Review – Independence Day: Resurgence

As the honest trailer for Roland Emmerich’s latest diaster-thon perhaps should have said, “we knew they’d come back, but nothing could prepare us for the mind-numbing stupidity of Independence Day: Resurgence“.

"We knew they'd come back, but nothing could prepare us for the mind-numbing stupidity of Independence Day: Resurgence"

“We knew they’d come back, but nothing could prepare us for the mind-numbing stupidity of Independence Day: Resurgence”

No-one was probably expecting the belated sequel to the 1996 monster hit to be a high water mark in cerebral filmmaking, but Emmerich and his four co-screenwriters could have at least tried to pen a script that had ambitions beyond head-bangingly terrible.

There’s something to be said for a good old mindless night at the cinema. Independence Day remains a quintessential blockbuster that strikes a balance between cheese, exhilarating (and occasionally unnerving) spectacle and charismatic acting led by the peerless Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith in a star-making turn.

Why are we here again? General Joshua Adams (William Fichtner), Earth Space Defense head honcho David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and Dr Okun (Brent Spiner) in Independence Day: Resurgence

Why are we here again? General Joshua Adams (William Fichtner), Earth Space Defense head honcho David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and Dr Okun (Brent Spiner) in Independence Day: Resurgence

Goldblum, thankfully, returns as David Levinson, the former science geek turned saviour of humanity (thanks to an uploaded computer virus that put the “universal” into universal serial bus (USB)), who is now heading up Earth Space Defense (ESD) at Area 51. He’s joined by fellow ID4 veterans Bill Pullman as former President Whitmore, plagued by the psychic alien link he experienced first time around, and Brent Spiner’s colourfully eccentric Dr Okun, who awakens from a 20-year coma just in time for ET’s return and, like numerous others, starts drawing what looks like a power symbol.

Smith, however, decided to opt out of this particular sequel (this from the guy who signed up for Men In Black 2 and Bad Boys II) and on wise-cracking duty this time around is Liam Hemsworth, who plays a maverick ESD pilot stuck in a dead-end detail on the Moon.

In spite of every major city and military base on the planet having been wiped out along with the majority of mankind following the last invasion, the human race has, with the help of alien tech (it’s not explained how we’ve been able not only to understand but also so successfully exploit ET’s technology in such a relatively short timescale) set aside its differences and rebuilt itself, even setting up bases on Mars and Saturn’s moon Rhea as well as on the Moon.

Today it's our Independence Day: Resurgence for ex-President Whitmore (Bill Pullman)

Today it’s our Independence Day: Resurgence for ex-President Whitmore (Bill Pullman)

Another invasion is expected although the scale of their return when it finally comes suggests the aliens are no longer messing around, having sent a 3,000-mile wide spaceship that’s intent on finishing the job. With the odds once again firmly stacked against humanity, it’s up to our plucky bunch of heroes to save the day, including Jessie Usher as the son of Smith’s super-pilot, Maika Monroe as President Whitmore’s daughter and Angelababy as a crack Chinese pilot with ESD.

Whilst ID: Resurgence (or should that be Regurgitation?) is far from the worst summer blockbuster to have landed on our big screens, its paint-by-numbers plotting, laughable script and uninspired acting (even the normally solid William Fichtner looks dead-eyed, while Goldblum does his best with material that’s beneath him) make the 129  minute running time feel twice as long.

Top guns: Space pilots Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher) in Independence Day: Resurgence

Top guns: Space pilots Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Jessie Usher) in Independence Day: Resurgence

Even the special effects, so solid in the first movie, look largely unconvincing. A gravity-defying attack that flings all manner of giant man-made stuff in the air inspires nothing more than a resigned shrug. Maybe it’s overblown action set piece fatigue finally setting in, but watching London or some other city get flattened just doesn’t have the wow factor it once did.

Robert Loggia (rest in peace) and Vivica A. Fox, both fellow ID4 vets, are criminally wasted, while poor DeObia Oparei’s African warlord is given the worst dialogue of all (he praises somehow for “having the heart of a warrior” and reveals at one point that the aliens’ immodest ambitions encompass “the entire universe”) and is decked out by a costume department that had seemingly just watched Beasts Of No Nation.

The typically subtle special effects of Independence Day: Resurgence

The typically subtle special effects of Independence Day: Resurgence

The unoriginality also seeps into the soundtrack by Harald Kloser and the unfortunately named Thomas Wanker, who drown every scene with ‘music for dummies’ compositions that only serve to cheapen the film yet further.

The film ends with an depressingly unapologetic sequel pitch that promises destruction on an intergalactic scale. If it’s anything like as bad as Independence Day: Resurgence I’ll be rooting for the aliens.

Four Frames – Excalibur (1981)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. Throughout June, The Big Picture is running a series of articles on ‘myths’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from John Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur.

Sex, violence, betrayal, revenge – these are ingredients of a film producer’s wet dream and the legend of King Arthur has them in spades.

It’s no surprise, then, that Arthur has continued to serve as an influence, direct or otherwise, for countless forms of art and entertainment.

His latest cinematic incarnation is due to hit our big screens in 2017 courtesy of Guy Ritchie. We’ll wait and see what that has to offer, but it’ll have to go a long way to top John Boorman’s deliciously ripe and unashamedly excessive swords and sorcery epic.

Excalibur

After the comedy gold mined by Monty Python And The Holy Grail six years earlier, Boorman took a decidedly left-field turn in bringing the Arthurian legend to life. Based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, written more than five centuries earlier, Excalibur presents a warts and all vision of – as the opening titles explain – “The Dark Ages… out of those lost centuries rose a legend. Of the sorcerer Merlin, of the coming of a king, of the sword of power”.

The film’s title is no accident. The ancient weapon (“Forged when the world was young and bird and beast were one with man. And death was but a dream.”) is forever present, forever tied to the land and the one it chooses as ruler.

Before Excalibur selects Arthur (played to perfection by Nigel Terry) as the one to draw it from the stone (amusingly, he’s told off by his adopted father for doing so and told to put it back), we’re shown how it ended up there courtesy of a fatal chain of events set in motion by Uther Pendragon’s lust for the Duke of Cornwall’s wife Igraine.

Excalibur

With the guidance of the mystical necromancer Merlin (Nicol Williamson), Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table usher in a new golden age, while he finds a seemingly perfect mate in the form of Guinevere (Cheri Lunghi). But the sins of the father come back to haunt the king as his embittered half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) nurses plans to use sorcery to destroy both him and his land.

Boorman had long desired to adapt the Arthurian legend, but struggled to raise the money. Intriguingly, an alternative offer to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings to the big screen was made along the way and a number of the set designs for that failed project ended up in Excalibur.

The Arthurian influence on Rings, whilst far from hidden, becomes glaringly pronounced in the context of watching Excalibur, with its talk of fellowships and a single, all-consuming object of power that binds itself to the one who possesses it.

Excalibur

The film is full of starting imagery that, more than 35 years on, still has the power to captivate (amplified by the stirring sounds of Wagner, Orff and original compositions by Trevor Jones). The battle scenes, most notably one towards the end of the film that is shrouded in mist save for a glowing orange sun are richly atmospheric, while the Lady of the Lake’s arm thrusting out of the water wielding a luminescent Excalibur remains a singularly beautiful image.

It is also noteworthy just how many future stars of stage and screen show up, including a still relatively unknown Patrick Stewart as well as Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson, both of whom received their screen debuts here.

All are overshadowed, however, by Williamson’s delightful performance as the otherworldly Merlin. No chin stroking sorcerer he, Williamson imbues the character with a mixture of wry witticisms, unnerving unpredictability, paternalism and a resigned sadness for a changing world that is slowly turning its back on the pagan gods of old to make way for the rise of Christianity.

Excalibur

Willaimson’s scenes with the wonderfully over-the-top Mirren are particularly enjoyable; the characters antagonism towards each other being reflected in real life following a troubled production of Macbeth some years earlier.

Excalibur is far from perfect. Its treatment of female characters is crude (Mirren wears a costume that’s akin to what Carrie Fisher wears while chained to Jabba the Hut in Return Of The Jedi, while the less said about the scene involving a convulsing Igraine dancing for a leering group of knights the better) and the Holy Grail section in the final act loses its way badly. The decision to give numerous scenes a soft focus was also presumably made to lend the film a certain timelessness, but only serves to have the opposite effect.

In spite of its occasional flaws, there’s nothing out there quite like Excalibur, and for that reason alone it deserves to be celebrated.

Review – Captain America: Civil War

Hands up who thought the clean-cut, living, breathing symbol of freedom and liberty would have ended up showing the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe how it’s done?

Forever a man out of his time, Steve Rogers’ guiding principles have seen the first Avenger become a square peg in a round hole that has resulted in him falling out of favour with the powers that be.

Captain America: Civil War harvests the seeds of doubt that were planted in The Winter Soldier and closes a chapter on the MCU that has led to the ultimate emblem of apple pie-eating pride transform from, in the words of directors Anthony and Joe Russo, “patriot to insurgent”.

So long as the calibre of films remains as high as Captain America: Civil War, then we'll continue to hold out hope

So long as the calibre of films remains as high as Captain America: Civil War, then we’ll continue to hold out hope

It’s been a fascinating journey, one that is arguably the defining aspect of Marvel’s epic big screen enterprise and the Cap trilogy has stood head and shoulders above the rest thanks to a compelling mixture of great storytelling, engaging characters and standout direction.

Chris Evans’ central performance should also not be underestimated and he gives his best turn yet in Civil War. Evans has the square-jawed all-American looks befitting the part, but there’s also steel behind the eyes that gets sorely tested this time out.

Civil War picks up after the events of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, with a tragedy during an Avengers mission being the metaphorical straw that breaks the camel’s back for the authorities. U.S Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) announces that, despite the debt owed by society, no longer can collateral damage by tolerated.

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) gets stuck in alongside his allies in Captain America: Civil War

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) gets stuck in alongside his allies in Captain America: Civil War

The Sokovia Accords (so named after the country affected by the events of Age Of Ultron) are drawn up and the Avengers are urged to sign and agree to fall under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. Wracked with guilt for his part in creating Ultron, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) leads the call to sign up and while some fall into line others, most notably Cap, are less inclined.

When a terrorist act seemingly points the finger at Cap’s old buddy Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan), the fissure between the Avengers and, in particular, Iron Man and Captain America grows bigger and more strained. But was Bucky responsible or is another force at work?

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) gets stuck in alongside his allies in Captain America: Civil War

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) gets stuck in alongside his allies in Captain America: Civil War

On paper, Civil War treads a similar path to Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice – superheroes end up at each other’s throats when they should be on the same side. However, the difference in execution is glaring, with Zack Snyder’s effort little more than a one-dimensional bludgeoning in comparison to Marvel’s latest.

Another difference between both films is how it brings new characters into the fold. Whilst Batman vs Superman crowbarred in the likes of Aquaman via a flimsy laptop session, this introduces a young, inexperienced Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and a hard-as-nails Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in organic and believable ways. The scenes Downey, Jr shares with Holland are especially fun and promise much for Spidey’s official Marvel debut.

Indeed, fun is something that can be found in plentiful supply here (another advantage over Bats vs Supes) and the balance between light and dark is nicely handled.

Spider-Man (Tom Holland) joins the party in Captain America: Civil War

Spider-Man (Tom Holland) joins the party in Captain America: Civil War

Importantly, both sides of the argument are given equal weight. It’s difficult to disagree with the weight of evidence brought to the table by Ross, while Stark’s point that it’s better to sign now rather than having more draconian accords thrust upon them later on is persuasive. However, the counterpoint put forward by Rogers that becoming the tool of political forces means you will forever be in its sway is equally valid. After all, following the events of The Winter Soldier, it’s not surprising Rogers has his doubts about the fortitude of institutions.

The charge that Civil War gets too bogged down with its characters is understandable – as is the assertion that this is basically Avengers 3 rather than Cap 3. That does a disservice, though, to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script and the Russo’s direction, which tries not to leave anyone behind.

The plethora of A and B-list Avengers ultimately pays off in the central airport hanger sequence, which starts off lightly as both sides weigh in to each other whilst saying “we’re still friends right?” before the punches start to land with more purpose. It’s a great action scene that again mixes dramatic stakes alongside lighter moments, not least of which involving Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) who literally gets the biggest moment.

Who needs friends? Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) goes up against Cap (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in Captain America: Civil War

Who needs friends? Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) goes up against Cap (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in Captain America: Civil War

Perhaps in response to the criticism levelled at Marvel movies that their final acts often descend into epic CGI-heavy carnage, Civil War‘s denouement is far more effective for being much smaller and personal in scale as well as bleaker in tone. The motives behind Daniel Bruhl’s pitch perfect villain Helmut Zemo become clear as the endgame draws near and speaks to the overall tone of the film – of actions having consequences down the line and the fragility of alliances when trust is in short supply.

Quite how much longer the MCU can keep juggling so many balls is up for debate, but so long as the calibre of films remains as high as Captain America: Civil War, then we’ll continue to hold out hope.

Decades Blogathon – Inside Man (2006)

REBLOGGED FROM DIGITAL SHORTBREAD!

2006

 

As we wind down another great blogathon, I’d like to thank each and every one of you for your great posts. I’d also like to tip my hat to my co-host for firstly coming up with the concept last year and for helping manage it again this time around. As always, it’s a real treat. With any luck we will return again next year. I will be adding each of these pieces to my Decades sub-menu so if you ever want to go back and catch up on something you missed, feel free to visit that drop-down menu up top.

For my entry I’ve decided to go with another contemporary release, realizing this would be a great opportunity to give Spike Lee another try. So here’s my take on a film he released now ten years ago:


'Inside Man' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 24, 2006

[Netflix]

Written by: Russell Gewirtz

Directed by: Spike Lee


Prolific filmmaker, documentarian and notable New York Knicks’ sixth man Spike Lee, taking a few pages from F. Gary Gray’s guide to properly dramatizing delicate hostage situations, directs this thrilling and surprisingly intelligent heist film involving a cunning thief, an experienced detective, a wealthy bank owner and a not-so-proverbial bank-load of hostages.

Inside Man has Clive Owen to thank for delivering big in a decidedly (and brilliantly) complex role that sees him holding up a Manhattan Trust and many of its employees and patrons, confident he has planned for every possible outcome and disaster. No offense to Denzel the detective, who exudes charisma and charm throughout situations no other person could, or really should — but this is Owen’s film. Owen plays Dalton Russell, a name he’s only going to say once so you better pay attention because he never, ever repeats himself.

The hold-up begins like any other: Dalton and his cronies sneak in as painters and promptly reveal themselves on the inside as anything but. They’re armed and they’re not messing around. Stress levels sky-rocket within seconds. Dalton’s got plans for the vault but before we learn what those are Spike cuts away and begins constructing the world that awaits anxiously outside the building. The closest in proximity are the swaths of police and detectives, including Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Willem Dafoe’s Captain John Darius.

Elsewhere, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), founder and chair of the board of directors of this particular branch, is informed of the developing situation. Even though he luxuriates in a cavernous living room, the rich mahogany of its ornate interior boasting a life brimming with accomplishment and prestige, his concern lies with a single safety deposit box in the bank’s vault. He calls in a favor from fixer Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) to help him recover it, for whatever it contains could be embarrassing if it ever fell into the wrong hands.

Yeah, embarrassing. Let’s go with that.

If Owen is the standard to which all other performances must rise Foster proves to be the bare minimum you can get away with, playing a character so deeply rooted in some ethical and moral grey area you’re not sure if she’s being intentionally vague or if the actor ever believed in the part. Despite another wooden performance, she does manage to generate an aura of mystery as she slinks in and out of the shadows, her allegiance to any one group perpetually impossible to verify. (But are the mind games of her own creation, or is that Spike directing one of the most overrated actors working today?)

Spike’s direction assumes the role of surveillance cameras stationed at all corners of a building. The omniscience is really rewarding, as we see the extent to which this event has been planned and organized. In contrast, we come to realize the relative helplessness of a pair of detectives who want to end all of this as peacefully as possible, but who are coming up short on options — not merely because they’re bound by protocol and bureaucracy, either. In this world, the balance of power is almost entirely in the favor of the robbers. The shifting power dynamics make Inside Man a cut above your standard crime/heist thriller and one of Spike Lee’s better offerings.

Clive Owen in 'Inside Man'


Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 6.32.10 PMRecommendation: Inside Man proves to be an involving and thoroughly surprising crime thriller featuring stellar performances from a diverse cast. Despite my qualms with Lee as a human being, his directorial talents can’t be denied. This might be my favorite of his thus far. If you can’t get enough of the bank heist thriller, I definitely would recommend this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “Peter, think very carefully about how you answer the next question, because if you get it wrong, your headstone will read, ‘Here lies Peter Hammond, hero, who valiantly attempted to prevent a brilliant bank robbery by trying to hide his cellular phone, but wound up,’ [presses gun muzzle into Peter’s cheek] ‘getting shot in the f***ing head.’ Now, Peter Hammond, where’s your cell phone?”

All content originally published on Digital Shortbread and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.yify-torrent.org 

Decades Blogathon – Taxi Driver (1976)

Decades Blogathon Banner 20161976So this is the end; the final day of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition. Thank you once again to everyone who made this such a great blogathon. My biggest thanks goes to my partner in crime on this enterprise – Tom from Digital Shortbread. We had a blast with this in 2015 and this year’s event has been just as much fun. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade and it’s my turn to focus on Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 classic Taxi Driver.

Looking to the Academy Awards as a critical barometer for the best films of a given year is, for the most part, as redundant an exercise as swimming through treacle.

The list of Oscar clunkers is long and ignominious and among the most glaring is the dearth of statuettes awarded to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. A browse at the contenders that year reveals some genuine American classics – All The President’s Men, Network – but it was Rocky that knocked them all out to win Best Picture.

Taxi Driver Poster

Whilst great cinema and the sort of Cinderella story Oscar voters love, Rocky is a lightweight compared to Scorsese’s indisputable masterpiece which remains, 40 years on, one of the greatest films ever made and a dramatic tour de force for its star Robert DeNiro.

Although the hellish neon-lit New York City streets have become a chapter best left in the Big Apple’s past, the central conceit of Taxi Driver – a sad, painfully lonely and depressed young man acts out on his rage and resentment in increasingly violent and deluded ways – is a story that in all likelihood will never be far from the news headlines.

As effective as Scorsese’s brilliant visual storytelling and DeNiro’s powerhouse central performance are, without Paul Schrader’s deeply unsettling script Taxi Driver wouldn’t be the classic it is today. Schrader had been going through a messy divorce at the time and poured his damaged soul into the creation of Travis Bickle, using the taxi as the perfect vehicle (sorry) for the ex-Vietnam veteran’s loneliness and alienation.

Travis sees himself as an avenging angel (“a man who would not take it anymore”), who is the embodiment of the rain that will come and wash all the scum off the streets. The voiceover that runs throughout the film – words spoken from a journal he is writing – is both his manifesto and an expression of self-efficacy.

Taxi Driver

This mythologising can be found in Scorsese’s visual style, which gets inside Travis’ unbalanced head space and flits between stark lucidity and fever dream. This is evident in the opening scene, with the taxi cab emerging in slow motion from the steam of the street vents before cutting to a sharp close up of Travis’ uneasy eyes. The visuals of this scene are lent extra weight by Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score (tragically, he died hours after completing it), which opens with a escalating snare drum before switching to a jazzy saxophone for the close up.

Herrmann’s composition, one the most remarkable in cinema history, perfectly soundtracks the nightmare that unfolds, flitting between a militaristic aggression that builds towards the film’s climax and a romantic delusion in the scenes Travis shares with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) (“They. Cannot. Touch. Her.”), a campaign volunteer for presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris).

Taxi Driver

The connection an infatuated Travis tries to form with Betsy is both pitiful and tragic – none more so than when he takes her on a date to watch a skin flick and is surprised when she storms out. Travis sees Betsy as a figure of chastity; someone he can save from the “animals” who prowl the streets and when that goes south he switches his attention to Iris (Jodie Foster), a pre-teen prostitute whom he believes is the personification of innocence in a damned world (the multitude of candles in her bedroom have distinct Catholic overtones).

Although unbalanced, it takes time for Travis to become the mohawk-sporting vigilante we remember and the film adroitly takes us on a journey; which includes a cry for help to seasoned fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle) when he confides that “I’ve got some bad ideas in my head”. While Wizard’s advice is ultimately discounted, his belief that “people become their jobs” rings true in Travis’ case as he becomes as worn down as the tyres of his taxi cab.

Taxi Driver

The film’s finale, desaturated by Scorsese in order to avoid an ‘X’ certificate, retains an almost mythic quality and remains shocking to this day. The bloodbath that we know has been coming (Travis is repeatedly bathed in red light throughout the picture) is almost Grand Guignol in its execution and culminates in one of cinema’s most celebrated shots as Travis, his mission now complete, defiantly raises a blood-soaked finger to his head and pulls the trigger. A story related to Betsy by fellow Palantine volunteer Tom (Albert Brooks) earlier in the film about how the Mafia blow the fingers off of a thief who fouls up has resonance during the gunfight as a mafioso suffers a similar fate at the hands of Travis.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Foster giving a revelatory performance as the tough-talking, but vulnerable Iris, while Harvey Keitel provides a memorable turn as Iris’ pimp ‘Sport’ – but it’s Keitel’s Mean Streets co-star who dominates.

DeNiro famously obtained a cab driver’s license and picked up fares in preparation for the role, while also absorbing the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the man who shot presidential hopeful George Wallace in 1972. DeNiro’s total inhabitation of the character is frightening at times – what light there is in his eyes dims to a black void as he becomes more obsessed with his self-appointed calling.

[spoiler warning]. Much has been spoken of the bravura tracking shot in the aftermath of the battle (is it an out-of-body experience?) and the scene that follows it. Is Travis’ metamorphosis into a tabloid hero real or is it still a fever dream? The very final shot of Travis shooting a look into the rear view mirror of his cab suggests that, if this is indeed reality, his rehabilitation may not be permanent.

“You talkin’ to me?”. A magnificent work of pure existential cinema, Taxi Driver will continues to talk to us for another 40 years and beyond.