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Monday, June 27, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

Well, it could be worse, I suppose. But, really, it ain't a patch on the original.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Twenty years since the events of the original Independence Day, the earth has come together as never before and, making use of the abandoned alien technology to strongly beef up the earth's own tech, are fully armed and equipped to deal with a followup alien invasion. What they get, however, is far more than they could ever have bargained for as it turns out that the original alien spaceship was little more than a scout for something much, much larger and much, much more deadly.

What we thought

A quick disclaimer: Because of all the construction going on at Nu Metro Hyde Park, the cinema in which I saw this film suffered from the quite typical side effect of all the dust screwing with the projection to the effect that the dark scenes were darker than they should be and the light scenes lose much of their sharpness and vividness. That I saw it in screen-darkening 3D didn't exactly help matters either. It's a problem that the Mall at Rosebank still often suffers from and, like there, there's no denying that this hurt my enjoyment of the film and made the film's weaknesses all the harder to overlook. I stand by all my criticisms, however, as they do seem pretty self-evident to me but there's a good chance that you will enjoy it more if you see if properly projected as it should be. Just something to keep in mind.

Anyway...

After years of empty promises and production hell, a sequel to the gloriously cheesy 1996 smash hit has finally hit our screens but, as you may well have feared, it turned out be too little, too late. While the Independence Day was one of the major blockbusters of the '90s – with only mega hits like Jurassic Park and the Matrix keeping it from dominating the decade entirely – its sequel, optimistically entitled Independence Day: Resurgence, probably won't even be remembered as one of the top three blockbusters of the year, never mind decade.

It's not that it's an absolute stinker like some of the dreck that returning director, Roland Emerich, has been involved with in the intervening years (hello, Godzilla!) but it does fall into that old sequel trap of believing bigger is always better and, if ever there was a film to disprove that idea it's – well, it's probably Jurassic Park III but ID: Resurgence makes an honest jump at it as well.

While the first film alternated between very carefully constructed disaster movie set pieces (will anyone ever forget the sight of the destruction of the White House in Independence Day?), bits of very old-fashioned sci-fi action and plenty of character-based comedy, its sequel is a mess of utterly arbitrary destruction, CG-stuffed and thereby incoherent action scenes and enough characters to fill out several dozen sequels but not enough characterization to fill out even one.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

I Saw the Light

I'm starting to think that Love and Mercy has spoiled these kinds of films for me.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Hank Williams, the legendary country musician who set the course for popular music for the next half century but whose personal life was every bit as troubled as the bleak lyrics of his songs suggested.

What we thought

Hank Williams was, in no uncertain terms, one of the single greatest and most influential figures in 20th century popular music. His songs of love and heartbreak all but entirely defined what country music would be from then and on and, just as importantly, if you can't hear the beginnings of early rock and roll in his recordings, then you're clearly not paying any attention at all.

It's a pity then that that this extraordinary – if highly troubled - talent has received such a thoroughly ordinary biopic in the form of I Saw the Light. With its tiresomely familiar tale of fame and self-destruction; genius and assholery, this is pop biopic 101 that commits the fatal flaw of saying much about sex and drugs and, really, not enough about rock and roll.

Admittedly, it isn't helped by being part of a genre that was recently deconstructed by the hilarious (if erratic) Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and then reconstructed by last year's stone-cold brilliant Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy, but the old formula clearly has at least some life left in it. Straight Outta Compton, for example, might be overlong and overrated but tucked in that very indulgent 2.5 hour behemoth is a seriously powerful and vivacious 90 minute pop biopic. Even looking at the film that most obviously inspired Walk Hard, the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, that formula can be turned on its head with a bit of focus and plenty of sharp, lively filmmaking.

The Keeping Room

One day, a truly great "feminist Western" will come along. Sadly, despite its best intentions, this ain't it.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

In the latter days of the American Civil War, a young woman, her teenage sister and their former slave have to fend off their home from a couple of rogue Northern soldiers.

What we thought

Following in the footsteps of Jane Got a Gun, the Keeping Room is another “Feminist Western” that has almost exactly the same strengths and weaknesses of that troubled Natalie Portman vehicle.

The very idea of telling a western from a female point of view is a great one, as it should, in theory at least, breathe some new life into a genre that seemed for a while there to have run out of things to say. This is a story of the civil war told by those that were left behind; traditionally domicile women trying to fend for themselves while their “protectors” and breadwinners are away, perhaps never to return. We find a country bled dry by the war and women and old men having to rely on their own efforts for even the most humble of meals. And, perhaps most intriguingly, we see the daughters of a Southern family suddenly finding themselves on equal footing with their (near-ex) slave; effectively fulfilling the promises of the war almost by accident.

It's intriguing stuff, brought to life by a trio of excellent actresses - with relative newcomer Muna Otaru easily holding her own against more established but similarly young and talented actresses, Brit Marling and, marking her return to the genre that made her famous, Hailee Steinfeld. It's also nicely shot, handsomely mounted and the moments of horror and tragedy do manage to strike a genuinely powerful and moving note when they inevitably but very slowly arrive.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Conjuring 2

Another crummy horror sequel? Maybe not!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Lorraine and Ed Warren are called out of semi-retirement to investigate a case in England where a single mother and her four children are plagued by what seems to be the ghost of the house's former owner.

What we thought

To date, the Conjuring has been the best of James Wan's horror oeuvre (I still enjoy the deliriously nutty Fast and Furious 7 the most of all his films, though) and its sequel pretty easily lives up to its predecessor. Once again, the cliches of Wan's work do occasionally grate (is there anything more predictable than a James Wan jump scare?) but it's otherwise a really solid, nicely creepy little haunted house flick that easily stands out from a crowded and more often than not disappointing crowd.

Once again, a big part of the Conjuring 2's appeal is in its real-world origins. Whether you believe in ghosts, demos and other paranormal phenomena or not is up to you but even if the real case of the Einfeld Poltergeist was a complete hoax, it was at least convincing enough to draw plenty of attention from a number of “experts”. And that's without the high body-count of the Amityville Horror – the events of which actually take place between the end of the last movie and well into the beginning of this one. It also helps that ghosts are unquestionably the most believable horror staple, simply by virtue of death being, as William Shakespeare put it, the “undiscovered country”.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Comics Talk: A Tribute to Darwyn Cooke

Needless to say, I really wish I wasn't writing this column but there was no way I was going to let the untimely death of  one of my all-time favourite comic book creators go unmentioned.

This is obviously from the point of view of a fan. I certainly didn't know the guy at all - didn't even get to meet him at a comic-con like many American or European fans might have - but he did seem pretty damn cool (if utterly intolerant of bullshit) based on the interviews with him I've seen, heard or read. For a particularly lovely tribute to Darwyn Cooke as a man, be sure to check out Josh Flanagan's (from the excellent iFanboy podcast) thoughts on his friend at his blog here and in an emotionally-charged episode of the podcast here where Josh and fellow iFanboys Ron and Conor dedicated the last half hour or so of this week's episode talking about him (as well as their friend and up-and-coming comedian Timmy Wood who also tragically died that same weekend).  

For now, though, here is just another fan's glowing tribute to a true one-of-a-kind comic book master, who passed away all too soon at the age of 53 on 14 May 2016.

And, yes, I will be featuring loads of his spectacular art in this post (it's tempting to feature nothing but). No infringement of copyright intended.