INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Destruction, and for some Language

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Written by: Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin, Nicholas Wright, James A. Woods & James Vanderbilt

Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Travis Tope, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Judd Hirsch, Jessie Usher, Brent Spiner, Vivica A. Fox & Sela Ward

A sequel to 1996’s INDEPENDENCE DAY has been in development for a ridiculously long time. Finally, twenty years after that film’s original release, INDEPENDENCE DAY 2 has invaded theaters. Does this follow-up capture the same fun B-flick vibe that made the first film work so well? Does it entertain enough to make up for obvious shortcomings? Does the silly screenwriting occasionally get in the way of its entertainment factor? Well, the answers to all of these questions can be summed up in one resounding “meh.” While RESURGENCE is somewhat true in tone to its predecessor, this sequel also suffers from crucial missing elements and distractingly sloppy storytelling.

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Two decades have passed since earthlings stood their ground against heavily armed alien invaders. With the otherworldly menace defeated, scientists have incorporated their futuristic technology into our daily lives. We now have manned outposts on the moon, drive hovering cars, and can travel at super speeds across the world. When a mysterious object appears near the moon outpost and human forces shoot it down, it appears that another extraterrestrial attack has been averted. However, an enormous alien spaceship shows up that’s much bigger than the 1996 attack fleets. Instead of trying to colonize our world, the aliens now seem intent on harvesting its core. With a ticking clock and an Atlantic Ocean sized threat parked on our planet, humans must band together once again to take these aliens down.

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Old characters and familiar names with new faces make up the large cast of INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. Bill Pullman makes a welcomed return as former president Thomas Whitmore. However, Pullman’s character seems to have a bit of temporary dementia that only pops in when it’s convenient for the plot (sloppily explained by alien telepathy messing with his head). Jeff Goldblum carries most of this movie on his shoulders. Though other sequels to 90’s blockbusters have shown that Goldblum is hit-or-miss (cough, THE LOST WORLD, cough), he is a lot of fun here. His character of David Levinson brings back the sarcasm, witty banter, and humor that made the original film enjoyable in the first place. Prepare to be bummed though, because RESURGENCE couldn’t afford Will Smith (yes, even on a budget of 165 million), so they killed his character off-screen. The absent Will Smith charm is noticeable and contributes to this sequel feeling less fun than its predecessor.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

Jessie Usher plays Dylan Hiller, son of Will Smith’s character from the first film, and is convincing enough as a one-dimensional hero. As his annoying sidekick comes Liam Hemsworth’s Jake Morrison, who ruins more than a few action scenes with his over-the-top jokes and obnoxious attitude. Maika Monroe (from IT FOLLOWS and THE 5TH WAVE, the latter being a teeny-bopper INDEPENDENCE DAY knockoff) plays Patricia Whitmore and comes off as the best of these newcomers. On the sidelines we also have Sela Ward as the new President and the always enjoyable William Fichtner as a confident army general. A big standout comes in Deobia Oparei as an African warlord who likes to collect alien skulls, while Charlotte Gainsbourg is completely forgettable as Goldblum’s bland love interest. Oh, we also get way too much of the comic relief Area 51 scientists, but the less said about them, the better.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE takes the “bigger is better” mantra that most summer movie sequels seem to function on and cranks it up to 11. Instead of major cities being destroyed by huge spaceships, we get half the planet being virtually demolished by one massive spacecraft. Instead of taking the less-is-more approach with the alien menace, we get lots of CGI-heavy shots of the creatures, including a giant Queen that seems to deliberately rip off the main monster from a certain 1986 sci-fi classic. Since we have alien technology incorporated into our weapons, you had better believe that the fight scenes are a tad confusing as you’re trying to figure out which ships to root for. I wouldn’t be surprised if humans were accidentally shooting down other humans, because their jets look exactly like the alien spacecraft.

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If you haven’t guessed by now, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is pretty stupid…but so was the first one. The key difference being that the 1996 blockbuster had a fun entertaining charm to it that only occasionally makes its way into this sequel. When it’s taking itself way too seriously, the bad writing sticks out like a sore thumb. RESURGENCE takes about a third of its running time to get going, because its messy script gets bogged down in introducing all of these characters and the futuristic technology. An overuse alien psychic connections serves as a means for convenient exposition and get more than a little annoying, but that’s not nearly as aggravating as the literal talking plot device that rears its ugly head midway through the running time and plays a major role in the proceedings.

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I’m not saying that RESURGENCE isn’t fun, because the film has its moments. However, most of the thrill is gone in this second installment. Part of this can be attributed to a missing Will Smith (who was a major source of energy in the first film) and the rest might be thrown onto the spectacle being less impressive this time around. We’ve seen BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, SKYLINE, OBLIVION, and 2012, there isn’t a whole lot that RESURGENCE can show us in terms of special effects that we haven’t seen before. If this makes a ton of money at the box office that won’t matter though, because there is no ending to this sequel…just a cliffhanger that sets up the premise for a third film. If that eventually happens, hopefully they’ll remember to bring the fun back with the effects and bad writing.

Grade: C+

THE HOMESMAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexual Content, some Disturbing Behavior and Nudity

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Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley Oliver

(based on the novel THE HOMESMAN by Glendon Swarthout)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfield, Tim Blake Nelson & William Fichtner

On paper, THE HOMESMAN sounds like a cinematic recipe for success. This is a dark Western with a cast full of A-list talent and an interesting premise behind it. I was quite excited to watching this promising film and that makes the lackluster end result so much more underwhelming. There are good qualities in HOMESMAN, but the film betrays its characters and wastes a solid period setting. By the time the credits roll, the whole experience feels pointless and dreary.

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In pioneer populated Nebraska, three women have gone insane. Mary Bee Cuddy is a spinster (woman past the typical age of marriage) with an independent attitude. She bravely volunteers to take the three crazy women to Iowa, in spite of scorn from those around her. Before Mary can begin her journey, she comes across George Briggs, a claim jumper about to be hanged. Mary frees George in exchange for his services in aiding her journey. The territory is filled with bandits, harsh elements, and Indians. George and Mary must face overwhelming odds to get these three mentally damaged women to safety…as well as themselves.

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Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and acts in this Western. He pulls off the role of George with a passable performance. Jones doesn’t necessarily make this character his own though. This “bad man with a good heart” type of character is a familiar stereotype. Hilary Swank is another story. She seems to be trying way too hard as Mary. When she says certain comic relief lines, they feel stiff and lifeless. However, when she tries to be deadly serious (including an over-the-top bit of sobbing), she becomes unintentionally laughable and not convincing in the slightest. James Spader is a welcomed presence, but barely has any screen time. Tim Blake Nelson also seems suited to his one-scene scumbag, but comes off as wildly cartoonish…again, eliciting unintentional laughs from a scene that should be intense. Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and William Fichtner are forgettable as brief side characters. Meanwhile, the crazy women themselves aren’t given enough personality to resemble actual people as opposed to human cargo.

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In spite of all the flaws, THE HOMESMAN gets a couple of things right. The music is good, as in it feels like it belongs to a far better film. There is also attention to details of the time period that can be cool, though the overall production values resemble a made-for-TV movie. Aside from mixed acting and so-so technical work, THE HOMESMAN really drops the ball in the screenplay department. The script is based on a 1988 novel that I haven’t read, but this plot feels very disjointed and muddled. There is a character decision about halfway through that betrayed everything that was shown up until that point. There’s also a nasty streak of the story being dark merely for the sake of being dark. We already understand that the Old West was a dangerous and rough time, but this film feels the need to do things just for unnecessary shock value. This is especially notable in James Spader’s sleazy character. He’s one of the best things about this movie, but his scenes feel like they were only added for edginess and pointless violence.

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Westerns are a tough sell, especially in this day and age. I appreciate certain aspects about THE HOMESMAN, including a few well-executed scenes, a solid soundtrack, and two good performances. However, I can’t help but be let down by the forced bleakness (which didn’t add much to the story), an overall unfocused narrative, and poor performances that seemed as if everyone is trying too hard to sell themselves in a role as opposed to bringing an actual character to life. THE HOMESMAN is disappointing to say the least.

Grade: C-

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

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Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman

Written by: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec & Evan Daugherty

(based on the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES comics by Peter Laird & Kevin Eastman)

Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Johnny Knoxville, Jeremy Howard, Tony Shalhoub, Tohoru Masamune & Whoopi Goldberg

When a trailer for this TMNT reboot arrived, shit hit the fan from everybody who grew up with the original giant talking turtle cartoon. I was never a fan of the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES and as a result, I don’t have the nostalgic factor for them that most do. I still didn’t think that this glossy reboot looked good enough to see on the big-screen back in August and most people (fans and non-fans) were anticipating TMNT to tank at the box office. In a surprising turn of events, the film wound up grossing almost half a billion worldwide and is currently spawning a sequel (due in August 2016). Seeing as I’m indifferent to the franchise and going into this as my first full TURTLES movie, I was hoping for something fun at the very least. The new TMNT may have been a box office success, but is far from a success in quality.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, Leonardo (voice: Johnny Knoxville), 2014. ph: ILM/©Paramount

The place is New York. Crime is at an all-time high due to the sinister Foot Clan wreaking havoc on innocent citizens. April O’Neal is a reporter investigating Foot Clan activities in order to score a bigger story than the fluff that she’s usually saddled with. After a damsel in distress encounter, April stumbles across four unlikely vigilantes. They’re turtles, who also happen to also be mutants, ninjas and teenagers. However, knowledge of the turtles’ existence has caused the leader of the Foot Clan, Shredder, to enact a deadly plan that could mean the destruction of the entire city. It’s up to April, her cameraman sidekick, four ninja turtles, and Master Splinter, a karate-trained sewer rat and the turtles’ father, to save the day!

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: William Fichtner, Megan Fox, 2014. ph: David

Michael Bay has a producer credit on TMNT, but didn’t direct it. He may as well have. The frantically edited action, by-the-numbers storyline, and bombastic overuse of certain techniques suggests that Bay had more than just a producer’s role in the making of this movie. The action is almost dizzying at times because it can’t focus on one single shot for more than 10 seconds. You’ve likely seen this plot play out many times before and not necessarily in films that feature giant talking turtles. What’s more laughable is the use of clichés and plot revelations that aren’t given enough time to sink in before the movie rushes on with its formulaic story. No character development is given, so there’s no reason to feel anything for anyone (though some performers are better than others). Then there’s the trademark lens flares, explosions and pointless slow-motion that seems as if either Michael Bay was backseat directing on the set or that Jonathan Liebesman was trying to emulate Bay.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello, on set, 2014.

Clearly, a wrong choice was made in casting Megan Fox as a leading lady. She’s already notorious for her lack of believable emotions, but she’s just plain bland as April. We’re thrown into April with no knowledge of who she is other than that she wants to be a successful reporter and we don’t receive any discernable character traits for the rest of the film either. Whoopi Goldberg also shows up for some strange reason and gets about 5 minutes of screen time as April’s boss. Will Arnett is actually the only decent comic relief in the film. Arnett isn’t as funny as he usually is, but there’s a likability to him. William Fichtner usually delivers in every role he takes on, the same can be said for his part as a shady businessman in this film. The villain of Shredder felt like he was a blend of two very different movies, which adds to the jumbled tone of this entire film. Though Shredder’s battle suit resembles a smaller Transformer, he’s plays up his brief non-armor moments as a serious terrorist.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: Splinter, Shredder, 2014. ph: ILM/©Paramount

I can say that the movie is vibrant and colorful in spite of overused style choices and bad scripting/acting. The designs on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves look like complete crap though. These monstrosities look more like Shrek than giant turtles. Out of the title characters themselves, I preferred Raphael (the hot-tempered fighter) and Donatello (the bland leader) to Michelangelo (an annoying pop-culture spewing CGI abomination that’s close to Jar-Jar Binks level awful) and Donatello (a nerd stereotype stuck in a turtle’s body). Master Splinter is also equally as hideous and annoying. It certainly doesn’t help matters that the turtles feel like side characters throughout most of their own film as the main focus is misguidedly centered on Megan Fox’s April.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, from left: Raphael, Leonardo, 2014. Ph: Industrial Light &

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES accomplishes what it set out to do by selling toys to kids and entertaining them. That was its ultimate purpose, but good family entertainment should be enjoyed by both children and adults on a different (though, sometimes the same) level. I was never expecting TMNT to be particularly good, but I was hoping it might be halfway decent. I don’t have the nostalgia for the franchise that most do, so I can’t rightfully say if it rapes a childhood favorite. I can suggest that it’s a complete waste of time for anyone above the age of 10. This is a TRANSFORMERS movie that happens to have turtles instead of robots.

Grade: C-

ELYSIUM (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence and Language throughout

Elysium poster

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp

Written by: Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga & William Fichtner

In 2009, Neill Blomkamp delivered an unexpected hit with DISTRICT 9. The film had everything that great science-fiction stories contain. It had cool ideas, impressive effects, deeper meanings behind an original story, and was exciting from the first frame until the closing credits. Moviegoers praised the movie and it was held up as a standout of the year by many (myself included). It’s been four years and Blomkamp has returned with a remarkably more mainstream science-fiction blockbuster. Missing are the modest little known actors. Gone is the subtle commentary on the state of humanity. These have been replaced by a slightly creative premise that’s done in a familiar fashion and the typical flaws of any other big dumb science-fiction blockbuster. ELYSIUM is far from terrible, but it feels like a missed opportunity in a lot of ways.

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Set 151 years from now, ELYSIUM shows the Earth as an overpopulated ruin of its former self. Pollution is everywhere and the economy is so low that life in prison seems like a far better alternative to struggling to survive day-to-day. Meanwhile, all the wealthy are citizens of Elysium, a massive space station high above the Earth. On Elysium, they have a perfect atmosphere, stunning mansions, and a system for health care that can cure just about anything. Is it any wonder that the poor constantly try to blast off to this floating paradise….only to be captured or killed in the process?

Alice Braga;Sharlto Copley

Max Da Costa (Matt Damon with a shaved head) is a former criminal trying to go straight, but encountering a lot of difficulty presented in the form of the robotic guards that patrol our planet. After being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, Max finds his only chance for survival in the form of a plan to go to Elysium and things get drastically more complicated from there. A specialized assassin, named Kruger, is after Max. Add in the factor that the rich will stop at nothing to keep Max from reaching Elysium.

Jodie Foster

I mentioned earlier that ELYSIUM feels like it’s missing a lot of crucial elements that made DISTRICT 9 so amazing. My complaint isn’t that I was expecting anything near the level of DISTRICT 9 (this being a follow-up to that film). Instead, I’m saying that without these important aspects that were thrown in to create an original and overall important piece of science fiction, ELYSIUM falls into being just another big blockbuster with a twist. The ideas presented aren’t really that original and the characters lack a compelling nature.

Matt Damon

Part of the latter could be attributed to the performers themselves. Matt Damon is just playing an action hero (one with a troubled past, no less). Jodie Foster is wooden as a Elysium’s Defense Secretary, sporting an unidentifiable on-again-and-off-again accent of some sort. Alice Braga is thrown in as an afterthought (and possible love interest to Matt Damon). Then there’s Sharlto Copley as Kruger. Copley previously played the protagonist in DISTRICT 9, but here he’s the villain. It seemed like a good change of pace for this actor, but he just goes way too over-the-top evil. Threatening children and using a fierce arsenal of weapons (some which literally blow up the victim into meaty chunks of who they once were), he’s more than just a moustache-twiddling villain. He’s tying the damsel to the train tracks and then driving the whole damn train towards her, while screaming obscenities the whole way. It’s distracting and silly to say the least.

Matt Damon;Sharlto Copley

The main problem I have with ELYSIUM isn’t the bad acting or the overblown shaky-cam (seriously, some scenes you couldn’t even make out who was doing what to whom). I take major issue with the plot itself. It seems very straight-forward on paper, but ELYSIUM keeps throwing in new elements along the way that feel like last-minute additions to lengthen the movie. From a sickly child being introduced during the last hour to a new threat that only takes precedence in the final act (which could have made for an entire movie by itself), it feels that director/writer Neill Blomkamp was stretching himself to the breaking point in trying to make another grand science-fiction spectacle with a brain to it. Speaking of which, the social commentary feels like you’re being hammered in the face with a sledgehammer. The premise itself is commentary enough, we don’t need any more cryptic dialogue or over-the-top portrayals of what scumbags the wealthy people are.

Matt Damon

ELYSIUM feels like a gun-for-hire vehicle that Arnold Schwarzenegger would have starred in during the 80’s. It’s ludicrous, silly, overblown, and stupid in a whole lot of ways. It’s decent when taken from that angle and the world itself looks top-notch, but there are so many flaws that plague this film that it takes it down from the level of potential sci-fi classic to just another big budget B-flick. ELYSIUM could have been the former, but is very much the latter. Worth a rental, but nothing more.

Grade: B-

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