Now in Theaters: July 2016

Summer of 2016 has made for a spotty summer movie season, with some fascinating indies and documentaries balanced out by a lot of blockbuster trash.

THE LOBSTER

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I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a screening feeling as terrible as I did after seeing The Lobster. This brutal satire about relationships and modern dating hit very close to home for me in a way I’m not going to dwell on in a film blog, but makes this film extremely difficult for me to review. Intellectually, I understand the film is well-made and well acted, and darkly funny in a way that should have spoken directly to my sensibilities, but I spent the whole time convincing myself not to walk out. Never has a film felt like it was designed so specifically to hurt me, and weeks later I still find myself feeling somewhat resentful towards it. Maybe I can’t take a joke.

That’s not to say The Lobster isn’t a good and competently-made movie, because it is (and one of the best-reviewed of the year, to boot). The cinematography is stark and striking, the pacing is spot-on, and there are great performances all around (Colin Farrell is as good as I’ve ever seen him). I’m not seeing this a lot in the broader conversation, but watching the film struck me as a tense experience with a constant threat of danger, especially in the back half. This is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut, previously he was best known for Dogtooth, another transcendentally uncomfortable film.

I’ll make the same recommendation for The Neon Demon and Swiss Army Man, go into this one blind and don’t watch the trailer. This is such a specific film a trailer can’t really do it justice, and it goes into some interesting and unexpected territory in its second half. The basic premise of the film has Colin Farrell arriving at a resort during an unspecified time in the future, and guests at the resort have forty-five days to find a romantic partner before they’re turned into an animal of their choosing. Terrifying stuff.

 

NOW YOU SEE ME 2

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I reluctantly gave the first Now You See Me the benefit of the doubt, but the sequel retroactively makes the original worse by amplifying all its problems. NYSM2‘s structure hews very close to its predecessor to diminishing effects; for a sequel to an already near-pointless film it does little to shake up the game. The Now You See Me franchise is filled with contradictions, they’re loaded with heavy hitting casts (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Jesse Eisenberg, Woddy Harrelson, Daniel Radcliffe, etc) that have hideous material to work with, and for ostensibly being about stage magic there’s an awful lot of unconvincing CG. After the half-baked twists in the original, there’s nothing Now You See Me 2 can do that would actually be surprising, so for all the propulsive music and swishy editing the film is incapable of generating any genuine excitement.

As is the case with many weird projects nowadays, the film’s one saving grace is Daniel Radcliffe. He’s clearly having fun playing a wacky villain and gives the film a boost as it flags, but everybody else is just there for the paycheck. Even Woody Harrelson both reprising his character from the first film and playing something of an evil twin is barely worth a mention. Lizzy Caplan fills the token female slot occupied by Isla Fisher in the first outing with similarly underwhelming results. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any reason for you to pay money to see this.

WEINER

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I’m a huge political junkie so was probably more predisposed than the average person to like it, but nonetheless I found Weiner to be absolutely riveting and one of the best films of the year. This documentary follows controversial former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner during the entirety of his 2013 run for New York City mayor,  during which the embattled politician’s sexting scandal kept getting worse and worse. Never have I seen a film that had so much access to a political figure (though keeping with the subject of documentaries about failed political campaigns, I’ll take this opportunity to recommend Mitt on Netflix).

The film shoots straight and doesn’t really pick sides, Anthony Weiner is a breathtakingly problematic individual regardless of his political affiliation and his wounds are self-inflicted. He struggles, he falls, he keeps making horrendous mistakes, completely incapable of not shooting himself in the foot whenever the opportunity presents itself. It seems like the crew must have followed Weiner around almost 24/7, because the amount of raw, honest and sometimes heartbreaking footage is astonishing.

If you’re a politico like me, reason enough to see Weiner is Huma Abedin. Even thought she isn’t interviewed and rarely engages the cameras, the documentary provides what will probably be the clearest portrait of Hillary Clinton’s guarded right-hand woman and Anthony Weiner’s wife. Watching Abedin’s face over the course of the film as the situation keeps getting worse and she struggles to continue supporting her asshat of a husband is both fascinating and devastating to behold. A must watch.

WARCRAFT

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In a summer littered with stinkers, this may be the worst. I fully acknowledge my lack of Warcraft cred, I was a StarCraft guy as a kid and I have no interest in WoW. Would it have helped if I knew the difference between bright-green orcs and grey-green orcs? I highly doubt it. It’s two hours of generic fantasy nonsense, with broad-stroke characters and settings that made perfect sense in a DOS game from the early nineties, but look like a joke in front of today’s sophisticated audiences. I laughed a few times at some particularly horrific bits of dialogue and couldn’t help but chuckle at the sheer absurdity of it all, but this barely even qualifies as a movie. Things happen because plot and the characters are generic fantasy archetypes at best.

I’ve read that a novel facial motion-capture system was developed for this film, and indeed some of the close-ups work on the orcs, especially in the first act, don’t look that bad. Besides some scattered good work though, the visuals in this movie look atrocious. Bright blue and green blasts of magical energy look good in a video game and help you tell units apart, but on a giant movie screen there’s no need for it. The action is your basic PG-13 hacking and slashing, though I continue to be shocked at how much blood can pass under the R-rating limbo stick as long as it isn’t human blood. There are some cute nods to the gaming crowd (in one scene, the action even goes faux-isometric), but less than you’d expect or hope for. There was no reason for the movie to not include an orc yelling “what?”

It completely tanked at the U.S. box office, but WarCraft is nonetheless the highest-grossing movie based on a video game due to its runaway success in China. I know the big studios have to make money any way they can, but a lot of the blockbusters that are designed to do well in Asia are trope-filled, obvious and filled with clunky exposition (think Transformers: Age of Extinction and Independence Day: Resurgence) and this picture fits the made-for-China mold as well as anything. This is one where if you liked it, I won’t be able to convince you otherwise but by the rest of us it’s been rightfully ignored.