1 September 2016

Summer 2016

Remember when summer movie season used to be fun? That time when you'd anticipate what exciting, thrilling wonders Hollywood would offer up for your viewing pleasure? Unfortunately those times are very obviously long gone. Now there's much less to anticipate as we're fed a continual glut of blockbusters and (this year in particular) a surfeit of sequels. If you'd gone into summer 2016 full of hope and expectation you'd have very quickly realised that was a futile approach. This year it was perhaps more noticeable than ever that the desperate strategy of releasing overblown, ridiculously-budgeted films virtually every week just leads to audience fatigue and diminishing financial returns. Quite how the industry finds a way to curtail this over-saturation creep I do not know, but here's hoping some lessons are starting to be learnt, and that the quality really starts to pick back up too.

This then is the summer in summary, based on the new releases I watched. If you want the handful of longer form reviews I wrote, they're here... the very good: Star Trek Beyond ... the disappointing: Captain America: Civil War / Jason Bourne / Suicide Squad 

X-Men: Apocalypse


 
The X-Men franchise appears to be in a difficult place. It's tried to focus on it's most popular character a couple of times, and it's tried to move on by introducing younger iterations of the core characters. Yet for previous film Years of Future Past, it had to bring some of the old cast back unnecessarily. So where next? Here's part two of just the younger iterations. This constant changing up is certainly making it harder to be invested in the series unfortunately. The young cast do a god job with these characters and it feels like they were given short thrift in that last film so it's good to focus on them here. Yet we still end up with Magneto's desire to get revenge on everyone being a main plot device... yet again. How they handle what sets him down that path this time works well in the context of those scenes, but you're just left wanting something different. Which happily comes in the form of Oscar Isaac's prosthetisis heavy Apocalypse. The back-story and approach to taking over the world is far more interesting, as is the exultant menace he exudes. It's thanks to this storyline and character that I enjoyed Apocalypse way more than the convoluted Days of Future Past. This is certainly not the series at its best, but it still offered a fun two hours.


The Nice Guys


Shane Black. That there alone is the reason to watch The Nice Guys nevermind the great casting of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as private eyes in the seventies. This was a film that promised something along the lines of his really rather good Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, plus more of his sparklingly acerbic writing. It did not disappoint, even if it's not quite as good as that aforementioned film. It tells an interesting, if faintly ridiculous story, with conviction. The Crowe / Gosling duo play off each other and spar superbly, whilst Angourie Rice steals the show. Plus it's pretty damn funny too. So what we have here is an honest to goodness film aimed squarely at adults, featuring two recognisable movie stars, lacking both superheroes and massive scenes of digitally composed destruction, released smack bang in the middle of summer. With a film as good as this, it's hard to say that summer doesn't give.


The Conjuring 2



It's impressive how James Wan has positioned himself as the mainstream horror name to pay attention too. As co-creator and director of the superb Saw, he instantly established his name as someone to watch. Interestingly he eschewed directing anymore of that series, but is directing sequels to his more recent films Insidious is still one of the best horror's of recent years, which he followed with the decent and well executed The Conjuring. This sequel follows the same tack of focusing on an actual documented mystery (the Enfield hauntings) with superb work again from Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the paranormal investigators. The way the story is assembled and put together is always engaging, and Wan presents scares and scenes of horror with an impactful verve they're memorably shot thanks to his very good visual eye. It's all about the slow build, and that works so much better for a film like this. Whereas Insidious 2 felt like it undid the superb work of the first film, The Conjuring 2 builds on its predecessor leaving the desire to find out what case it's going to tackle next. Box office success suggests another is likely, and fingers crossed Wan comes back to that after his Aquaman adventures.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows



As flawed as the 2013 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film is, I hate to say I quite enjoyed it. It completely and utterly got by on the charm of the voicework / script for the four brothers, something that continues in this sequel albeit with seemingly forced conflict because we can't be trusted to enjoy a group of heroes just getting on. But that previous film is certainly one-upped in both the action stakes, and the story side. The story is more interesting (good use of Bebop and Rocksteady) whilst the action is more fun and grander come the conclusion. This is not high art and it has no pretension to be anything more than it is and what that is I certainly enjoyed. But I remain as ever perplexed at how Tyler Perry keeps getting acting work – if there's a worse actor out there I certainly don't know of them!


Independence Day: Resurgence



The logic that goes into creating some sequels is confusing. Back in 1996 Independence Day made a shit-ton of money and was something of a blockbuster game changer. Right film, right era. But things have changed and a sequel after that many years, pinned on an irrelevant anniversary, seems foolhardy. Even more so deciding to proceed with all of the original cast bar Will Smith, arguably the one member needed to make this a success (regardless of the delight at seeing Jeff Goldblum in a semi-lead role in such a big modern Hollywood film!). It's as simple as this... I enjoyed Independence Day: Resurgence. I'm not prepared to defend it as a good film as it is overblown, unoriginal, unimaginative filmmaking. That it never really slows down after the first twenty minutes keeps you with it, although it's somewhat ironic that the cgi is of a far better quality, but much less impressive this time round. Fortunately it's not likely we'll get another one.


The Secret Life of Pets



A true high-concept animation why no-one sought to bring this to screen before I do not know because it's a winning idea. That it takes this fun idea and turns it into a run-of-the-mill story is a tad disappointing, but it succeeds on the strength of its characters. It's ultimately a madcap comedy with a bit of message, that although quality wise never feels quite on par with the likes of Zootopia or Finding Dory, is a heap of fun.


Now You See Me 2



This I was quietly pleased to go watch. The first film entertained me solidly for a couple of hours s good concept, well executed, was not bothered at how convoluted it got or about the detail. But as is typical of a film of that nature, it's hard to replicate without disappearing down a rabbit hole. Now You See Me 2 is certainly less interesting, less well executed and lacking the sense of fresh wonder. The cast may look like they're having fun and give it some energy, but the plotting is uninspired, the locations add little, culminating in the ultimate "that's it!?" / could care less finale. But sometimes all you want on a Friday night trip to the cinema is to watch something ephemeral some undemanding, vaguely familiar but forgettable entertainment, which this film excels at.


The Legend of Tarzan

  
There's a lot of potential within The Legend of Tarzan and it mostly delivers. Alexander Skarsg√•rd fits the role neatly - he's got the physicality and a quiet wariness that keeps him brooding one moment, opening up the next and then running through the jungle like a madman, even though his accent jars at times. If you can ignore the subtle rewrites of history in favour of British colonialism, the story is balanced well – we are given a fairly short origins layered amidst the main story, without dragging out the prospect of us seeing Tarzan being Tarzan. Sure, Christoph Waltz plays the what is now archetypal Christoph Waltz villain (still a satisfying cliche), but I remain unsure as what point Samuel L. Jackson's character served, beyond some very mild light relief. This was an entertaining film and there's a lot more to potentially offer here. 


The Neon Demon


This is a Nicholas Winding Refn film through and through. Hell, his monogram is all over it. Thus you know what you are getting, or perhaps that should be, you can visualise some obtuse ballpark of what you are getting. The Neon Demon is indulgent, arrogant filmmaking. It is a troubling, Dionysiac journey into a world where outright beauty is the only item of value. It unnervingly leaves your expectations running wild before ripping them apart in unexpectedly disturbing ways. It's visual beauty is starkly intoxicating as a pounding synth-led soundtrack gratifyingly overwhelms the senses. It feels like Suspiria transplanted to the cold, emotionally dead hollows of Los Angeles. It leaves you wanting more... just a tantalising little extra taste more... but you know this is not good for the soul.


Ghostbusters


One of the most enjoyable film of the summer, not that the trailer gave that impression at all. Did we need another Ghostbusters? Of course not. But does it work thanks to the essentials that help make a film good – you know, a quality script, decent casting and chemistry amongst the leads yes it does. There's a bit of separation anxiety as it tries to half recreate the original 1984 film whilst also pulling away on its own path, but when it does the latter it's at its best. Throw in some superb effects work and 3D that actually compliments the on-screen action (which is saying a lot considering my general disdain for the format), and you've got a very entertaining film, with great potential for a sequel. And to the haters who inexplicably dislike the female casting / say it ruins their childhood grow the fuck up. 


The BFG


The BFG is the latest film to prove that we're still not technologically there yet when it comes to creating humans in a computer. There's still a yawning gap in the uncanny valley. Now you could say the BFG is not human, but he's humanoid enough (ie not looking enough like a fantastical creature) for this to be a major issue – you just don't get anything from the character, very little emotion beyond vocal intonations or anything relatable, which is a shame (and not Mark Rylance's fault). It doesn't help that Ruby Barnhill is very good as Sophie, making the gulf even greater. And then there's the realisation that the BFG's mis-heard, playful language may be fun for a kid to hear, or an adult to read, but after ten minutes in the cinema it just becomes tiresome. A boring film that doesn't really work, and further proof of how the last ten years really have been a very very long way from Spielberg's best. 


Finding Dory


The Pixar dichotomy – the original films are so good that you want to see more from their respective worlds, but who needs sequels when they can so readily offer up such high-quality originals? They seem to be entering a run of sequels, which is not the most inspiring prospect (no matter how good the Toy Story films are, we don't need a fourth), with Finding Dory seemingly being the first of this phase. Finding Nemo may not be the best Pixar film but it feels like one of their most quintessential, and with such a focused story it left scope for more exploration of this world. Yet at face value the story for Finding Dory seems like a copy of the original. Fortunately it's so much more, quickly getting to a locale that is ripe for entertainment value offering a slew of new, excellent characters. This leads to a funnier, more entertaining film than the original, with an even stronger emotional payoff. Let's be honest, it's no surprise that Pixar delivers one of the very best films of the summer.


Lights Out


James Wan part 2 - this time he takes on a producers role and it's kind of a shame, because there's a kernal of a good idea within Lights Out but what we have here is a pretty generic modern horror. It struggles to create much in the way of tension (although I'm sure the woman sitting a couple of seats down from me would strongly disagree), and is too content to follow the lazy horror trap of, sudden burst of music / noise means something scary is on screen so jump now please. Not to mention the frustrating nonsensicalness of some of the things that happen on-screen, even when you're supposed to take it all with a pinch of salt. But relying on the contrast of light to dark, especially when your object of fear mostly remains a menacing shape in the shadows, is enough to keep you with it for the fortunately short run time. However you can't help but think though that in more seasoned hands, this could've been a really effective little horror film.