openness and warmth softens Will, and he appears to be happier than he has been in a long time. Lou’s satisfaction with the progress she’s made takes a major hit, though, when she learns that, despite his better mood, Will still intends to go through with his long-planned, doctor-assisted suicide in Switzerland. Rather than quit, Lou is determined to show him all that life has to offer and to make it worth pressing on.

With her sparkly personality and bold wardrobe, Lou epitomizes the film type whose exceedingly whimsical nature is the cure-all for a man in need of reshaping his life. She’s Tinkerbell rather than a 26-year-old woman. At times director Thea Sharrock leads Clarke’s performance past familiar and adorable into shameless mugging. The character often seems to be at battle between being child-like but mature or childish. Her loving but frustrated selflessness with oblivious workout fiend boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) brings a needed edge to Lou. Clarke fares better when she doesn’t have to be unsustainably perky. For the significant stretch of ME BEFORE YOU when the romantic angle isn’t in play, chemistry builds between Lou and Will during their many conversations. Their evolution from a working relationship to friendship and beyond isn’t rushed and makes sense.

ME BEFORE YOU ventures into iffier territory when dealing with the right to die question. The problem arises because, first and foremost, this is a romance, not an issue film. The love story works because these are beautiful people speaking from their hearts and acting with concern for each other. That also means the most unpleasant aspects of Will’s condition are largely dealt with off-screen, lest they spoil the atmosphere. ME BEFORE YOU doesn’t have to be graphic in depicting the pain and lack of dignity that Will experiences, but the character’s wish is less easily understood when, all things considered, he’s doing well given the circumstances. Because this is Lou’s story, Will’s psychological state remains hidden.

Without fail Lou puts everyone else’s happiness before her own, so per narrative conventions, it is right that in the end she benefits from the sacrifices she makes. The ending thus seems a little unintentionally gross, as though the film’s events are a means to a deserving reward of putting her on the path to self-actualization. ME BEFORE YOU is an effective tearjerker, but dabbling with a controversial topic to yield more sobs cheapens the entire enterprise.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Love & Friendship

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (Whit Stillman, 2016)

The tart comedy LOVE & FRIENDSHIP savors passive-aggressive verbal fencing under the guise of polite conversation. Writer-director Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella LADY SUSAN arms Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) with a devastating rapier-like wit with which she makes ribbon of her counterparts. Beckinsale expertly wields the veiled put-downs and Jedi mind tricks in Lady Susan’s arsenal, using perfect inflections to sound civil while criticizing or manipulating those on the receiving end of her words. At a time when being a widow made women particularly vulnerable, Lady Susan’s facility with language and persuasion is a means to survival.

When suspicion at Langford of her affair with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) makes staying there untenable, Lady Susan makes a hasty departure to visit her in-laws’ estate Churchill. The widow’s reputation as a flirt precedes her and is cause for her sister-in-law Lady Catherine Decourcy Vernon’s (Emma Greenwell) concern, as her eligible brother Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel) proves susceptible to Lady Susan’s diabolical charm. With no husband and little of her own to speak of, Lady Susan is calculating how she can ensnare a man to provide for her comfort and security.

She fears that the arrival at Churchill of her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) could potentially shift Reginald’s attention until Frederica’s intended, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), appears there as well. Sir James is a fool and of no interest to Frederica, but as a wealthy landowner, Lady Susan has strategically identified him as an ideal match for her daughter, thus securing their welfare. Nevertheless, Frederica, having promised her mother not to trouble her aunt and uncle with her lack of affection for Sir James, confides in Reginald. Lady Susan adeptly stamps out this potential undoing of all she is putting into motion, but the complications of controlling her daughter, maintaining Reginald’s fascination, and continuing to see Lord Manwaring on the sly are increasing.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP treats matters of the heart in purely practical terms. Beckinsale’s performance does not apologize for Lady Susan’s ruthlessness and, in fact, delights in her devious brilliance. Lady Susan comes across as an effortless conversationalist, which obscures how Beckinsale is often closely observing the cues in social settings and revealing the character’s hyper-awareness in shaping her every utterance. The morality of her guiding principle can be fairly questioned, but the film sympathizes with Lady Susan, as she is attempting to maximize the benefit in a game social structure has rigged against her. The significance of the introductory narration is impossible to comprehend in the moment, but by the end, it becomes clear that the person speaking of Lady Susan’s time at Langford understands the difficult position she inhabits.

Stillman’s remarkable screenplay requires careful parsing of what is being said implicitly. The entire film is best understood by reading between the lines. Many of the most consequential events in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP happen off-screen, yet Stillman leaves no confusion regarding such developments and the motivations behind them. Discretion is of the utmost importance for these characters, yet scenes tend to be framed as though eavesdroppers on the grounds and in the hallways could be privy to what personal information is being shared. Privacy is thus presented as something of a mutually agreed-upon illusion just as forthright opinions are shrouded in well-manned discussions.

Much of the humor derives from cutting remarks, with the hilarious exception of the buffoonish Sir James. Bennett plays the silly suitor like a computer with latency problems. Sir James hears the other side of a conversation and takes noticeably longer than normal to process it and respond. His muddled replies are usually in a stilted cadence indicative that his mental faculties are still lagging. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP exhibits no similar operational defects but rather runs smoothly on Stillman’s aptitude for dissecting the social order and knack with pointed and cultured jokes.

Grade: A