Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Alien Resurrection

Director Roland Emmerich’s sequel to his 1996 alien invasion blockbuster ‘Independence Day’ (or ‘ID4’) finally hits theaters 20 years later.  Does anyone care?  In light of the fact that the original earned over ten times its budget (although unadjusted for inflation), perhaps the only surprise is “what took it so long?”  Then again, Emmerich and his long-time collaborator Dean Devlin, best known for such disaster flicks as ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ and ‘2012’ as well as critically maligned disposable popcorn fare like ‘Stargate,’ ’10,000 BC,’ the 1998 ‘Godzilla’ and ‘White House Down,’ aren’t exactly known for sequels.
‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ takes place (surprise!) 20 years after the cataclysmic alien invasion which devastated earth (and blew up the White House, cool!) in the original “classic.”  Ultimately triumphant thanks to the courage and efforts of a handful of individuals (Bill Pullman, Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Brent Spiner, etc.), earth has now established a network of defense satellites and outposts (including a moon base) to guard against any future invasion, with technology recovered from captured and presumably reverse-engineered alien weaponry.  When the distress call of alien prisoners reach a 3,000-miles wide Mothership, the stage is set for a renewed alien invasion that would make the first attempt look like a warm-up.
ID4:R is pretty much more of the same compared to the original with a bigger budget, better f/x, more bang-bang/explosions, less character development and an even less convincing plot, if we’re to believe it had one in the first place.  There is never any sense of danger or excitement; everything in ID4:R happens on the fly by the seat of the pants in just the nick of time.  It gets repetitive and predictable fast, and even the comic relief falls flat.  Michael Bay couldn’t have done any better if he were to remake ‘War of the Worlds’ by way of the ‘Transformers.’  Then why did I see it, you ask?  So I can give it the grade below and save you the time and money, of course.
Grade: D
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Monday, June 27, 2016

Girl versus Shark

While I avoid derivative and formulaic B-movie dreck such as the much ballyhooed ‘Sharknado’ or ‘Sharktopus’ franchises like I would their subject matter in real life, I’ve always enjoyed a good shark-in-the-water (note the emphasis that sharks should not venture out of their natural environment) movie ever since I first saw Spielberg’s seminal masterpiece of suspense and terror ‘Jaws’ (and that even includes Renny Harlin’s ‘Deep Blue Sea’).  So when I first saw the trailer of ‘The Shallows’ featuring Blake Lively’s bikini-clad surfer-in-peril against a Great White that’s stalking her, in a manner of speaking, the question of whether to see it or not was already a foregone conclusion.
Lively is Nancy, a young woman from Galveston, Texas mourning the passing of her free-spirited mom who lost her battle against cancer and taking a much needed break from her medical studies by going to a nameless and secluded beach paradise in Mexico where her mom once took her surfing.  After catching the last wave before calling it a day, she found to her dismay and alarm that the shallows around the pristine sands of her little paradise have become shark-infested waters.   What follows is a harrowing ordeal that would test her endurance and will to survive to their very limits, as high tidal conditions threaten to swamp the little piece of rock on which she took refuge and render it shark territory.

She's gonna need a bigger rock (and I don't mean the one Ryan put on her finger).
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‘The Shallows’ manages to be an intense, riveting, suspenseful and visceral viewing experience without resorting to the cheap and tired “mutant super shark syndrome” most shark-themed  movies employ today, especially those from the Syfy channel.  Lively is at once charismatic and believable as the movie’s heroine, displaying much grit and intelligence in her hours-long chess match against the shark that just won’t leave her alone.  On such solid grounds it is easy to overlook the movie’s somewhat implausible and overwrought Hollywood climax.
Grade: A-

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Pretty Little Demons

The backstabbing cat-eat-cat world of fashion modeling gets the ‘Black Swan’ treatment in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest indie feature ‘The Neon Demon.’  With his two previous films, ‘Drive’ and ‘Only God Forgives’ (both starring Ryan Gosling), Refn has proven himself to be a controversial arthouse auteur who thrives on nihilistic ultraviolence and the moral ambiguity of his anti-heroes.  ‘The Neon Demon’ is rather more subtle but packs a nasty punch in its own way with its depiction of what it takes and to what lengths people will go to be “the fairest of them all.”
‘The Neon Demon’ follows Jesse’s (Elle Fanning) meteoric rise in the world of fashion modeling on the glitzy LA scene.  Blessed with no talents other than her mesmeric natural beauty (a modeling scout literally stared at her unblinking for nearly a full minute as if enraptured), she soon became the object of jealousy and scorn from her chief competitors, two smiling plastic blonde Barbies who make Rachel McAdams look like a saint in ‘Mean Girls’ by comparison.  Na├»ve and self-absorbed herself, Jesse is only tragically and blissfully oblivious to the machinations going on around her leading to their inevitable WTF???!!! conclusion.
Like ‘Drive’ and ‘Only God Forgives,’ ‘The Neon Demon’ is bound to provoke and polarize critics and viewers alike.  Its key characters are downright unlikeable and self-centered, the pace can be agonizingly slow and the final scene may cause more than a few head-scratches, but the movie is also a work of art in its beauty, attention to detail and surrealism.  The reaction it elicits from the audience at various points will range from fascination to revulsion, and I suspect that’s exactly as Refn intended.  Alas, ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Mulholland Drive’ it isn’t.
Grade: B
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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Haunting in North London

The second and far superior sequel to come out on June 10 is director James Wan’s much anticipated follow-up to his 2013 chiller ‘The Conjuring.’  ‘The Conjuring’ is one of the best horror movies in years with its mastery of technique, attention to detail, creepy atmosphere, nail-biting tension and sympathetic characters whom we care deeply about in the Perron family.   So how is Wan going to keep the sequel from waning (excuse the pun)?  By doing exactly the same things with a new set of sympathetic characters whom we can emotionally invest in, of course.

Based on the so-called “Enfield Poltergeist” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2054842/Enfield-Poltergeist-The-amazing-story-11-year-old-North-London-girl-levitated-bed.html) in 1977, ‘The Conjuring 2’ brings back our favorite real life ghost-busting couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, doing a decent Elvis impression below and Vera Farmiga), as they’re commissioned by the Catholic Church to look into possible paranormal activity that’s haunting the Hodgson family in Enfield, England.  It appears that the youngest daughter, Janet, may be possessed by the ghost of a previous occupant of their house, a grumpy 72-year old man named Bill Wilkins.  Ed and Lorraine must call upon their experience and expertise to either help the Hodgsons (if it’s real) or disprove their claims as a hoax and publicity stunt. 

What sets ‘The Conjuring 2’ apart from the spine-tingling original is that it focuses on Ed and Lorraine as much as their latest foray into the realm of the paranormal.  Drawing faith, strength and resolve from one another especially in times of crises, the Warrens are truly greater as a whole than the sum of its parts and their love for each other is real and everlasting.  Against such an unbreakable bond, how can the forces of evil (in this case a demonic entity named Valak who looks like Marilyn Manson wearing a nun’s habit) prevail?

Grade: A-

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Monday, June 13, 2016

House of Not-So-Magical Cards

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Remembering Orlando
Louis Leterrier’s 2013 magicians-as-Robin Hood con/caper movie ‘Now You See Me’ was a rather enjoyable popcorn flick and international box office hit despite its unbelievable smoke-and-mirrors set-ups, convoluted plot and lukewarm critical reviews, largely thanks to its likeable ensemble cast led by Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco.  It is only a matter of time that we see ‘Now You See Me 2.’  Subbing for the pregnant Fisher as the team’s obligatory female member is Lizzy Caplan (‘The Interview,’ ‘Masters of Sex’), as our team of magicians known as the “Four Horsemen” take on a new adventure orchestrated by disgraced and incarcerated debunker-of-magic Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman).  Or did he?  In the world of NYSM you're never quite sure who’s pulling the strings and who’s setting up whom. 

Some 12 months after the events that transpired in the first film, the Horsemen suddenly find themselves exposed, on the run and “magically” transported to Macau.  If anything, the plot of NYSM2 is even more preposterous, twisty and hard to believe than its predecessor’s, involving an intricate scheme by a young tech guru (Daniel Radcliffe) to steal a smart phone chip that could mine personal data without the end users’ permission or knowledge.  The Horsemen must once again, through their ingenuity and prowess in deception, navigate danger and find a way to outsmart Harry Potter, which of course they manage to do all the while making the FBI pursuing them look like Keystone Cops.

Alas, this lackluster follow-up is so far-fetched and lazy in execution that it stretches our suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point and ultimately collapses under the weight of incredulity like a house of cards.  It is a tired and trite sequel which lacked the fun and freshness that gave the original its exuberance and sense of wonder, and is akin to watching a magic show where you only see the big reveal but not the sleight-of-hand that leads to the oohs and aahs, leaving you with a feeling as thin and insubstantial as dissipating smoke.

Grade: C-

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