With the good also comes the bad. From Superman as a dangerous alien to Emily Blunt riding a polar bear and the morphing of the word “faces” into “feces” over and over, 2016 offered up a bumper crop of movies that were well past their expiration date long before they hit theatres.
- Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice: In 1984 raspy-throated singer Bonnie Tyler warbled, “I’m holding out for a hero.” At the time I didn’t get the song’s sexy undertones but was reminded of the tune as I watched “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Thirty odd years later it’s quite clear what kind of hero Bonnie Tyler was looking for—“It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet!”— but it’s less certain what kind of hero the city of Metropolis wants or needs.
These are jittery times and “Batman v Superman” is a jittery movie. Luthor’s xenophobic notion that Superman is a dangerous alien, an “other” who we don’t quite understand, is ripped right out of Donald Trump’s playbook. “People hate what they don’t understand,” says Martha Kent (Diane Lane).
Mix that with depictions of the death and destruction on city streets and all-too-familiar shots of buildings with smoke oozing out of them and you’re left with a movie that as feels timely and ripped-from-the-headlines as a movie about tights-wearing superheroes can be.
Other than that it is essentially a long trailer for the next DC superhero ensemble movie tagged on to a WrestleMania style smack down. Director Zack Snyder does have a flair for staging darkly dramatic scenes—Superman surrounded by Mexican Day of the Dead revellers is a stunner and the image of Supes casually kicking the indestructible Batmobile out of frame with a flick of his foot is very cool—but while he is entertaining your eye he does little to engage your brain. There is tons of psuedo-intellectual talk about gods and monsters but it’s all surface, chatter meant to make the film seem smarter than it actually is. Very little of what happens feels motivated by the characters. It mainly feels as though someone came up with a grabby title and crafted a set of circumstances to justify the name. Characters talk and interact with one another but it feels in service of the title, as if they are all simply brand ambassadors, rather than living breathing people.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is bombastic. The experience of watching it is like having a drunk at a bar tell you the story after five beers. It’s loud and in-your-face with the occasional maudlin moment.
There was a time when superhero movies were fun, escapist entertainment. Those days seem to have passed. There are a total of two laughs in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” although there are several other unintentionally laughable moments. Now our caped and cowled heroes are as dark and troubled as a reject from a Kafka novel which, in this case, makes for a rather loud but dreary night at the movies.
- Ben Hur: “Are we having fun now, brother?” Messala (Toby Kebbell) hoots midway through “Ben-Hur,” the fourth big screen adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” It’s a good question. If your tastes run toward “300” with a hint of “Clash of the Titans” or biblical stories laden with action, then the new Timur Bekmambetov directed epic may be just what the gladiator ordered.
A reimagination of Wallace’s book rather than a remake of the classic Charlton Heston film the story sees “Boardwalk Empire’s” Jack Huston in the title role.
The new “Ben-Hur” may be all about forgiveness, but it’s hard to forgive some of Bekmambetov’s filmmaking choices. The frenetic editing is meant to convey a sense of urgency but instead of creating drama the fast cuts only emphasize what an empty exercise this is. The most famous version of the story, 1959’s epic, may be a bit of a slog these days at over three hours, but at least that version allowed us time to get to know and understand the character’s motivations. The latest retelling ignores niceties like allowing the story to unfold gradually, creating creative tension and the old chestnut, showing not telling, opting instead to bombard the screen with random 3-D images that, when strung together, form some semblance of a story.
But what should we expect from the filmmaker behind “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”? He handles the action sequences with a sure hand, imagining the shipwreck from the claustrophobic ship’s lower deck. It’s wet and wild and over-the-top, but at least it isn’t boring. Ditto the classic climatic chariot race. You can’t tell Ben-Hur’s story without it, and Bekmambetov throws his camera in the middle of the action. It’s a festival of CGI and action movie tropes that lacks the classic sensibility of some earlier versions, but has one or two shots that are exciting and different. It’s just too bad we don’t know more about the charioteers other than Ben and Messala. We know they’re probably not going to survive, but the stakes might have been higher if we at least knew who they were.
In this new translation of the tale Judah Ben-Hur learns to leave behind his human desires and think in divine terms. It’s a good message but there is nothing divine about it’s telling.
- Dirty Grandpa: I figure the new Robert De Niro comedy is called, simply and inelegantly, “Dirty Grandpa” because “Filthy-Foul-Mouthed-Misogynist-Sex-Crazed-Pervert-Filthy-Rotten-Old-Coot-Grandpa” was too ungainly for the marquee.
“Dirty Grandpa” is credited to one writer but feels like it was penned by a group of drunken frat boys on the beer and bourbon binge. What, I guess, is supposed to be a funny look at aging and making the most of the time we all have, is reduced to a spectacle of a once revered thespian calling his lawyer grandson “Alan Douceowitz.” If this were a drinking game where you took a shot every time De Niro says “vagina” (and all of that word’s derivations) or any number of other words I can’t print here you’d have alcohol poisoning half an hour in. It mistakes politically incorrect “did he really just say that” jokes for actual humour.
Then there is the presence of the great man himself. I can forgive Zac Efron’s participation in “Dirty Grandpa,” he’s young and the idea of starring with De Niro (who he imitated rather perfectly in “Neighbors”) must have been irresistible but what is the star of “Taxi Driver” doing here? At one point Jason yells, “What the ‘bleep’ is wrong with you?” at him repeatedly. It’s a legit question. Perhaps it’s time for a career intervention. For the good of all of cinema let’s get David O. Russell to talk to De Niro before he accepts “Dirty Grandpa Pt. 2.”
“Dirty Grandpa” is the kind of film that, one day, De Niro’s great-grandchildren will watch and wonder what all the fuss about him was.
- The Huntsman: Winter War: Once upon a time there was a movie called “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Starring Hollywood princesses Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, it was a dark reimagining of the classic story that played like the love child of the Brothers Grimm and “The Hobbit” with two compelling characters, warrior Snow White and the villainous Ravenna.
Another film was inevitable, but how do you make a sequel when KStew busy making art films and Ravenna didn’t make it to the end credits? Easy, you rehire Theron, play mix and match “Frozen” and “Game of Thrones” and hope for the best.
I’m not sure what to call “The Huntsman: Winter’s War.“ It’s not a sequel or a prequel and yet it is both. Officially I suppose we’re supposed to call it a “sprequel”; I call it bloated, confusing and worst of all, dull. You would think that any movie featuring Emily Blunt riding a polar bear would be great fun but you’d be wrong. From the half hour of narration that opens the story to the cavalcade of CGI and bad accents—Hemsworth and Chastain easily beat Kevin Costner for worst-ever cinematic British Isles burrs—to sloppy storytelling, this is a grim, not Brothers Grimm tale.
Bad accent aside Hemsworth brings some swagger to the role of Eric, Chastain tries to keep a straight face and sidekicks Frost, Brydon, Smith and Roach create a badly needed sense of fun to the proceedings. Blunt isn’t given much to do, aside from her rather stunning entrance in the polar bear but Theron actually disappoints. In the first film she’s a hoot, a bundle of bad intentions gathered up in one pretty package. Here she’s not the same figure of malicious amusement but oddly disconnected and not nearly as much fun.
Over long “The Huntsman: Winter’s War“ drones on for almost two hours until the narrator (Liam Neeson) reappears. As his dulcet tones close the movie with something to the effect of the story may be over “but fairy talks never end,” it doesn’t seem so much like an ending as it does a threat that they might make a sequel to this mess.
- Independence Day: Resurgence: “That is definitely bigger than the last one,” says David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum).
He’s talking about the alien spaceship that puts our planet in peril in “Independence Day: Resurgence,” the twenty-years-in-the-making sequel to Will Smith’s 90s mega-hit, but he could also be talking about the movie itself. It’s certainly bigger and louder than the original, but is it better?
In the two decades since the first invasion the world has become a better place. “Our survival is only possible when we stand together,” says President Lanford (Sela Ward). The White House has been rebuilt, a woman is President and countries now work together. There’s a military installation on the moon and using the ET technology salvaged from the downed spaceships they have safe guarded the planet from another attack.
Or so almost everyone thought.
At their best big special effects movies like this should fill the viewer with wonder. Large-scale spectacle, like the world on the verge of collapse, should fill us with shock and awe but in “Independence Day: Resurgence” we have to settle for an unsettling sense of déjà vu. It’s a movie that exists as an excuse to showcase the special effects in a cynical attempt to recycle an idea that worked well enough the first time. Not only have we seen virtually everything here in the original film, we’ve seen similar images in every end-of-the-world movie from the last twenty years. Here they are bigger and louder, but not better.
Ditto the dialogue. It feels like a first draft to the original movie, updated for a new cast. Goldblum is always a welcome presence but he’s saddled with terrible, trite words and he gets most of the good lines. It’s the kind of movie were people ask questions instead of saying anything interesting. “How the hell did we miss this?” “What’s going on?” Or the classic, “What the…??!!,” delivered with mouth agape. It’s less a script than a series of catchphrases and questions cobbled together and sounds like it was all run through the Blandizer® before being handed over to the actors.
It’s the kind of movie where you root for the aliens, hoping they make quick work of humanity because that would be less painful than sitting through one more minute of this mess. You don’t watch “Independence Day: Resurgence,” you subject yourself to it because even though it could be the end of humanity there’s no real humanity here, just empty heroics.
I really hated “Independence Day: Resurgence.” It’s a popcorn flick but this popcorn stale. “Independence Day”? More like “Groundhog Day.” We’ve seen it before and better.
- Mother’s Day: “Mother’s Day,” a look at mother’s and daughters featuring a Holiday Parade Womb Float bundle stars of dubious box office power in a big, glittery package with all the joy and emotional resonance of a Budweiser Clydesdale commercial.
“Mother’s Day” is filled to over flowing with faux heart warming moments, like a Lifetime movie on steroids. It hits all the emotional hot buttons—a dead wife who also happens to be a veteran, abandonment, first love, an awkward dad, kids growing up too fast—and tops off the whole thing with two, count ‘em two, dewy-eyed American sweethearts, Roberts and Aniston. To avoid troubling the audience with actual human emotions Marshall runs the whole thing through The Sitcomizer™ to ensure maximum blandness and erase the possibility that viewers will see something they haven’t already witnessed a hundred times before.
None of that would matter much if the movie was funny but real laughs are scarcer than last minute Mother’s Day brunch reservations. A likeable cast is wasted on a movie that panders to greeting card sentiment and slapstick.
The best part of “Mother’s Day” is that it puts Marshall one closer to running out of holidays to cinematically celebrate. What’s next? Hug Your Cat Day starring Courteney Cox and Luke Perry?
- My Big Fat Wedding 2: It’s hard not to sound cynical and grumpy when reviewing a movie like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.” It is a fourteen-years-in-the-making sequel to one of the biggest grossing romantic comedies of all time, and while it has much of the warmth as the original, it feels warmed over.
Nia Vardalos leads the reunited cast in a story that’s all about mothers and daughters, grandparents and kids, nieces and nephews, brothers, one overbearing aunt and a long lost brother. In other words, it’s all about family.
It’s a catch-all for every crowd-pleasing clichés about big families. Let’s teach an old guy how to use a computer! Kids leaving home! Wait, there’s an inappropriate aunt! Battle of the sexes! No stereotype goes unturned in a screenplay (once again penned by Vardalos) that feels as bloated as an overstuffed Yemista.
Under all the clutter, however, are the characters. Vardalos doesn’t blaze any new ground here but she does stay true to the characters that made the first film such a hit. Gus is still a sitcom stereotype who thinks the Greeks invented everything, but Constantine brings him to life despite the weight of the clichés. Ditto Andrea Martin as the randy Aunt Voula and Kazan as the boisterous Maria. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” is a cartoon, an ethnic exaggeration, but the ensemble embraces it.
There’s not an ounce of cynicism here, and I think audiences might respond to the sweet open heartedness of Vardalos and company, but there isn’t a lot of originality here either.
- Norm of the North: There will be a time in the near future when “Inside Out” and “Norm of the North” will be listed on your Netflix queue as animated films, but make no mistake they don’t belong in the same category. Where “Inside Out” is a happy serving of eye candy topped with a transcendent story, “Norm” seems to exist not as a story but simply as a vessel for cute characters.
“Norm of the North” is as entertaining as you’d think a children’s cartoon starring Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo will be. It’s cut rate Saturday morning cartoon level animation—some scenes don’t even look fully rendered—that relies on kid-friendly characters rather than story or jokes. In other words, if “Inside Out” is the Ferrari of kids animation, sleek and well-made, “Norm of the North” is the Edsel.
It assumes children don’t need entertainment that works on any other level than, ”Where can I buy a cute stuffed Norm doll?” Despite its family friendly messages about friends, family and loyalty, the movie doesn’t try and disguise its cynical heart. At the spokesbear audition Vera gushes over Norm, “He’s cute and marketable, it’s perfect.” You can only imagine a similar conversation in the design phase for this movie. Also, is Norm’s description of Mr. Greene as “a creepy one note villain” dialogue from the script or a passage from the stage directions that accidentally made it into the film? It’s hard to know.
“Norm of the North” has little to recommend it. Padded with dance numbers—two in the first fifteen minutes alone—and montages, the best that can be said is that bad movies like this are important to remind us that the Pixar movies aren’t flukes.
- Suicide Squad: Tired of good guys? The Captain Americas, ‘yer Iron Men or Wondrous Women? If their virtuous acts and heroic posing are wearing thin or not to your liking, along comes a crew of anti-heroes willing to bend the rules to protect the planet. “We’re the bad guys,” says Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), “it’s what we do.”
Based on the DC Comic of the same name, the Suicide Squad a.k.a. Task Force X, is a ragtag team of death row villains sprung from jail by a secret government agency run by ruthless bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). “In a world of flying men and monsters,” she says, “this is the only way to protect our country.”
When it gets down to the nitty-gritty of the team in battle against “non-human entities” the C.G.I. kicks into high gear, covering every inch of the screen, and “Suicide Squad” becomes considerably less interesting. Set to a classic rock soundtrack the large-scale action scenes are muddled, dark and rather generic, especially given the special skills of each of the combatants.
About the Squad. For a group of psychopaths they sure seem to be OK people. The worst thing they do—minus the wholesale carnage the government allows them to create—is go temporarily AWOL for a drink in between battles. Over cocktails they discuss life, love and motivations. There are rom coms with more edge.
On the plus side “Suicide Squad” doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as “Batman v Superman.” On the downside director David Ayer took a premise that gave him permission to go as far overboard as he wanted and yet the movie feels familiar, like it is trying to echo the very movies it should be an antidote to.
- Zoolander 2: “Zoolander 2,” the fifteen years in the making follow-up to the 2001 comedy hit, finds former “Blue Steel” supermodel Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) “out of fashion,” literally and figuratively. Following a tragic event involving his wife and his Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good, Derek stepped away from fashion and the world. He now lives the life of a “hermit crab,” complete with a long beard that obscures his “really, really, really, really, really ridiculously good looking face.”
“Zoolander 2’s” main joke isn’t the Blue Steel, the pouty-lipped move that made Zoolander a superstar, or the dim-witted antics of Derek and Hansel. No, the movie’s best joke is its commentary on how quickly the best-by date comes for modern day celebrities. The speed of popular culture has revved considerably since 2001 and what seems hip today may be passé tomorrow. Fashion is fleeting, as cameos from Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger, Marc Jacobs demonstrate, but the big question is has “Zoolander 2” reached its expiration date?
I usually avoid the scatological in my reviews but suffice to say any movie whose best joke involves the morphing of the word “faces” into feces over and over, that features a hotel made of “reclaimed human waste” and subtitles itself with “No. 2” is really asking for it.
To put it more delicately, villain Mugato marvels at how “super white hot blazingly stupid” Derek is, and you’ll do the same thing about the film. Stupid can be OK if it’s funny but “Zoolander 2” leaves the laughs on the runway.
Special Mention: Knight of Cups: Sometimes it can be hard to be a Terrence Malick fan. At their best the director’s poetic films are soulful investigations of the human spirit. His greatest movies—“Tree of Life,” “Badlands”—are masterworks of spiritual introspection but his worst work crosses the lane into pretention in a way that makes Kanye West’s Twitter account look humble. It can be a struggle to actually enjoy some of his work, but never have I battled with a Malick movie the way I did with “Knight of Cups.” Fought to stay in my seat until the end. It’s a cure for insomnia not unlike watching expensive, glossy paint dry.
Broken into chapters with titles like Judgment, Death and The Hanged Man, the film stars Christian Bale as Rick, a successful but desperately unhappy Hollywood screenwriter. Like an extended episode of “Seinfeld” were nothing happens, Rick wanders around the screen accompanied by a series of beautiful women—Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer and Freida Pinto—but ultimately cannot find joy with any of them. He strolls through life with a sad sack expression on his face that makes Sad Keanu seem jubilant, moving from woman to woman, rueing, “All of those years living a life of someone I did not know.”
Apparently inspired by the 1678 Christian allegory “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and the passage “Hymn of the Pearl” from “The Acts of Thomas,” “Knight of Cups,” is, I suppose supposed to be a dreamy look into one man’s life, but is this a sense memory visualized for the big screen or is it just the self-indulgent ramblings of an auteur? As Helen (Pinto) tells Rick, “Dreams are nice but you can’t live in them.”
Part of the problem is Malick’s storytelling, or more rightly, lack thereof. The film follows Malick’s trademarked impressionistic style but seems to have been assembled by a Random Shot Generator. Indiscriminate images of Los Angeles flood the screen—wild parties, an Antonio Banderas cameo, earthquakes, palm trees, movie studio back lots—accompanied by mumbled dialogue and Bale’s grim face.
It’s hard to feel compassion or anything else for Rick as he stumbles through relationship after relationship because we are never given any clue as to who he is. He’s a cipher, the walking conundrum with an attitude. If I wanted to spend two hours watching someone having a mid-life crisis I’d look in the mirror rather than spend another minute concerning myself with Rick’s troubles.
I gave “Knight of Cups” one out of five stars because there is something there. I’m just not sure what it is and I’m not sure Malick does either. Tedium, thy name is “Knight of Cups.”