Sunday, June 26, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

For almost twenty years, I have told the following story to my students as an illustration of a listening technique: When I took my family to see "Independence Day" for the Fourth of July Weekend in 1996, I waited in the lobby after the movie was over while the girls used the restroom. As the heavy crowds were milling around, I heard one fellow complaining out loud "Yeah right, like some alien computer is going to link up with a Macintosh". I thought to myself at that time, "Dude, you just saw a movie about an alien invasion of the planet, and the story point that bugs you is that the computers might have incompatible operating systems, lighten up!" I tell my students that sometimes you have to use a little imagination as you listen, to make what another person is telling you interesting or meaningful. The big picture is often more important than the details. After today, I will have an addendum to the teaching anecdote, "Sometimes the devil is in the details".

This movie fails on so many levels that it is hard to fathom. The overall plot might make some sense but it will only work if the pieces fit together and make the implausible plausible for two hours, that never happens. There are characters here that are in the movie only because they were in the original, they have nothing to do with the plot and they don't do anything interesting. New characters are introduced and we never get a chance to connect with them, they are cardboard cutouts and without any emotional investment, it is hard to care about what happens to them. The coincidences that happen in the span of the story are so unbelievable as to be laughable. The ideas that are developed to engage in combat with the aliens are sometimes nonsensical. Finally, the multiple plot threads don't hang together enough to make anything feel remotely possible. I get that there is a new timeline and history for the planet, but the twenty year interval hardly seems sufficient to build the community that exists in this film and still have some of the elements they want to sell us. This movie is a candidate for Mystery Science Theater 3000, and maybe by next week.

Let's talk about stuff that should work but doesn't. Jeff Goldblum is the biggest asset there is in the film, and he has almost no funny lines or quirky moments that hit. Part of the problem is that there is no Will Smith to play off of, and part of the problem is that he now does things in a casual everyday manner that would have been the butt of one of his comments in the original film. He is back and forth from the moon in a five minute segment, that of course happens after he makes a trek to Africa to deal with a warlord of his acquaintance. He is a hero in the story and has been given substantial power in his new job, and then nobody listens to his advise in a key moment. Bill Pullman was a heroic fighter pilot, turned President, turned war hero again, and here he is portrayed as nearly addled with some form of alien communication that is not decipherable to anyone else. Brent Spinner's character comes back from the dead, going from a short cameo in the original to a major component in this film, and unfortunately for us Star Trek fans, that was not a good thing. Robert Loggia has a wordless appearance and because he died last year, I thought his face might just have been planted in CG form onto an actor on set. It turns out he was in the film but I suspect, only because they were trying to connect the first movie to the second as much as they could. I think William Fichtner is a terrific actor and presense in movies, in this he is nearly an non-entity.

While I was watching this, I was surprised how uninteresting all the special effects looked. I flashed back to the Superman Movies of the late seventies and eighties and I remembered how great the first two films looked and how cheap the second two looked. This sequel looks like the crappy end product of a franchise that is exhausted itself, not like a revived reboot with state of the art technology behind it. It may be that because the film is designed to play in 3D, that standard screenings like the one we attended won't have the same shiny sheen to them. I can tell you I will not be going back to a more expensive 3D screening to find out. I admittedly have no musical talent but I can appreciate film music. I might be the wrong person to cast aspersions on the score for this movie, but I can tell you what my reaction to it was ass a viewer. Eh. There is not a theme or a motif that is memorable. The music cues don't seem to synch up with what is on the screen. I'd have preferred a stronger sound design than most of the score I heard in the theater today.

The best thing about this movie is the poster here

There are several incomprehensible parts to the plot line, and the wanton destruction of large patches of the planet have no horror or awe in them as they have had in other Roland Emmerich films. Every piece of destruction is done on such a massive scale with such speed that it does not feel believable. There is no iconic moment in the film like the destruction of the White House in the first movie. In fact, we appear to have simply reconstructed the White House in the same spot so it could be destroyed along with the rest of the East Coast in this movie. By any chance do you remember the scene where the dog escapes the destruction of Los Angeles in the first movie? This time the dog has been replaced by Judd Hirsh, and it is even less plausible. The original film was no piece of classic screenwriting, but at least in made sense and built to a climax. This film feels like it is all second act and the climaxes are so uninteresting that you wonder what does any of it mean. My answer to you is that it means 20th Century Fox was so focused on getting the franchise up and going, that they neglected to make it audience friendly. The rush to get to the second sequel means this film feels unessential. They spent a ton of dough making this and they were wise to skip paying Will Smith his requested Fifty Million Dollar Fee. It may not make Fifty Million on opening weekend and it will be out of theaters in three weeks or so. Someone at the studio should be losing their job over this catastrophe.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Shallows

Back into the ocean for the second time in a week. This time the animated fish is not the friendly Dory, neurotic Marlin or sweet little Nemo. The costar of this movie is a descendant of Bruce from "Jaws", a giant aggressive shark that is defending it's feeding territory in the most violent way imaginable. While it is not a classic film story about character and class with humor and drama, as it's progenitor was, "The Shallows" is an effective thrill generator with enough personality to keep us engaged and shot with the technological innovations of the last 41 years so that no one will be complaining about a mechanical shark.

Four years ago, Blake Lively was the most irritating thing about the most irritating movie I saw in 2012, "Savages". She is a beautiful woman who could not act her way out of a paper bag in that film. In this movie, she has to carry the whole story on her shoulders and she was excellent. I doubt that anyone will consider her award worthy because of the nature of the movie, but before the Academy doles out another of it's obligatory Meryl Streep nominations, they might want to take a look at this largely wordless performance. There are places where dialogue comes up, but 80% of the movie is performed by body movement and facial expressions and she sells the pain, fear and frustration of this situation without having to rely on words . To me, that is an effective performance.

If you see any of the promotional material for the movie, you will know the plot. She is surfing in an isolated spot and gets trapped by a shark. How this is set up in an interesting way and where they find the drama and tension in the story is the success of the screenwriter and the director. Writer Anthony Jaswinski finds effective ways to build a progressive story about a woman trapped on a rock. There are some good complications that make for some excitement, and the character gets to be relateable through some reasonably good set up before the first attack and then cribs a little from "Cast Away" for the character in the last half of the movie. I won't give anything away but not all the performers are human.

The parts of the film that are most contemporary and therefore a little more likely to be dated soon involve the visualization of the social media world of today. Nancy texts her girlfriend who has traveled with her to Mexico but skipped out on the surfing part. Those messages are projected off her phone and onto the screen briefly. When she skypes with her sister and father back in Dallas, we get picture in picture split screens so that she can interact with the characters who are not really there. The director Jaume Collet-Serra, is probably best known for a trio of Liam Neeson action pictures in the last few years, "Unknown", "Non-Stop" and "Run All Night". They were all effective action flicks that required less style and more direct approaches, although each of them did have some key visual moments in them. To me, the best visual moment in the movie occurs before the first shark attack when we see the shadow of the shark in the wave that Nancy is surfing. It is a effectively shocking visual. I was a little less excited about the lingering camera as Nancy uses her earrings to try to close a gash wound in her leg. It felt a bit like that moment in "127 Hours" that everyone knew was coming, but at least it was over somewhat quickly. That was not the case with this film.

There are other people in the film that are attacked by the shark, so all the action does not focus completely on Lively's character, but those other victims are so anonymous that it is hard to have the reactions we probably should have. We can be horrified but not necessarily empathetic. In "Jaws", Chrissy, the first victim is someone we can identify with because of the situation and the way she reacts. None of the characters in this film get that opportunity, they are mostly chum for the blood and guts crowd. We will be startled but not necessarily horrified. Nancy's battle against the shark is a different thing though. Ms.Lively has provided a sympathetic character who is assertive,  clever and resilient. She is the Leonardo character from "The Revenant" without all the mysticism. Replace the bear with a shark and I think, at least when it comes to action, the film works just as well and at nearly half the time. The high definition shots of surfing and the ocean from above the surface and below are reminiscent of the grounds eye view of the trees and the birds eye view of the forest that we got in that survival film set two-hundred years ago. The contemporary photography though can at least get some product placement money from Go-Pro.

I wanted this film to work because I love a scary movie with a shark. It's not epic as the grand daddy of all shark films is, but it does one of the same things that the Spielberg film did in 1975, it holds the audience. There was a surprisingly packed theater tonight and there was a smattering of appaluase  at the end of the film. This is a good summer movie for the kids out there on their breaks, looking for some fun and hoping to be scared along the way. At the end of the summer, I'll bet it outperforms some of the blockbusters that the studios have lined up. Once again, we will get some proof that people can be entertained without aliens, explosions or super heroes. All it takes is a shark in the water and some smart film makers to make it happen.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Finding Dory

"Finding Dory" is the seventeenth Pixar/Disney film. A couple of weeks ago,  while we sitting at home one night, we decided to play a game and rank the films in three groups. We had a ranking of the James Bond films and one for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we also ranked all the Pixar films. The three of us participating had very similar rankings for the most part, but we averaged them together to come up with a list that represented our families opinion of the films. The only one we had not seen is "The Good Dinosaur", and we still had it ranked higher than "Cars 2".  I feel pretty save with that because Pixar has only disappointed us the one time, and although "the Good Dinosaur" was not the usual box office bonanza, I did not read any disparaging reviews on line like I'd seen for the Mater Movie.  "Finding Nemo" ranked number ten on our list of films, not because it is inadequate but because of films like "Wall-e", "Ratatouille" and "The Toy Story Trilogy".

That said, there was reasonable hope but also a certain trepidation about another sequel. "Monster's University" did not besmirch the reputation of it's predecessor,  but it was for the most part well made but unnecessary. The same can be said for today's film. It is beautiful to look at, there are charming characters and the story expands the universe we saw in the original in some inventive ways, it just is not as compelling, coming after the first film. The plot is basically the same as "Nemo" but with some role reversals and retrograde backstory. "Dory" it turns out is not a mature fish per se, but more like an adolescent. This feels like a slight alteration of the tone established in the first film and might cause me to have to look at Nemo from a new perspective. I don't think that was the intention of the film makers her.

The strongest element in the movie was choosing to set a majority of the action in a Marine Aquarium, [More like Monterey Bay than Sea World]. The movement of the action to this location results in a greater variation in the characters and plot line than we start out with. There are some clever visualizations of the layout of the Aquarium and the creatures that reside there. "Dory" was clearly the breakout character in the original, if there is a third film in this series it will certainly be "Finding Hank". He is the octopus who engages with Dory at the Aquarium and  his character design and the gags they provide for him are the highlights of the film. Ed O'Neill provides the voice and his sonorous dead pan is a good match for the characters somewhat morose view of the world. As an isolate he is matched with Dory, who has such a high need for affiliation that it is sometimes a little irritating. I don't know if he will be an appealing plush toy, but he certainly worked as a comedic character in today's film.

Marlin and Nemo are back as part of Dory's circle of friends and they are the ones who are trying to find Dory. Albert Brooks neurotic Dad is still effective but we know he has grown as a character in the first film so it comes as no surprise that he willingly pursues this quest in spite of his misgivings. Nemo is a spark plug igniting his dad to action but also helping him figure out their next moves. It was an interesting change in their dynamic and it worked for the most part. Dory herself  is a character that must change in both films to avoid being a complete irritation, but those changes are more clearly explained and processed in this story. Sometimes the writers use some shortcuts to get us to the next point, and those usually involve a sudden increase in Dory's ability to recall certain details. I can say that little Dory, appearing in the opening sections and in occasional flashbacks, may be the cutest thing in a Pixar film since "Boo". She is definitely going to be on the shopping lists for the Christmas toys this year. The "Mine", "Mine" caterwaul of seagulls is replaced by a new catch word delivered by characters that are a lot more fun, and they steal several parts of the movie from the main characters. Otter cuddling will be a thing after kids see this movie, so there is another chance for some toy sales.

I don't mean to imply that the film is just a cash grab, using familiar characters to recharge toy product marketing. There are some good themes about family and loyalty that are presented in the movie. We have to learn to trust what works and we need to question what we are sometimes settling for. Those are good points but they are not the main reasons the movie works. This film is a solid family entertainment, with a couple of surprises but mostly a comforting familiarity that kids and parents seem to crave. Do I want new and creative characters and stories? Of course I do. That doesn't mean that I don't occasionally want the comfort of recurring characters. As long as it is a cranky septuapus with Ed O'Neills voice and not Larry the Cable Guys naive and somewhat dim Mater.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Central Intelligence

Let's start with a little critical thinking lesson. Sign reasoning is the basic concept that is easily explained by the old phrase, "If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, and it walks like a duck... than it's probably a duck."  Now here is where the critical thinking comes in, how certain is the relationship between the signs and the conclusion?  Today's movie offers us several signs that it is a problem, before a single moment of the film runs. First, it's a mismatched buddy film featuring a C.I.A. plot. Second, the trailer features a cheap CGI joke about a fat kid singing in the shower getting bullied. Third, it stars Kevin Hart, a comedian and actor that I have rarely found to be funny. You put those things together and the conclusion is that this film is a piece of crap. To test the validity of the conclusion we might look for other signs that would reinforce the original point. For a guy like me, who grew up in the golden ages of poster art, the visual image on the poster, with the bright yellow background screams "Turd".

Now, let's point out the weakness of this conclusion using the other tests of sign reasoning, are there any contradictory signs?  Before seeing a frame of the movie, I can say there are two signs that might undermine the conclusion above. First, Kevin Hart is balanced out by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Maybe you haven't noticed yet but "The Rock" has become a legitimate movie star and he exudes charisma in everything he's been in.  [As a caveat to the argument, he has been in a lot of crappy pictures, but they were not bad because of him.] Second, the marketing team has had one great idea to sell this film with, a pun based on the names of the two stars. It's not much but I'm a Dad and everyone knows that Dad's like bad puns. In one of my classes this last quarter, I had a student take it upon himself to keep a tally of all the bad puns I made in class. He had me over 150, which for a class that meets twice a week averages almost 4 bad puns an hour, and by the way, more than 40% of class time is taken up by student performance, so if we calculate based on my speaking time the average is well over ten an hour. Which explains why I appreciated the "Little Hart/Big Johnson" tag line, despite it's low brow approach.

Drawing inferences from the above issues, I think it is safe to say I probably would stay away from a film like this for the most part. So how, you might ask, did I end up seeing it?  Now it's time for a little cause-effect reasoning. It's hot here this weekend, and the theater is cold. Also, "Finding Dory" is off limits until my daughter can go with us. Finally, a little disjunctive deductive reasoning, my alternatives for the time we had were "Warcraft" "X-Men Apocalypse" "Now You See Me 2" and "Me Without You". I barely escaped the wheelchair love story, and everything else looked worse.

Having rationalized my way into the film, "How was it?" The answer is, ...not as bad as you might think. Although Kevin Hart did not do much for me, he did not undermine the film and there were a couple of places where he delivered a pretty fair line or two. I could have done without the string of dialogue he throws out when describing his character as being scarred "S***less", but maybe his audience likes that kind of humor. Johnson on the other hand seems to be having a ball, and he actually conveys a series of convincing emotions, which are supposed to be contradictory because we are not really supposed to understand his real character. It's all very convoluted and not important except to say that once again, the man once known as "The Rock" is worth every penny he was paid to be a part of this film.

The movie trades on cliches in some deliberate ways, but it also repeats some cliches without the irony that would make them less likely to choke us. There are two surprise cameo appearances and both actors add a little something to the film that it needed to avoid being dreck. I was pleasantly surprised by last year's "Spy" which covers some of the same territory. This is not quite as satisfying and I can't recommend it highly, but if you have no air conditioning, and you want a couple of laughs, this film will kill two hours and not too many brain cells.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ghostbusters (1984) 2016 Revisit

In keeping with my commitment to do some kind of post on every film I see in a theater, I offer you a few words on the original "Ghostbusters" from 1984.

"It Still Holds Up!!!"

I'm not one of the many haters that the new version of Ghostbusters is bringing out of the woodwork. I know the world is full of people who disdain the idea of re-makes and are horrified by the recasting that the movie has done. Me, I'll hold my opinion until I see the product. Today's Fathom Event could be construed as a two hour commercial for the new film. Included at the end of the screening was a sizzle reel of material that will almost certainly be included on the home release of the female version of Ghostbusters later this year. It was hosted by Paul Feig, this was after the opening of the movie was hosted by original director Ivan Reitman. You have big shoes to try to fill Mr. Feig.

Fathom, this is a great strategy for launching a new film, get people to pay full price for a 32 year old movie, then plug your new film as a bumper. It practically pays for itself. I would like to recomend to both Fathom and AMC Theaters that they get their act together a bit more. I have attended several Fathom Classic movie events and there are frequently technical issues. Today, the promo material before the film did not screen for us, I had to request the staff of the movie theater start the film after we waited for ten minutes past the scheduled screening time, after staring at a blank screen for nearly 40 minutes. At the conclusion of the promo, the house lights never came up and the two dozen patrons had to make their way out of the theater in the dark. My wife who has vertigo and walks in a very unbalanced way with a cane, had a little difficulty managing the stairs in the dark. Fortunately, everyone seems to have flashlight apps on their phones or else we might still be sitting there.

When I did the post on this for the 1984 project, I lucked out and saw a 30th Anniversary Screening a week or two later. Any chance to see it on a real theater screen is worth a few inconveniences, so make sure you bring your flashlights and I'll let you know next month what I think of the new version.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Conjuring 2

The original movie is now three years old and it remains one of my favorites in the horror genre. The spin-off story of "Annabelle" was not nearly as effective but it was not from the same director and it lacked the elements that "The Conjuring" had, mainly the Warrens , Ed and Lorraine, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. These two very sympathetic characters help make sense of the ghost story and allow the possession material to fit with the other scares in the last section of the first film. They are even more centrally involved in this new story and the result is a movie that is satisfying but not nearly as engaging as the predecessor.

These films both play the "Based on a True Story" game, and since the leads are supposed to represent actual historical figures, I guess it makes sense that they have to deal with some of the controversies they were involved with. Their involvement with the Amityville Horror case may be the crucial point at which you either accept or reject the legitimacy of their investigations. In this film, the opening makes reference to their involvement and there is a nicely creepy trance scene that recounts the horrors that precipitated the story that became so famous. When the Amityville case was later characterized as a hoax, it would seem to put a dent in the Warren's credibility. That twist actually becomes an important plot point in this film, since the possibility of a hoax would keep the church out of the situation.

Very much as in the first film, we get a nicely paced introduction to a family that is struggling to make it through a divorce and tough economic times, this time in England. A mom and her four kids live in a dilapidated row house in Northern London, and strange things begin to happen. From the beginning of this story however, the possession angle is clear and there are lots of indicators that this is where the danger lies. The two young girls in the film, struggle to stay grounded but events really seem to push the idea that something supernatural is happening here. Unlike the earlier case, this event is being played out in public and there are a number of other "experts" involved in investigating and maybe helping the family. The Warrens are there as consultants but it does not take long for them to fully embrace the events and become part of the story themselves.

Horror films succeed on creativity, timing and a good sense of what creeps us out. This movie works those ideas well about 80% of the time. There are dark visions with horrific images that you know are going to give you a jump scare, but only if they are handled well. I think Director James Wan does a good job making the fright scenes he and his co-screenwriters put on paper. He is not always as successful with the drama outside of the scare scenes. Ed and Lorraine are good characters but sometimes they come off as a little too perfect. I did like the sequence where Ed helps the family calm down for a night with a little music, that was the most real moment that the two paranormal investigators have in the movie. The mumbo jumbo about having the name of the demon they seek to exorcise, comes out of nowhere as does the key to discovering the truth behind the events at the public housing house in Enfield Borough. The final sequence has a good taut climax without going over board on the effects.

By sticking to the principles of a good haunting story, and not getting carried away with CGI effects, the film sustains a sense of dread as well as personal empathy for the family involved. We are not put at too great a distance by the scope of the horror and we can understand the family's desire to protect the kids as they are being attacked. The kids friends disappear from the film, and given the nature of the possession story, that makes sense. I did think that the loyalty of the family's neighbors across the street was surprising, but maybe they could imagine that if something were not done to draw a line, they could easily have been in the same spot. I can't see this making a year end "best of" list as the original did three years ago, but it is a worthy follow up and except for what seems like a slightly rushed resolution, a well made story.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

KAMAD Guests on "The Lambcast" Podcast

This is this weeks Lambcast Podcast. I am a guest, sharing a top five list and playing some games. Hope you can listen for a while.

You can also download this directly at this link: