Friday, June 24, 2016

Another alien attack. Ho Hum.

They're back. Aliens take another shot at Earth in scattershot Independence Day: Resurgence.
Independence Day: Resurgence wasn't made available to critics until its Thursday night opening. That doesn't necessarily mean that the movie was being hidden from critical view or that audiences should presume that Resurgence will be a misguided mess.

You can judge for yourself if you venture into Resurgence. My vote: The massive size of the alien craft in Resurgence -- some 3,000 miles in diameter -- is matched by an equally massive lack of imagination. If director Roland Emmerich was trying to re-capture the entertainment magic he found in the 1996 original, the trick fell flat.

Off-the-rack plotting and cliched dialogue mark what appear to be a scattershot collection of scenes. Watching Resurgence is a bit like watching a boxer throw nothing but jabs -- most of them missing their target. The movie flails.

Here's one indication of the fall-off since '96. Jeff Goldblum, an actor who knows how to create characters of cynical intelligence, seems to be imitating himself as Dr. David Levinson. He's off his game.

It may not be fair to say that Resurgence is imitating the first movie, but it has a derivative feel as earthlings battle giant creatures who arrive on a spacecraft that destroys large parts of the Earth before anyone can figure out what to do about it.

By now, everyone knows that Will Smith -- hero of the first movie -- sat this one out. Maybe he didn't want to participate in space battles that look like Star Wars knockoffs. Maybe he's tired to carrying blockbuster-sized burdens.

A screenplay credited to five writers, including Emmerich, makes room for fresh blood. Liam Hemsworth shows up as a fighter pilot as does Jesse T. Usher, who's portraying the son of the character Smith played in the first movie.

Sela Ward signs on as the new, strictly business president of the US.

Of course, some of the actors from the 1996 edition return: These include Bill Pullman, now a former president who has nightmares about another alien invasion. Brent Spiner reprises his role as Dr. Okun, a guy who has been in a coma since 1996, and who, as a result, hasn't had a haircut in two decades. Judd Hirsch drops by as Goldblum's grumpy but supposedly lovable father.

Most of the jokes implode and the story -- Earth vs. a queen-bee alien -- is just one more exercise in overkill from a movie that looks as if it had been hastily assembled under threat of alien invasion; i.e. plot elements and characters are introduced without finesse. Worse yet, Resurgence builds little tension; it just just hurtles along, leaving nothing in its wake but planetary destruction and something we already have in large enough supply, disappointment.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Rebelling against the South's Rebels

Despite Matthew McConaughey's fiery performance, Free State of Jones is a bit of a slog.

Some background: During the heat of the Civil War, Newton Knight left the Confederate army, returned to his Mississippi home and formed a ragtag band of fighters to combat what he viewed as injustices inflected by the Confederate Army on poor farmers and blacks who had been enslaved. Knight's rogue army -- a.k.a. the Knight Company -- was composed of deserters and runaway slaves.

Knight was motivated to desert the Rebel army, where he served as a nurse, by the Confederacy's "Twenty-Negro Law." That law exempted Southerners who owned 20 or more slaves from fighting, thus establishing grounds for believing that the Civil War was a battle in which poor southerners fought to protect the bounties of the rich.

A bona fide man of personality, Knight evidently took seriously the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. He had nine children with Serena, his white wife. Knight also had a common-law wife, a former slave, with whom he had five children.

So was Knight a prototypical hippie or an authentic champion of the poor?

That argument reportedly remains unsettled, but not for director Gary Ross, whose new movie -- The Free State of Jones -- treats Knight (Matthew McConaughey) as a heroic figure who believes in racial equality and in simple economic justice: A man deserves to own what he plants, etc.

I don't know whether Ross's interpretation of history is correct, but I do know that his movie possesses a pulse that beats only intermittently. Free State of Jones also suffers because Ross seems to prefer the lengthy accumulation of events to incisive character development.

Looking fierce, a bearded McConaughey blazes with passion as the committed Knight, but the rest of the cast -- including Knight's two wives (Keri Russell and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) -- aren't given enough chance to evolve.

Like nearly everyone else in the movie, they're swamped by Ross's need to cover ground -- from the waning days of the war through reconstruction to a jarringly presented 1948 trial in which Knight's great-grandson is accused of miscegenation, interracial marriage being illegal in Mississippi.

At times, the movie seems like an American take on Robin Hood with Knight's merry band of rebels living an idyllic life in the Mississippi swamps. At other times, the movie seems like a Western; Knight becomes the loner who protects the weak. At still other times, Ross uses photographs of the period to add authenticity. It's as if Ken Burns cropped up in the middle of the story to add his two cents.

There are compelling scenes, Knight discovering the body of a comrade in arms (Mahershala Ali) who has been hanged and castrated by Klansmen who can't accept the Reconstructionist idea that black men could vote. Unfortunately, such harrowing moments emerge amid what amounts to a general slog through an obscure slice of history.

Not widely known, Knight's story proves interesting enough to keep this lead-footed effort from totally foundering. But Ross (The Hunger Games) squanders an opportunity: Too many of the movie's scenes fail to spark in ways that would have taken The Free State of Jones to more memorable levels.

High style, low-down movie

Director Nicolas Winding Refn's foray into the world of modeling bores until the gore arrives.

Glossy but vacuous The Neon Demon might move you to say that director Nicolas Winding Refn has an eye for compelling images, but you may also find yourself wondering whether his movie connects to a brain.

Senseless as it is stylized, Neon Demon takes us into Refn's idea of the intensely competitive world of high fashion modeling.

Let's just say Refn exaggerates to maximum levels, punctuating his movie with scenes that surely were intended to shock. If lesbian necrophilia weren't enough to set the mood, Refn throws in some cannibalism because ... well ... in Los Angeles, it's a model-eat-model world.

With its coolly conceived lighting design, its anesthetized performances and a mood that vampires might find a bit chilly, Refn serves up a drama that focuses on Jesse (Elle Fanning), a rootless young woman who arrives in Los Angeles to pursue a modeling career.

Jesse tells others that prettiness constitutes her only attribute. She's convinced she can make money from her looks.

Sixteen-year-old Jesse projects a midwestern aura of innocence that's supposed to be irresistible. As Jesse herself sums it up, everyone wants to be her, so much so that women will starve themselves on the chance that they might become second-rate imitations of her.

The faint aroma of critique rises from this purple-hued carcass of a movie, something about society's preoccupation with the way women look, beauty over substance -- and a limited idea about beauty, at that.

Refn -- the director of the over-rated Drive and the less-admired Only God Forgives -- is as guilty of dehumanizing his characters as any modeling agency or fashion photographer. What meaning can necrophilia have in a movie in which everyone looks half dead?

Despite what appears to be a rapid rise to the top of the modeling heap, Jesse maintains her residence in a sleazy Pasadena motel where the rooms are covered with fading floral wallpaper. At one point, a mountain lion invades her room. Oh, the dangers that lurk in Pasadena. Oh, the attempt to surprise the audience with an art grenade.

Keanu Reeves plays the motel's sleazy manager, one of those small roles that makes you wonder whether he dropped by the set for an afternoon. Reeves carries a knife into one of the movie's more chilling scenes.

Jena Malone portrays a make-up artist with a crush on Jesse. Two additional models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) are Jesse's competition. They're heanto plastic surgery. Think of them as fashion cyborgs.

It's not easy to tell whether Refn is aiming for satire or horror. If it's the latter, the biggest horror involves the movie's monotony, a steady beat of boredom interrupted only by late-picture servings of gross-out violence, one such episode involving an eyeball.

Perhaps it's fitting. The eyeball is the only thing Refn rewards with this nonsensically slick bit of rot.

A bridge built by music

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble is my kind of feel-good movie. The notion that iconic cellist Yo-Yo Ma could assemble a group of musicians from many cultures and arrive at a coherent musical expression is encouraging and also a bit naive, particularly when carried to metaphoric levels about possibilities for cooperation beyond the concert hall. But if one is going to submit to fantasy, better this than one in which aliens invade the world and must be repelled with massive applications of force. Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) fills his documentary with plenty of music, but also provides insight into Yo-Yo Ma, who claims that as a child he simply fell into music. Neville also introduces us to the musicians that form the Silk Road Ensemble. Among them: Kayan Kalhor, an Iranian who plays kamancheh and who discusses the hardships he's faced. Wu Tan, who plays the pipa or Chinese lute, briefly occupies center stage, as does Cristina Pato, a bagpipe player from Galicia, Spain, who's known as the Jimi Hendrix of bagpipes. (Yes, it's an apt comparison.) As you might imagine, Silk Road's fusion-heavy music tends toward the melodic or the rhythmically infectious. OK, so maybe music won't change the world, but it certainly can change the hour and a half it takes to watch The Music of Strangers, a rare documentary that isn't driven by conflict, but by Yo-Yo Ma's hopeful vision of the ways in which conflict might be resolved.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A fish searches for Mom and Dad

Finding Dory is a sweet little sequel to 2003's Finding Nemo.

Suffice it to say that although Finding Dory, the latest animated feature from the Disney/Pixar alliance, lacks the freshness of its predecessor, Finding Nemo, and although it wears its "you-can-do-it" message with all the subtlety of a political yard sign, it's entertaining and touching enough to garner well-deserved attention.

This time, Nemo and his dad Marlin (Hayden Rolence and Albert Brooks) are relegated to supporting roles as Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) tries to reunite with her long-lost parents.

Dory, you'll recall from the first movie, is a blue tang fish with short-term memory problems: Dory's disability causes her to be separated from her parents at the movie's outset. Can Dory ever remember enough to find her way home, home symbolizing all that is safe and good in the world of Disney?

Along the way, Dory meets a variety of new characters who become like a new family. These include Hank the octopus (Ed O'Neill), Bailey the whale (Ty Burrell), and a shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson). None of these characters are groundbreakers, but they're all serviceable and sometimes amusing.

Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton provide voices for Dory's parents.

The movie follows Dory as she travels to waters off the California coast. Once there, she discovers The Marine Life Institute, a facility where ocean life is rescued before being sent to an aquarium in Cleveland or returned to the ocean.

Directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane offer the best visual diversions when the movie plumbs ocean depths.

The filmmakers also make a few bows to ecological issues; the closer Dory and friends get to shore, the more dangerous life seems to become. Images of debris-littered waters send a reminder about human carelessness when it comes to natural life.

The movie culminates with an action-oriented finale that feels overly cartoonish and anti-climactic, especially considering that it occurs after Dory reunites with her parents. It's likely, though, that the movie's primary audience -- i.e., kids -- won't care.

Dory's overall sweetness, its colorful ocean environments and its fine, jokey use of a recognizable voice (no, I'm not telling) make it a worthwhile dip into summer waters.

Predatory aspects of natural life in the ocean, by the way, mostly are avoided.

A self-absorbed writer and his editor

Genius focuses on the relationship between Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins.

Genius -- a movie starring Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman -- presents a handsomely mounted but somewhat tepid portrait of the relationship between volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins.

The gist of the story: Perkins, who also edited the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, tolerated Wolfe's alcoholic digressions and emotional outbursts because he believed in the author's talent.

In part, the movie suffers because time hasn't entirely justified Perkins' faith. Novels such as Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel don't command the widespread attention they once did.

Director Michael Grandage focuses the story on the Perkins/Wolfe relationship during the Depression years, a time when Perkins plied his trade at Scribner's. Wolfe would dump his colossus-sized manuscripts -- all written in pencil -- on Perkins' desk. Perkins then would work with the writer to whittle Wolfe's efforts to more manageable size.

When not ensconced in Perkins' Manhattan office, the movie visits his Connecticut home, where Laura Linney plays the mostly negligible role of Perkins' wife.

The point of these scenes may be to tell us that Perkins preferred the comforts of home and hearth -- he had five daughters -- to the roller coaster ride taken by those who more directly stoke their creativity fires.

Wearing an ever-present fedora, Firth inhabits the character of Perkins with ease and quiet grace, although his performance can feel a trifle sparkless. As the ebullient, life-embracing Wolfe, Law compensates for Perkins' preternatural calm with emphatic expressions of energy.

Wolfe's relationship with a married woman, Kidman's Mrs. Bernstein, mostly demonstrates the devastating consequences of Wolfe's boundless self-absorption.

Grandage's wan drama might have been better had Wolfe's work retained the regard still given to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, played in cameos by Guy Pierce and Dominic West respectively.

Otherwise, Genius -- based on a 1978 biography of Perkins by A. Scott Berg -- needed something that Perkins probably would have insisted on had edited movies instead of books: the infusion of enough urgency to prevent both period and characters from feeling trapped in the past -- as if they're being suffocated by a sepia-hued fog.

A director reflects on his career

Brian De Palma takes us on a guided tour of his work.

I once met Brian De Palma at the Toronto International Film Festival. Amazingly, De Palma hadn't attended the festival to hawk new wares. He was sitting in the back of an auditorium in a multiplex the festival then used for press and industry screenings. Had I missed something in the program? Did De Palma have a new movie? No, De Palma told me. He'd come to Toronto to catch a few films. A director watching movies at a festival in which he did not have a film to promote? Yes, it's a rarity, but, then, so is DePalma.

De Palma, the simply titled new documentary by Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach, takes a straightforward approach to the director's life and work, leaving most of the analysis to De Palma himself.

De Palma discusses his career, and we see clips from his filmography, all annotated by the director, who acknowledges his debt to Alfred Hitchcock, hardly a secret to anyone familiar with his work.

De Palma saw Vertigo when he was a kid, and never looked back. He sees himself as the only true heir to Hitchcock, and it's clear that he understands the master's work and knows how to amplify and twist it to create his own cinematic vocabulary.

Box office results also play a role in De Palma's discussion, no small matter when it comes to determining how a director's career will progress. De Palma's identifiable style isn't enough to ensure that he'll latch onto big studio projects -- which he says he no longer wants.

De Palma does, of course, talk about those big-ticket movies (Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible), as well as the smaller, European-based movies that he currently favors, 2013's critically derided Passion.

I was heartened to hear De Palma say that he didn't think he could make a better movie than Carlito's Way, a film starring Al Pacino. I'd call it one of De Palma's best.

Self-protection isn't the point here: De Palma can be critical of himself, and, of at least one actor. At one point, he talks about Obsession (1976), and what a pain in the butt Cliff Robertson was.

De Palma, by the way, was the first director to use Robert De Niro in a feature, 1968's Greetings.

For a man whose movies can be steeped in eroticism and violence -- and some would say misogyny -- De Palma sometimes seems more like a nerdy cinema buff than a cunning auteur. When talking about things that either surprised him or threw him off his game, he tends to use an exclamation that sounds like it's coming from a Boy Scout.

"Holy mackerel" is one of his favorites.

A documentary such as De Palma can serve as an occasion for a critic to ruminate about a director's body of work. No need. Paltrow and Baumbach's movie does that for us, offering valuable insights into both the art and business of film and illuminating the mixture of choice and chance that makes a career.

Anthony Weiner's failed comeback

What to make of Anthony Weiner, the former New York Congressman and mayoral hopeful who wrecked his career with a sexting scandal? I didn't quite know before I saw the documentary Weiner, and I still don't. Still, I found the documentary about Weiner's attempted comeback intensely watchable. Weiner works on multiple levels, as a look at a ferociously driven man trying to overcome his past, as a portrait of a strained marriage and as a testament to the stark absurdity of our politics. I suppose I don't need to remind you that these days our political climate regularly devolves into a cacophonous mixture of issues, personal failings, posturing and media glare. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg received what looks like near-unlimited access to Weiner during the 2013 primary campaign in which he tried to become the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City. As he seeks reinstatement into public life, Weiner relies heavily his wife, Huma Abedin, a woman whose boilerplate description lists her as "a long-time aide to Hillary Clinton." As Weiner unfolds, relations between Abedin and her husband hit rough spots, particularly when another round of sexting was (you'll pardon the expression) exposed. Never shy about expressing himself, Weiner tries to cling to his views on issues, even as the world around him collapses. It's a bit like a passenger on the Titanic focusing on the elegant dinner ware as the ship takes on catastrophic amounts of water. There's a sadness to Weiner because watching his self-destruction is as sobering as it is compelling. Weiner may have been trying to prove that there are second acts in American life. After watching Weiner, it's difficult to imagine that he'll get a chance at a third.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A house under siege -- by a demon

The Conjuring 2 has plenty of jolts, but falls short of its predecessor.

Another summer, another exorcism.

Yes, it's time for The conjuring 2, a second chapter in the adventurers of real-life ghostbusters Lorraine and Ed Warren.

Beginning their work in the 1950s, Lorraine and Ed became the couple you'd call if you suspected that your house had been possessed by demons, other than the ones that cause the toilet to overflow at inopportune times or make the microwave die when you haven't got time to buy another.

Of course, most of our problems are nothing compared to those that put the Warrens on the paranormal map.

Set in 1977, The Conjuring 2 focuses on the troubles of (Frances O'Connor), a single mother who lives in London with her four children, one of whom -- young Janet (Madison Wolfe) -- suffers intermittent bouts of possession.

Like The Conjuring, which told the story of a "haunted" house in Rhode Island, this one focuses on another residence, a North London house that became the focal point of a story dubbed "The Enfield Poltergeist."

The first movie took place prior to the Amityville Horror case that made the Warrens famous; this one takes place in 1977, seven years after Amityville.

At first, the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) resist involvement. But even at home, Ed and Lorraine aren't what you'd call a typical couple.

-- Ed keeps busy painting pictures of some sort of mysterious demon.

-- Lorraine has horrifying visions, one in which she sees her husband die.

Ed and Lorraine seem out of step with the '70s cultural zeitgeist that spawned the Bee Gees, so much so that when Wilson's Ed picks up a guitar, it's to sing Elvis tunes. Can't Help Falling in Love With You is a particular favorite.

Barely scraping by, the fatherless Hodgson family tries to cope with demonic visitors in North London. The screenplay -- credited to Wan and three additional writers -- quickly dispenses with any doubts about Janet's possession: Others see and hear what Janet sees and hears, phenomenon such as furniture sliding across rooms and loud, thumping noises that interrupt the night.

The house in London's Enfield borough isn't exactly a prize. Paint has begun to peel from the walls, the basement exudes horror-movie possibilities, and the furniture has seen more than its share of wear, particularly a fraying armchair that occupies a corner of the house.

The movie unites its American and British strands when the Catholic Church asks the Warrens to check out the goings-on in Great Britain. The Church wants to know if there are grounds to send in the exorcists or whether this is one more hoax.

Wan, who helped redefine contemporary horror with 2004s Saw and who directed The Conjuring, knows the tricks of the demonic-movie trade, dishing out enough jolts -- many involving severe property damage -- to startle most audiences.

A small supporting cast doesn't have much to do. Franka Potente shows up as a psychologist eager to debunk Janet's stories. Unfortunately, her character isn't well-enough integrated into the story to justify her presence. Simon McBurney signs on as a researcher who's disposed to believe the Hodgson's story.

For all the frightening folderol, Wan can't match the achievement of the first movie -- and, this time, I was overly conscious of exactly how Wan was using his skills to help us overlook some pedestrian writing and to make audience members pop out of their chairs as if the theater had become a giant toaster and they, the bread.