Friday, June 24, 2016

Finding Dory: Remember, Remember, the Fish Blue and Tender

In "Finding Dory", Marlin the clownfish and Dory the tang are back for another adventure
One of the many running jokes in 2003's Finding Nemo—that magnificent maritime adventure from Pixar Animation Studios—was that its main character, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), was a clownfish but was spectacularly unfunny. In fact, Marlin was a neurotic grump, far more prone to panic than humor. He's still grousing about anything and everything in Finding Dory, but one of his complaints stands out. "Crossing the entire ocean is something you should only do once," he grumbles. It's a gripe that might as well be chum to metaphor-hungry film critics—not that I have anyone in mind—looking to compare this sequel to Finding Nemo, which remains one of Pixar's greatest achievements. The computer-animation pioneer is renowned for many things—breathtaking visuals, witty dialogue, mature themes smuggled inside kid-friendly packages—but perhaps its defining trait is its commitment to originality. This is, after all, the studio that has told tales of culinarily gifted rats, silent robots, and anthropomorphized emotions. Which brings us back to Marlin's gloomy, profound question: Is it really worth crossing the ocean twice? That is, can a straightforward sequel really be worthy of joining the animation giant's formidable canon?

Yes and no. What, you were expecting a straight answer? Fine, I'll be blunt: Finding Dory is not as good as Finding Nemo. Yet even that seemingly straightforward assessment comes with a caveat, namely: so what? Comparing sequels to their originals is a reductive way of evaluating them on their own merits; that's especially true when said original is one of the best movies of the prior decade. Finding Dory may, er, swim in the shadow of its progenitor, but that shouldn't preclude us from weighing its standalone value as a movie.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Conjuring 2: The Kids Are All Right, Until the Demon Shows Up

Vera Farmiga is haunted by demons in "The Conjuring 2"
Everything undead is alive again in The Conjuring 2, a skillfully constructed dispensary of the heebie-jeebies. Directed by the 21st century's preeminent purveyor of nightmares, James Wan (Saw, Insidious), it's a methodical exercise in modern horror, with all of the required elements: a haunted house, a possessed child, jolt-scares, intrepid investigators, and shadowy things that go bump in the night. There's not a whole lot new to see in this dark, foreboding film, but in horror, familiarity can breed fear as well as contempt. When coming face-to-face with The Conjuring 2's predictability, you may be inclined to roll your eyes, but then, you may be too afraid to open them in the first place.

The original Conjuring didn't reboot the horror genre so much as reinvigorate it, reminding viewers that scary movies can be patient and legitimately disturbing rather than just loud and schlocky. It also demonstrated just how effective a director Wan can be. Having traded in the vulgar sadism of Saw for something more contemplative, he proved to be a master of the slow build, wringing tension from ostensibly mundane images and objects. The Conjuring was horror as negative space, turning the absence of incident into its own clammy terror. By the time Lili Taylor chose to play a seemingly innocent game called "hide and clap" with her young son, I practically needed a ventilator.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Lobster: Looking for Love as the Clock Ticks Down

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in "The Lobster"
Early in The Lobster, the deadpan, depraved, deeply romantic black comedy from Yorgos Lanthimos, a woman discusses the unsuitable hypothetical couplings of various animals. She notes, for example, that a wolf and a penguin could never live in harmony. "That would be absurd," she scoffs. Fair enough. But when it comes to Lanthimos, absurdity is relative. The Greek director's prior film, Alps, followed a four-person troupe of bizarre ambulance-chasers who waited for people to die, then impersonated the deceased for the bereaved's benefit (in return for a fee). Before that he made Dogtooth, a nightmarish study of three home-schooled teenagers who had no names, learned a false language, and regarded house cats as ferocious beasts to be decapitated on sight. Dogtooth was consistently fascinating, Alps intermittently so, but both depicted their human grotesqueries so persuasively that they were easier to admire than adore. The Lobster is different, even as it's more of the same. It retains the hypnotic surrealism of Lanthimos' earlier work, but it also possesses something even more startling: a heart.

All of Lanthimos' films operate on multiple levels, working as tidy, intimately scaled pieces of off-kilter esoterica while also asking big, loaded questions about social customs and human relationships. Here, he's exploring the freighted topic of love. That's hardly a novel hook for a movie, but The Lobster is less interested in defining love than in examining how we view it as a symbol of status. And so it inquires: Are married people truly happy? Are single people really alone? When we claim that we are in love, what do we mean? Is coupledom a shield against the sadness of isolation, or is it a prison that suppresses freedom and individuality? And if you get caught masturbating, shouldn't you be forced to stick your hand in a burning-hot toaster?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse—It's the End of the World, and They Feel Whiny

Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult in "X-Men: Apocalypse", with the kids in the background
Evil's days may be numbered, at least if Marvel's X-Men: Apocalypse is a harbinger of things to come. No, I'm not suggesting that this creaky, silly movie has solved the world's problems, or even cinema's. Instead, it seems to be inadvertently tolling the funeral bells for comic-book villainy, that once-robust institution of camp and calamity. To be fair, the forces of evil were already looking a bit frail. The good recent Marvel movies—namely, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: Civil War—succeeded not because of their villains' appeal but their absence; both films were essentially hangout comedies that derived their pathos from rifts between their heroes, not battles against fearsome foes. Now, future filmmakers might well be tempted to go that route, as X-Men: Apocalypse illustrates the perils of hitching your movie to a lackluster heavy. Comic-book characters may be virtually invincible, but there is nothing more fatal to the vehicle that carries them than a lousy bad guy.

The baddie here is En Sabah Nur, though he's better known as Apocalypse. (He ominously informs us that he's been called many names throughout history, though "His Blandness" is not among them.) We first meet him, during a screechingly awful prologue, in ancient Egypt, which he rules as a pharaoh. A sort of vampiric mutant, Apocalypse has acquired enormous power by siphoning the abilities of lesser mutants into his own body, a process that director Bryan Singer conveys through amateur laser displays and muddily conceived 3-D visuals. During one particular transfusion of super-blood, things go awry, and Apocalypse finds himself entombed in one of his pyramids. Humans being the meddlers that they are, a cult eventually disturbs his slumber, and he emerges in 1983, ready to let loose five millennia worth of pent-up aggression.