Saturday, June 25, 2016

Finding Dory, Independence Day 2, Central Intelligence, Weiner Reviews

Finding Dory
Dir. Andrew Stanton
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In a year of lackluster sequels (both critically and commercially) like Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Huntsman, Zoolander 2, etc, Pixar is defiantly holding its head above the water, with its sequel earning a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and the highest opening weekend at the box office for an animated film ever. Finding Dory, arriving 13 years after the Academy Award-winning Finding Nemo, continues the undersea journey of Marlin, his son Nemo, and their forgetful friend Dory. Yet again they are on a cross-ocean adventure to find a lost family member - this time Dory's parents - but their travels leads them to become trapped inside a Marine Life Institute not unlike Seaworld, with the film essentially playing out like a feature-length version of the Dentist Office escape from the first film. Despite its reliance on the "Pixar formula" and its similarities to the first film, Finding Dory does enough to hold its own, introducing new fun characters and providing a heartfelt message about living with a disability. In other words: it's predictably high-quality animation from Pixar.

Dory's story follows everybody's favorite blue tang fish with a case of short-term memory loss, Dory (Ellen Degeneres), cutting back and forth between her past memories of her parents as an adorable big-eyed baby fish, and the present, with her new clownfish friends Marlon (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence). The film begins via flashback, introducing us to Dory's parents, Charlie and Jenny (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) and how they do their best to raise their special needs child. However, their best efforts can't save Dory from being swept away by a current one day, and by the time she escapes, she's already far from home and can't remember how to get back. Flashing forward to the "Found Nemo" present, Dory has the equivalent of a Vietnam flashback and realizes that she has a family out in the wild blue yonder, and with the help of her friends, attempts to track them down.

I found that the most impressive thing about this movie was its handling of what must have been one bitch of a screenplay to work through. While Dory was more or less the comedic relief in the first film, with her memory loss being less tragic than funny, when the sequel shifts to her perspective, it not only becomes a heavier film (dealing with a mental disability), but also becomes incredibly hard to write for, with a protagonist that is constantly forgetting what she's just said or done (and it risks being very repetitive). However, the wizards at Pixar found just the right balance - counteracting the more serious subject of dealing with disability with loads of jokes and physical animation gags, and although there are some really convenient times when Dory remembers certain things, overall the whole short-term memory loss device works and it never took me out of the story.

I also loved most of the new characters introduced as well, all of whom also seem to live with some kind of disability: There's Bailey (Ty Burell), a Beluga whale who can't seem to echo-locate very well, the near-sighted tiger shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), Nemo with his underdeveloped fin, and Hank the "septopus" (Ed O'Neill), who has seven tentacles instead of eight. All these fun newcomers are able to help Dory escape from the Marine Life Institute in spite of their respective disabilities, and the film's message is great for kids and parents learning to deal with not just physical or mental disabilities, but with being "different" in general. However, at times the film does contradict its own message with two seal characters, Fluke and Rudder (voiced by Wire alums Idris Elba and Dominic West), who openly berate another seal, Gerald, who is visibly "dumb" and don't let him on their rock. This is played for comedic effect, and it's one of the funniest gags in the film, don't get me wrong, but it does sort of fly in the face of the rest of the movie beating you over the head with its "include everybody" motif.

Although the film lacks the sense of ocean-traversing adventure of Finding Nemo, it plays to a certain formula, and it occasionally mixes up its own message, overall Finding Dory is an exception to this year's onslaught of sucky sequels. I won't give anything away, but there is a climactic scene that made me tear up a little, I laughed quite a bit throughout, and as could be expected, the animation is top-notch (though, admittedly, it was a little jarring to go from the stunningly photo-realistic visuals of the pre-feature short Piper to the more big-eyed, cartoonish look of Dory). The jokes themselves as written aren't half as funny without the brilliant character designs - like the aforementioned Gerald and a strange, but helpful bird named Becky, both of whom don't speak at all, yet are two of the best things about the film. Though it may be mid-tier Pixar, that's nothing to scoff at (it's hard to top masterpieces like Up, WALL-E, and Inside Out). Yet again, you'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll take for granted how awesome Pixar is at what they do.

Rating: B+

Independence Day: Resurgence
Dir. Roland Emmerich
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Independence Day is one of those movies that was a go-to VHS for me as a kid, and it's one of those cheesy, fun, endlessly quotable movies that was one of the definitive films of the 90s, and also ushered in the modern age of "massive destruction" blockbusters. The image of a huge alien spaceship (so large any one camera shot couldn't fully capture its magnitude) blowing up the white house is an iconic image that sort of represents the last 20 years of summer blockbusters. Bigger. Louder. Dumber. Say what you want about it, but at least Independence Day had characters we cared about and groundbreaking special effects for its time - with its sequel, Resurgence, we lose almost all of that magic. All the CGI destruction is so devoid of humanity that it means nothing, and the returning cast members and nods to the first film feel like nothing more than a calculated move to remind audiences of something they once found fun. While it's not the worst film of its type, Resurgence does represent most of modern Hollywood's worst tendencies in one neat package.

The overall story possibly could have had some potential in the hands of a more nuanced director than Roland Emmerich (2012 isn't exactly known for its subtlety). The story takes place 20 years after the original, with most of the original cast returning (save for its biggest star Will Smith). Since the failure of the alien invasion of 1996, the humans of Earth have since united together and salvaged the technology left behind by the crashed space invaders. Computer whiz David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) helps establish an Earth Defense Station on the moon, but when the second coming of aliens arrives, their moon base is quickly destroyed by starships "even bigger than the last one." Maybe it's because I'm just numb to these things since it's no longer a novelty to see wide-scale destruction like this, but the grand scale of the spaceships had absolutely no impact on me.

The new, young cast members leading the film are all throwaway generic robots and can't muster one-tenth of the charisma of Will Smith (whose lack of presence here makes this sequel feel even more pointless). Stepping into Smith's shoes is his step-son played by Jessie T. Usher, essentially playing the same role of a hot-headed fighter pilot, but with no personality or charm whatsoever. The same goes for Liam Hemsworth (who you cast when you can't afford Thor) and Maika Monroe (It Follows), whose "relationship" has the chemistry of two pool noodles floating in stagnant water. Some of the returning cast has their moments (Bill Pullman as the ex-president convincingly suffers from PTSD and Brent Spiner, the eccentric scientist from Area 51, provides some truly stupid, but nonetheless amusing comedic relief), but nothing can save this film from its uninspired, cookie-cutter story that seems to exist solely to create more sequels, and lead characters that only serve as reminders of how much better the first film was.

Independence Day: Resurgence has five credited screenwriters. I don't understand how a "nothing" movie like this had that many cooks in the kitchen. It has some pleasurably stupid moments (it'd probably play better amongst friends and on little sleep), and the special effects are at times impressive (the design of the alien-infused earth technology was well integrated), but this feels like such a waste of time and money. This aggressively dumb film is destined to be found in a discount bin near you.

Rating: C

Central Intelligence
Dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber
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The Rock and Kevin Hart are everywhere right now. It seems like every other day we hear of The Rock announced in yet another role - he'll be in Baywatch, Fast 8, an adaptation of the Rampage video game, San Andreas 2 (don't know how a sequel to that is logically possible, but OK), Doc Savage, Jumanji, AND he'll be playing a DC super-villain as Black Adam in Shazam. Kevin Hart is everywhere too, starring in the Ride Along films and touring as one of the most successful stand-up comedians on the circuit right now. So when you pair up these two charisma-machines, who are both at career-peaks right now, into an action-comedy, it's guaranteed gold, right? Not quite. While its heart is in the right place and there's a surprisingly warm "bro" story buried underneath, this limp, throwaway spy comedy is largely laughless and perhaps its worst crime is that the chemistry between Hart and The Rock (who I will NOT refer to as "Dwayne Johnson") just wasn't there for me.

Calvin (Hart) isn't living up to his potential. In high school he was loved by all and voted 'Most Likely to Succeed.' Ironically enough, 20 years later he's floundering at his job, working a low-level accounting position. However, in time for his 20-year high school reunion, Calvin is Facebook'ed by a former acquaintance with a phonetically unfortunate last name, Robert Weirdicht (The Rock), who unlike the popular Calvin, the overweight Robbie was relentlessly bullied in school, humiliatingly being yanked out of the shower naked and into a packed gymnasium. However, when the two reunite after all those years, Robbie has turned into The Rock and now works for the CIA (he "only had to work out for six hours a day, six days a week, for twenty years"). The premise for Central Intelligence seems like the perfect springboard for spy hijinks to ensue - the hulking loser-turned-badass teamed up with the twitchy, once-promising accountant - but their fun situational comedy falls flat against an uninspired spy plot and mostly generic, "wide audience" jokes that have no bite (and are occasionally homophobic and racist - don't take your "social justice warrior" friends to this one!).

The movie is at its best when we gets hints of a closer connection between the two central characters (I wouldn't mind seeing these two paired up again for further adventures), but too often we get bogged down in the lame espionage plot, featuring Amy Ryan as a CIA agent sent to capture Robert. The conspiracy plot that's presented makes little sense, and the action is very dull and at times incomprehensible. The director, Rawson Marshall Tucker, is more of a comedy director, and it really shows during the various shoot-outs and chases that occur throughout - there's just no energy there. There are occasional lines and moments where the movie seems to click, mostly due to the tension between Hart's wired personality and The Rock's "action hero" persona, but they're too few and far between to recommend this movie.

PS. The Rock's muscles look humanly impossible and distracted me during the entire film. He literally looks like a post-transformation Hulk without the green skin.

Rating: C

Dir. Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg
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The news is sometimes crazier than anything you could write in a sitcom. Ex-congressman Anthony Weiner was permanently a part of late night fodder when a private picture of his...well, his weiner, was posted for all the world to see, texted to a young woman who totally wasn't his wife. Despite his slip up, in the ensuing months he somehow managed to put the past behind him and run a seeming "comeback" run for mayor of New York, and this film captures what he was hoping would be his masterful rise back from a career low point. Instead, what Kriegman and Steinberg's documentary captures is the slow total meltdown of a political campaign. As could be expected, new sexting allegations started to pop up, spiraling Weiner into yet another media frenzy, and this film provides an inside look on how this trainwreck of a campaign effected those involved.

Like the Romney doc Mitt which came out on Netflix a while back, this movie doesn't necessarily "side" with its subject, it's mostly just a fly on a wall observation of nervous campaign managers and the rabid media, ready to pounce at any new information that surfaces. The result is a fascinating, if a bit unfocused, look at this mayoral campaign and due to the combination of irony of Anthony's last name, as well as the way everything just seems to go wrong, makes this film into a kind of perverse, real life comedy of errors. The take-away for me is that while the scandal was going on, nobody seemed to care about what issues Weiner stood for, they simply attacked him for lying about his dick pics - and the seeming hypocrisy of staying on that subject while the media gave Bill Clinton somewhat of a "break" during his respective scandal. It's all politics, and funnily enough, it seems like the same drive that makes Weiner a natural politician (the "never say die," take no prisoners attitude), could also have marked his downfall.

Rating: B

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