Archive for November, 2016

ABS_1sht_MainAltNew_Art1.inddA Bigger Splash (2016)

Starring- Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson

Director- Luca Guadagnino

R- graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use


Rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are enjoying a respite at a vacation home in Italy while Marianne recovers from surgery when her ex, producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his young daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) suddenly appear.

A Bigger Splash is essentially two movies in one, and I have mixed feelings about both of them — not just mixed but inconclusive, as I’m still weighing the value of a number of decisions the script makes. I’m mostly happy about it, though — whether or not I agree with them, it’s fun to really get to mull something over again, to meditate on a film’s bold, risky choices. And whatever problems there are, the cast more than powers through them.

First and foremost, there’s the stereotypical indie movie half of A Bigger Splash, which both wholeheartedly embraces the trappings of its genre and uses them to play its cards close to the chest, lending more impact to some of the greater surprises it has in store. It knows how long it can successfully match expectations before it must break them, and when it finally turns off the beaten path, it turns hard.

It’s a mixture of positives and negatives. Luca Guadagnino opts for guerilla-style handheld camerawork, for the most part, and there’s a randomness and chaos in the approach, but somehow, he maintains control of it. Something about it feels earthy, lived-in; its editing is more energetic than incomprehensible, as though the cameras are so excited by the natural and manmade wonders of rural Italian beach country that they simply can’t help themselves. And of course, Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes make for a pair of towering leads; they could make miracles of a terrible script as long as they’re playing off one another (and even, quite often, when they’re not), and this one is far from terrible. No matter what it is, they can make you believe in it.

If anything, they’re so good that the rest of the movie suffers by comparison. These are huge performances desperate to break out of the film’s modest framework, overpowering everything matched against them. For most of its run-time, the story breaks into two subplots — Marianne and Harry on one side, and Paul and Penelope on the other — that only intersect here and there. And you can see the problem. I don’t want to downplay the work Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson do in this movie; they’re both very good, and A Bigger Splash will be far from a black mark on their resumes. But the movie pits them against Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, both arguable legends, and it’s a select few actors who could hold their own in a situation like that. The Paul/Penelope subplot is fine, but it was time I spent wanting to check back in on whatever Marianne and Harry were doing.

And admittedly, despite the cast’s best efforts, the story itself, for most of the movie, is too worn. “Wealthy Americans are tempted toward infidelity in an exotic location” is a weirdly common subset of talky dramedies — Woody Allen alone has made more than enough — and it takes a while for A Bigger Splash to throw anything new into the works. Unsurprisingly, Swinton and Fiennes are the ones who make it work; the attraction there is believable enough that it overpowers the numerous obvious senses in which they’re bad for each other. Schoenaerts and Johnson struggle. It may or may not be their fault; sometimes, I think certain actors either click or don’t. Screen presence isn’t a science. I don’t think the script does them any great favors either. Paul seems too reasonable and level-headed to even consider it; Penelope seems too…evil? There’s a plausibility barrier hanging over the entire film; Harry presents himself as charmingly loud and off-kilter, and Penelope plays the quiet, withdrawn college kid who won’t be any trouble, but from the beginning, the movie goes overboard in making their intentions appear sinister (especially since it goes the way of most indie movies and portrays everyone as a complex person not easily classifiable as good or bad). Everything they do feels planned, like they’re tag-teaming a mission to tear Paul down and win Marianne back for Harry. It’s apparent enough that it’s a wonder anyone ever falls for it. Like I said, Swinton and Fiennes are good enough to convince me — love can be irrational, and I buy that these characters are fully aware that they’ll only hurt one another and just don’t care. Meanwhile, Paul feels as though he’s savvy from the beginning, and there’s no identifiable arc that led me to believe he could possibly be tempted by someone like Penelope (especially since she’s so purposelessly cruel to him).

The second movie apparent within A Bigger Splash is the one I’m still unsure how to feel about. Discussing it in particular depth would require me to broach a few spoilers I think you’re better off not knowing beforehand, so I won’t, beyond saying that it takes an ordinary indie drama and takes it in a wholly new direction. It’s an interesting choice; I just haven’t decided whether I think it’s the right one. I’ll say this — emotionally, I think it works in more or less the way it intends. I’m somewhat more indecisive about its effect on the film as a whole — I’m not sure what it says, how it changes the larger context, how it affects the characters, how it ties into anything important. A Bigger Splash has no consistent emotional center that I was able to discern. It tests a few different ideas but never dives as deeply as it might. I’m not sure what it’s about, in other words, what I’m supposed to think about anything I saw.

Still, as an actor showcase, you could do a lot worse, and most of the scenes at least work on their own terms, despite some spotty character development and an overly obscured perspective. Come for Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes absolutely killing every scene they’re in; stay for the left-field decisions it makes, and because Italian beaches are very pretty.

mv5by2i3mwzmmdetmzyxny00mtjiltg4nmmtmgm2ndfjnzg5mde2l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjmyode4ndu-_v1_uy268_cr40182268_al_Mercy (2016)

Starring- James Wolk, Caitlin FitzGerald, Tom Lipinski, Dan Ziskie, Michael Godere, Michael Vincent Donovan, Constance Barron

Director- Chris Sparling


Siblings in a mixed family return home for a tense reunion as their mother is on her deathbed to discuss the future of the sizable inheritance left to her by her ex-husband. But as darkness falls, they find themselves under siege by a host of masked figures with mysterious intentions.

Netflix. Netflix. Come on. Seriously. No. Just no. I deduct every point I awarded you for Divines. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200. What once promised to be the next frontier in movie distribution has at last become “TV movies, except on your computer.” Who is watching these? Most of them barely make a blip on the cultural radar. Netflix, you produced sequels to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that everyone’s barely aware even exist. I think there are rooms in this country big enough to house absolutely everyone who saw The Siege of Jadotville or, well, this. Why are you buying these? Is it some kind of compulsion? Do you need an intervention?

Mercy is an absolutely edgeless domestic thriller, more concerned with throwing you for a loop than actually involving you in what’s going on. Not that I’m a fan of such things, but it doesn’t even try for the schlocky, violent, B-movie thrills a movie like this would have in the 80s. It’s a complete nothing of the film with no interesting or memorable characters, no compelling ideas, and no personality of its own.

From the outset, it’s obviously going to be a movie with a big twist ending — you don’t hide the identity and motives of the attackers unless it’s meant to be a surprise. Early on, I outlined three possibilities: A) the pleasant surprise, in which the film would manage a twist I didn’t see coming and that worked on its own terms; B) the twist that struck me as most likely given the premise and the type of movie that it is, predictable but not necessarily a threat to the film’s overall quality; and C) the dumbest possible thing I could think of, mainly to amuse myself.

The experience of watching Mercy was mounting amazement as I gradually realized that it was totally setting up the third one. And not even that — that it actually found an even worse version of that twist that I had not even considered as a possibility. The direction the movie goes is neither as disorienting as Now You See Me or as stupid as Hide and Seek, but it’s definitely up there. Rather than changing your understanding of what came before, the movie’s big twist becomes something the audience needs to know beforehand to even begin to understand what’s happening. The character motivations are lost, and the themes are indecipherable and edgeless — the twist doesn’t make you want to watch the movie a second time; it requires that you do so in order to get a grip on what actually happened. Ideally, a twist ending should expand viewers’ understanding of the film, not invalidate their understanding to that point — otherwise, the previous hours will feel wasted.

(And not that it matters, but yes — the twist also doesn’t make sense in terms of how real people would behave in a situation like this.)

The editing doesn’t help. I watched this movie with four people, and there was regular disagreement as to what happened in certain scenes. The action scenes are too dark and fast-paced, and other scenes fail to memorably establish actions the audience needs to remember for later (i.e., there’s a difference between a character casually drinking a beer while talking to someone and a character leaving an item somewhere other characters will find it in the future, and the audience’s attention needs to be directed accordingly).

Might as well end it there. I get that this wasn’t a real review, but my interest in structuring it and finding a central point was pretty limited from the moment the credits rolled. I couldget into the finer details of writing, plotting, acting, and character development, or discuss the central theme of “murder is bad,” but…eh, I don’t want to. It isn’t like you’re paying for this service.

I deeply regret my promise to review all Netflix originals. Please let Barry be good.

SPOILERS FOR THE MORBIDLY CURIOUS: I know everything I said is likely to drive the people fascinated by twist endings to self-destructive decisions, so here are full ending spoilers to satisfy that compulsion: The family members are the bad guys, and the home invaders are the gray-area antiheroes. The doctor who talks to the family patriarch in the beginning and delivers medicine he begs them to administer to the ailing mother is their leader; the others are the mother’s church friends. That medicine is not, as the movie suggests, designed to humanely end her suffering; it’s actually a treatment that will save her life. The family knows this and is refusing to use it because they want her to die so all her money will pass to them. The attackers didn’t intend to kill anyone, only to break in at night and save the mother; the plan just went awry and ended in violence. Why they didn’t just go to the police and report that a family was knowingly withholding life-saving treatment from their mother because they wanted her to die remains a mystery. So basically, the movie is 90 minutes of cryptic conversations and buried motivations that seem like characters responding to a situation as stupidly as possible, and the fact that the ending lends context that technically explains all of that doesn’t make it any less the case. I don’t think any ending will ever be capable of justifying the rest of the movie being boring and confusing. The weird thing is that the movie never uses the escape hatch it sets up for itself — the girlfriend of one of the brothers, who is just now meeting this family for the first time. She could easily have been a perspective character whose motives we understand and trust, someone to guide us through the maze. It wouldn’t make the twist any less absurd but would at least make it play better emotionally. But her boyfriend tells her everything off-screen and she just accepts it, making her inclusion in the movie completely pointless.

I don’t like this movie very much.

hell_or_high_water_film_posterHell or High Water (2016)

Starring- Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham

Director- David Mackenzie

R- some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality


Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard take up robbing banks to save their childhood home from foreclosure. Their well planned and executed crime spree soon captures the attention of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), an aging Texas ranger who sees it as a good excuse to stave off retirement one more day.

Is it blasphemous that I think Hell or High Water is very, very good but not great? The latter seems to be the overwhelming consensus, but I’m just not there yet. And really, maybe the problem isn’t that the movie fails to reach greatness so much as steps into really big shoes it isn’t quite ready to fill.

Quite a lot of what’s in it is great. The acting, for instance — Ben Foster doing nothing particularly far removed from his wheelhouse but doing it very well; Chris Pine continuing to prove that we may have underestimated him; and Jeff Bridges dialing down Rooster Cogburn’s harder edges and dialing up his sense of humor (while keeping the mush-mouthed nigh-incomprehensibility of his dialect — it’s something I’m tempted to complain about, but as someone who lives in an area with a disproportionately large population of elderly rural men, I can confirm that a lot of them talk exactly like this and that Bridges imitates it so well as to make it seem like his own experience).

All the better that the three of them play very well rounded and believable characters with clearly understandable perspectives and motives, almost all of them established subtly, through action, rather than heavy-handed exposition. Of the brothers, Toby is the smart one who’s lived cleanly, for the most part, and doesn’t like what he’s doing now — he’s the good man doing a bad thing because he sees no other way out of his circumstances, the character whose soul is the most at stake as the story unfolds. Tanner’s the problem child, fresh out of prison, who clearly gets a rush out of everything and constantly threatens to send things spiraling out of control; his only redeeming characteristic is his sincere devotion to his brother. Opposite them is Hamilton, who is weary but not ready to go to sleep yet, someone who no longer takes pleasure in his work but is afraid of what the alternative would mean. He’s a little lighter of spirit than Bridges’ previous boozy cowboys and has a little more self-control as well but is still very much a wayward spirit looking out upon the world and not finding much to like.

The movie is able to devote plentiful time to getting to know each of them — outside of the main trio, the only other important character is Hamilton’s partner, played by Gil Birmingham, who is a distinct character in his own right but even then functions mainly as a sounding board for Bridges. It’s a bit of a slow mover, and the two subplots don’t connect until the end, but the movie uses that time wisely, sketching everything and everyone in vibrant, lifelike detail. Some of these characters are better people than others, but the movie never allows any of them to completely vacate our sympathies, even at the height of their moral failings. It’s clear-eyed about these things, of course; there’s no attempt at moral equivalence between what they’re doing. It just treats all of them like human beings and forces you to empathize. The rangers and the brothers represent two halves of a story in which you have equal investment, and the inevitable moment where they meet becomes a matter of dread rather than excitement — there’s no anticipating the bloodshed here. Director David Mackenzie is fully aware of that and uses every trick at his disposal to wring every last drop of tension out of the premise — there’s a shot during the climax that may rate as the year’s most gleefully insufferable.

Never let it be said that the movie’s a dark, unsettling slog, however. Being that the “modern-day Western” has thus far tended to be a grim genre and that the premise and promotional materials didn’t exactly suggest high-flying fun at the movies, it surprised me how entertaining this movie was in parts. Make no mistake — it’s a drama, and a largely realistic one, and there’s a bit more darkness than light on display, but it has a dry, playful sense of humor that made me laugh far more often than I expected to watching a movie called Hell or High Water. Interestingly enough, that humor contributes to the film’s realism more than it detracts (if it detracts at all) — the comedy often comes from its refusal to indulge the tropes we’ve come to expect from the “cops and robbers” framework; it isn’t afraid to take the piss out of these characters when the opportunity presents itself.

So, why don’t I love it? I wish I could bring it down to something more concrete than this, but honestly, I think it’s because I’ve seen similar movies do more or less the same thing but better. Hell or High Water’s closest cinematic cousin is No Country for Old Men, and that definitely isn’t the movie to approach if you don’t want to live in anything’s shadow. They’re not exactly the same, obviously; Hell or High Water isn’t half as dark or violent, and it lacks the mythic quality of that film’s storytelling, which featured Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell as the ultimate good and Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh as the unfeeling avatar of evil. Hell or High Water opts for something a touch more grounded. But the similarities are stark. They’re both modern-day Westerns; they’re both spare, similar in style, and focus on a small class without many meaningful supporting players; they’re both about criminals and the lawmen in pursuit of them; and they both approach that premise as a movie with multiple main storylines that only briefly intersect. Most importantly, they’re thematically very similar — old men looking at the world, thinking about what they’ve lost and the way things are going and wondering what the future holds not only for them but the generations who will take the reins in their wake. And I think No Country for Old Men does it much better — the themes are more deeply felt and integral to the story being told. Hell or High Water, for me, had a fundamental disconnect between the themes and the story; its message feels tangential, expressed through dialogue that has only the faintest relationship with the problems the characters are facing more immediately. It’s all there, and you can see what the film is trying to say and how, but it just never connected with me emotionally. I was moved by the story itself and the scene-to-scene emotions it draws upon, but the larger purpose was always hovering just beyond my reach. I could see what it was; it just didn’t register.

Still, if I haven’t made it clear, Hell or High Water is very, very good, and a lot of people smarter than me think it’s outright great; either way, it warrants a strong recommendation. Great performances, great characters, and strong — if, in my opinion, imperfect — storytelling make for one of the year’s most memorable films.

divines_2016Divines (2016)

Starring- Oulaya Amamra, Deborah Lukumuena, Kevin Mischel, Jisca Kalvanda, Yasin Houicha, Majdouline Idrissi

Director- Houda Benyamina


Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Deborah Lukumeuna), a pair of impoverished teens from outside Paris, start working for the local drug dealer for their shot at the high life.

Divines isn’t the first good movie Netflix has released — more like the third or fourth, depending on your taste — but it’s the first since Beasts of No Nation to be both good andinteresting, to cultivate its own voice and try to say something unique from a very specific point of view. And it’s only the third (after Tallulah, which I think is good but in a really perfunctory, predictable way) whose positive qualities don’t seem like an accident. Do I think it’s great? Not really, but I’ll take it.

It would be great if it remained committed to its uniqueness. Its main problem is that it does, in the end, succumb to formula and play out all the old familiar beats.

Fortunately, for the most part, it’s another strong argument that if you want better, more original movies, look for the storytellers who previously haven’t been able to make them — women, people of color, people whose perspectives have not been thoroughly explored on the big screen. Divines succeeds because even though its story eventually slides into a rut it never really gets out of, there’s a complex worldview undergirding all of it, informing its feelings about what it’s showing you and putting enough of a fresh twist on things to make it all worthwhile. It ends up being a bit of a stereotypical cautionary tale of youth in revolt flirting with disaster, and even starts grasping for crime film tropes it isn’t ready to handle, but its attitude toward all of that is complicated: It never judges its characters, even when they most deserve it; yes, what they’re doing is wrong, it says, but who’s really offering them an alternative? Early in the film, our protagonist, Dounia, flies off the handle in a receptionist class, pointing out that there’s no money in it and demanding to know how much the instructor makes. The most these kids, otherwise bereft of decent educational and career opportunities, are being asked to aspire to are dead-end jobs that require little skill, offer little fulfillment, and pay just enough to keep the lights on.

The movie finds an ideal middle ground where it’s honest about its characters’ circumstances but doesn’t make them hapless victims entirely in the hands of others. It holds its characters responsible for their actions, but empathizes with them and understands that the right path would be extraordinarily difficult and most likely would never give them the lives they want. It admirably never condescends to them by portraying the moral alternative to what they’re doing as a guaranteed road to a comfortable home, a loving family, and no worries about whether there’ll be food on the table; it simply portrays it as the only way, not an easy road and not one that’ll always have a happy ending, just the best shot. If anything, I think that in adhering to certain formulas, it comes down too hard on the other side, betraying its characters and their established development to guide them into pronounced darkness and despair as a result of bad decisions. No one would make the choices they make if it didn’t work out sometimes, and I would have liked for the movie to better explore that idea, to fully understand why the characters see what they’re doing as the only way — to an extent, they’re right.

Fortunately, the movie’s generally solid cast muscles its way through the rougher parts of the story, and I’d be remiss not to call specific attention to Oulaya Amamra in the lead role. Small foreign-language films tend not to be stepping stones toward major international stardom, but I hope the world will make an exception in this case because Amamra is absolutely a star in the making. There’s a lot of range in her role, to the extent that the movie could double as an audition tape for the rest of her life. Divines is a story of crime and punishment, but it’s also partly a coming-of-age story about teenage girls finding themselves and their place in the world. That allows Amamra to wear a lot of hats before the credits roll, and she does so near flawlessly. Dounia requires equal parts serious acting and movie-star charisma; there’s an “ugly” side and a “beautiful side.” On the one hand, there’s the grit and determination of a kid raised in abject poverty who’s decided not to die there, too; on the other, there’s the likability and sweetness of a young adult who, despite her circumstances, is, in a way, still innocent, chasing young love and exploring the joys life has to offer. The role is a balancing act of vulnerability and magnetism, and Amamra knows exactly which to favor in each scene. If for no other reason, see Divines so you can say you were a fan before she was famous, on the off-chance that actually happens.

The movie otherwise is fine, nothing particularly special, but it showcases a lot of potential for many of the parties involved. It’s the sort of movie I hope Netflix focuses its efforts on — the little indies that would never find a major platform otherwise. It isn’t good enough to find significant support on the awards circuit or a critical following that will promote it in the right film circles, but it is good enough that everyone ought to know the names of the people involved for future reference, and for that reason, I’m glad Netflix decided to take a chance on it.

Now everyone watch it so I don’t have to review Adam Sandler movies anymore.

fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_posterFantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Starring- Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight, Josh Cowdery, Ronan Raftery, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Zoe Kravitz

Director- David Yates

PG-13- some fantasy action violence


In 1926, wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) sails to New York in pursuit of more magical creatures to fill his book — and the case he carries with him, which conceals a portal to an enclosed world full of his “pets.” His goal is to reach out to witches and wizards across the world and persuade them to treat his beloved animals with respect. However, upon arrival, he inadvertently switches cases with a human, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who opens it and unwittingly releases a horde of confused beasts upon an unsuspecting New York City. Now, it’s up to the two of them, as well as disgraced former officer of the American wizarding community Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), to recapture Newt’s creatures before the damage becomes irreparable.

My opinion on the main series Harry Potter movies ranges from “eh” (Order of the Phoenix) to “great” (Prisoner of Azkaban), and the first installment in its new cinematic spin-off series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, falls perfectly into that spectrum, being somewhat flawed, deliberately incomplete, and also pretty good in a number of respects. Basically, it’s all right and leaves future installments with a lot of potential, which is to say that it’s more or less on the level of the majority of the main series films.

Your reaction to Fantastic Beasts will be heavily dependent on your receptiveness to its charms, and the best measuring stick will be your reaction to the first installment in the main series, The Sorcerer’s Stone. It resembles that movie in a number of respects, being somewhat more lighthearted and playful than the last few Harry Potter films and playing loosely on the narrative end of things. In the scope of the series as a whole, the purpose of The Sorcerer’s Stone was mainly to establish the world and mess around in it for a while; it’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie that doesn’t really have a plot until the last thirty minutes. Fantastic Beasts, by comparison, isn’t quite that loose, but it’s similar nonetheless. Most of it is light and fun, centered on a trio of fairly humorous characters having wild misadventures chasing after a series of genuinely bizarre magical creatures that are largely harmless and non-threatening. There’s real darkness bubbling in the background, focused on subplots involving MAGUSA, the United States’ answer to the previous films’ Ministry of Magic, and its iron-fisted aurors, as well as a group of humans hoping to emulate their forebears in Salem by exterminating the witches and wizards among them, and it is, for what it’s worth, much darker than anything in the early Harry Potter movies. But it’s largely disconnected from the A-plot until the climax and leaves the movie free to explore the imaginative joys of its world.

For once, I didn’t mind watching the movie do its own thing and leave narrative propulsion somewhat by the wayside. Partially, that’s because it distracts from its story in ways that are mostly entertaining; mostly, it’s because I liked its characters so much. David Yates may have directed — and the movie certainly bears his washed-out aesthetic, which doesn’t always work in conjunction with its tone — but this is a J.K. Rowling movie, through and through. Her first screenwriting venture proves to be pretty similar to her novels — she’s a world builder and character writer who likes to sit down with the things she’s created and allow them to run their course, to deepen the people in them and imagine new sights and sounds for them to experience in the universe they inhabit. If a story gets told in the middle of that, all the better. It’s clear at this point that she plays the long game as a writer — her individual works feel meandering because of the way they stick to the characters and world through thick and thin, and it’s only in the context of the larger series that you start to see the story take shape.

That can be a problem for the movies/books themselves but can make them a heck of a great marathon when you understand the ultimate purpose of all that extraneous character detail. The challenge is to keep the somewhat arbitrarily connected elements of the individual stories fresh and interesting, and it’s one I think she’s usually met.

So Fantastic Beasts kind of wanders in circles, and very little that happens in it is strictly necessary, but it’s fun, and I enjoyed spending time with the new characters. The main trio of Newt, Kowalski, and Tina is reminiscent of the original series’ Harry, Ron, and Hermione in that they somewhat adhere to types, but Rowling finds a way to allow them to feel like real people within their categories and to seed them with nuance that elevates them above their roles. Newt is the hero but would probably be the sidekick in anything else — nebbishy, awkward, self-aware enough to know that he annoys people. Kowalski is the Ron to his Harry, a fairly typical sidekick personality as the bumbling comic relief, but there’s something real there, too — he and Newt have a shared capacity for wonder that the other characters lack, and they bond very organically over that. Then, Tina is less the Hermione and more the girl who really wants to be Hermione — she wants to be a hard-edged enforcer but has a soft center and not quite enough personal control. She and Newt live somewhere in between love interests and just friends, and it’s a credit to Rowling’s writing that either one works.

Meanwhile, the movie adds a lot of new facets to the world Harry Potter introduced us to, and there’s great potential for future films to really do something with them. One thing that interests me about Rowling as a writer is her ability to tell black and white fantasy tales while simultaneously flirting with a certain moral ambiguity that makes them complex without becoming compromised. The same holds true in Fantastic Beasts — MAGUSA, perhaps even more so than the Ministry of Magic, has a dark, authoritarian side that abuses its power and responds to the changing world with too much unthinking rigidity. The main series began as an extremely straightforward heroes vs. villains story with a traditional “hero’s journey arc” and characters who fit their roles pretty squarely; as it went on, however, it complicated things. It’s how the story began with Dumbledore as the pinnacle-of-goodness mentor, wise, fatherly, good-humored, and warm, and ended with him as a complex figure knowingly raising the main character for the slaughter since it’s the only way to defeat the darkness that threatens them. Rowling is able to play the myth straight while subverting it at every turn; in my mind, this is her foremost talent. And I can already see how Fantastic Beasts is laying the groundwork to do exactly the same thing.

It’s definitely high-risk gambit, though. You can probably see the problem that emerges on the way — Fantastic Beasts contains a lot of potentially interesting setup that isn’t actually paid off in the movie, and its long-term reputation is going to depend heavily upon its relationship with four additional films that we haven’t seen yet. It has a lot going for it in the moment, but by the time the credits roll, little has been satisfactorily resolved. I think it also has an in-the-moment problem of its themes existing mainly in the subplots and not in the main one — there’s a subtle connection between Newt’s desire for the rest of the wizarding world to accept his fantastic beasts as he has and the rest of the movie’s focus on a Carrie-style “repression always ends poorly” message, but there’s an obvious difference in emotional potency between the two (side note: Based on this movie, I feel confident in predicting that the answer to the question of whether future installments will allow Dumbledore to be openly gay is a firm yes; while Fantastic Beasts is about repression more generally, it’s absolutely signaling audiences toward LGBT teens in particular, and the way it handles these issues has me very excited for the series’ long-term future — it may be just the tonic we need right now).

Like I said, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is basically a slightly darker redo of The Sorcerer’s Stone, in the generalities if not quite the specifics. It’s a lot of fun, fantastical mucking around followed by a short burst of darker, more emotionally intense storytelling, transparently designed mainly for the purpose of setting up the rest of the story. If you hate that movie, you’ll probably hate this. Personally, I like the world Rowling has created, I like her skills with her characters, and I found myself more than content with what Fantastic Beasts had to offer, albeit not necessarily thrilled by its quality as a standalone film. I think the fans will be happy.

alice_through_the_looking_glass_2016_film_posterAlice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

Starring- Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsey Duncan, Leo Bill, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Paul Whitehouse, Stephen Fry, Barbara Windsor, Michael Sheen

Director- James Bobin

PG- fantasy action/peril and some language


Alice’s (Mia Wasikowska) Wonderland friends call her back to the magical kingdom when the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) goes even madder after discovering a clue that his family, long thought dead, may still be alive. To spare him the grief that has turned him sickly and bedridden, Alice enters the castle of Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and steals a device that allows her to return to the past, where she hopes to prevent the fate that befell the Hatter’s family — unknowingly setting off a chain reaction that threatens to unravel the fabric of space and time.

I’m not completely convinced Alice Through the Looking Glass isn’t a weird dream I had a few nights ago. It certainly feels that way. I think everyone spent the lead-up to this movie thinking it couldn’t possibly be worse than the first one, so ponder what it means when I say that it is, and by a fairly substantial margin.

I carry the shame of having written a positive review of Alice in Wonderland when it first came out, mitigated somewhat by the fact that I was nineteen and easily impressed by fantasy creatures hitting each other with swords. That enthusiasm has, eh, let’s say mellowed somewhat in the interim. To an extent, I appreciate the sheer weirdness of Tim Burton’s vision for it while recognizing that it has no storytelling instincts and that someone needed to call foul on a few of its big-name director’s ideas — mostly the ones that involved generating textureless cartoons and then pasting creepy human faces onto them. Helena Bonham Carter has a giant CGI head! Crispin Glover’s had his head pasted onto a computer render of Jack Skellington’s body! There are two of Matt Lucas, and both of them look like fat demon children! That sort of thing. If there was one thing I liked about the look of the first movie, it was the overall aesthetic — the darkly whimsical visuals Burton practically trademarked, somehow both colorful and muted.

Helming the sequel, it appears as though James Bobin’s instincts were to de-Burtonize it a little. The problem: The worst of Alice in Wonderland’s visuals are embedded in the character designs and can’t easily be parted with unless you’re going to have everyone in the movie ignore that they all look different. The end result is a sequel that drops the interesting art direction but keeps every single one of the eyesores — and adds a half-dozen new ones. The effects seem shoddy, the new characters and environments are much less interesting, and Bobin absolutely smothers everything in extremely artificial sunlight, so bright and cheery that it becomes immediately sinister, and never to any effect that appears to be intentional. Alice Through the Looking Glass plays on the subconscious something fierce and never in a way that particularly harmonizes with the story.

Which also, for the record, isn’t that great. Alice Through the Looking Glass is is the second consecutive sequel I’ve reviewed that seems somewhat dismayed to exist. That may be the effect of the returning cast, most of whom appear to be very much over all of this, especially Anne Hathaway, whose every line trails off with an implicit “Or something, I don’t know.” I’m not sure if Johnny Depp doesn’t care or if he’s straining to find some new variety of weirdness in his repertoire that just doesn’t exist; either way, the Mad Hatter is even more a caricature than he was in the first movie, all quirky, over-the-top reactions and no genuine emotion whatsoever — which is, perhaps, how the Mad Hatter ought to be, but then these movies decided to make him a central figure and build the entire sequel around his motivations. But the story would be a bit of a non-event even with full cast engagement. I sometimes wonder if sequels like this seem bored with themselves only because of their obligation to their predecessors, which weren’t written with further stories in mind. The filmmakers are saddled with an art direction, a cast of characters who all must put in appearances and have some involvement in the story, a predecessor with no threads to pick up. There are a lot of arbitrary limitations going in, which makes it difficult to craft something that feels fresh and necessary.

So, Alice Through the Looking Glass brings back almost everyone from the first movie, and very few of them get to do anything. It’s saddled with a protagonist who pretty much self-actualized at the end of the previous installment and therefore has no particularly compelling arc. The wonders of its fantasy world have already been discovered, so it’s reintroduced matter-of-factly and paid no mind. We find Alice in the real world facing exclusively external problems (that her development over the film brings to no organic resolution), in need of no personal change; suddenly, she’s warped back to Wonderland, where all of the old characters say, “Hi, I exist!” and then disappear while she heads off on an obligatory solo adventure.

Regardless of its difficult position, Alice Through the Looking Glass owns a few of the flaws in its story. A time travel story in Wonderland ought to result in plenty of charmingly weird adventures, but the only thing the movie finds for her to do is go back to the past, bump into another character’s younger self, find out she actually needs to go back to a different time, repeat until all the threads connect and force things into something resembling an ending. None of the characters are given any emotional grounding; the movie sets up thematic undercurrents early on that struck me as potentially clever, but it immediately loses them in the mayhem of its plot. It probably says something that I have no memory of what those themes were. Too many scenes are largely pointless or quickly forgotten — for example, the scene where Time drops in on one of the Mad Hatter’s tea parties in pursuit of Alice and traps them in a time loop before resuming the chase. Never referenced again.

Seeing the success he had with (in my opinion) both of the recent Muppet movies, part of me wonders if Bobin is perhaps better-suited to slower, more non-narrative hangout movies that aren’t as heavy on the visual effects. Those movies gave me reason for optimism about Alice Through the Looking Glass, which obviously didn’t pan out. It’s a different beast, with breakneck pacing; a large cast of characters that amount to about three or four minutes of screentime apiece and mostly don’t get to do anything; and a bizarre aesthetic it’s unlikely anybody other than Tim Burton could do a thing with. Alice Through the Looking Glass is ill-advised from the ground up, and I’m starting to wonder if that’s all it ever could have been.

independence-day-2-posterIndependence Day: Resurgence (2016)

Starring- Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Sela Ward, William Fichtner, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Patrick St. Esprit, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Deobia Oparei, Nicolas Wright, Travis Tope, Chin Han, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Robert Loggia, John Storey, Joey King, Jenna Purdy, Garrett Wareing, Hays Wellford, Mckenna Grace

Director- Roland Emmerich

PG-13- sequences of sci-fi action and destruction, and some language


Twenty years after humanity first repelled an intergalactic invasion, the aliens return for Round Two, this time sending a single ship over 3,000 miles in diameter to destroy the Earth’s core.

Ugh, I was wrong. It is November 2016, and movies are not great again.

Did Roland Emmerich actually want to make this movie? I wouldn’t exactly ascribe “serious artistry” to the guy, but there’s a certain energy and a certain sense of actually trying to his other movies that’s completely missing from Independence Day: Resurgence. It’s a decades-later sequel to a major blockbuster that seems angry about having been made to exist. I’m sure Emmerich has always been down for an Independence Day sequel — he’s set himself up for more than one here and has been tossing the idea around for as long as I’ve been meaningfully aware of film culture. I just wonder if it was this sequel. I wonder if Resurgence is the (studio-mandated) vegetables (that aren’t good for you) that we have to eat in order to get to the sequels that swear they’ll be much more fun and interesting, cross their heart and hope to die.

Because Resurgence proceeds with such an overwhelming sense of obligation that it feels like it’s asking you to go do something better with your time — just give us money so we can maybe make something worthwhile in three or four years.

I’m not a fan of the first one, though Resurgence has made it age very well in retrospect. Still, it was trying, and there were a number of respects in which it succeeded. It rarely got around to establishing a purpose to its story and characters and struggled to structure them in a compelling way, but it obviously cared about them. It was invested in the events unfolding on screen. It tried to capture the chaos, confusion, fear, and wonder of aliens suddenly appearing over the world’s major cities. There was a sense of genuine loss when those cities were destroyed. It allowed the characters to band together in desperation to mount a last-ditch counteroffensive with the fate of the world at stake.

Resurgence could be loosely described as “exactly the same movie as the first, except worse.” That’s the problem with a major “event” movie that wasn’t written with sequels in mind — you either have to do something entirely different the second time around, which makes the marketing people antsy, or you have to resign yourself to making something that’s essentially “that time the same exact thing happened again except less interesting.”

Resurgence is super resigned. It hews pretty closely to the first one’s formula. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re worried about spoilers, because I’m about to outline this whole thing: set-up, build-up (far shorter and less tens than the first time), massive global destruction, everybody goes to Area 51 and yells about science and strategy for a while, first counteroffensive involving fighter jets fails spectacularly, the characters formulate a new plan with the clock ticking, there’s an aerial battle over the Nevada desert that results in human victory after a major character’s noble self-sacrifice, the end. The only difference is that the movie is utterly incapable of giving weight to any of its stakes. The characters have all done this before — humanity has advanced its technology and prepared for exactly this eventuality. They aren’t ready for everything, but when the attack begins, the major characters have some idea how to respond and do so much more competently than the first time around. As the initial strategies fail, they revert to fallbacks. The tagline said, “We had twenty years to prepare. So did they,” but near as I can tell, that isn’t true in any appreciable sense —  other than having a bigger ship, the aliens appear to be playing more or less the same hand. Everyone’s calmer, almost to an unreasonable degree — Jeff Goldblum finds it appropriate to quip about aliens loving to destroy landmarks while watching an entire city get wiped off the face of the Earth. Emmerich goes for CGI spectacle over humanity in these scenes, so the movie doesn’t have the same sense of devastation the first did. On top of that, the aliens mostly sit on their hands after the initial attack, waiting for the climax to take effect, so the tension drains right out of it. Nothing speaks to the movie’s detachment so much as — MUCH BIGGER SPOILERS — the way it kills off major characters from its predecessor and then immediately forgets about them. One of those deaths comes during the climax, and after it ends, instead of addressing that event in any way, it starts gleefully setting up the next sequel without resolving a thing or at least bringing some sense of closure.

It’s clear that the sequel intends to take the show off of Earth and find the humans taking the fight to the aliens. That’s what this movie should have been, and there’s no reason why not. This whole movie feels like filler, inexplicably steering away from being the sequel people might actually enjoy seeing.

It otherwise carries over Emmerich’s usual flaws — namely, his tendency to fill his movies with bafflingly large numbers of characters who turn out to be meaningless in the overall scheme of things (one returning character in Resurgence commands an entire subplot that never once intersects with the main storyline until the last possible second, and then to no effect whatsoever). And while the character writing is more or less as average as it was the first time around, the movie no longer benefits from its predecessor’s charismatic cast, all of whom either didn’t reprise their parts or got shuffled into supporting roles. They’ve been replaced with a main cast of younger faces, some of whom might (and have been) be more memorable with different or better material but here are a total vacuum of screen presence.

The only thing I really enjoyed was the premise. It’s actually occurred to me in the past that a post-post-apocalypse movie would be a good idea — we’ve seen the alien invasion; what happens after the invasion? So the idea of an alternate present where we encountered hostile aliens and got our hands on their technology twenty years ago intrigues me. I just wish it happened in a better movie, one that would more efficiently explore its world instead of wasting all that time introducing a thousand pointless characters.

Independence Day: Resurgence is a sequel destined, and seemingly resigned, to being a footnote — like the Psycho sequels no one remembers. It is absolutely soulless and hardly seems bothered by it. Its foremost accomplishment is making its predecessor look much, much better.