Since I no longer have the time to write full-length reviews anymore, I decided that this might be a way for those of you who check in here for a thumbs up or down on a current movie to get a quick snapshot of what I’m thinking about what’s in theaters, and I can work on being succinct (LOL). It’s actually an important skill which eludes me too often when I need it, so I’ll appreciate the opportunity to practice as much as hopefully you will the info.
JASON BOURNE ** (perhaps *** for pure action fans)
Fans of pure action/thrillers are cheering (at least if opening-week box office numbers are any indication) at the return of Jason Bourne to the cinema, with Matt Damon once again playing the iconic role that he created when Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Trilogy (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum) was made into movies back in the early 2000s. Universal Studios is probably happy too, since Damon’s Bourne films were some of its most profitable action films, yet once they ran out of Ludlum books and wanted to reboot the franchise with Jeremy Renner (2012’s The Bourne Legacy), the box office returns were ho-hum at best. I’m not sure whose idea it was to bring Damon back in a new, “original” Bourne film, but whoever it was is heaving big sighs of relief–this one’s a winner, at least for the hard-core genre fans (males over 34).
That’s not to say that this is some great piece of filmmaking, or even good for that matter. Robert Ludlum has died, after all, so therefore it’s up to Director Paul Greengrass and the producers to come up with the story, which they do, mostly by dressing up the old stories with new locations and characters. Jason Bourne is looking for the truth about his past, just like in the other films. Clues appear to be wrapped up in some off-the-books CIA black op that no one is supposed to know about (good-bye “Treadstone,” hello “Iron Hand”). If anyone does find out, heads will roll in the CIA (Tommy Lee Jones’s is on the block here), but Bourne might finally find the missing clue to who he really is if he exposes it, just like in the other films. He’s assisted, like it or not, by some beautiful woman who may or may not die and/or betray him (Alicia Vikander gets the nod this time), just like in the other films. And in between periods of brooding over computers in deserted buildings and stalking rapidly like a monosyllabic robot through crowds in foreign cities, Bourne is kicking ass in lightning fast and startlingly violent close-combat scenes and/or dashing or driving through sensationally impossible chases, just like in the other films. The title has the name Bourne in it, just like in the other films, except in this case, apparently exhausted from coming up with all the afore-mentioned “originality” and bereft of Ludlum’s keen vocabulary, the producers just attach Bourne’s first name to his last and say to hell with it.
What is sorely missing, of course, is Ludlum’s finesse in weaving the various story elements into a narrative with high emotional stakes and heart (which the other films did have), and, though a flickering attempt to work in a thematic conscience is made through a Mark Zuckerberg sort of character (played well by Riz Ahmed), that element ultimately comes across as just an afterthought. This is an action film, period.
But hey, for many, that’s all that matters, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. If that’s you, go and enjoy! If you’re needing something more, don’t waste your time.
STAR TREK; BEYOND ***
I came out of the theater after seeing this third installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise feeling like I’d just watched a really expensive, big-screen version of one of the old Star Trek TV episodes from back in the 60’s-70’s. That has good and bad consequences: the good being that it’s highly entertaining and fun; bad because it has very limited appeal for anyone who isn’t old enough to remember those good ole days, or the original movie franchise from the 80s-90s. 75% of its opening-week audience were over 25; not such a good thing for an expensive, big-screen “TV episode” trying to make a profit on its $160 million budget. Irregardless, though, this was a lot-of-fun experience for me.
The same stars are back for this wild ride into a distant nebula where peril awaits our heroes and their venerable Starship Enterprise. Those would be Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg (who also wrote the screenplay), John Cho, Karl Urban, and the late Anton Yelchin (whose shocking death recently from an unfortunate encounter with his own car still has me shaking my head in disbelief). That peril is dished out by a vengeful demagogue named Krall (Idris Elba) and his myriad of mechanical locusts, along with some requisite thugs.
All performances are solid, and the chemistry particularly between Kirk (Pine), Spock (Quinto), McCoy (Urban), and Uhura (Saldana) just gets better with each new film in this franchise. And there’s a cool “guest star,” Sofia Boutella, who does a fine turn as an orphaned rebel and gives Scottie (Pegg) someone to hang out with. If the film has a downer, it’s in its villain. It’s too bad that a fine actor like Elba is wasted in what ends up being a very one-note role, especially when compared to Benedict Cumberbatch’s dazzling coming-out party as the iconic Khan in the franchise’s last installment (Star Trek; Into Darkness).
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS **1/2
I had read from other critics that this new film from Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment (he of Gru, Despicable Me, and creator of Minions) had a lot of over-arching appeal for both young and old because of how it explored the bond between humans and their pets. Unfortunately, with the possible exception of its first five minutes and maybe its last, The Secret Life of Pets is nothing more than your standard talking-animal romp, with all the depth of a puddle in the street after a modest rainstorm.
Here we have all the usual trappings; a fun, funny, feisty hero surrounded by all sorts of other cuties and weirdoes on some simply-plotted and occasionally harrowing journey that keeps the kids enthralled while the adults get to snicker and giggle at the more-than-occasional off-color and more “mature” situations and jokes spouted by the characters that (they hope) go right over their children’s heads. It’s not that it’s not funny, or fun, or cute. This movie is all that by the barrel-full. But if you’re looking for something more (like thematic issues explored in Zootopia for example) or something with more “depth” (as in Finding Dory), or even something more heart-tugging (like in Melendari’s original Despicable Me), you won’t find that here. This is animated entertainment on the strictly “typical” level.
THE BFG **1/2
Stephen Spielberg is a Hollywood legend, and deservedly so. The man’s work is not only some of the most honored in modern film history (through historical dramas like Lincoln, Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies, Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, etc.), but he, in the 1980s and 90s, virtually created the movie genre that now dominates studio filmmaking; the all-ages action/adventure blockbuster franchise, now more properly called the “4-quadrant” film (young and old, male and female). Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Men in Black, even Transformers all bear his creative genius at some level and laid the foundation for countless other (mostly pale) imitations and movie-making trends. And those don’t even count what is considered by audiences and critics alike to be among the finest films ever made; his family-friendly E.T. – The Extraterrestrial. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of Hollywood’s most profitable films of all time, its $10 million budget fetching a cool $435 million in worldwide box-office sales. That’s a 4350% profit, not counting for inflation!
It was that kind of magic that Spielberg was hoping to recreate in this new film, The BFG, based on a book by oddball children’s author Roald Dahl, whose more well-known efforts include James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A favorite of his that he’d often read to his children, Spielberg finally felt that the technology existed to make this story, about a girl who gets kidnapped by a Big Friendly Giant, look and feel real to the audience. He even assembled many of his original band of creatives from back in the E.T. days to help him. It was going to be a great, nostalgic effort that would bring the magic of the simple children’s story back to a new generation, and of course, they’d all flock to it, along with their nostalgic parents.
But one thing you learn right off in screenwriting is that success is all about choices that you make before you even start to write; chiefly the choice of story or what we call concept. And after that come other choices; characters, location, plot, etc. Good choices make for a marketable, hopefully profitable screenplay. Not so good ones lead to months of largely wasted effort.
The BFG, unfortunately, is a textbook example of bad choices. Spielberg may have loved to read this book to his kids, but that was a long time ago, and kids’ tastes have changed dramatically with the current obsession with technology, the ubiquitous presence of “screens” to plop down in front of (instead of making the effort to read), and the constant demand this puts into a child’s mind for action, titillation, loud noises, and wowie-zowie visual entertainment. This film, while masterfully made, is the antithesis of that. It’s quiet, quirky, set in the 80’s (we even have Queen Elizabeth making a call to “Ronnie” Reagan), and above all, sweet, with much of its humor derived from (of all things) silly wordplay ala Dr. Seuss. Regardless of how unfortunate it might be, kids just don’t “get” this kind of film anymore–at least not on a massive scale–and neither do their parents.
So the bad choice of story was then compounded by the bad choice of when to “bow” (or open) the movie. A date right in the midst of the summer “blockbuster” season was chosen, where this masterfully made, quaint, quirky film would somehow have to find an audience among children already clamoring to see films like Finding Dory and The Legend of Tarzan, Warcraft (based on a video game, no less), and the new Independence Day film.
The result is a wonderfully made, quiet, quirky, quaint film about a Big Friendly Giant (played so sweetly by British theater star Mark Rylance) who kidnaps a little girl (Ruby Barnhill–a suitably fiesty find) and ends up saving her and England from the Big, Bad giants, that nobody wanted to go see. Even I, who am in Spielberg’s age echelon and has spent a lifetime working with children trying to put magic back into reading and help them discover their imaginations again, found the story so dated that much of it just seemed boring.
I feel bad for Mr. Spielberg, who must feel awful somewhere inside that his dream project has turned into one of the biggest box-office bombs of 2016. I guess even the very best in the biz isn’t immune to the consequences of poor choices. And, in a way, I wish kids, and society in general, haven’t sped up so much that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy this kind of film anymore. But in the end, I doubt that this is the film that will define Mr. Spielberg’s legacy, though it may provide a poignant cautionary tale for all of us who seek success in the various strains of the entertainment business.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN ***
So far, this summer of sequels, reboots, and “beloved” book adaptations has proven largely a bust, at least for me. This reboot, though, is a happy exception. David Yates, doing his first film in literally a decade whose title doesn’t begin with “Harry Potter and…” broadens his scope and delivers his first big-budget action/adventure without the creative genius of author J.K. Rowling behind it in a way that’s just as magically engaging as his epic Potter adaptations.
I was hooked from the film’s opening scenes, which take place in post-Victorian England. We see John Clayton, 5th Lord of Greystoke and Peer of the British House of Lords (Alexander Skarsgard), in deep discussion with other politicians about recent actions by King Leopold of Belgium that seem to suggest that a wanton military operation is about to take place in areas of central Africa that will have dire consequences both for the realm and the free natives of the region. As all this goes on, we see Clayton’s wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who’s anything but a simpering Victorian gentlewoman, spending time with her children and making sure that the house is ship-shape. Back in the meeting, John Clayton asks the inevitable “why me” question, and one of the group, a black American marksman named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), pulls out an old dime novel with a familiar title on it. Yup, I’m hooked…
From there, it’s quickly to Africa and non-stop adventure as John “me Tarzan,” Jane “you Jane,” and George seek out the nefarious Belgian expedition, led by King Leopold’s heartless henchman Leon Rom (a deliciously devilish Christoph Waltz). With the help of Tarzan’s minions of old friends (both two and four-footed), the trio fight to protect a matchless treasure and save the duped natives from imminent destruction.
While this is certainly no “great” movie, it is very good in that it exploits its premise to the fullest and accomplishes its purpose, to be a highly entertaining adventure, to the max. John, Jane, George, and Rom are all characters drawn with uncommon finesse by the screenwriters and played with enthusiastic verve by the cast. Skarsgard and Robbie breathe enthusiastic life and joy into their roles, something that’s been sorely missed in earlier Tarzan adaptations, and Jackson and Waltz are at their quirky and diabolical best (respectively) as George and bad-guy Rom. Action sequences are as eye-popping as any in the Potter films, and the African cinematography is constantly breath-taking.
Here’s one to catch in a theater if you still can, or definitely put on your Blu-Ray/VOD wish list if you can’t, while you wait for Yates’s next effort this Christmas; Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them, story and screenplay by (of course) J.K. Rowling.
INDEPENDENCE DAY; RESURGENCE **
Despite the appearance of virtually everyone from the original cast of Roland Emmerich’s ground-breaking (and ground-shaking) first Independence Day film, which hit theaters exactly twenty years ago, the weird, uneven, even parody-like story and script here pretty much rendered this new sequel a sputtering space-wreck well before its final climactic implosion.
Much as I enjoyed seeing the old gang (Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, et al) face the alien invaders again along with a promising bunch of newcomers (Liam Hemsworth, Jesse T. Usher, Maika Monroe, Joey King, and more), I’m not sure any of them knew exactly what kind of movie they were in or how they were supposed to act. I mean, what does Judd Hirsch, Joey King, and a busload of other kids do in a scene where their wayward school bus is being pursued by a giant alien machine in the middle of a battle-royale between humans and aliens; scream bloody murder (like the kids did), or drive obliviously along like Grandpa on a Sunday spin (like Judd Hirsch did)? And what am I supposed to do in the audience; be terrified and on the edge of my seat, or laugh my head off at the utter absurdity of how it was played?
Unfortunately, there were many more such corny moments than there were genuinely thrilling sci-fi action/adventure moments here, and the resulting confusion, along with plot holes the size of moon craters, really dampened down the fun I had hoped to have with this film.
The special effects, of course, were jaw-dropping, but millions spent on giant space-ship battles, etc. don’t mean a whole lot if the story is so rickety and uneven. Perhaps you’ll think different (I hope you do), but for me, this Independence Day fire-cracker turned out to be a disappointing dud.