Thursday, July 28, 2016

[Review] Demolition

Director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e has been on a solid roll with Oscar-contending films like Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, each one containing excellent lead performances from Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, respectively. Another person bringing the goods is Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners, Enemy, Nightcrawler). So this is a perfect match, right? Well, Demolition has plenty of room for Gyllenhaal to work in, but the rest of the film comes up short.

Davis (Gyllenhaal) is a successful investment banker, who is involved in a car accident that kills his wife Julie. And the guy just can't bring himself to feel anything. While all his acquaintances are shedding tears, he acts as if nothing happened. On the surface, he appears to be cold and unsympathetic, but as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that his non-grieving is a form of grieving.

His focus shifts toward seemingly trivial things, like, writing in-depth letters (which double as the film's voiceover narration) to a vending machine company concerning his Peanut M&M's that got stuck. Anyway, Davis forms a friendly relationship with the customer service employee on the other end (Naomi Watts). And he also becomes fixated with disassembling every object in his life--clocks, computers, TVs... his entire house. (Cue the metaphors.)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts are both really good with what they're given, but the performances aren't enough to overcome the repetitiveness of the bland tone and underwhelming story. There comes a point about midway through the duration where it's just difficult to care about where any of this is going. The film isn't searing enough to be a dark comedy. It isn't unconventional or ironic enough to be a subversive character study. And it isn't emotional enough to be a moving redemption story, which is where the film ultimately attempts to end up, but crumbles in the process.

( 6/10 )

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

[Review] Ice Age: Collision Course

The first Ice Age movie holds a dear place in my heart, with its fuzzy characters and warm story. The second one (The Meltdown) is a huge step back, and the third one (with the Dinosaurs) is even worse. The fourth one--Wait there's a fourth one? Anyway, the new Collision Course crashes and burns as the fifth "Ice Age" piece to enter theaters, and it's seriously time to put an end to it.

Woolly Mammoth mates Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are back, and their daughter is now grown up and planning to get married. After a slow start, we learn that an incoming asteroid is just days away from destroying the planet. So with some help from a Weasel named Buck (who comes off as a hyperactive, bootlegged Jack Sparrow), the group plans to somehow stop it.

Even considering the apparently high stakes--this film is boring, uninspired, and frankly obnoxious. The majority of the characters begin to annoy. Sid has gone into full Jar Jar Binks mode. The two little opossum brothers... just awful. Sabertooth Diego isn't bad, but he has absolutely zero to do here. And Manny, who was once a lovable giant, spends the whole duration being a crazy overprotective father while mocking his daughter's boyfriend (who actually seems like an alright dude).

The script is full of shoddy dialogue, trite gags, and puns that don't even deserve to be called puns. Any notion of humor is virtually extinct. The only amusing element is the Wanda Sykes-voiced grandma of Sid. As for the story, it contains enough plot holes and leaps in logic to fill a colossal crater. This thing makes this year's Angry Birds movie look like frickin' The Godfather.

It's best just to pretend Ice Age: Collision Course doesn't exist. Maybe the asteroid should've struck.

( 3/10 )

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

[Review] Star Trek Beyond

Following the fantastically rebooted Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (although I've heard that some hardcore Trekkies have a few beefs with them), Star Trek Beyond doesn't reach the stellar levels of its predecessors or launch the franchise into a new direction, but it's still a fun ride.

966 days into the voyage, and life has gotten a bit monotonous on the USS Enterprise. So it's only logical that the crew embarks on a new mission to an uncharted area in order to save a stranded ship of allies. But in the process, they're forced to face off against an alien military led by the menacing Krall (played by an unrecognizable Idris Elba).

The first two installments of the series succeed largely due to their adept screenplays--wrought with universal conflicts, dilemmas, and narrative layers--and anchored with nicely developed characters and genuine human emotion. They also showcase some solid dialogue of wit, optimistic wisdom, and thought-provoking philosophy. Even when the script pops off a bunch of exposition, the films manage to remain engaging. Star Trek Beyond keeps all of these aspects in tact--just to a lesser extent.

Krall mostly suffers from a severe case of one-dimensional villain syndrome, and it feels like a waste of the great Idris Elba, though it isn't nearly as bad as Oscar Isaac's unfortunate venture as En Sabah Nur in this year's lackluster X-Men: Apocalypse. Director Justin Lin (Fast Five) packs in a robust amount of choppy phaser battles and frenetic spacecapades that come awfully close to inducing motion sickness. Sure, it might capture the turbulent perspective of the characters, but it's a little sloppy and incoherent on the big screen (the motorcycle sequence was cool, though). And the uniquely strong dynamic between Kirk and Spock isn't as compelling this time around.

What the film excels at is its lighthearted humor that hits with precision at a relatively frequent rate. Simon Pegg serves as co-writer, which must explain all the funny banter. It's also really amusing to see Bones getting stuck in situations he wanted no business being apart of. And in an awkward but refreshing bit of levity, the Scotty discovers an old radio device that blares jams like Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and "Sabotage" by Beastie Boys. The crew refers to it as "Classical" music.

Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) Bones (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoey Saldana), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin, RIP), round out the usual cast and they're as likable as ever. Joining the squad is the butt-kicking, invisibility-utilizing Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). In a welcomed tie-in, the story incorporates a touching tribute to Leonard Nimoy. And thankfully, Anton Yelchin gets a couple sweet moments in one of his last on-screen roles.

In Star Trek Beyond, it's those elements that transcend stars and time that truly shine, embracing the hopeful spirit of placing trust in humanity, and remembering the things that leave a positive impact.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, July 25, 2016

[Review] Lights Out

Considering how an audience member literally died during a recent screening of The Conjuring 2, I'm afraid to find out how many people might kick the bucket during Lights Out. In other words, if you're a fan of the thrill from abrasive jump scares, then David F. Sandberg's debut feature is one to see.

It begins with a late night at the office, and the manager Paul (Billy Burke) abruptly gets murked by a pitch-black spirit who we will come to know as Diana. Flash-forward and we meet Paul's surviving wife Sophie (Maria Bello) as she down-spirals into psychosis (she has ominous chats with Diana), along with their insomniac son Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Martin's older sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) becomes his unofficial guardian, and they try to figure out what the hell the deal is with Diana.

That petrifying intro sequence lets us know that Diana is not only a very physical presence--she's frickin' lethal. The creepy entity possesses the lurching demeanor of those Yurei ghosts from Japanese horror films like Ringu (the ghoul from 2013's Mama also comes to mind), and she thrives in the shadows and disappears in the light. Oh yeah, and she has some really wicked, scratchy nails that I might as well call claws. Anxiety builds with the slow-gliding camerawork and the uneasy peaks through cracked doorways, then the jump scares land with jolting imagery and blaring horns. There's also a lot of nifty craft with the 'electricity on/electricity off' concept, as the characters struggle to achieve sources of light. At one point, Rebecca's smug Avenged Sevenfold-ass boyfriend gets caught in a dark room and whips out his cell phone in a desperate attempt to ward off Diana.

The story's themes of familial dynamics and coping with grief, trauma, and mental illness were more artfully explored in 2014's Australian horror masterpiece The Babadook, but we at least care about the well-being of the characters (actually, probably not Rebecca's boyfriend--he can be taken or left), as opposed to some of the other less-than-savory mainstream horror efforts that enter theaters nowadays. It also helps that the acting here is surprisingly solid. Teresa Palmer is particularly impressive, delivering an assertive and convincing performance that is actually quite reminiscent of Blake Lively's commendable turn in this year's summer shark hit The Shallows.

Even though some people will write off the shock tactics as a cheap gimmick, and while The Conjuring 2 is the better overall film, Lights Out still successfully taps into the prevalent fear of darkness, and it reminds us why we love (or hate) to watch horror flicks with, well--the lights out.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

[Review] The Boy and the Beast

Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda charms and tugs at the heartstrings with this fantastical animated tale, The Boy and the Beast.

An angsty orphan named Kyuta (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki) stumbles into Beast World--a realm inhabited by anthropomorphic mammals. There, he meets a bearish warrior named Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho), who takes the boy under his wing, er--furry arm. The two develop a 'father I never had / son I never had' relationship, and train together for an impending battle against an evil force.

It's a familiar dynamic, but an endearing one nonetheless. The story is a testament of strength, courage, confidence, learning, teaching, and unconventional bonds. As Kyuta transports back and forth between beast world and the real world, plenty of soul-searching occurs--along with some melodramatic moments (the good kind) of forgiveness and acceptance, reunions and departures.

The great animation is crafted with hair-thin lines, smooth tertiary colors, and lush layers of depth. Sprinkled in are some pretty scenes of blossoming trees, sunsets, and enchanting illusions. The climax erupts in an epic sword fight and some cataclysmic action sequences of luminous proportions. All of the imagery is assisted by a beautifully elegant musical score. I also need to mention the tiny little critter that hangs out with Kyuta--it's never really explained, but the thing is adorable.

I think some time could've been shaved off of the film's two-hour length, but I'm not complaining too much, because The Boy and the Beast is rewarding in the end.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

[Review] The Purge: Election Year

One annual night of free-for-all mayhem. Everything is legal. Even murder.

The Purge series has always shown potential with this interesting premise that's ripe for thrilling horror and dark social commentary, but the results have always been disappointingly mixed. However, the 3rd installment The Purge: Election Year is easily the best effort yet.

It's the middle of a presidential race. Frank Grillo (with an awesome haircut) returns from The Purge: Anarchy and is now a bodyguard for shining anti-Purge nominee played by Elizabeth Mitchell. Meanwhile, a hearty store owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson, a badass addition) is doing his best to protect his business from being raided. On call is Laney (Betty Gabriel, also badass), who runs a triage van, helping the good people caught in The Purge. It's safe to say the chaos ensues quickly.

Even though the overall duration runs longer than it needs to, this go-around is a lot more focused, visually arresting, and it strikes harder with its overtones. Turns out, the 1%-ers have been using Purge Night as a way to assassinate the poor. So the narrative comes off as a frenzied dystopian protest to corruption and injustice, economic disparity, gun violence, and harsh American hypocrisy. It's like a demented satirical cartoon come to life. The brash themes are surprisingly relevant to the current turbulence of the Trump-heavy political climate and the country's escalating anxieties.

But don't get it twisted, this is still a messy, gruesome, pulpy, exploitative, sadistic summer spectacle with a ludicrous setup, depicting people at their utmost horrific and insane. The film journeys further into Saw territory than ever before, as elaborately masked purgers bring out the nasty torture devices and guillotines. There's even a Spring Breakers recall scene of scantily clad 20-somethings wielding golden assault rifles from their LED-lit car while "Party in the USA" by Miley Cyrus plays.

I should also mention that we actually care about the main protagonists this time (especially as they face off against a group of neo-Nazis). And while the script sends out some lousy dialogue, there are a couple of memorable lines: "What in the Mississippi fuck were you doing out on Purge Night, Senator?" And this exchange: "Over my dead body!" / "Then you better drop dead."

( 7/10 )

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Monday, July 18, 2016

[Review] Ghostbusters

Ever since plot details emerged of an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, the stench of appallingly dumb and sexist vitriol from disgusting trolls has been spewing forth from the dark and not-so-hidden corners of the Internet--so noxious that actual ghosts have caught wind of it. But enough about the haters, let's get to the movie... Director Paul Feig (BridesmaidsSpy) collects a stellar cast for the 2016 edition of the beloved franchise, and it's a good glob of slimy fun.

After a wacky opening sequence where Gabe from "The Office" gets tossed by a ghoul, we're introduced to Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a renowned science professor. Word leaks about a secret from Erin's past: She's written a serious book about ghosts. Her colleagues aren't happy, and she's ashamed, because you know--ghosts and science don't mix. After getting ousted, she reunites with her old friend and co-author Abby (Melissa McCarthy), who now works as a dedicated paranormal investigator alongside a loose-cannon inventor named Jillian (Kate McKinnon, fantastic). Joining the club is Patty (Leslie Jones, hilarious), who has been encountering some crazy stuff in the subway systems. And the quartet forms the iconic Ghostbusters.

There's some great dialogue in this script, and it's full of chuckleworthy one-liners and witty plays on semantics that never really came through in the trailers. And of course we get a lot of cartoonish slapstick antics, as well as a couple of infectious fart and poop jokes (Yeah, I laughed hard at them). Kate McKinnon is a major standout with her seemingly effortless comic timing, amusing reaction shots, and magnetic swagger. A scene of her going all John Wick while firing off a pair of proton blasters sent chills down my spine. Leslie Jones is also a funny highlight, and she delivers one of my favorite lines of the film: "If I see the twins from The Shining I'm out of here!" Then there's Chris Hemsworth (continuing to be the more entertaining one out of the Hemsworth bros), who by design plays a dimwitted, incompetent, and absolutely useless secretary to his Ghostbuster superiors. It's a great source of comedy and a winking twist on overdone gender roles in cinema.

Considering all the unnecessary backlash that the film has faced, it's only fitting that there's a strong electrical current of empowerment, some figurative ball-crushing, and a bit of subtle commentary on nasty YouTube comments (coincidently, screenwriter Katie Dippold already had this in place). It also packs a simple but agreeable undertone about not abandoning your passion--follow through with whatever you want to achieve no matter what the unbelievers think or what the opposers say.

The film sporadically contains brief fan service cameos from most of the original cast, but honestly, the story would've been just as fine without them. Also, the villain conceived here is incredibly underwhelming. The big climax dives into a warping cluster that's stuck between old-school homage and modern CGI fest (I hate to say it, but Pixels came to mind), and in turn, the grand finale renders itself as mostly forgettable. So obviously this Ghostbusters isn't going to overthrow 1984 classic, and it might fall short of year-end lists, but it's still an enjoyable blockbuster. The ending, along with a post-credits scene (stay for that) hint at a direct sequel, and if this is indeed the case, I'm 100% down to witness more of this crew. You can call me a believer.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

[Review] The Secret Life of Pets

Illumination Entertainment is the animation company responsible for the great (and under-appreciated) Despicable Me, as well as the rampant and extremely polarizing topic Minions. Next up is The Secret Life of Pets, a raucous tale about our domesticated furball friends.

Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) is a perfectly content Jack Russell Terrier living with his loving owner Katie (Ellie Kemper "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt") in a Central Park apartment. Things get shaken up when Katie brings home a scruffy stray named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max gets jealous and a rivalry forms as Duke mops himself all over Max's territory. One day, Max and Duke are unleashed (insert "Who let the dogs out?" joke), and after a close call with animal control and a run-in with a gang led by a feisty bunny (Kevin Hart), the two must work together to find their way home--along with some help from their neighbors (Jenny Slate, Hannibal Buress, Lake Bell & more).

If the premise seems a lot like a beat-for-beat version of Toy Story but with pets (and obviously not as good), that's because it is--there's even a nifty wiener dog involved! The solid voice cast isn't enough to elevate this beyond a blatantly rehashed, by-the-numbers journey of animal escapades, culminating in another wild but uninspired car chase with the stench of squandered opportunities.

The film is at its most endearing when it keenly observes the odd quirks of cats and dogs (especially if you have pets, you'll find yourself thinking "Yep."). There's also an amusing montage near the beginning that imagines what our pets do when we leave--whether it's actively waiting by the door for 8 hours straight, terrorizing the house, or watching soap operas. Even though the film eventually leaves its homey subtleties behind, a few good jokes are scattered along the way. At one point Max and Duke end up in a sewer of 'Flushed Pets' and a random sea monkey exclaims, "It's not our fault we don't look like the advertisement!"

Given that this is an animated film about pets, you'd think there would be plenty of room for heart and emotion, but aside from a slightly poignant backstory about Duke, the story never really goes there. Sure, The Secret Life of Pets is fun and cute at times, but it's ultimately dispensable and it pales in comparison to other kid-friendly films from this year like Zootopia and Finding Dory.

If you thought this movie would be an escape from the Minions, you thought wrong.

( 6.5/10 )

Monday, July 11, 2016

[Review] The Legend of Tarzan

With so many versions of Tarzan out there, it didn't really feel like we needed another one anytime soon. But considering how reboot-happy Hollywood is, here we are.

Alexander Skarsgard ("True Blood") plays the 'Lord of the Apes' aka 'King of the Jungle' aka Tarzan. At the beginning, he's lured out of his fully-clothed life in London and sent to The African Congo to prevent a war-mongering devil in a white suit (Christoph Waltz in prime villain form) from sourcing diamonds and enslaving tribes. But Tarzan isn't alone; he's got some help from his audacious and vivacious wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and a charismatic and comical sidekick (Samuel L. Jackson).

Jackson's humorous timing is the only thing that truly cuts through the drab tone and hazy color palette, as this film swings into bleak territory. All-out serious mode would be fine if the story here wasn't so underwhelming. Any momentum is broken up by seen-it-before origin flashbacks, and there's not as much animal action as you might hope for (although there is an amusing scene of Tarzan getting clotheslined in midair by a gorilla). Even when the animals do make their presence known, they don't look nearly as realistic as the marvelous creations in this year's The Jungle Book.

Margot Robbie is a terrific Jane and she delivers some fierce lines of dialogue, including a glorious attack on the villain's uneven mustache. But unfortunately, most of the film's duration has her getting captured or chained to something. Alexander Skarsgard is super stiff as Tarzan, and the character comes off as mightily bland, which makes him the least interesting part of his own movie.

I'll refrain from spoilers, but thankfully the climax brings a couple of memorable moments, and while they don't totally redeem the entire film, they might put a gratified smirk on your face. So, The Legend of Tarzan isn't as bad as I anticipated, but it's nothing to holler about either.

( 6/10 )

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

[Review] The BFG

Snozzcumber and Frobscottle!

After delivering the excellent Cold War drama Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg (with his 32nd film!) re-teams with Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance for something in a much different realm. Based on Roald Dahl's novel of the same name, The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) taps into--or should I say stomps into--childlike wonder and fantasy. But of course it's no E.T. the Extraterrestrial.

Meet Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), an inquisitive night owl. One evening she's swooped up from her orphanage by a mysterious giant (played by Rylance) and taken to his home in Giant Country. It's a cool sequence, as the swift giant cleverly conceals himself in the shadows, posing as a streetlight or a tree amidst the England streets. If this sounds a little creepy, don't worry--he's a nice giant. The two form a friendship, and Sophie learns about the giant's hobby of catching and planting dreams, all while attempting to avoid the other giants, who are barbaric and flesh-hungry.

As a seamless mixture of live-action/CGI/motion capture, the film exudes some imaginative production design. From the giant's pirate ship bed, to the nasty and wormy food, to a tree of fairy-esque dreams surrounded by Aurora Borealis lights--it all looks really good. Like always, Spielberg makes sure to showcase some spectacular shots. Ruby Barnhill is a breakthrough as the precocious protagonist, and we never once doubt her discoveries. Mark Rylance turns in another great performance, especially through the eyes--he's gentle, caring, and weary all at once.

The film's humor is mild, and the emotions unfortunately don't run as high as you'd want them to. The third act also takes a misfit turn and leads to head-scratching ending (though I've heard it's very loyal to the book). So, The BFG won't go down as a classic or even one of the best films of the year. But for a couple of hours, it's a scrum-diddly-umptious thing to get swept away in.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

[Review] Swiss Army Man

Wholesomely billed as the "Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse film", Swiss Army Man gained a cult following of sorts before the film even saw release. Helmed by Dan Kwan and Dan Scheinert aka 'Daniels' (random fact: this duo directed the "Turn Down For What" music video), it's as strange and offbeat as you'd imagine (There Will Be Walkouts), but it also possesses a unique charm.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a remote Pacific island, and he's about to hang himself. But suddenly he spots a dead body that washed ashore, who we will come to know as Manny (Radcliffe). When Hank inspects the body, a prolonged trumpet toot squeaks out from Manny's butt. Pretty soon, Manny starts ripping ass so profusely that he propels into the sea like a motorboat. It's then that Hank realizes that there's some life... or something left inside of Manny.

The more Hank communicates with Manny, the more Manny's consciousness bubbles, and he eventually begins to speak (like a real boy!). Turns out, Manny's physicality comes in handy. He can collect drinking water, his boner can be used as a compass guide, and he can ignite fireballs with his farts in order to scare wild bears away (Oh, if only Leo DiCaprio could've done this in The Revenant). Kudos to the sound team too for providing a variety of sonically realistic farts, whether it's a mud duck, The Taco Bell of Doom, or a 3rd wave rumbler. There's also an undeniably hilarious running gag of Hank and Manny harmoniously Da-Da-Daa-Daa-Daa-ing the triumphant Jurassic Park theme.

In a contrast to all the toilet humor, this thing is beautifully filmed and rendered with the polished clarity of a nature documentary--utilizing the deep green scenery and sandy coastlines. Paul Dano plays his most sympathetic character to date, which I suppose isn't that hard because he's been in some really hatable roles in the past. Daniel Radcliffe is great as well with his shamelessly odd performance; let's just say this is a long way off from Harry Potter. The two manage to form a heartfelt buddy bond, despite the... unconventionality of it all.

The thin plot can't help but feel a tad overstretched, but luckily the runtime is just about 88 minutes. The themes of introspection, loneliness, and finding love get a bit clouded, but the climax still engrosses and mystifies. Everything patiently builds to an ambiguous conclusion that is equal parts M. Night Shyamalan and Fight Club (or should I say Fart Club?).

Swiss Army Man is a film that will take a few viewings to fully dissect. Or maybe what's there is just exactly what's there. *Fart*

( 8/10 )

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Monday, July 4, 2016

[Review] Independence Day: Resurgence

In case there hasn't been enough sequels this summer, here's another one. I shouldn't complain too much though, because some of those sequels have been really good (The Conjuring 2, Finding Dory). Unfortunately, I can't say the same about Independence Day: Resurgence.

ID4 2 arrives 20 years (in real-time and in movie-time) after its predecessor. The sky is now filled with more drones than birds. Right away, the film addresses Will Smith's absence and his character's apparent death with a half-hearted "He was a great man." Steven Hiller's son (played by Jessie Usher) fills in as a high-ranking pilot, along with Liam Hemsworth (the boring Hemsworth brother), and Maika Monroe (It Follows). Thankfully, key players like Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman return, and they haven't missed a beat. But these guys still aren't enough to save this humdrum clunker.

When the alien craft sets up shop above earth, several characters make sure to let us know that it's "definitely bigger than the last one." All space breaks loose in a convoluted mess of turbulent and disorderly action sequences. The chaos is so constant that the film practically implodes upon itself, becoming a giant one-dimensional load of stuff flying around and exploding. The crowd of underdeveloped new characters don't help matters either, so it's hard to feel any sense of high stakes peril when you can't zero in on anything. And the film is neither fun nor monumental enough to be as memorable as Independence Day. It's kind of just a big dark cloud of "meh."

Resurgence is at its best when it hovers on sarcastic humor and playful callbacks to the first one (if you took a shot every time someone brought up 1996, you'd be out before the midway point). However, such a reliance on past references also reveals the current film's weaknesses and generic falters. It's a colossal scale CGI-fest, but nothing here rivals any of the more successful big spectacle blockbusters in recent years, or even alternative invasion flicks like Gareth Edwards' Monsters or the sensational District 9. And yes, of course there's the shoehorned subplot regarding a school bus full of kids caught in the destructive mayhem (How many times have we seen that?).

All in all, Independence Day: Resurgence is frankly passed its glory days.

( 5.5/10 )

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