The Neon Demon (2016)

I had a hard time seeing this movie. I had intended to go to one showing, only to arrive at the theater and discover the showtime had been canceled. So, I found the nearest theater screening it, and I went to that one instead. When you’ve seen Drive, you do these sorts of things for a Nicolas Winding Refn film.

Was the effort worth it? Yes and no.

The Neon Demon centers around Jesse (Elle Fanning of Maleficent). She wants to be a model, and everyone seems to think she’s got it. The whole package. Next big thing. And here’s what’s inherently wrong with that: she doesn’t.

Elle Fanning, as beautiful and talented as she may be, is not the third coming of runway goddesses. You see her and you think she’s an actress playing a model, not an actress being one. She sticks out. Beauty can be objective, but superlatives are not. She looks less like a catwalker than a model for a Target ad, and yet she’s treated like something different. I could not get over it.

As for the rest of the film, Winding Refn has reached the peak of his self-indulgence. There is necrophilia and cannibalism (to say more would spoil it), and his themes are too plentiful and buried too deep to understand them all. Is a mountain lion random, or… what?

Don’t get me wrong; there are some fantastically surreal sequences in this film, all enhanced by another great score by Cliff Martinez. There just aren’t enough, and no amount of directorial showboating can make up for that. A third act twist redeems the film, but only because of its boldness.

So much of this film, as much as I hate to admit it, does not have a true purpose. When a scene lingers, it’s usually to make you wait for something carnal. It’s like it’s testing how much you can handle.

Nicolas Winding Refn is a visionary, without question, and yet I don’t always like what he sees. I can respect his work, though, like I can respect a showing of modern art. If you don’t love this film, you don’t dislike it–you just “don’t get it.”

One thing’s for sure: few filmmakers are as brazen right now as Nicolas Winding Refn.

2.5

The Neon Demon is in theaters now.

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E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

What would we do without Steven Spielberg?

Here is a man who has done what so many storytellers long to do, and yet so few accomplish: he has achieved immortality through his stories, both by his telling and our remembering.

I had the opportunity, like with Raiders of the Lost Ark, to see this film in a theater, and it was worth every penny. I even got my mom to go, which is hard to do, because she still remembered how it made her feel. This film is essential cinema for a growing child, and yet often not for the reasons you might think.

Young boys and girls in movies these days are so safe, their experiences glazed over until you’re not sure they’ve lived in the world at all. They are model children, not real ones. Elliott, though, feels entirely authentic. He calls his brother “penis breath,” for crying out loud. At some point along the way, studios seemed to forget that children do not exist in isolation, free of influence, but rather in a world full of adults.

E. T., the alien, does not necessarily teach us that, but it’s something I noticed. At some point, we began to shelter our children from the world, and it’s done us a great disservice. We become adults by acting like them, and yet our naivety gives us away. This film taught me how the world used to be, and made me wish I could bring it back.

In case you haven’t seen it–come on–the story revolves around an alien who misses the ship back home, and a young boy and his family help him return to his people. Everyone in the family, for the most part, falls in love with the innocent, hobbling alien, and it only makes the end all the more tearful. The film is funny and heartbreaking, often in adjacent beats, and late screenwriter Melissa Mathison should be given all the credit in the world. She gifted the world with a creature who is living on Earth for the first time, and does not hesitate to show us the love and terror that comes with it.

Of all the classic Spielberg films of yesteryear, this is one of his most memorable. If you saw this as a child, as I did, it is a formative experience. Seeing it now, I felt like a child again, and I’m sure you do too. Seeing it now, I was able to look at the world through a lens I’d long thought broken.

We do not stay young forever, and we see the world until we take it for granted. There become fewer and fewer things that we can experience for the first time, things we can see that we’ve never seen before. This film will last forever, in the end, because of a single ingredient: the marvelous feeling of novelty, the ecstasy and the agony of a new experience. Or, more simply, wonder.

4

E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.

Back to the Future (1985)

I didn’t see this film for the first time until last year, and I think I’ve seen it six or seven times since. There is something undeniably charming about this film, even if certain aspects of it haven’t aged well.

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) knows a mad scientist named Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). The Doc has a time-travel machine, and when he shows it off, he gets killed by random terrorists in a parking lot. Marty drives away, and inadvertently goes back to 1955. Once there, he becomes the object of his mother’s infatuation, and he must work to ensure his parents still end up together, all while finding a way to the future to save the Doc.

The entire plot with his mother and father is more enjoyable than it is creepy, especially in the hands of writer-director Robert Zemeckis. When McFly is taken back to 1955, his every action carries a consequence, and yet he still manages to somehow keep the proper future in order. Watching it on TV, I think I had a smile on my face the entire time, if only because the hijinks fall so perfectly into place.

The only real problem is that the scenes in the present day (1985) seem to be more dated than the scenes in ’55. The filmmakers did not have the ability to look back on their present, and so it becomes a time capsule of the most unintentional sort.

Back to the Future paved new roads for films that could never quite measure up, but it never needed roads to find its own way. For a movie about running out of time, it’s pretty timeless so far.

3.5

Back to the Future is available on Blu-ray, digital, and DVD.

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

Maika Monroe deserves better. So does Jeff Goldblum. So does everyone involved in this film, creators and viewers alike.

Independence Day: Resurgence works off the same sort of theme as last year’s exemplary Jurassic World: in the last twenty years, we’ve come to expect bigger and badder (with more teeth). Twenty years ago, we saved the world from an alien invasion, and now they’ve come back in bigger ships to destroy us. There are a bunch of subplots stuffed in to make you think you’re not wasting your time, but you are.

You have your hunky leads and your returning players, as well as more new characters that connect the two. Maika Monroe, so fantastic in It Follows, really shines in this regard, finding dimension in a mostly functional role. Jeff Goldblum and Liam Hemsworth do good jobs, as well, but even they aren’t given much to work with.

The graphics are cool, but derivative. The direction is decent, but routine. By the time the film reaches the third act, if you’re still paying attention, you wonder if the location choice was a budgetary concern. When the film ended (setting up for the next one), I got up from my seat and left, devoid of emotion.

I really wish I cared enough about this film to dislike it, but I couldn’t care less. Did they really have to make this? This film is so pointless and vapid, I wish we’d never declared our independence at all.

1

Independence Day: Resurgence is in theaters now. Watch something else.

Free State of Jones (2016)

If you don’t care about injustice, you won’t like this film. But then again, if that’s the case, you won’t be seeing this film at all.

Free State of Jones is about Newton Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey, a Confederate soldier who deserts the army after the death of his son. He forms a community of other deserters and freed slaves, and they combat the injustices set forth by the Confederacy. There are also a few flash-forwards to Knight’s descendant as he fights for the right to marry whom he pleases.

For the most part, the film works. Clocking in at around 139 minutes, it feels closer to four hours, but I wasn’t really bored throughout. The production design is entirely believable, and the cinematography makes the most of already beautiful scenery. McConaughey and Mahershala Ali give poignantly nuanced performances.

I did not think I would enjoy this film too much, but I did. I doubt I’ll remember it come awards season, and yet there was a lot of merit in it. The worst part is that it’s still relevant, and might be forever.

2.5

Free State of Jones is in theaters now.

[At my showing, there was a horrible malfunction with the on-screen text, but I’m not sure if that is the fault of the film itself. Still, though, it ruined certain parts, and the text should have been moved to safe lines.]

The Shallows (2016)

Hitchcock once talked about the difference between surprise and suspense. He said that if you want to surprise an audience, make a bomb go off under the table. The surprise will wear off, and you’ll move on. If you want to keep them interested, though, you show them the bomb under the table, and you make them wait for it to explode.

Ever since Jaws, we’ve been conditioned to feel this sort of suspense in the ocean. If you look at a surfboard from under the water, or if something seems a little too quiet, you just know there’s going to be a shark attack. The Shallows feeds off this fear, for what makes a pretty effective motion picture.

At the start of the film, a GoPro camera washes up on a beach, and it’s got a video of its owner being attacked by a shark. The tension, even when it’s not actively present, still lingers from this moment onward. Nancy Adams (Blake Lively, The Age of Adaline) has gone all the way down to Mexico to a beach her mother went to years before. On her surfboard, she sees a bleeding whale, and it’s there that the shark attacks her. She makes her way to the nearest rock, and she spends the rest of the film trying to get back on land, narrowly avoiding the shark every time. She’s even got a cute companion, Steven Seagull (no joke).

If you’d told me that a script like this could get made, I’d have laughed in your face. A massive chunk of the film takes place on or near this rock, and yet you can’t help but watch. Director Jaume Collet-Serra sets the stage with just enough conflict to keep the film afloat. It’s like All is Lost: if all else fails, at least you can look at your attractive star.

It may not be a revolution in cinema, but it still bites. Sure, a few parts are on the nose, but it really knows how to swim. (There’s your pun fix.)

Before the shark attack, this would be a great commercial for the ocean. After the shark attack, it is a good film about how to survive in it. It can be tenser than tightropes.

Just don’t watch it near the shore.

3

The Shallows is in theaters now.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

It really doesn’t get much more classic than this, not to me.

I had the opportunity to see this in a theater–which may not sound like a big deal to you–and I found a way. There is something about watching a film like this on a screen bigger than your field of view, with sounds that attack you on every side. I noticed the actual stereo components of the score and mix, like a French horn off to the left in a dramatic moment. I mean, do you know how incredible that is? You couldn’t truly get this experience from any place but the cinema.

In case you’re one of the two civilized people who hasn’t seen this movie, it’s about Indiana Jones, an archaeologist played by Harrison Ford. The Nazis are trying to steal the Ark of the Covenant, and Jones is tasked with finding it first.

I won’t spoil it for you, but this movie is a real treat from start to finish. And it has a dream team, too, with Steven Spielberg directing, George Lucas on story, Lawrence Kasdan writing the screenplay, John Williams composing the score, and Douglas Slocombe doing cinematography. That is just behind the camera. I mean, wow. They make it look easy.

I didn’t think I could revere this film any more than I already did, but my experience today proved me wrong.

You didn’t read this review to see if it was a good movie. With something like this, you know it’s a good movie. You know it’s a great movie. A movie like this is so pivotal to our culture, you wonder what our world would be like without it.

4

Raiders of the Lost Ark is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Central Intelligence (2016)

What to say about this film… What to say, what to say…

I didn’t really like it, for one. I understand that I was the only one in the theater that wasn’t laughing, but I’m giving you my own opinion. My dad loved it. An obnoxious guy in the front loved it too, but I did not.

This movie had a lot going for it. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are both funny, and they do have good chemistry, but the funniest thing about Johnson’s character is his dedication. He says the lines like they mean something.

To explain the whole plot would confuse you. Johnson is a good guy, then he’s a bad guy, then he’s a good guy, and it keeps flopping. It’s supposed to seem twisty, but it just seems pointless. There are more action scenes than laughs, and the best laughs don’t even seem to come from the script. A romantic subplot just seems to be a setup for a joke. In his defense, Kevin Hart is genuinely hilarious when he wants to be.

I would be giving this film two-and-a-half stars if not for the cameos. I won’t spoil who they are, but some popular comic actors do pop up every now and then. Their appearances were a breath of fresh air in a film that’s woefully stale.

This movie doesn’t get very much wrong, and I can appreciate that. The problem is it doesn’t get a lot right, either. So, was it bad? No. Was it good? I mean, I guess.

3

Central Intelligence is in theaters now.

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

Few things are certain in this world. I had eggs for breakfast. I like books and movies. O.J. killed her.

As someone who was barely alive during the actual criminal trial, I have been blessed with the resurgence of “the trial of the century.” I could not look away from The People vs. O.J. Simpson on FX, and when I heard this documentary was excellent, I made time to watch it.

It says a lot about our culture that we’re still hung up on this. It was never just a criminal trial. It was a story from the very beginning, reality television of the most startling sort, and it’s no wonder we ate it up. You couldn’t see the twists coming, even if you could tell it was all falling apart.

The documentary, produced and directed by Ezra Edelman, chronicles the divine rise of Simpson and his meteoric fall. Over the course of around eight hours, you witness the inflation of his ego and the building racial tensions in Los Angeles. Just over two of the five parts are dedicated to the trial itself, and it’s like you’re there again–or for the first time, if you’re my age. The final part, after the verdict, deals with the aftermath, leading all the way up through his 2008 arrest and sentencing.

Nearly everyone involved is interviewed, everyone alive. By the end of it, you realize that even his closest friends are sure he did it. One of the jurors confesses that the Not Guilty verdict was payback for Rodney King, and yet another argues that it was punishment for a disorganized prosecution. You may think you know everything, but you don’t. Ron Shipp, longtime friend of Simpson, learned a few things from it.

Watching this, you’re probably going to realize you can’t stop. As soon as I found it on demand, it occupied every second of free time until I finished. This case did not define America; it was defined by America. We watched the O.J. Simpson trial for the same reason we tune in to see Donald Trump. Nobody won in this case, not even O.J. Simpson. And frankly, we deserved what we got.

4

O.J.: Made in America is available on demand. The finale airs this evening on ESPN.

Finding Dory (2016)

If you have short-term memory loss, how do you remember that you have it? The same question has been raised for Memento, but these films could not be more different.

Finding Dory is a bit of a misleading title. Dory, the fan-favorite blue tang fish from Finding Nemo, does not need to be found. She is not missing. Nobody is missing. Dory got lost. She got lost, and she suddenly remembers she needs to find her family.

The sudden recollections of this film are, admittedly, convenient. Yes, I understand that memory can be like that. You’re not thinking of something, and all of a sudden it’s right there in your head. It’s just that the timing of these memories is such an obvious plant–I need to stop complaining.

This is a very cute film. It might not have the originality of Nemo, but The Force Awakens was A New Hope, and that turned out fine. The flashbacks and memories actually play an important part, and I might even like the characters more in this one–you have a seal played by Idris Elba, a whale shark by Kaitlin Olson, and an octopus/septopus voiced by Ed O’Neill. Anytime they’re on screen, I get just the biggest smile on my face. There is enough about this world that is new, and I’m thankful.

It’s not a perfect film, not by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, enjoyable, and just good enough to warrant its very existence. Plus, you’ll never be able to hear Sigourney Weaver’s name again without smiling, and I love that.

3

Finding Dory is in theaters now.