Thursday, 23 June 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

(M) ★★★½

Director: Roland Emmerich.

Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Travis Tope, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Judd Hirsch, Jessie Usher, Brent Spiner.

"What do you mean they rebooted Jurassic Park without me?"

SURELY it hasn't been 20 years since Roland Emmerich had the nerve to blow up the White House, make Bill Pullman the President, and turn Will Smith into a bona fide action star?

Sadly, yes, two decades have passed since the original Independence Day (or ID4 as it was confusingly acronymed at the time) exploded at the box office.

A lot has changed since then. Independence Day came from a time when CGI was still a novelty that went hand-in-hand with practical FX, comic book movies were considered a niche joke, and Jeff Goldblum could headline a movie. How times have changed.

If ID4 was released now, this sequel (ID4:2?) would have been in the works before the box office dust had even settled. But here we are, 20 years on, looking at a belated follow-up that surprisingly recaptures the vibe, the style, the spectacle, and, best of all, the silliness of the original.

One of the most intriguing elements of Independence Day: Resurgence is the world it imagines that would have grown out of the interstellar invasion of July 4, 1996. Alien technology left behind on the battlefield has been harnessed to further humanity, which has banded together and made preparations should the invaders ever return.

The key players from ‘96 are predominantly still around (except Will Smith’s Steve Hiller who has been killed off – Smith obviously has better things to do). Goldblum’s David Levinson is a leading scientist with the Earth Space Defence, his dad (Hirsch) has written a book titled How I Saved The World, former President Whitmore (Pullman) is a hollowed out old man struggling with PTSD caused by with the events of the first film, and Area 51’s Dr Okun (Spiner) has been in a coma for 20 years.

There are a bunch of new players too – Hemsworth’s rogue pilot, President Whitmore’s pilot daughter (Monroe), and Hiller’s pilot son Dylan (Usher) are the main ones you’ll be worrying about when the aliens come back.

Did I mention the aliens are coming back? Because they are – bigger and badder than before, naturally, because this is a sequel and everything has to be bigger and badder.


Thankfully, amid the CGI overload of exploding buildings and spaceship dogfights, there are people and subplots to care about and ground proceedings. As with the original, the characters and an earthy sense of humour stop the film from disappearing in a blizzard of special FX.

There are plenty of throwbacks to the original film too – if you haven’t seen it in a while it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on it again before you dive into the sequel. Resurgence moves oddly fast in places, expecting knowledge and remembrances of its predecessor, but it also hints at bigger back stories, some of which it eventually fleshes out. In this sense, it is a fully realised world the characters inhabit, which helps make the film so engrossing.

While audiences are numbed these days to the spectacular CG centrepiece – a hard-to-impress quality partially birthed in the scene when the first film blew up the White House, so Resurgence can’t compete with creating a moment as memorable. But it keeps things rolling quickly from beat to beat, battle to battle, character to character, ensuring our attention never waivers.

As a belated follow-up, Resurgence is probably as good as you can hope it to be, maybe even better than many of us expected. It’s let down occasionally by going too over-the-top (if such a thing is possible in an Independence Day sequel) or packing in too many characters or having too many dumb moments, but this is enjoyable explosive fun, much like the original.

Now, let’s hope they leave it alone and don’t bother with the inevitable disappointing third film.


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Finding Dory

(G) ★★★★

Director: Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane.

Cast: (voices of) Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Ed O'Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy.

Dory's friends were tiring of her whale impersonations.

OUTSIDE of the brilliant Toy Story trilogy, Pixar has been underwhelming with its prequels and sequels to date.

Cars 2 was largely panned by critics and is rightly regarded as the worst Pixar film to date. Monsters University was a so-so effort that failed to recapture the charm and pathos of Monsters Inc.

Given that Pixar’s calendar is brimming with sequels – Cars 3, The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 are all on the way – you could be forgiven for wondering if the computer animation studios near-bulletproof reputation was wearing thin. Maybe the well is running dry.

Sure, they released Inside Out last year and it just so happened to be the best film of 2015, but do we really need a sequel to Finding Nemo and could it possibly be any good?

The answers to those questions, thankfully, are yes and yes.

A year after Dory (DeGeneres) helped Marlin (Brooks) find his son Nemo (Rolence), Dory goes off in search of her own parents after fragments of memories pop up in her frazzled brain. This sparks a cross-Pacific journey – with Marlin and Nemo in tow – to the marine park where Dory grew up.



Finding Dory takes an interesting tack, not just by making Dory the main character but by re-examining who she is – in a sense, the title is a spiritual one as much as it’s about a physical quest.

Dory (voiced wonderfully yet again by DeGeneres) was the humour and heart of the 2003 original, but her goldfish-style memory was played purely for laughs. This time around, her memory is examined in the context of a disability, and much like Nemo’s under-sized flipper in the original, plays a central part in the film and its all-abilities subtext, which is just one of the beautiful pieces to this well-rounded Pixar puzzle.

Like all Pixar movies (except Cars 2), this has some golden moments that hit you right in the feels. While it’s not in same league as Up, the introduction to Finding Dory could have you "trying to get something out of your eye", and the movie’s emotional crescendo will do likewise.

In one sense, this is the same movie as Finding Nemo – a fish searches for its family, colourful characters help along the way, disabilities are overcome, and lessons are learnt. But while it may match a few plot points, Finding Dory also matches the spirit and tone of its predecessor in wonderful new ways, which makes it a joy to behold.

It’s as funny and as heartwarming as the first film. It does go way over the top towards the end in an effort to jump the impossible plot hurdles the script keeps putting in front of Dory and co, but all ages will love this for the feelgood family fun that it is.

****

PS. On a side note, the short at the beginning of the film is called Piper and it’s beautiful and cute, so make sure you get there on time. And also, stick around until after the credits for a great additional scene. Bizarrely, despite watching Finding Dory in a full cinema, I was the only person who bothered to wait until the end of the credits. Everyone else’s loss.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Warcraft

(M) ★★★

Director: Duncan Jones.

Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper,Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Daniel Wu.

Boy, there sure are some ugly actors in this film.

THE great soothsayers of Hollywood predicted that a hoodoo would be lifted this year.

They spoke of a time in 2016 when the curse of the video game movie would be lifted, and critics and gamers could finally be as one in enjoying a film that had sprung from console or computer.

The prophets pointed to two great white hopes to banish the hex – Duncan Jones’ Warcraft and the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed.

Sadly, Warcraft is not the cinematic saviour the gamer brigade hoped it would be. While it scrapes by as “okay” in my book, very few critics are treating it even that kindly.

The film is based on the franchise that began in 1994 as a real-time strategy game but has grown into a massive empire of online gaming, novels, comics and more.

This cinematic adaptation finds the fantasy realm of Azeroth on the brink of war – a horde of orcs driven by an evil magic has arrived in the lands of the humans, and they haven’t come by to borrow a cup of sugar.

On the human side is the bold but weary knight Anduin Lothar (played by Aussie Fimmel), lapsed mage Khadgar (Schnetzer), the supposedly all-powerful Guardian (Foster) and a rather underwhelming king (Cooper).

On the orcish side is Durotan (brought to life by a motion-captured Kebbell and a small army of computer wizards), who is unsure whether their magic-wielding leader Gul’dan (Wu) is all he’s cracked up to be.

And caught in the middle is Garona (Patton), a half-human, half-orc, who looks exactly like an attractive human woman but with pointy ears, fangs and a greenish tinge.


Warcraft is visually impressive – downright stunning in places, in fact – and its digital characters look amazing. Several of the orcs are even better actors and evoke more empathy than their human counterparts.

But at its heart, Warcraft is a confused film. Like so many movies these days, it suffers from franchise-itis (franchitis?) – it’s even ambitiously subtitled The Beginning in some territories. It has one eye on what’s going on, but the other eye is already looking for the next movie, and the one after that. It’s fine to sprinkle hints of what comes next throughout – à la the Marvel Cinematic Universe – but the trick is to make sure each movie is a good self-contained movie in the first place.

Warcraft leaves a number of major plots dangling (and ends one way too abruptly) in the hopes of bringing everyone back for Part 2, but forgets to give the audience a satisfactory conclusion or real sense of resolution.

It can’t avoid the video game movie curse (and there are plenty of references to the games), but it does its best to try and avoid the “all fantasy worlds are the same” curse. It breaks some tropes (not all orcs evil) and its magic system is cool (if very computer-gamey), and it has some nice ideas, all the while avoiding any prophecies, lost kings, or chosen ones.

Unfortunately Azeroth comes across as an unlived-in world – it feels fake and intangible. As much as Warcraft wants to be the next Lord Of The Rings, it lacks the immersive qualities of the world Peter Jackson created from Tolkien’s novels. As a result, we never really get a sense of the peril Azeroth is supposedly in – the danger always seems distant.

The characters are a mixed bag too. Durotan and his offsider Ogrim (Kazinksy) have intriguing arcs and complexities, while Anduin and Khadgar have their moments, even if their banter doesn’t quite click (much of the humour is hit and miss). But Foster is oddly off-the-mark in a role that could’ve been the most memorable of the film, and Patton gets the short end of the stick with a poorly written character that seems to have been forced into the script to give teenage boys something to ogle. The film’s ending almost redeems her, but not quite.

It’s unfortunate that the film only really sings when it’s throwing its pixels around. A couple of orc-on-orc battles are enjoyably savage, and the big melees are a highlight.

Warcraft is not a total disaster and certainly looks a million bucks (or $160 million to be precise) but misses the mark as much as it hits it. For every cool moment, a dumb one follows, there are as many great characters as naff ones, and the good ideas are hamstrung by a lack of tension and a holographic setting.

The curse of the video game movie continues.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows

(M) ★★

Director: Dave Green

Cast: Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Megan Fox,Stephen Amell, Will Arnett, Brian Tee, Tyler Perry, Laura Linney. 

Is this the queue for nose jobs?

THE longevity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is kind of amazing.

Despite starting as comic book that was intended as a joke (hence the absurd title), the heroes in a halfshell have spawned four animated TV series, countless video games and toys, and now six feature films.

Nothing has been able to stop the turtles, not even the previous film, which drew the ire of fans for changing the looks of the characters and the disdain of critics who slated it for its over-edited action sequences and the presence of Megan Fox.

This sequel to that reboot is neither better or worse. On the plus side it embraces some of the cartoonish qualities of the various animated series but on the downside it still has Megan Fox in it.

Picking up a year after the previous film, it opens with Fox’s April O’Neil (still the worst movie journalist ever) on the trail of scientist Baxter Stockman (Perry), who she suspects is working to free the imprisoned Big Bad of the series Shredder (Tee).

O’Neil calls in the turtles, who are still in hiding despite saving New York a year ago, but they are unable to stop Ol’ Shredhead getting loose. They’re also unable to stop him teaming up with interdimensional villain Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett) on his plan to bring the Technodrome war machine to Earth.


Once again, the turtles are the best thing in the movie. Their interactions, and in particular Michelangelo’s humour, are saving graces and perversely the most human part of the film. When the actual humans are on screen – the dire Fox, the sadly superfluous Will Arnett, and the unfortunate Stephen Amell as the poorly written Casey Jones – the movie suffers, and so does the audience.

Many of the same criticisms from the previous film can be levelled at this one. Worst of all is the hyper-editing of the all-important action sequences, which is most evident in the introduction and the final fight, with the latter looking more like a computer game cut scene than an actual movie. It’s a shame because the turtles themselves are impressives pieces of pixelwork. It’s just a shame we don’t get to see them in action in a clearly visible way very often.

It’s feels pointless to criticise the inner story logic of a film about mutated sewer turtles proficient in the art of ninjutsu, but I’m going to anyway because although there is a certain amount of technobabble leeway that comes with the territory of comic book movies, this takes it to frustratingly idiotic new heights. Time and time again, the plot is only advanced by Donatello or Baxter Stockman explaining some technical impossibility and it happens so often you feel certain the screenwriters stopped trying at some point. Also the MacGuffins are piled so high in this movie that almost every sequence is basically “catch the MacGuffin”, one after the other. But like I said, such criticisms are probably pointless because no one is going to see this film for its deft screenplay.

This won’t go down as one of the best comic book movies of all time. It will be remembered for its CG renderings of such classic TMNT characters as Bebop, Rocksteady and Krang, but it won’t further the legacy of the turtles in any serious way.