Sunday, June 26, 2016

EACH SEQUEL KILLS THE THING IT FOLLOWS
On Now You See Me 2, The Conjuring 2, Independence Day: Resurgence and Finding Dory

Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s rant a little bit more about how Hollywood has this death wish to kill the thing it loves — which in this case means doing a crapshoot to try and bring back the magic of a box-office hit by coming out with a sequel that super-sizes the original while completely passing by what made it fun. I have nothing against sequels per se, but the cases in point kind of ask the question: did we really need another film if all you’re going to do is wreck what was good about the first?

Yet, there’s more to it than meets the eye. In the case of Now You See Me 2, it might come across as a rather cheesy pun, since it’s all about sleight of hand, illusion and big-ticket magic — but whereas Louis Leterrier’s 2013 original caper movie was clever enough to not take itself too seriously and was quick on its feet, Jon M. Chu’s sequel seems to have substituted big-ticket mechanics and meta-self-awareness for the original’s breeziness, effectively super-sizing the original. There are more twists and turns; more magic; more traveling; more reversals. But one thing there’s sadly less of is imagination, compounded by the big mistake of “re-writing” the original film to make it conform to the idea of a possible franchise (there is, apparently, a third film already in the works at Lionsgate).

The key problem is the absence of Mr. Leterrier, the former Luc Besson alum who injected the right amount of old-fashioned airiness into the original, thus more than making up for his attempt at resurrecting The Hulk with Edward Norton and remaking Clash of the Titans. Mr. Chu fails to come at all close to the quicksilver footwork of Now You See Me, plus directs a couple of the most incoherent action sequences this side of Michael Bay — so much for making his name with the dance-inflected Step Up films. In this case, super-sizing doesn’t work: the original Now You See Me never let you forget that it was all outlandish but good-natured fun, but just piling up more stuff in two hours does not equal the same amount of more fun. It’s trying too hard and you notice all the stretch marks.

With The Conjuring 2 the problem lies elsewhere. Certainly not in the sequel aspect — director James Wan is an expert in setting up franchises, as seen with Saw and Insidious; also, horror films are tailor-made for sequels, and The Conjuring’s inspiration in the case files of true-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren is pretty much guarantee that the series could continue indefinitely (should Warners want to). There’s still a sense that Mr. Wan is super-sizing the sequel, which runs an unwieldy 130 minutes sans credits and occasionally spells things out a bit too much.

But then, after the director’s triumphant ascension to A-list status with the seventh Fast & Furious, there’s clearly a sense that Mr. Wan is returning “home” to the genre he made his name in and using his newfound leverage to pull The Conjuring 2 out of the horror ghetto. All fine and dandy, but it would have been a lot more welcome with the original Conjuring, a much nimbler and leaner film. The need to set things up for those who didn’t see the 2013 original, in an extended prologue that pays up later in the film but could have been handled at shorter length, adds to some of Mr. Wan’s recent statements in interviews to suggest he’s actually aiming to follow in the footsteps of genre exercises by 1970s auteur directors like William Friedkin (The Exorcist) or Stanley Kubrick (The Shining). 

But the seriousness he’s chasing may be slowing the sequel down. It takes a while until the Warrens (the always welcome Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, returning from the original) actually travel to suburban London, where the Enfield two-up-two-down of a divorced mother of four (Frances O’Connor) is prone to inexplicable events that seem to particularly affect middle daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe). This is a welcome return to the old-fashioned pre-1990s conventions of a slow, mood-conjuring set-up (yes, yes, we know Poltergeist is a reference, it already was in the original.) But I can’t stop feeling Mr. Wan may actually be taking it too slow, making everything seem too ponderous or too significative, adding ballast or bombast rather than nuance.

Nuance should never be expected from German expat Roland Emmerich, who started out, like Mr. Wan, doing nifty little B-grade genre films that gleefully see-sawed between the ingenious and the trashy. The runaway success of 1996's Independence Day made him a big-leaguer, and he’s been squandering the earned good-will ever since in schlocky all-star disaster stuff like the rote The Day After Tomorrow and the utterly laughable 2012, with the occasional “serious” entry (The Patriot, Anonymous or last year’s howlingly received Stonewall) thrown in for good measure. No wonder the opportunity to revisit Independence Day must have seemed too good to pass up, especially with the unavoidable feeling that Fox is looking for another in-house franchise to complement Planet of the Apes after losing Star Wars, botching up Fantastic Four and trying to keep the X-Men from returning to Marvel.

No matter how much Fox may need it, that is unlikely to happen with the dismal Independence Day: Resurgence. Mr. Emmerich may have invented the visual-effects-mayhem Summer blockbuster with the original Independence Day, and he may admittedly have brought back single-handedly the 1970s disaster movie, but if he wants to be the next Irwin Allen he really should try harder. Most of his post-Godzilla work has been composed of spectacular setpieces anchoring threadbare “will this do?” plots, and Resurgence is no exception: the centerpiece is the arrival of a continent-sized alien spaceship come to finish the job of terrestrial annihilation left undone by the original film’s “advance party”, whose mere movement within the Earth’s atmosphere pretty much destroys civilization as we know it. It’s so sternly presented, despite its inherent overblown quality, that you ask yourself what exactly Mr. Emmerich and his four credited screenwriters (among which Basic and Zodiac’s James Vanderbilt) were thinking. Or were they?

Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t merely super-sizing an original that really didn’t need such a work; it was never going to be able to recapture the goofy B-movie fun of the original, but what’s shocking is that it’s not even trying. Despite the presence of a number of returning stars (and Jeff Goldblum is always welcome), Will Smith’s absence is all the more felt because neither Jessie Usher (playing his son) nor Liam Hemsworth have an iota of his charisma, though the script gives them nothing to work with. Above all, it seems as if all anyone cared about on this set was their paycheck at the end of the week; all it super-sizes is the cynicism and hackwork of a Hollywood where the idea of content is king but that idea merely corresponds to hollow packaging passing itself off as content.

Where does all this leave, then, Finding Dory? In a very tight spot. Pixar’s latest feature has all the requisite ingenuity, warmth, wit, heart and technical prowess you have come to expect from the US’ premier animation outfit. It’s no simple sequel to the classic Finding Nemo, nor a cynical cash-in on the earlier film’s popularity, though it’s only after new characters are brought in as it enters its second act and the forgetful Dory (Ellen de Generes) actually returns home that Finding Dory freewheels into some sort of mildly deranged slapstick caper movie, set in a California aquarium and propelled by the curmudgeonly “septopus” Hank (voiced to perfection by Ed O’Neill). From then on, returning helmer Andrew Stanton and co-director Angus MacLane assemble a lovely, classic meditation on the notion of family and the acceptance of the other; one that feels less like a sequel and more like its own man, as most of Pixar’s achievements.

And yet, despite all that’s wonderful about Finding Dory, I could never shake off the feeling that there really wasn’t any need to return to Nemo’s ocean universe; the tale of the memory-impaired blue tang who goes in search of her past and her identity could have been told in any number of universes without a pre-existing franchise attached (Pixar’s 2015 one-two punch of Inside-Out and The Good Dinosaur did just that with no loss of quality). But, to quote from a great screenwriter, it’s Hollywood, Jake. The Disney money-making machine is what it is — and at least Finding Dory is a proper well-made film, not a contrived monstrosity like Alice Through the Looking-Glass. But for how much longer can the center of American studio filmmaking shy away from taking risks as it gets more and more caught up in its obsession with financials and recouping?

NOW YOU SEE ME 2

CAST Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, James Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman; DIR Jon M. Chu; SCR Ed Solomon, from a story by Mr. Solomon and Peter Chiarelli; DP Peter Deming (widescreen); MUS Brian Tyler; PROD DES Sharon Seymour; COST DES Anna B. Sheppard; ED Stan Salfas; VFX SUP Matt Johnson; PROD Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Bobby Cohen; Summit Entertainment (US) and K/O Paper Products (US) in association with TIK Film (CN), 2016, 129 min

THE CONJURING 2

CAST Patrick Wilson, Vera Formiga, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente; DIR James Wan; SCR Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, Mr. Wan and David Leslie Johnson, from a story by Messrs. Hayes, Hayes and Wan; DP Don Burgess (widescreen); MUS Joseph Bishara; PROD DES Julie Berghoff; COST DES Kristin M. Burke; ED Kirk Morri; VFX SUP Ariel Velasco Shaw; PROD Peter Safran, Rob Cowan and Mr. Wan; New Line Cinema (US), Safran Company (US) and Atomic Monster (US) in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment (US), 2016, 133 min

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

CAST Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Travis Tope, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Judd Hirsch, Brent Seiner, Sela Ward; DIR Roland Emmerich; SCR Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, Dean Devlin, Mr. Emmerich and James Vanderbilt, from a story by Messrs. Devlin, Emmerich, Wright and Woods; DP Markus Förderer (widescreen); MUS Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser; PROD DES Barry Chusid; COST DES Lisy Christl; ED Adam Wolfe; VFX SUP Volker Engel; PROD Messrs. Devlin, Kloser and Emmerich; Twentieth Century-Fox (US), Centropolis Entertainment (US/DE) and Electric Entertainment (US) in association with TSG Entertainment (US), 2016, 120 min

FINDING DORY

VOICE CAST Ellen de Generes, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West; DIR Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane; SCR Mr. Stanton and Victoria Strouse with additional material by Bob Peterson, from a story by Mr. Stanton with additional material by Mr. MacLane; DP Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben; MUS Thomas Newman; PROD DES Steve Pilcher; ED Axel Geddes; VFX SUP Chris J. Chapman; PROD Lindsey Collins; Disney Enterprises (US) and Pixar Animation Studios (US), 2016, 97 min

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