If you’re not outside BBQing, or stuck in the house calming pets made anxious by neighborhood fireworks, or guarding a dead, brown lawn with a garden hose ready to extinguish stray bottle-rockets, what better way to celebrate the holiday than in a dark room with strangers drinking $6 Coca-Colas? With that in mind, here’s a roundup of most of your current new film choices.
At the family-friendly end of the spectrum, the major choice at the moment is between the Nemo-sequel “Finding Dory” from Disney/Pixar and Stephen Spielberg’s “The BFG” adapted from the story of the same name by Roald Dahl (“Carlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). Although the former is faring better at the box office, my recommendation would be the latter. “Dory” is cute and fun for a while but becomes repetitive and whiny over time and the best part of the whole experience is the short film that opens for it. [Indeed, if you can time it right, the best alternative of all is to watch “The BFG” at a screening time that allows you to catch the Pixar short at the beginning of an adjacent screening of “Finding Dory.”] It may seem silly to fuss about accuracy in a film about talking fish, but I like kids’ films to hold up their end of the bargain with respect to the details that are supposed to be correct. A short-sighted, chatty whale shark is fine in this context but whale sharks are filter feeders and aren’t likely to eat a bucket of dead fish. That’s bothersome in a film that otherwise does a decent job of interesting youngsters in marine biology. Meanwhile “The BFG” is a delightful tale of an orphaned girl who befriends the Big Friendly Giant of the title, and helps him distance himself from his people-eating relatives. The giant’s awkward mangling of the English language takes a few minutes to take in (an enormous) stride, but ultimately contributes to the film’s overall delumpfulness. It’s also an interesting example of a director and lead actor (Spielberg and Mark Rylance) working together on back to back projects, resulting in two very different but equally impressive acting performances (the last film for both of them having been last year’s “Bridge of Spies” in which Rylance was perhaps the best part and for which he won an Oscar). Ruby Barnhill is quite wonderful in her feature film debut as young Sophie and Penelope Wilton (“Downton Abbey”) has a cute supporting performance as Queen Elizabeth II. “The BFG” is struggling to gain an audience, which is a shame as it feels like it channels an earlier era’s level of pure fun from Spielberg.
In the mainstream, action category, the prime contenders are probably “Independence Day: Resurgence” and “The Legend of Tarzan,” which is a shame as both have a warmed over feel, like leftovers shaped by Tupperware rather than anything new and especially appetizing. “Independence Day: Resurgence” is big and loud but simply doesn’t capture the fun of its 20 year old predecessor. Naturally, the aliens are back with more fire power (otherwise why care?) and the humans are back with more Hail Mary plays. But you’d think with 20 years of writing opportunity, we could have had a few more surprises. Similarly, “The Legend of Tarzan” doesn’t seem to add much to the oft-visited story and makes you long for Andy Serkis to play every screen ape in every film ever made. Watching Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz together gives it a weird “Tarzan Unchained” vibe at times but ultimately it’s “Tarzan Ends the Blood Diamond Trade 100 Years Before DiCaprio” although, coincidentally, both involved Djimon Hounsou in the process. There’s more action fun, with a side of comedy, or vice versa, in the still running “Central Intelligence,” with Dwayne Johnson as a bullied chubby kid who grows into an international spy and Kevin Hart as the big man on (high school) campus who grows into an accountant. Even with massive plot holes (where’s Hart’s wife when Johnson sleeps over?) and inconsistent tone, it still feels like it delivers more fun with conspicuous effort than the other two.
For more blood and violence, you can choose the latest shark attack tale in “The Shallows” or revisit another 12 hours of national lawlessness in “The Purge: Election Year.” Blake Lively plays a lone surfer intent on visiting a remote Mexican beach her mother told her about in “The Shallows,” a surprisingly simple yet effective story of human wits versus predatory power. The film starts with an out of timeline, non-linear scene in which a small boy finds the omnipresent Go-Pro action camera that has recorded a shark attack at that very beach and, rather than spoiling what comes, it actually keeps the rest of the timeline a little more interesting. It basically combines the single location action drama with the “what would I do?” problem-solving vibe – although as a child of the original “Jaws” generation, I wouldn’t have been in that water in the first place. The surprise hit this weekend has been “The Purge: Election Year” and it may be the auspicious timing that’s helping. The idea of a day during which all laws are suspended has always been a crazy stretch but the idea that Presidential candidates might have supporters willing to kill the opposition is only hard to believe if you’ve never read an internet comment thread or you’re a stranger to Twitter and Facebook. Frank Grillo, so underused as Crossbones in “Captain America” Civil War” is back, this time as a private security consultant to a Senator intent on ending The Purge and there’s just enough story there to set up the requisite number of gun battles and showdowns. Whether they’re your cup of tea or not, both of these films are great examples of making what audiences want to see on extremely modest budgets, by industry standards, with “The Shallows” costing $17m and “The Purge” Election Year” costing just $10m. It may look that cheap at times, but it’s hard to argue with the business model of a film that’s returned over three times its production budget in its first three days of release.
And for those of you who don’t like to fit into a neat mainstream genre, there’s the truly non-mainstream, genre-busting fartathon of “Swiss Army Man,” in which Paul Dano plays a man stranded on a beach, ready to kill himself until he finds a corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe, containing so much gas that it can be ridden like a high powered jet-ski. And what a gas it is as Dano’s Hank discovers all the way’s that Radcliffe’s Manny can be used to help him survive. It reminds me of a book written, or more accurately drawn, by Simon Bond 35 years ago, entitled “101 Uses for a Dead Cat” and that comparison, even if you’re not familiar with the book and you’re only judging it by its name, will likely indicate whether or not you’ll find it amusing. I found that the film danced a fine line between too nutty for words and absurdly delightful, managing to stay on the positive side of the line as Manny gradually becomes more real to Hank than perhaps anybody else in his life has ever been. It’s not the easiest film to find but it charmed the juries at Sundance and it might charm you too.