Independence Day: Resurgence


Jeff Goldblum realizes it was a mistake to read the reviews.

Jeff Goldblum realizes it was a mistake to read the reviews.

(2016) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) 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. Directed by Roland Emmerich

 

“If you’ve seen one alien invasion, you’ve seen them all.” That may not be an aphorism in Hollywood, but it damn well should be. Ever since the original Independence Day back in 1996, there have been a plethora of invasion flicks of technologically superior aliens trying to rid our planet of its native population and steal its resources for themselves, which sounds an awful lot like a metaphor for colonialism if you ask me.

In Independence Day: Resurgence, twenty years have passed since the last alien invasion failed. Technology scavenged from fallen ships has pushed our own technology far ahead, allowing us to rebuild more quickly and even expand our presence with a modern defense station on the moon. Daniel Levinson (Goldblum) is now in charge of defensive strategies for the planet, which has united after nearly having been annihilated. He believes, like most of the planet’s leadership, that the aliens will be back and we’ve been preparing for twenty years for the inevitability of that fact.

Former President Whitmore (Pullman) is visited regularly by his daughter Patricia (Monroe) who is now an aide to current President Lanford (Ward). Like her dad, Patricia is an ex-fighter pilot. She’s also engaged to hotshot maverick fighter Jake Morrison (Hemsworth) who was exiled to the moon after clipping the wing of the fighter jet of golden boy Dylan Hiller (Usher), son of the late Stephen Hiller, the hero of the War of 1996. The three of them had been close friends but were now leading separate lives. Those lives are about to get a whole lot different.

Because the aliens are back and this time they’ve brought a Mothership the size of a continent. When it lands in the Atlantic Ocean, it covers the entire ocean. The aliens, aware of what happened to the last invasion, are mad as hell and want to finish us off, something having to do with taking the molten core of the planet and using it for fuel. Dr. Brakish Okun (Spiner), who’s been in a coma since his own close encounter with an alien, awakens and has some ideas for saving the Earth (although we get to see a little bit more of his hind end than we ever wanted to) but some of those may well have to wait for the sequel that will one day come. ID4 Part 3 anybody?

There are those in Hollywood who believe that the secret to a great sequel is more of what was in the original, and that sums up this film in a nutshell. Emmerich has, justly or unjustly, gotten a reputation of delivering spectaculars with plenty of destruction but not a lot of thought in the plot department. Here, again, there are things in the story that anyone with even basic knowledge of science will roll their eyes over. For one thing, something that big landing in the Atlantic would send tsunamis that would essentially drown every coast on that ocean, as well as send enough steam and vapor into the air to cause a nuclear winter. Having something that size impact the Earth might also have consequences in terms of knocking the planet off axis. Keep in mind that a much smaller object impacting the Earth may have caused an extinction level event. Even at reduced speeds, the Mothership would have killed half the population of the planet off in an instant just by landing here gently; and they wouldn’t need to land gently to get what they’re after. It would actually be in their best interests to deliberately knock the planet off its axis; it would make their task easier.

It is a hoot to see Goldblum, Pullman, Spiner and Hirsch back in roles that we identify them with, and all of them make the most of their return. Goldblum and Pullman get the lion’s share of time, but Spiner and Hirsch are effective in their supporting roles. The “new kids;” Hemsworth, Usher and Monroe mainly are a little flat; none of them individually or collectively can replace Smith who really made the first film more fun with his swagger and his comic timing, as well as his action chops. Smith reportedly asked for $50 million to sign on here; I’m wondering if it might not have been worth it for Fox to give him what he wanted.

The special effects are, as you can doubtlessly imagine, spectacular although like much that is in this film, much along the same lines as what you saw in ID4. Monuments and icons get destroyed. People flee in terror down streets choked with cars. Dogs get saved. Catchphrases get uttered. Hordes of fighter craft engage the enemy. And as an added attraction, we get to meet the alien Queen. Note to Ellen Ripley on that one; you’re going to need a bigger boat.

This is what I would consider decent summer entertainment; no more and no less. The script is a bit lame-brained but I don’t think anyone is expecting David Mamet here. The effects are more than equal to the task, but they don’t really set the bar any higher; once you blow up the White House (as they did in the first film) the sight of famous places getting destroyed doesn’t really do much for a savvy audience. In short, this is a time-waster that is perfect fodder for shutting your brain off, drinking an ice cold soda, stuffing your face with popcorn and candy and escaping the summer heat for a couple of hours.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive visuals as always. It’s a hoot to see Goldblum, Hirsch, Spiner and Pullman still at the top of their games.
REASONS TO STAY: Plot riddled with holes of logic and science. A bloated and often incomprehensible plot is not helped by the absence of Will Smith.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of destruction (they always go for the landmarks), plenty of violence, some profanity and a couple of disturbing alien images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seven actors reprised their roles from the original; the part of President Whitmore’s daughter Patricia was recast from Mae Whitman in the original to Maika Monroe here because Whitman isn’t conventionally pretty met with outrage on the Internet. Also, Will Smith (whose salary demands were rejected by the studio) appears as a portrait in the White House.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Free State of Jones

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Flash Gordon (1980)


Savior of the universe!

Savior of the universe!

(1980) Science Fiction (Universal) Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Mariangela Melato, John Osborne, Richard O’Brien, John Hallam, Philip Stone, Suzanne Danielle, William Hootkins, Bobbie Brown, Ted Carroll, Adrienne Kronenberg, Stanley Lebor, John Morton, Robbie Coltrane, Tessa Hewitt.  Directed by Mike Hodges

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Flash Gordon began life as an Alex Raymond comic strip which was later made into serials in the 1930s. You may have seen them, with the phallic sparks-shooting space ships that made the annoying electric whine whenever they flew. In 1980, a movie version from Italian uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis made an indelible splash.

Audiences to this day are fairly divided about how they feel when it comes to the 1980 film. Some feel it’s campy to the point of silliness. Others admire the sumptuous visuals, the rock and roll soundtrack and the slithering performance of veteran Swedish actor Max von Sydow (who is incidentally cast in this December’s Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens). They’re both right.

“Flash” Gordon (Jones) is the starting quarterback for the New York Jets. He and Dale Arden (Anderson), a travel agent, are taking a private plane from Canada back to New York when a freak storm buffets the plane. Flaming meteorites impact the cockpit, sucking out the pilots. Gordon, who has taken flying lessons, manages to crash land the plane into the solarium of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), a disgraced NASA scientist who thinks the Earth is under attack from an extraterrestrial force.

The problem is, he’s right. Ming the Merciless (von Sydow), emperor of Mongo, has decided to amuse himself by shoving the Moon out of the Earth’s orbit to crash into the Earth. Zarkov, knowing the only way to stop the catastrophe from happening is to go to Mongo for which Zarkov has conveniently built a rocket ship. Flash and Dale aren’t terribly enthusiastic about going but Zarkov insists – at gunpoint.

Once on Mongo they are captured and brought to the Emperor, who decrees that Zarkov is to be brainwashed into his service, Dale is to be used for his carnal pleasure and Flash is to be executed. Of course, none of these plucky Earthmen are going to go down quietly and with the help of Princess Aura (Muti), Ming’s oversexed daughter, Flash enlists the help of Prince Barin (Dalton) of Arborea and Prince Vultan (Blessed) of the Hawkmen to help overthrow Ming and save the Earth. But the clock is ticking, Ming is about to marry Dale and the Moon is getting ever closer to the Earth. Can Flash save the day?

Of course he can. This is a movie that has the cheese factor of an old pulp serial with none of the suspense. There is a cartoon-y element to it, with the vivid color palate used by the production design team and Hodges; this can be seen vividly on the wonderful video transfer on the Blu-Ray, one of the best ever. If you didn’t get to see it on the original theatrical run, by all means see it on the Blu-Ray. You’ll be glad you did.

Everything about this movie screams excess, from the lavish sets, the sumptuous visual effects and the S&M bondage costumes and of course, the Queen score. Given all of the elements of this film, I’m kind of surprised that the gay community hasn’t embraced this film more; there are a lot of themes going on here that seem to me to be complimentary to the ethos of the more flamboyant elements of that community.

A lot of the hardcore sci-fi fans have rejected the film, citing that it is about as scientifically inaccurate as the Republican party. In the film’s defense, it is based on a comic strip that never intended to be a science textbook; Raymond wanted his strip to appeal to the sense of adventure for kids more than to the sensibilities of a physicist.

The acting here is mostly over-the-top, with von Sydow in particular most delightful as the villainous Ming. Jones, on the other hand, is a bit wooden and a bit colorless; he simply doesn’t carry the movie at all considering he’s the title character. Methinks that he was distracted more by external issues than he should have been; in any case, this didn’t do any favors for his career.

I have to say that Queen’s soundtrack was as good as any soundtrack for any film; it perfectly fits the vibe of the movie. The propulsive theme song with its chorus “Flash…aaahaaaa…” and operatic guitars is almost iconic. Even those who haven’t seen the film have likely heard the song.

This isn’t rocket science (although it literally is). It’s just good old fashioned fun, with a winking self-awareness that tells us that the film doesn’t take itself terribly serious, which is in all likelihood a good thing. While the comic tone is the invention of the film (nearly every other film and TV incarnation of the comic strip has played it relatively straight), it seems to suit the material pretty well. If you don’t like camp chances are you’ll be irritated by this movie but if you don’t mind it and take it for what it’s worth, this is mind-blowing entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Visually gorgeous. Goofy fun. Queen soundtrack.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overdose on campy. Jones doesn’t carry the film the way he should. Less science and more fiction.
FAMILY VALUES: Some campy violence, a couple of disturbing images and plenty of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of Jones’ dialogue was dubbed by another actor; he had a falling out with de Laurentiis during post-production over lack of payment and refused to loop his lines until the situation was resolved, which it apparently never was.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Both the Savior of the Universe DVD Anniversary edition and the Blu-Ray have featurettes on comic book artist Alex Ross (who was much inspired by the movie, which he terms his favorite) and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., as well as the first chapter of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial starring Buster Crabbe, whose plot is very similar to the movie.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49M (just UK and USA) on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Galaxy Quest
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

Love Birds (2011)


If it looks like a duck...

If it looks like a duck…

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Freestyle) Rhys Darby, Sally Hawkins, Emily Barclay, Craig Hall, Bryan Brown, Dave Fane, Faye Smith, Wesley Dowdell, Alvin Maharaj, Mia Pistorius, Sonia Gray, Hannah Matthews, John Callen, Alan Harris, Michaela Rooney, Beck Taylor, Tane Cullen, Eryn Watson, Matthew Metcalfe, Bronwyn Bradley, Stacey Leilua, Sara Wiseman. Directed by Paul Murphy

The Bee Gees once wondered “How can you mend a broken heart?” There is no single way to do it. Some say that time heals all wounds. Others recommend getting right back in the saddle again. Still others say that you need a hobby to take your mind off of things.

Doug (Darby) needs to find his own answer. His girlfriend Susan (Smith) – who is a spectacular beauty for what it’s worth – has dumped him on his rear end, leaving his world upside down and inside out. He is moping around his house when he hears a thump on his roof and upon further investigation discovers a wounded duck who is incapable of flying. Doug, being a good-hearted soul, takes the bird in but it soon becomes more trouble than it’s worth – keeping him awake nights, refusing to let him bathe alone, and pooping, pooping, everywhere.

Most of us would be making ourselves a nice Duck a l’orange right about then but as I said Doug is a good-hearted soul so he consults with Holly (Hawkins), the local vet. Her assistant Brenda (Barclay) immediately realizes that her boss should be with this guy but Holly, a single mum, is cool towards him so Brenda takes matters into her own hands.

The two eventually fall in love despite the hostility of Holly’s son Taylor (Taylor) towards his mom’s new beau but the more time Holly and Doug spend together, the better things get. Then Susan decides that she wants Doug back.

This is fairly pedestrian rom-com stuff with predictable plot points but what elevates it slightly above the rest is the charming and affable Darby, a fairly big name in New Zealand as a standup comic and occasional comic actor. His  chemistry with Hawkins as Holly is actually quite natural and charming. The cast is also buoyed by Watkins as Doug’s best friend who’s an absolute rotter and his buddies Gurneesh (Maharaj), Kanga (Fane) and Brent (Dowdell) who provide much of the physical comedy.

Another big plus is the addition of Queen to the soundtrack. Doug has become a huge Queen fan so we hear their music pretty much throughout the movie and it is utilized quite well, actually. Quite frankly, I have to say you can’t go wrong with Queen on your soundtrack (Da Queen will bear me out on that one).

You’ll see the plot points coming a mile off and you’ll know how the movie ends even before you stream it onto your computer (a DVD edition has yet to be released in the States) but you have to admire a movie that tries this hard to be charming and still manages to pull it off.

WHY RENT THIS: Darby is very likable. Laid back and gently humorous.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks big laughs. Doesn’t add anything to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former international cricket stars Alan Border and Ian Smith make cameo appearances.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Danny Deckchair

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: 10,000 B.C.