Thursday, June 23, 2016

Quick Movie Review: Independence Day (1996)





Roland Emmerich has his hands all over this film--which isn't a bad thing. Up until July of 1996, the best special effects we'd seen were still from Jurassic Park. But Independence Day came out one year before Titanic, so it held the title that whole time.

And for good reason. It's so visually stunning that 20 years later, we're still in awe of what we're looking at. It sure helps make this film feel less dated.

Less dated. 20 years is long enough that we can say that, right?

Unfortunately, the schmaltzy dialogue doesn't help its case. It may seem that most of the cast can't act, but that's just a result of a marginal script (besides Vivica A. Fox, who, in fact, can't act).

Taking place around the fourth of July, a worldwide alien invasion is imminent, and the country is in a true panic. Amidst the many eventually-connecting subplots, the film concerns itself most with that of pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith) and computer-wiz David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum). Both carry the film well and help provide levity to lighten an otherwise dry-by-today's-standards action movie.

Judd Hirsch plays Goldblum's father and has some truly brilliant scenes. Harry Connick Jr. and Randy Quaid give us a little something as well.

All of these attributes allow this film to hold up well. And it's even more impressive despite its several pitfalls. It's a true product of the '90s, and even where it seems dated, it's just enough to make us nostalgic.

Watching ID4 again reminds us how amazing Will Smith's whole underachiever schtick is, making us want it back again. Hopefully he'll step away from his Oscar-worthy performances and give us a well-deserved comedy one of these days.

Twizard Rating: 93

Quick Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)





X-Men story lines all pretty much revolve around the same theme: Humans fearing mutants and acting upon it irrationally, causing bad mutants to revolt and good mutants to attempt peace.

We start off in 3600 B.C., with set pieces that showcase ancient Egypt as good as any we've seen since maybe The Mummy in 1999. Here, the first mutant known to man, En Sabah Nur aka Apocalypse (though his name doesn't seem to really be important), gets betrayed and trapped underground for centuries. This dude would've given me nightmares if I saw him as a child.

Then we wind up in the 1980s, with some cool zeitgeists of the era. But not too much so that it becomes a nostalgia flick--though that wouldn't be too bad either. We catch up with our X-Men stars ten years after the events in X-Men First Class. We're introduced to a few new mutants and get most of our favorites back. Apocalypse gets awoken from his long sleep and decides to assemble a team to kill off humans--along with any mutant who stands in his way.

The film does a great job of balancing a cornucopia of character's story lines. Everyone is accounted for, but wisely, most of the villains aren't touched upon that much--including Apocalypse. Some may argue that he lacks a unique incentive, but when you're the most powerful mutant ever and thirst for omnipotence, what other incentive do you need? But it does go beyond that. His philosophy is Hitler-esque in that he wants to destroy who he believes to be inferior beings. And he's given a sort of false-charisma that makes the fact that he has followers believable.

The only other villain for which we get sufficient depth established is Magneto--perhaps the most compelling story in the whole X-Men saga--with only Wolverine's giving it a run for its money. Magneto walks the line between good and evil at times in the series, with his fantastic dynamic/friendship with Professor Xavier furthered upon even more in this film.

The action doesn't feel empty and neither does the plot. The characters are enjoyable and we don't feel cheated out of anyone's backstory. But we don't feel forced into one either. The good thing about having multiple movies and prequels is that we trust that, in time, we will know each character's origin.

X-Men: Apocalypse may not have the most radical of premises within the X-Men universe, but its a subject that is still treated with much realism and ongoingness--something other franchises don't do quite as well. The civil war battle thing has been a common theme among superhero movies this year, and X-Men does it best. Something of the grandest proportions is actually at stake. Heroes and civilization as a whole may actually be destroyed.

It all makes this a solid installment in the series and maybe the best superhero movie this year (so far). Plus, its plethora of characters and a creepy antagonist make the movie engaging and not feel quite as long as it is. We needed some redemption after the slap-in-the-face time travel entry, Days of Future Past, nullified the stories in a franchise we've grown to appreciate. That was more of a cool idea in the moment, while this movie is an important idea.

Oh, and we also get an esoteric post-credits scene, whose meaning will most likely be forgotten by the time the next film comes out anyway.

Twizard Rating: 94

Friday, June 17, 2016

Quick Movie Review: Now You See Me 2 (2016)





So it turns out, the things critics complained about in 2013's Now You See Me would've been better off untouched. While not producing a perfect movie in the first installment, the opposite ends up happening here.

On the other hand, much like the first one, Now You See Me 2 has the mind-bending entertainment taken care of. It holds the same charm that was present in its predecessor--perhaps even more. However, there are just a few things that are problematic.

For one, the audience constantly feels like they're missing something--like they're always behind in what's going on. And not because of natural occurrences in the narrative, but because the filmmakers simply want us to be. Which is odd, seeing that this time we're actually in on most of the tricks.

In Now You See Me, we're given the story through the FBI agent's point of view--always on the other side of the magic. In the sequel, we're mostly given the point of view of the four magicians, so we're deeply involved behind the scenes. The former situation was a major complaint of the first film, but now that I'm seeing the alternative, I think I would rather things be back to normal. And even though it's worth it in the end, the whole time prior you just sit there, frustrated, not wanting to be in on the trick, trying to mentally disassemble all the rigmarole in the meantime.

Two years following the events of the first film, the Four Horsemen (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Lizzy Caplan) must remain in hiding for fear of the FBI. But they're growing impatient waiting for further instructions. Caplan replaces Isla Fisher as the female in the group. She's very unfunny--even when she so desperately tries to be--making us wish Fisher was back.

The clan ends up in China where they are forced into working for a rich businessman (Daniel Radcliffe) who faked his own death and is supposed to be dead to the rest of the world. Radcliffe's brilliantly evil persona is far from the paladin, Harry Potter, as this may be his most mainstream role since.

Morgan Freeman also returns with his character still in prison, because, for some reason, he can't seem to prove his innocence yet. Freeman is a key cog because he's what connects Ruffalo's character to his father's death as a child.

Also differing from the first film, the first two acts are the weakest part. Waiting for things to get better towards the end, we sit through a magic trick-less setup that's more confusing than interesting. We do, however, get "treated" to an unnecessary card-flinging scene that just ends up being silly and five minutes too long.

Does a good ending make up for a meandering 90 minutes? I guess it might if those 90 minutes are pertinent to the climax. And in this case, they are. But things may be a little too intricate to be cherished in the long run (something untrue for the first film). Maybe it deserves another watch. Maybe then will things be more clear. Because even after it's all explained to us, things wind up being overly complicated, but I guess you just have to trust that it all makes sense. If you're okay living like that.

Twizard Rating: 73

Quick Movie Review: Now You See Me (2013)





Everyone loves magic tricks. The wonder has been ingrained in us since our childhood. And movies about magic are usually just as enjoyable. This one is no exception.

Four individual magicians--each with a different specialty--get summoned by some mysterious master magician to join together and perform "tricks" to steal from the rich and give to the poor. Meanwhile, a frustrated FBI agent, played by Mark Ruffalo, can't seem to figure out how it's all happening. He teams up with a female Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) to put a stop to the madness.

The dynamics among the magicians are fun and kept very light. The tricks they perform are, at times, very fascinating to the point that we wish we could go to Vegas to watch their show. We become invested in the lives of these people because the writers let us. But then something happens--our focus is forcibly changed.

For the last 60-90 minutes we are pretty much solely focused on Ruffalo's character. We don't want to be, but we are. And as we travel deeper into the story, the befuddlement steadily increases. Luckily, the film makes itself fairly easy to focus on to somewhat help negate the convolution.

It helps to rewatch this movie. But then again, seeing behind the curtain--which is the ending--may cause you to feel like you've been manipulated. Realizing the filmmakers trick you into seeing what they want you to. And depending on how much you like magic tricks, you may or may not be happy about it.

But see, putting together a movie is different than live magic tricks. Filmmakers can make up their own rules, using cuts and edits to change your perspective--not slight-of-hand--making much of it feel contrived. Personally, I wouldn't say that it bothers me. It just feels too easy here.

We do get a good bang four our buck with plenty of subplots. There is one about Morgan Freeman who plays a magic debunker smugly trying to crack these elaborate tricks. He has a rivalry with Michael Caine, who acts as a financier for the magicians' performances. Caine exits about an hour in, but Freeman has much left to accomplish. And amidst all the action, there is an obvious romance building between Ruffalo and Laurent.

But all of the story-building amongst the characters only helps to thin them all out in the process. There is little depth. And the depth that's established feels forced.

Mind you, none of this changes the fact that this film is wildly entertaining. How can you call it anything but? It's gripping from beginning to end, and the way it's set up, you will probably end up wanting more. Give it huge points for that. Beyond that, though, I can see why people feel slighted.

Twizard Rating: 84

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Quick Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)


Surprisingly content with its 2014 predecessor, I was looking forward to this movie. The first wasn't even near perfect, but it had a kind of nostalgic charm to it and reminded me of something I would've been totally into when I was a kid. I mean, that's what we're looking for here, right?

In this one, our heroes catch news of Shredder escaping from prison with the help of mad scientist, Baxter Stockman, to utilize a technology that will help them stop the turtles and take over the world.

Luckily the filmmakers brought back the writers from the first to keep the dialogue consistent. The repartee is still just as cartoony and the acting is marginal, which give this movie its '90s feel.

But much like the first in this rebooted series, this film is far from perfect. While it keeps the premise contained and doesn't try to over-complicate things, unfortunately, it sort of does anyway. The main plot isn't all that original, and then when it really gets the ball rolling, it becomes a bit convoluted when it shouldn't need to be. In fact, the film's at its strongest and most enjoyable during the first two acts.

The final action sequences are confusing and chaotic. I almost would've preferred to see it done more realistically without the shaky cam. Or maybe even chopsocky style!

The saddest thing is we are more invested in our CGI leads than their human counterparts--who are stiff and seem to be given the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel dialogue. But since the film is about the ninja turtles, I guess it does its job.

We get introduced to Casey Jones--a mainstay amongst earlier adaptations--who continues the trend of forced character development. In an attempt to evoke sympathy for our character, he is heard explaining, in total seriousness, to two different people that it's his childhood dream to be a detective. But then that's it. That's all we get.

Regardless of all the pitfalls, this new series has been enjoyable because it has remained inspired. It's obviously written by folks who are passionate about the source material.

Fairly consistent with, if not better than the first, Out of the Shadows keeps those into the series still invested. And 10-year-old me is enjoying a movie like a little kid again.

Twizard Rating: 76

Monday, June 6, 2016

Quick Movie Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)





You'd think the mockumentary genre was played out by now. If you asked me before I watched this movie, I'd probably think so too. But the humor that the boys of the Lonely Island have concocted is not only completely fresh and well thought-out, but will prove to be ahead of its time some day.

One-third of the comedy team, Andy Samberg, stars as Connor4Real--a Justin Bieber-esque pop icon--who's former hip-hop group broke up when he decided to start his solo career. Experiencing the downward slope of his fame and his slow decline to "has-been" status, his ego is too big to realize or admit it.

Along the way, we get documentary-style interviews from real-life "contemporaries"--such as Usher and Mariah Carey--who give commentary on Connor's career.

The movie is filled with at least a half-dozen songs, which are all catchy enough to be on the radio. But upon further attentiveness to the lyrics, they're laden with totally crude and offensive--yet hilarious--content.

So many jokes are completely off-kilter and have no ounce of necessity, but we're glad they happen. The humor, both subtle and broad, showcases the comedy trio's range. They use the Seth MacFarlane rapid-fire approach, but in a way where the jokes are much more uniform and cohesive. And if one doesn't work--or merely goes over the audience's head--there's another right around the corner to make us laugh and forget about it.

It finds a nice balance between antics and story. But the Lonely Island have made their brand by successfully fusing political incorrectness, awkwardness and silliness. And the trio has taken it to the next level here. They have such a tight grasp on not only what's funny, but what's topical and realistic--making everything that happens in this movie feel like it could actually happen--or is actually happening. It's a great feeling to completely trust your filmmakers.

The movie is directed by, and featuring, the other two members of the Lonely Island, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Together, with Samberg, the three of them have established such perfect chemistry over the years, that they probably don't care if you're not laughing at all because it's obvious they believe in their work and make themselves laugh, all while having a great time doing so.

The humor may seem very easy to think up, but is in fact, pretty inventive. Some jokes may prove to be a bit more esoteric for those not in the industry, but there are plenty that aren't.

Usually a lack of laughter comes from something not being funny. But there's an ode of confidence exuding from this film that you feel like, if you're not laughing, you just don't get the joke.

Ever so slyly, the movie's main theme is a mockery of the self-absorption and self-aggrandizing of today's media and society--especially within the millennial generation. But it's never preachy. In fact, for those most caught up with what's hip, the jokes may not come of as jokes at all.

Samberg has so much conviction in his role. It seems as if he truly believes every naive thing that he says and does. His character is so over-the-top, but Samberg makes him so real that it's never over-exaggerated.

While a tad predictable, that's not the point. Popstar never tries to be any other film. So many times have we seen American comedies give their best shot at shamefully replicating--or reinventing--a Judd Apatow/Adam McKay/Todd Phillips/Seth Rogen style of comedy, and lose their own vision. But these guys take their own vision and have their way with it. Samberg and the Lonely Island have influenced comedy a lot in the past decade or so. And now they're changing the rules all over again.

Twizard Rating: 93

Quick Movie Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)




Despite what many may think about this film, I loved it. It's far better than its more meandering predecessor--which wasn't terrible, either.

No longer in the auteuristic grasp of Tim Burton, but just within reach, is a movie which isn't so concerned about contriving a certain tone that it loses what makes it organically appealing. This one is way more fun because we're actually on an adventure, rather than simply sitting through a series of disjointed events. Here, things actually happen.

Alice is summoned back to Underland because the Mad Hatter is dying. He is losing the will to live. He believes his family is still alive, yet everyone is telling him that they've died. After holding on a little longer for Alice to come to his rescue, she also admits that she also believes him to be wrong. The White Queen convinces Alice that there is one way to bring his family back--to go back in time.

Aside from a few minor time travel plot holes, the only big problem, if any, is the abundance underutilized characters. We literally get nothing from the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, among others. They are there so we can say they are. But besides the occasional lark, they serve almost no purpose.

We are, however, introduced to a new character, Time, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. He's the gatekeeper of the past, present, and future, and possesses a device that Alice must steal so she can go back in time. With a Schwarzeneggering accent, Cohen provides us with most of the levity throughout the film. He's not over-the-top and he doesn't overstay his welcome.

Helena Bonham Carter nearly eclipses her performance from the first movie, convincing as the heartless, yet insecure tyrant, even long before revealing further depth in her character.

With dialogue much more fit for following along, Alice Through the Looking Glass is easier to understand than the first film--which is odd since this is the one that features the main protagonist traveling every which way throughout the time circuits. Usually a film with this much time travel would get confusing, but the filmmakers avoid ever making it convoluted.

Even though everything in this movie looks amazingly attractive to the eye, every beat is necessary. Every beat feels necessary. Every time travel. Every place Alice goes and does. There aren't any filler scenes.

To truly appreciate this film, you must first appreciate the relationship between Alice and the Mad Hatter carried over from the first movie--otherwise you may not care all that much.

There is a great vision for this film, and an even better execution. I loved it. Don't let the reviews fool you--it's enjoyable. One of my favorites of this year.

Twizard Rating: 97