“The Purge: Election Year” (2016): The Best One By Default

Unless one’s been living under a rock for the past several months, global politics are in the middle of a fever pitch. Here in the US, there’s a pretty testy election season going on full of varying opinions and passionate sides being taken. That hostility is reflect in this summer’s The Purge: Election Year from writer/director James DeMonaco, who also made the previous two films in the series The Purge and The Purge: AnarchyThe Purge: Election Year has the right ideas in mind, going so far as to blatantly display C-SPAN footage of the real-life House of Representatives amongst footage that a voice over claims is the result of “The New Founding Fathers of America” trying to push their agendas, albeit with the faces of Paul Ryan and the like blurred out. This shows a lot of gumption, the type of gumption that gives The Purge: Election Year a basic energy worth embracing in a cinematic landscape full of chances untaken. Ostensively, The Purge: Election Year is trying to be a modern sleeker version of a John Carpenter action thriller like Assault on Prescient 13 or Escape from New York. Like those films, this third entry in The Purge franchise tries to play the titular event as a wild west “every man for themselves” style genre setting to comment on modern day anxiety being unleashed. Yet, to a slightly lesser degree than its two predecessors, The Purge: Election Year still suffers from a certain lack of imagination in its execution, lacking the needed edge to make the satire stick.

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Universal Pictures

Let’s be honest: the concept of “The Purge” isn’t a realistic or smart one. How does allowing crime without consequence for 12 hours out of the whole year actually fix the economy? Or bring crime down? Or do much of anything beyond serious property and collateral damage? The answer is that it doesn’t. It’s a metaphor for our society’s slow moral decay and the lengths they’re willing to go as well as an excuse for flashy carnage. There’s a bit more engaging world building in The Purge: Election Year than the other two, with just the right amount of hints at the weird type of barbaric contests that take place. We get hints of a gladiator battle, religious groups encouraging purging and foreigners coming to the US just to purge that gives this universe a large scope than ever before. There’s even somewhat of an improvement character wise, with the clashing natures of presidential candidate Elizabeth Mitchell and her protection Frank Grillo creating tension that isn’t motivated by boneheaded moves like the previous films. They’re actual characters with believable drives and conflicts that seem human.

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Universal Pictures

The Purge: Election Year shows a certain evolution in DeMonaco’s style. Yet, there’s still a clear limit to his imagination. Namely, his inability to escalate the action or evolve some of his side characters beyond their initial archetypes. The action honestly hits a high point by the end of the first act as Betty Gabriel saves the day by blowing away a group of girls. It’s satisfying, but in a way that feels cold. A way that The Purge: Election Year tries to point out on more of a political scale than a character one. That political sting runs out of steam far faster than they’d want, as none of the action following Gabriel’s stand adds a solid amount of kinetic or mad energy needed for this premise. Nor does it reach a satisfying moment of true moral contemplation for our characters, except for one of the lesser freedom fighter characters who doesn’t earn it. By the time we get to Grillo’s big climactic struggle and the finale shoot out, the process becomes rather dull and repetitive even within the 105 minute run time. It doesn’t help that Mykelti Williamson‘s character serves as a comedic relief that clearly shows James DeMonaco’s inability to write racially specific characters. One can appreciate DeMonaco’s attempts to highlight a small business owner who feels like the target of a government blatantly targeting minorities, but it comes off as a bit hypocritical when he has a line as insulting as “there are a bunch of negros coming at us and we’re sitting here like a bucket of chicken.” No, really. This is an actual line of dialogue from The Purge: Election Year.

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Universal Pictures

If anything, The Purge: Election Year showcases just how frustrating James DeMonaco is at delivering on this concept he’s created. Despite how ludicrous it truly is, one could see it being utilized properly and this is the closest we’ve come. Small bits of world building, a few engaging characters to keep things afloat, some effectively eerie imagery. All the pieces are there and the improvement from each installment is obvious. Yet, this entry is just marred enough by underwhelming action and an inability to keep his metaphors consistent with his larger cast to miss the mark. I’d honestly rather see DeMonaco hand over the reigns to a more volatile director with an eye for unhinged madness. Maybe a Neil Marshall or Adam Wingard that know how to escalate their premises to the needed extreme. Instead, we get The Purge: Election Year, a film that only marginally earns its distinct title as the best of the series… which means about as much as being an average height person standing next to Kevin Hart and Danny DeVito. Technically true, but not an accomplishment.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Patriotic Costumes

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“Independence Day: Resurgence” (2016): Bigger Definitely Isn’t Better

The first Independence Day is a watershed film for the mid 90s. Many a blockbuster in its wake ran with the film’s regurgitation of Star Wars style dogfighting and Irwin Allen level destruction. The latter even became the trademark of director Roland Emmerich for a while, to the point where Independence Day: Resurgence gives returning star Jeff Goldblum a meta nod to the fact that the aliens always aim for the landmarks. Now, in the wake of 90s nostalgia coming in at full force with hits like Jurassic WorldIndependence Day: Resurgence is attempting to squeeze a few million dollars off the potential interest in a long delayed follow up to the 1996 hit. Emmerich’s film does take advantage of this passage of time, mainly in allowing Earth to utilize the older alien tech for personal use and allowing a chance to revive older characters to fight alongside our younger heroes in true recent “legacyquel” fashion that show some promise when introduced. They even managed to throw in the late Robert Loggia in as a cameo that’s merely there to remind us how old and brittle he was. However, it doesn’t matter if the star is young or old in this bloated blockbuster, because either way every person gets lost in the shuffle of mayhem and destruction.

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20th Century Fox

The first Independence Day – for its many many problems – managed to have a solid build up to its admittedly repetitive alien destruction, helped tremendously by the star making turn from then-up and comer Will Smith. Smith doesn’t make a return in Independence Day: Resurgence, instead being taken over by the two-for-one combo of Jesse T. Usher as his character’s son grown to be a pilot and his frenemy Liam Hemsworth. Neither manage to carry the proceedings despite how much both are clearly trying to emulate Smith’s cocky delivery and wisecracks, including a callback to a Close Encounters of the Third Kind reference Smith originally made that feels about as much like a copy of a copy as the rest of Independence Day: Resurgence ultimately does. Their rivalry is one of many plot lines stuffed into the running time of Independence Day: Resurgence, mirror the original’s lack of economy with its storytelling. Still, at least the first film had forty more minutes to try and develop these characters. Independence Day: Resurgence elects to keep things at a 120 minute clip that lays out the basic character dynamics with a slog during the first hour and rushes towards the finish in the second. Caught in the middle of all this are performances like Charolette Gainsborough or Goldblum that rush out exposition with the passion of someone waiting off screen for their check or those who seem game to perform yet aren’t given a thing to do like Brent Spiner or Judd Hirsch.

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20th Century Fox

A major problem with the original Independence Day was a true lack of innovative style in its designs. The spaceships and aliens felt like rejected mixtures of H.R. Geiger’s designs from Alien and more elaborate versions of generic flying saucers from any number of 50s sci-fi films. Now, despite 20 years of time to develop some new twist or evolution of these extraterrestrials, Independence Day: Resurgence elects to simply make them bigger. No less than twice during the run time, characters mention that the mothership featured is “bigger than the last one.” It’s one of many examples of how Independence Day: Resurgence insults the intelligence of its audience with its dialogue, pointing out things blatantly obvious to anyone who isn’t literally blind as if they forgot. Yet, one couldn’t blame them for forgetting in the splurge of cliche character arcs and endless mass destruction that feels even worse than the average Roland Emmerich picture that’s guilty of all of these things. Independence Day: Resurgence is Emmerich on autopilot, regurgitating his old tricks (that were already repeating older techniques in the first place) in a cold calculated fashion.  It’s spelling things out for those hoping to find a solid follow up to a film they loved, assuring them that this has a reason to exist simply because the ships and aliens are “bigger.” Not “better,” not “newer,” just… bigger.

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20th Century Fox

By the time Independence Day: Resurgence gets to Bill Pullman‘s attempt at a new speech at the end of the second act, one can tell how low things have sunk. Even as someone who finds the original Independence Day overrated, that original speech is still a massive highlight that deservedly earns a place as a great popcorn movie moment. Here, it’s an obvious wink that exists not to genuinely rally the pilots or give Pullman a true connection with his daughter Maika Monroe, but instead to look at the camera and say “remember when we were great, folks?” It’s a shame that I have to keep bringing up the original movie in comparison, but it’s a comparison Emmerich and his crew directly make constantly. Independence Day: Resurgence feels like an exercise in a cheap quick modern blockbuster with 90s nostalgia tinges. It never tops the original, but it also doesn’t even try to expand on those ideas in an intriguing new way. It just ends up being a whimper of a return hoping to rope enough interest from what came before. Nothing illustrates this more than the MacGuffin/sequel hook device known as The Sphere, a MacBook esque modern looking alien device that desperately tries to tell people to come back again for an even “bigger” adventure next time. Unfortunately, it seems like Roland Emmerich and 20th Century Fox might have made a film that was far too big for its britches.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Alien Spheres

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“The Shallows” (2016): Blake Lively Plays Shark & Mouse

The Shallows is the type of film usually reserved for actors wanting to make a statement. Not necessarily a pronounced one, but one that gives them a certain kind of credibility. A credibility that aims to show they can carry a film completely on their own. Blake Lively strives for this in The Shallows, but this isn’t a new concept. Tom Hanks did this for Cast Away. James Franco for 127 Hours. Hell, this even mirrors what Ryan Reynolds did in Buried, which took place entirely in a coffin Reynolds was trapped in. Here, Lively is trapped on the shallow part of a beach, mainly on a rock trapped by a swimming shark. We’re with Lively the entire time as she struggles to stay alive, swimming for her life as this natural predator swims after her. So, it’s crucial that her character feel sympathetic and worth seeing rise out of that predicament.

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Columbia Pictures

Luckily, The Shallows manages to do so with an efficient sense of economic storytelling. We get just enough backstory for Lively’s character to get behind her decision – as silly as it really is – to surf this private beach alone. Lively is at least motivated by a desire to come closer to her mother after her death by visiting this paradise, a connection destroyed by a primal element of nature that shatters her hopes of finding a connection she’s now lost. Instead, she connects with nature in a grueling way. Lively inhabits everything needed for The Shallows, managing to make up for general storytelling shortcomings that are abound for a film focused on one character with a genuine sense of emotional tension and fear for her life. Even when she has to spout lines of dialogue that are clearly there for audience members unable to get the basic concepts of visual storytelling like “Somebody got you” when she sees a hook in the shark’s mouth. Lively makes the stream of consciousness thought process and thinking out loud seem natural, even as she’s talking to her lone companion of a seagull.

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Columbia Pictures

Of course, Lively’s true costar in The Shallows is her predator shark, roaming the ocean floor. Director Jaume Collet-Serra clearly heavily uses CG to craft this looming shark, but has the sense to pull a Steven Spielberg and only show the shark when it’s necessary. We don’t need to see the shark lunge at the screen as it during the opening Go Pro footage. A simple fin zooming by Blake Lively is more than enough for us to get the threat. When the shark is shown head on, it’s not the best CG work out there. Yet, there’s still an animalistic instinct that carries in how the creature is rendered. When he viscerally chomps at her, one can see the jerky urge to eat in every movement. Even as The Shallows gets incredibly ridiculous territory with its ending, the moment manages to feel earned because we’ve grown attached to Lively’s plight and been genuinely terrified of this shark’s presence thanks to the tension Collet-Serra built up over this 86 minute running time.

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Columbia Pictures

Many have attempted to compare The Shallows to Jaws because it involves a shark attack. It’s natural, given that 98% of shark movies that have come in the last 40 or so years are trying to replicate the intense fear that still protrudes from that classic. It’s something The Shallows is aware of, but takes a much more directly disturbing attitude towards this shark attacking Lively. In that more contained way, The Shallows is more of an action heavy take on Open Water, allowing Lively to be an action hero while striving to survive. For all of the clumsiness abound, The Shallows earns a spot as one of the few solid shark films to come out in the wake of Jaws. Then again, when your competition involves the sequels to Jaws, it’s not that much of a competition.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Broken Seagull Wings

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“Finding Dory” (2016): Finding a Reason To Exist

Did we need a sequel to 2003’s beloved Pixar film Finding Nemo? No. No we didn’t. That’s blatant just from the fact that Nemo is a well rounded and complete story on its own that helped solidify the power of story and ingenuity for the animation studio at the time. Then again, Pixar is the same studio that later thought “Hey, let’s see what the Monsters Inc characters were like in college and the cars from Cars would be like as spy cars” so any sense of purity has been out the window for a while. Still, the question remains: despite having no real reason to exist, does Finding Dory find some sort of new angle to justify its production? Could this possibly be the second chapter of an unexpected Toy Story saga for these Finding Nemo characters, surely leading to a Finding Marlin within the next decade?

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Walt Disney Pictures

Well, there are shades of potential there, mainly in the titular character of Finding Dory. As she did with her vocal work in the first film, Ellen DeGeneres finds a nice balance between being gratingly repetitive and a heartfelt misfit with her can do attitude philosophy as the forgetful fish Dory. She appropriately bring back the “Just Keep Swimming” song from the first film and implements it as a way to progress herself into being a more active character than her first adventure with Marlin. Dory managing to get past issues of her short term memory loss can be quite vague and convenient for the plot, but they at least promote a certain self reliance and determination that’s refreshing as Dory gets past repeating the same “I have short term memory loss” joke over and over again after the first thirty minutes or so. It helps that Dory encounters some of the better new side characters along the way, including a bitter octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill and a near sighted whale shark voiced by It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia regular Kaitlin Olsen who bounce off Dory with an appropriate mixture of arrogance and sincerity, respectively. The octopus is the animation highlight of Finding Dory, with his extensive camouflage and frantic tentacles creating the best gags. Then again, as they do with even their worst films, Finding Dory is pretty immaculate in terms of animation. It’s clear we’ve progressed rather far in terms of how these underwater environments are rendered in the last 13 years, with even more variety in terms of fish and coral reefs.

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Walt Disney Pictures

Unfortunately, Finding Dory does dip pretty hard into sequelitis territory with its other elements. The beat-for-beat structure pretty much is just the first film. Marlin having an emotional outburst that leads to another fish’s capture, a set piece based on our characters escaping death by hopping from one bouncing element to another and a climax based around Dory guiding fish back into the water are just a few examples. Even scenes from other Pixar movies are copied and pasted in, like the Kids Zone area that feels identical to the nightmarish daycare playroom scene in Toy Story 3. The aquarium setting has a few funny moments here and there, but the stakes aren’t ultimately as high when the various fish in Finding Dory can easily hop from tank-to-tank or go through convenient pipes. When our fish friends came up to dry land in Finding Nemo, there was an actual sense of danger. Now they can just easily find a water source, ruining much of any tension for those more dangerous scenes.

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Walt Disney Pictures

The bigger sin though is that Marlin and Nemo are much more underwhelming as characters, seeming rather stagnant beyond a base arc of “we should listen to Dory more often.” It doesn’t progress them as characters that much at all, especially when all of this seemed like a lesson Marlin sort of learned by the end of the first film. Much of their chemistry amounts to “Nemo is totally right about a situation, but Marlin is too scared to just let things flow and has to overthink it.” It’s as if director Andrew Stanton and his staff thought they had to give Albert Brooks his usual Albert Brooks style dialogue without ever truly evolving Marlin on his own or making him engage in a fun new situation like any of the Toy Story sequels did with their various characters. The side characters they encounter are also far more repetitive in nature, including two sea lions (voiced by The Wire co-stars Idris Elba and Dominic West) who overuse their territoriality joke far too much and a bird character that feels like a much less emotionally engaged version of the bird from Pixar’s previous film Up.

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Walt Disney Pictures

Finding Dory ultimately sits in a weird place in the Pixar canon. It’s nowhere near the heights of its predecessor film or others in the upper echelon of Pixar films. Yet, it isn’t crushingly disappointing enough to fit in with mishaps like Brave or Cars 2. Instead, it’s in that lower mid-tier around The Good Dinosaur, where it’s decent enough to watch yet not engaging enough to be memorable at all. Finding Dory isn’t the cynical cash grab it could have been thanks to a determined sincerity of its lead character, but it doesn’t have enough personality of its own to stand out or warrant its existence that much. It didn’t really answer any burning questions left hanging from Finding Nemo and even then the questions it did answer didn’t leave much of a mark on the universe. In fact, it sort of lessening the progression some of those characters had in the first place. Finding Dory ends up leaving about as lasting an impression as it probably would on its lead character: there’s an initial rush of excitement at discovery, but those fleeting emotions dwindle and dissipate by the time one’s eyes dart away from the screen.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Coffee Pots With Fish in Them

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“Warcraft” (2016): Ambitious Failure Is An Understatement

Warcraft has a lot of ambitions. Not only is it trying to take a niche idea and build a blockbuster franchise out of it, it’s also trying to showcase revolutionary technical wizardry, balance a huge amount of characters in terms of screen time and please both its parent studio Universal Pictures & the studio behind the games Blizzard. That’s a lot to ask of director/co-writer Duncan Jones as he makes his leap to big studio filmmaking after smaller noteworthy films like Moon and Source Code. Plus, it’s a rather daunting video game property, but the budget shows the potential for a truly epic fantasy franchise and maybe at the very least a decent video game movie we have yet to really get. So when Warcraft… happens the way it happens, it’s not from lack of trying. If anything, Warcraft is the victim of trying too hard to please so many and it shows with every frame. It’s a story that’s as convoluted as it is expansive… or expensive for that matter. The characters are all over the place in terms of quality or consistency. The motivations for these events are either underutilized or not even explained.

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Universal

Warcraft really wants to build a world, a world where we’re invested in both human and Orc kind as their worlds collide thanks to this ancient magic that threatens to kill many. Some of it works, primarily with the character Durotan and his struggles between the horde he’s helped lead and his new  family. It’s a solid thread with great motion capture performances from Toby Kebbell & Anna Galvin that showed off some of the more nuanced examples of the admittedly breathtaking visuals that brought us these near-photorealistic translations of these Orcs. Hell, even their wolf steads are on point  Yet, the overall Orc story still has no real emotional connection for the plot device of Fell Magic or Daniel Wu‘s evil sorcerer Gul’dan and why he’s so dedicated to that magic beyond a generic desire for power. Warcraft is already a vast but niche property to begin with, one that could easily alienate those unaware of the extended lore of the games. As someone who isn’t, the story only achieves the vast scope in the visual sense, with massive Orc on human battles having the expenditure to make it huge, but unable to make me care.

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Universal

Then again, at least I cared about a few Orc characters. The human side of Warcraft is far worse. Their costumes are cartoonishly over exaggerated and the human actors are completely miscast. Dominic Cooper lacks any regal to portray a king. Ben Foster may just be the worst wizard in cinematic history, playing a magical Obi Wan with all the authority of a renaissance faire stoner. Travis Fimmel is the only one that has any life in his performance, but it all comes from broad goofy hand gestures & facial expressions that seem to show a complete lack of interest in what’s going on. At one point, Fimmel has to play an incredibly emotional scene… and he smiles like he’s about to crack up. Paula Patton has a huge storyline about being both Orc and human, but has a storyline that shoves her to the side as a love interest until our big climactic reveal happens that pulls one of the lamest attempts at a weight Christopher Nolan style twisted bittersweet ending in recent memory. Everyone else without any motion capture tech on has no idea what they’re doing, including a surprise cameo I had no idea about who just shows up right before the giant action sequences to spew some of the blandest fantasy dialogue out there.

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Universal

Yet, I don’t completely blame any of these actors for seeming out unenthused. What they’re given to do and say in Warcraft feels secondary to its set pieces, some of which have brutal feverish exploits like an Orc-to-Orc confrontation ritual. Most of them are just these Orcs and humans lunging at each other with empty brutality based in little investment. Sound and fury signifying nothing, except extensive exposition. Seriously, every character spews a solid page worth of exposition to set up its world rather than having confidence in its visual storytelling potential. Warcraft drags us all the way to our ultimate conclusion for what? Set up for a sequel. A sequel that, given what they set up here in theory, would have probably been a better movie. This entire experience felt like a bloated prologue to a much bigger world instead of an exciting chapter that introduced us to this land with an exhilarating punch.

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Universal

Duncan Jones is a great filmmaker. Moon and Source Code are two of the more underrated sci-fi films in recent memory and aspects of Warcraft show off so much potential for a truly awesome fantasy movie. What we end up getting is a high budget schlockfest that takes itself far too seriously. A bloated bore of a fantasy film with little humor and the humor that is there is gritted through the teeth of unenthused actors. Warcraft is is the exact type of mess one can’t even find that much ironic humor in, because it feels more like a tragedy than an unintentional comedy. The scraps of a good giant fantasy epic are there and seeing those scraps diluted by the bloated conflict bores more than it does satisfy or convert. By the time Warcraft hits its finale, one could care less about the fate of this world, the characters that inhabit it or what the hell is even going on.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Orc Battleaxes

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“The Conjuring 2” (2016): James Wan Reminds Us of What Horror Can Be

James Wan, director of some of the more noteworthy horror films in recent memory and one of the highest grossing films of all time Furious 7, is a rare example of a horror movie auteur who’s able to work within the studio system. After the booming success of his indie debut Saw, Wan has been one of the few filmmakers to have some sort of consistent style and use of the craft in his work than any horror film released theatrically in the last decade. One of those entries is 2013’s The Conjuring, which gave the real life Warrens an effectively chilling cinematic tale. That ended up being so successful that it bore a sequel creatively titled The Conjuring 2. In a summer full of unnecessary or disappointing sequels, The Conjuring 2 is the shot in the arm that both the declining sequel trend and horror films in general need. There’s an elegance to this production that 90% of horror films released theatrically wouldn’t really care to do. But Wan isn’t interested in the cheap. He’s interested in the more disturbed long game of actually getting you invested before he creeps you out.

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Warner Bros

With The Conjuring 2, James Wan avoids all the major pitfalls that have befallen many a horror sequel – including his own Insidious Chapter 2  – by embracing what made the first film so memorable: a skilled but steady hand. Wan crafts his scares here with so much precision. The production design knows just how to bring the 1976 aesthetic to life for the sake of emersion, the lighting casts the perfect shadows on every individual element in a room and the camera work manages shows off the geography of a space so that the scares come from our understanding of the set rather than something popping out of a nook we didn’t see. The Conjuring 2 envelopes itself with the elegance of its design, created in just the right fashion to scare audiences without insulting them. Each jump scare, major reveal and ghostly element is built up like a Rube Goldberg machine in how flawlessly every point comes together.

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Warner Bros

The Conjuring 2 doesn’t force jumps. It earns them diligently with a remarkable confidence, using just the right amount of fantastical imagery that feels truly unnerving and otherworldly with its aesthetic. Yet, it also doesn’t short shift a solid basis in reality. The real life Enfield Poltergeist that this is based on is a highly contested paranormal event. Much of the evidence shows it was a hoax concocted by the victims and The Conjuring 2 doesn’t shy away from its reputation. Not only is that reputation utilized to put doubt in the world surrounding our setting of a small house in London, but it feeds into the internal conflict of our paranormal investigators who are trying to help these people despite their recent conflicts with what comes with the job. This plot point does get a bit hard to swallow when it’s dragged out for an inevitable turn, but the developed doubt it places is just the right set up for The Conjuring 2 to destroy any misconception of these ghostly visages seen here. In that regard, it’s probably the best example of the many bland “based on a true story” narratives that has plagued horror for the last few years.

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Warner Bros

All of this still hinges on the spine of what made the first film so effective: characters we actually care about. All of the style would signify zilch if it wasn’t for how these haunts effect our players. The Conjuring 2 has a similar basic set up of the first otherworldly conflict, with a down on its luck family being disturbed by ghosts and The Warrens putting themselves in danger. Yet, the details are significantly changed, whether to highlight the closer relationship The Warrens end up having with this family or the crushing torture these kids go through when one of their siblings is infected with this spirit. Even the ghosts manage to have some engaging life brought to them, but not in an overcomplicated backstory fashion that watered down the terror of Insidious Chapter 2. Instead, the nightmare creatures are rooted in something engaging like an element of universal childhood experiences or the fear of getting old & losing touch with family.

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Warner Bros

Luckily, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t just one up itself on scares. It also brings a new level of nuance to the characters. The Warrens have experienced one of their bigger bumps as paranormal investigators, with Vera Farmiga‘s Lorraine being seriously against the idea of taking on another case after a disturbing prothetic vision. The conflict this creates between her and Patrick Wilson‘s Ed is believable, never creating a rift too big to completely throw off their abilities as investigators yet enough to make the emotional stakes of The Conjuring 2 build on their relationship in an engrossing fashion. This spills over into our British family trying to work past this poltergeist, who we see are struggling to make some sort of ends meet and are only further destroyed by this demon’s hold on the youngest daughter Janet. Janet is played by Madison Wolfe, who’s break out performance here manages to capture both the naive childlike innocence that initially endears us and the possessed disturbing context that repels in a fashion not achieved since Linda Blair in 1974’s The Exorcist.

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Warner Bros

Honestly, The Conjuring 2 pulls off a lot of horror concepts that people have been struggling to recapture lately. The opening Amityville sequence blasts anything the fourteen Amityville movies have tried to pull off out of the water, the Crooked Man character is probably the best version of The Slender Man creature we’ll ever get on film and the various films that have tried & failed to be The Exorcist in the last forty years don’t hold a candle to James Wan’s work at building characters to emotionally toy with here. The Conjuring 2 shows that Wan isn’t just a committed builder of scares as much as he is a genuinely thrilling visual storyteller. He knows that upping the ante isn’t just about having a bigger budget to spook people. It’s about bringing back what we loved in a new context that shatters expectations. That’s what makes him the strongest voice in mainstream horror today and The Conjuring 2 the strongest light for scares in theaters we’ve seen in quite some time.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Elvis Presley Covers

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“The Lobster” (2016): Societal Satire As Hard To Crack as Crustaceans

There aren’t any actual lobsters in The Lobster. Sorry to spoil something early on, but it’s crucial to understanding the point of this rather idiosyncratic cinematic oddity… or at least I think it is. There’s really only one certainty with this plot: “The City” is a dystopia of sorts where the lonely have to fit into a society that frowns on being the idea of being single, to the point where either a person finds a mate within 45 days of losing their partner via any means (i.e. break up, divorce or even death) they’ll be turned into the animal of their choice. That element of choice despite ultimate dissatisfaction is the recurring theme that serves as a tether for the bizarre machinations behind Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos‘ newest oddity. The illusion of choice in this world keeps us guessing as much as the characters, wondering where any of this will end up going.

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A24

Sometimes that thought process leads to rather bizarre black comedy gold. The Lobster boasts a rather solid cast who never refrain from the main goal of capturing cinematic awkwardness at multiple levels. Colin Farrell leads the affair while being incredibly weak willed. His desires are so often in front of him, with only the right phrase escaping his lips separating him from a life of lonely animalism and human connection. Yet, Farrell exhibits just the right amount of alien social cues to have it all fall away to hilarious effect. The same goes for John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw as they struggle to find mates, whose actions tell us more about this world than mere exposition could. Of course, no one here feels completely human. In fact, the more robotic one acts in the world of The Lobster, the more successful they ultimately are. Whether it be the stringent hotel manager (Olivia Colman) to the rebelliously committed leader in the forest (Léa Seydoux), the characters who abandon much of any human conflicted reasoning are those who wield power while Farrell and Rachel Weisz are cowering in fear down the middle, wanting stability that they can carve for themselves that neither side is willing to budge on.We’re given the idea that choice is irrelevant, that either extreme leads to a life of false happiness.

the-lobster-hunt

A24

Even when Farrell and his fellow rebellion members are part of the game, they’re petty ones trying to be normal members of The City, who are still under the iron will to keep up the falsehood of happiness through relationships that are merely there for survival. Who will hunt down people just for the sake of finding some sort of extended chance at fitting in. The Lobster confronts this form desperate self-preservation and does a fine job of selling the comedic hopelessness of that journey, even at its own expense. As The Lobster moves along though, there’s a point where it feels like it runs out of ideas and starts relying on lesser conventional story telling methods to rush through things. It’s particularly confounding when delivered through annoying conventions like narration over what’s clearly happening on screen or obvious behavior from our leads that just feels shoved in for a quick reveal. Even with that core theme of choice, there’s a certain dull lack of keeping up the strange comedic momentum after awhile.

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A24

It feels like Lathimos being confounded by a more ambitious story in comparison to the brevity of Dogtooth, which kept things small and compact so as to not deal too much with anything outside of the incubated world left behind. The Lobster may not run on extensive logic, but there’s more of a solid consistency with elements that occur earlier on in the hotel that felt inventive rather than those in the forest dwelling, when things begin their slow decline into “quirk for the sake of cheap conflict” that drags out the conclusion far longer than it needs to. Still, with an ending that keeps that theme of choice alive, The Lobster leaves itself on a more consistent ambiguous note that kept us enthralled in what was happening before rather than continuously add more threads to rush out its story.That ambiguity only works with a solid through line to tether things, leaving The Lobster wobbling its feet to finally find footing like a newly transformed doe walking through the woods.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Hands in Toasters

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“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” (2016): A Faithful Adaptation… For Better and Worse

As stated previously here, the 2014 franchise reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t suck nearly as hard as I thought it would. While an uneven mess that clearly implemented some poor decisions in terms of the origins of the characters and a lack of screen time for the titular reptiles, the 2014 film at least had a solid representation for Turtles and could potentially improve on the aspects around it for a more enjoyable sequel. Well, I’m happy to report that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is an improvement over that, mainly as an energetic adaptation of the popular perception (ie the 1987 animated series, not the more gritty 1984 comic book) of the characters… though that isn’t to say it results in a movie that’s too good overall. I know: a faithful adaptation of a goofy 1980s cartoon property might have some sort of problems due to being close to its childish previous incarnation? What blasphemy!

Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles-Mikey

Paramount

But there’s a huge difference with capturing the spirit of the source material tonally and adapting the story structure to a modern audience. On the latter point, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows takes about as many short cuts as that original cartoon did for animation budget purposes. Mainly, there’s a lot of very quickly rushed exposition that ends up being at the disinterest of some of these human characters. Early on in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, our new version of the villain Shredder (Brian Tee, whose take is at least more tolerable than the previous film in that he is literally “out of the shadows”) jumps through a dimensional portal and runs into an inter dimensional being Kraang, who is a giant brain-like alien inside a giant robot. Kraang is a well crafted version of the fan favorite baddie from the cartoon with modern updates and effectively voiced with the right kind of pompous arrogance by Brad Garrett. Yet, Shredder – who, despite his badass silent nature – has ABSOLUTELY NO REACTION to this giant alien and no qualms about allowing him to proceed to take over the world in exchange for defeating the Turtles. No shock. No contemplation. Not even a simple defensive pose. He’s just like “sure, take over the world. Just kill those turtles for me.”  This lack of human contemplation ends up infecting the general plot construction of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, having the general plot progression of an average episode of that original 80s cartoon.

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Paramount

Plot points skip multiple threads just to get to the square peg it’s intended. Megan Fox blasts off exposition faster than she can take off an item of clothing. Will Arnett manages to get high tech security footage by getting into a facility and tearing out a wire. Tyler Perry manages to create teleportation yet still wants to be faithful to The Foot despite not really needing them at all. Basically, this entire story is pretty dumb and nonsensical. Yet, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows doesn’t seem to be under the delusion of it being otherwise. The story of finding three pieces to get Kraang’s Technodrome to our dimension is more of a catalyst to get our four turtle brothers together for antics that are silly, yet manage to create a solid chemistry and keep the one solid thread that ultimately matters for the film together; these four diverging personalities clashing as teenage egos tend to do. Despite being giant CG reptiles (who look far better than they previously did), the Turtles manage to be surprisingly relatable young bucks simply trying to find their place in the world as heroes to New York. It’s not a complex arc and it often gets sidetracked for the less engaging if occasionally amusing human antics, but it’s heartfelt enough to keep one invested as corny one liners and patchy plot points play out.

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Paramount

A lot of this clearly comes from David Green’s more infectiously fun style that shows in some solid action sequences and the appropriately boorish antics of Gary Anthony Williams & Stephen Farrelly as Bebop & Rocksteady. There are moments that feel familiar to producer Michael Bay’s less inspired Transformers series, mainly when Fox uses her sexuality as a flimsy method of investigative journalism or the various dutch angles that stick out like sore thumb. Yet, there’s a sincere sense of juvenile fun that makes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows far more tolerable than it deserves to be. Even not being a huge fan of the original cartoon, this cinematic attempt at it is a decent if forgettable take on these characters. If anything, along with the original 1990 film or the 2003 series, it’s probably one of the better versions of those characters. To be fair, that competition also includes their Christmas sing along special. I know… it must be really good to beat the TV special where Donatello sings with a Jamaican accent. That’s just how tolerable Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Slices of Sewer Odored Pizza

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“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” (2016): Lonely Island Drops A Long Form Digital Short

The modern pop music industry is ripe for parody. With all the inflated egos, endless entourages and ridiculous content of lyrics, there’s so much to specifically knock. Weird Al can only do so much, after all. In fact, Weird Al himself is one of several cameos featured in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and his parodic influence clearly inspired The Lonely Island trio of stars/writers Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer (the latter two of whom direct) with their works on Saturday Night Live‘s Digital Shorts. Yet, much like their last collaborative feature effort Hot RodPopstar: Never Stop Never Stopping feels like a string of Digital Short ideas strung together by a shoestring story. Less of a story than even the iconic heavy metal satire mockumentary This is Spinal Tap or even the incredibly underrated musician biopic parody  Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, even though Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping follows a very similar blueprint in terms of structure. Yet, the shoestring story doesn’t really hinder the laughs that much, nor the extremely pointed target of the pop industry and the type of documentary puff pieces that have spotlighted teen stars like The Jonas Brothers, One Direction or perhaps the biggest point of satire Justin Bieber.

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Universal

The controversial self involved exploits of Bieber are a clear inspiration for lead Samberg’s take on the ego driven pop star, though this could have used a solid knock against the apology song for dumb antics like Bieber’s half assed attempt “I’m Sorry” from last year. Still, the songs are plentiful and on point in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, executing the type of satire that digs deep at the modern music industry without batting a single eye. There’s the gay marriage appreciation from a straight guy song that points directly at Macklemore’s “Same Love” and the near year datedness of the song’s message. There’s the making fun of women who are less appealing song that takes things to a ridiculous step by making the Mona Lisa herself a direct target. There’s even a parody of guest verses on popular song involving Emma Stone that skewers the concept of hashtag rap and its lack of connection with anything in the overall song proper. Samberg and his team are keenly aware of the pop scene, making every musical note hits their targets directly in the vocal chords. They also manage to satirize the concept of the music documentary with perfect form, particularly the smaller cliches like a serious scenes where the cameras turned off and only audio is heard that becomes more and more ludicrous as the scene takes advantage of the lack of visuals.

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Universal

Much of the music industry humor works directly because of the people involved. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping isn’t begging for industry regulars new or old to do interviews, who take the snipes with stride and surprising comedic revel. Of the countless inclusions, rappers Nas and A$AP Rocky are probably the bigger highlights as they hype the former boyband our Lonely Island folks were in within the film were a part of and the idea of selling out in a modern world that are as verbose as they are hilariously bizarre. Of course, the comedic talent on display manages to deliver the goods. Aside from our Lonely Island trio, supporting turns from Tim Meadows, Sarah Silverman and Justin Timberlake show a balanced sense of satiric glee in making fun of the excessive amounts of handlers these massive stars build around them. Honestly though, the newcomer and stand out is Chris Redd as Hungry Hunter, the intense egomaniacal rapper who is out to take Samberg’s dwindling spotlight as his opening act. Redd’s game attitude and aggressive nature perfectly bounces off Samberg’s calmer yet fragile self conscience.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

Yet, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping still falls into the trappings of many a modern comedy based heavily in improve. Even for its 86 minute running time, the second act is still rather free of laughs as things slowly descend for Samberg’s music career. It plays on familiar tropes of the rise and fall of fame, but doesn’t really take advantage of the sudden surreal or inventively subversive humor Lonely Island loves to do as much as the first and third acts do. This is particularly telling in an extended sequence built around the reveal of a penis that goes on for an extremely long period of time, but without much engaging escalation. Thankfully, things turn around for Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping as it heads into a parody of the sappy reunion of a former band that takes full advantage of the moronic nature of this industry and its nostalgia for the most bizarre elements of the industry. It may have worked better as a five minute online short, but even at over seventeen times that length, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping finds a solid consistency in chuckles and howling laughs to be worth the watch.

I also love writing the full name Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Popstars Who Never Stop And Are Never Stopping

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Retrospective Review #14: Tango & Cash a.k.a Cocaine and Hubris

This series doesn’t usually focus on one film at a time, but I often make exceptions for ones I can extensively write about. Tango and Cash is one I could write about for ages. This 1989 action buddy comedy feels so indicative of its time, like a cocaine and hubris fueled destruction of a movie, one where the producers had a multitude of ideas for action or comedy sequences and figured “fuck it, we can do that. We’re GODS!” That’s only appropriate, given the fact that this was one of the final films released in the 1980s (along with Steven Spielberg’s Always on December 22nd 1989), as it has all the big signifiers of egotistical jackassery that made the decade so uniquely brazen: vanity shots for its stars, an over the top villain, set pieces that often make little to no sense, several familiar character actors randomly shoved in and perhaps one of the most insane uses of a car explosion ever put to film. But… does that make Tango and Cash a bad movie or the best movie?

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Warner Bros

Well, one thing that’s for certain is that it’s a badly made movie, but I’m not surprised given some of the insane production problems. Credited director Andrey Konchalovskeiy was fired for trying to give the film a more serious tone, original director of photography/future director Barry Sonnenfeld was fired by Stallone for not lighting things right and famous edit doctor Stuart Baird came in to completely reedit the film after a disastrous first cut. This messy production shows off in this monster of a final version, as the scenes feel less like a cohesive whole and more like a serial style multi-part adventure where each set piece is made up on the fly. Most of the dialogue between the titular partners is made of one liners, feeling like a horrible mutation of the Shane Black style that had just become popular at the time. One liners about everything from getting raped in prison to having sex with the other’s sister to implications of assault towards witnesses at their own murder trial! Tango and Cash takes the concept of “cops who don’t play by the rules” to new levels, yet they’re still the most celebrated cops in LA. The dynamic doesn’t really work as well when both are pretty unorthodox despite Tango being painted as more of a by the book type at times. You know there’s a lack of consistency there when at one point a Tango puts a grenade in a person’s mouth as part of a “good cop, worse cop” routine… and it didn’t seem out of character at all.

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Warner Bros.

The chemistry between Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell in Tango and Cash feels like the typical buddy-cop narrative, but the heights it goes to morph it into something stranger than that. As the exploits of the titular characters are revealed further, they almost seem like superheroes more than they do actual cops. Their superhero physiques aside – which Russell makes fun of not too long before the two share a shower scene that extensively shows off their rears and chests – the two have enough familiar resources to feel like costumed crusaders. They survive massive explosions in small places, have protection from the local chief of police despite being vigilantes after they escape from prison, get gadgets from their own personal Lucious Fox (one of which is an armored vehicle) and even change into elaborate costumes prepared at the last minute. Well, Russell does at least in the form of a scene where he’s in drag, which somehow manages to crossover into Bugs Bunny territory of silliness. The fact that producer Jon Peters’ other film Batman came out this same year doesn’t feel like a coincidence. Several of these set pieces feel like something Warner Bros rejected from his initial pitches for Batman.

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Warner Bros

Batman co-star Jack Palance even appears here as our lead villain, who plays a Joker and/or Riddler style game of deception to frame Stallone and Russell after all the times they’ve foiled his plans to run a major drug ring through LA. He even disappears into the shadows at one point and has an elaborate maze set up built into his bar to show off the simple metaphor of “being trapped like rats in a maze.” Hell, the scenes of Tango and Cash in prison feel like a precursor to the Arkham Asylum games as the two leads fight over the top prisoners that literally lower them into a vat by a rope. None of this is helped by one of them being B-movie legend Robert Z’Dar, who might as well be a Batman villain given his iconic chin. Yet, the whole time, Tango and Cash feel no sort of real fear or turmoil about the situation at hand.

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Warner Bros

There’s so much to say about the Tango and Cash, but the central thing is what manages to keep this insane concept together: Stallone and Russell. Despite both being nominated for Razzie Awards (which have more sins to make up for than either of those leads) for their performances, their actions manage to keep this struggling lopsided mess from tumbling into total chaos based on sheer charisma alone. Despite the insanity of their back and forth or the mind numbing weirdness of the plot they’re going on about, the two of them give some sort of grounding to these characters. It’s not too much mind you, in a film where they drive a monster truck through bellowing flames. Yet, there are a few moments where actual humanity, like when they have an actual conversation about Cash’s relationship with Tango’s sister or Cash showing remorse for his dead assistant warden buddy. It’s nothing too concrete, but it’s just enough to keep this from going off the rails… but that implies that the film had rails to begin with.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Random Shower Scenes

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