It is a cliché to say that Hollywood action blockbusters have no plot or story. This is nonsense as even perfunctory analysis highlights that Hollywood filmmaking is, as it has been for many decades, rooted in narrative progression and plot development. Indeed, if a film has narrative problems this is more likely to be down to an excess rather than sparseness of plot. Such is the case with Independence Day: Resurgence that, despite its title, lacks any significant surging and no discernible independence from the other films it references/pays homage to/rips off (depending on how generous you feel). Set twenty years after the events of the inter-galactically superior original, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s follow-up sees the nations of Earth celebrating the unparalleled peace and unity they have had since defeating the alien invasion when, wouldn’t you know it, those pesky ETs show up again (someone must have phoned home, yes, I went there, judge me all you like). David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) along with Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who starts English but subsequently and inexplicably becomes French) have a handle on what’s going on, but the leaders of the world including US President Lanford (Sela Ward) don’t listen (if you figure out how that works out, you can have a cookie); former US President Tom Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is beardy and traumatised; his daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) is brave if tremulous; Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is rebellious; Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher) is angry and still grieving over the death of father Steven (Will Smith, who made the smart choice not to return); I am watching this piffle waiting for it to go somewhere. Meanwhile, other narrative threads crop up to add to the confusion, a certain amount of techno-porn sashays across the screen and, somewhere in the mix, aliens arrive and attempt the old ‘destroy all life on Earth’ thing. With so many disparate elements flying around, it is small wonder that the film feels utterly incoherent and lacks the two crucial elements that make its predecessor so re-watchably enjoyable: wit and suspense. Will Smith punching an alien and quipping ‘Welcome to Earth!’ is a glorious and far from isolated moment in the first film. Equally glorious is the wonderfully ominous first act in which the gigantic ships loom over Earth and there is deliberate and effective build-up to the metropolis-sized destructo-porn. The absence of these elements, and the lacklustre set pieces that Resurgence offers without enough build-up or sustainment to be exciting, mean that tension and therefore drama are sorely lacking, while scenes that could offer emotional weight are instead throwaway moments that leave you wondering why the writers bothered to include them. And there is the problem: ID4: R has too many cooks and they really spoil the broth. Whereas Devlin and Emmerich wrote the original film at the height of their mid-90s power, here they are joined by Nicolas Wright (who also plays an irritating but at least vaguely interesting bureaucrat), James A. Woods and James Vanderbilt, all seemingly competing for our derision. It might be fun to work out exactly who wrote what part, at least more fun than wondering why those kids in the car are there and why we don’t get more of the guys on the boat and what dramatic purpose Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) is serving, or why these discordant elements are not tied together by Emmerich who has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he is more than capable of putting together a decent disaster film. The end result is an incoherent mess, a baffling, blundering barrel of feeble, underpowered non-spectacle that lacks wit, suspense, coherence and emotional heft. Oh, and it has the prospect of another one. Hooray, today we celebrate our Indepen… No, let’s not.
Fairy tales often contain dark and adult themes that are sanitised for young consumers. This is not the case with Tale of Tales, Matteo Garrone’s adaptation of three tales by Giambattista Basile. Bloody bodies, extracted hearts, exposed breasts and buttocks populate the film, within gorgeous Italian locations and sumptuous cinematography from DOP Peter Suschitzky. Garrone favours a steady, often detached visual style, with many long takes following characters from behind as they move through richly tactile environments. These environments are populated by three loosely connected tales: the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) struggles to control her son Elias (Christian Lees); Princess Violet has troubled relations with her father the King of Highhills (Toby Jones); two aged sisters attempt to curry sexual favour with the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel). Garrone’s great strength as a filmmaker is commitment to his dark materials, as there are various points where the viewer might expect the tale to baulk at the sheer extremity of the events, but it doesn’t. Nor does the film overplay its hand with gratuitously graphic gore, remembering at all times that these fairy tales are morality tales and the message is the moral more than the manner of its manifestation. Morals about parenting, duty and vanity, among others, populate the film, never over-emphasised but treated with just the right balance, making Tale of Tales a thoughtful, measured and compelling watch, if not always the most comfortable one.
A dead actress. Pornography. A missing woman. An elaborate conspiracy. A hired thug with lapsed morals. Air pollution. A boozy PI, with a precocious daughter. These are the generic elements, plus a few others, that Shane Black weaves together in his 70’s neo-noir that will strike chords with fans of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential as well as Black’s earlier work as writer – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout – and director – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3. The eponymous charming fellows, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling) are a generically typical chalk and cheese pair. Healy is a cynical brute who sometimes wonders what happened to his conscience; March is a cowardly moron who cares as much for the bottle as his teenage daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who is probably smarter than either of them. As a buddy comedy, The Nice Guys hits the right notes as Crowe and Gosling deliver an effective double act, especially in some hilarious moments of slapstick comedy. The convoluted plot and casual violence is almost perfunctory, as the film’s interest is in the generic features and film history that it plays with, as well as Black’s typically razor sharp dialogue. The Nice Guys may not be the most memorable fellas to spend time with, but they pass the time amusingly enough.
DISCLAIMER: I have no knowledge of the source text beyond its existence and this review only relates to the film.
Swords! Sorcery! SPLAT! Thus goes Duncan Jones’ adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s fantasy video game franchise. Swords clash; sorcery of distinct colours flies back and forth; narrative, characters, editing, cinematography and themes are bundled together and hit the screen with an orc-sized SPLAT! The film consists of the splashes of this splat, different narrative strands blurting along while characters wrestle grim-facedly with clichéd motivations. Jones stages some handsome set pieces, and he and co-writer Charles Leavitt make a decent stab at balancing the different sides of the conflict as an orc horde invades the world of Azeroth. But while it is interesting to have orcs as well as humans grappling with the demands of family and community, and the film has a pleasing gender balance, Warcraft lacks the scope and depth to engage with its characters or topics in any meaningful way. This is largely due to the lack of a central narrative thrust beyond the outbreak of war. Inevitable comparisons with The Lord of the Rings highlight the importance of that saga’s central thrust of Frodo’s journey with the War of the Ring as a backdrop, whereas here the outbreak of war is the central thrust without political machinations or personal motivations. The end result has some interesting visuals and moments that recall Jones’ earlier work, but ultimately Warcraft: The Beginning is a mess, albeit stylish in its SPLAT!
Expectations are a funny thing, as I found in the run-up to and viewing of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War. In the case of X-Men: Apocalypse, my expectations were lowered partly by poor reviews and the floundering fortunes of the X-Men franchise since X-2 (2003), as the films’ attempts to imbue blockbuster spectacle with serious topics of prejudice and tolerance have been only partially successful. Bryan Singer’s fourth film in the franchise succeeds by virtue of its simplicity, delivering a major blockbuster with a truly epic scale and consistent tone. The early 80s setting suggests Cold War tensions, but provides little more than backdrop to a story of superpowered individuals battling for supremacy. The titular villain (Oscar Isaac) is presented as a force of nature with a gigantic ego, committed to wiping out humans whom he sees as lesser beings. Alongside him, we have established characters Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), as well as younger versions of characters from earlier films – Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), and Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee). X-Men: Apocalypse utilises this ensemble very well, giving the colorful characters space to breathe and using the superpowers to create some truly spectacular set pieces. Rather than being clouded with politics like BVS: DOJ and CA: CW, X-M: A is a straightforward power play that avoids being a tiresome replay of the previous films by its commitment to epic grandeur. The film also tidies up the timelines with some ret-con regarding characters and when they appear in the timeline, and largely erases the bad choices of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (including a welcome appearance from everyone’s favourite indestructible Canadian). X-Men: Apocalypse looks to be far from Armageddon for this now sixteen year-old franchise, thanks to its commitment to straightforward blockbuster entertainment.