Friday, July 22, 9:55 a.m.-ish: Few things get me more psyched for a quadruple-feature – or, more accurately, get me less dreading one – than knowing my day’s first screening will be over in a scant 80 minutes. So I enter director David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out feeling pretty good. Somewhat incredibly, I exit feeling really good, because this hour-20 horror trifle gives you just what you want from these things and too rarely do: a creepy and clever premise, a snappy pace, a bunch of good scares, a few strong portrayals, and a relative lack of eye-rolling stupidity.
From the outset, I had a feeling that Sandberg’s outing might prove special, because it opened with that earnest character actor (and Twilight dad) Billy Burke confronting a shadowy evil being, and just as we begin to ask whether Burke is playing the Neve Campbell role in Scream, it turns out he’s playing the Drew Barrymore part. Lights Out boasts the simplest of genre conceits: a supernatural predator who, ironically, can only be seen in the dark. Yet like that frightening, craftily edited prelude, the movie is filled with terrific surprises, not least being the fierce and focused performance of lead Teresa Palmer. Beyond her obvious beauty, I’ve never quite gotten Palmer’s appeal, and still can’t figure out why I’ve now seen her – after Point Break, Triple 9, The Choice, and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups – in her fifth major film role in eight months. (Is it because, from certain angles, the native Australian resembles a next-generation Naomi Watts?) But Palmer, with red-rimmed eyes and a smile doled out only sparingly, is marvelous here as the protective big sister to Gabriel Bateman’s traumatized tyke, and at times even matches the excellence of Maria Bello, who plays the youths’ mentally unstable mom and reluctant “best friend” to that omnipresent ghost. Bello is frequently great, but she’s not often this enjoyable on-screen, knowing exactly how to calibrate her damaged character’s condition for equal parts fear, empathy, and giggles. (When her son, hoping for a night free from nightmares, asks Mom if they can just be alone for an evening, Bello shrugs and replies with a plaintively funny/scary “We’ll see.”) With its many slow closeups on the uncanny movement of stationary items, this “doorknob horror” film is too traditional to be very memorable, and features a few too many clichés; I may have audibly groaned when Palmer found one of those laughably convenient boxes overflowing with mental-hospital files and audiotapes “explaining” the supernatural goings-on. But the “now you see it, now you don’t” trickery is fantastically effective, with Eric Heisserer’s script mostly playing by its established rules, and I was astonished by the emotional connections made, finding myself just as invested in the oft-thwarted romance between Palmer and scruffy-sweetheart beau Alexander DiPersia as I was in the Palmer/Bello/Bateman dynamic. Alicia Vela-Bailey, meanwhile, enacts the film’s Babadook-y monster with extraordinary, and extraordinarily eerie, physical precision. Lights Out is the rare fright flick of its kind that lets us see its demon right off the bat, and given what Vela-Bailey does in the role, you wouldn’t want to see less of it.
Noon-ish: You know how numerous skyscrapers, apparently as many as 85 percent of them, don’t have a thirteenth floor (at least not on elevator panels) because of its perception as a bad-luck number? Including the Shatner movies and Patrick Stewart’s Next Generation entries, director Justin Lin’s new Star Trek Beyond is the sci-fi series’ 13th big-screen release – and it feels a bit like the movie, too, is pretending not to exist. If you see it in 3D, as I did, I mean that almost literally, because between the frequently murky photography and hue-diminishing eyewear, there were scenes in which I could barely see anything at all. (Despite the title of the previous Star Trek movie, this is the one that should’ve been called Into Darkness.) But the bigger problem is that while all of the franchise’s tenets are dutifully in place – the cornball jokes, the leaping away from fireballs, the inevitable deaths of anonymous, dialogue-deprived Redshirts – there’s really nothing here of any storyline interest, or even much character interest. You could safely skip it and not be at all out of the loop by the time of Star Trek XIV. (As for the predictable “controversy” surrounding the outing of John Cho’s Sulu, fear not, fanboys; even in the far future of Beyond, there’ll be no same-sex kissing to ruin your childhood memories.)
That’s not to say I didn’t have a not-bad time. Heaven knows there isn’t much to the plot, which is all about what happens after the Enterprise personnel have to, as is said verbatim by Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk, “rescue a crew stranded on a planet in uncharted space.” (Even though, of course, things wind up more complicated than that, exactly how long did it take screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung to come up with such a novel setup?) Yet there are diversions aplenty: the gorgeous visual of escape pods decorating the sky like comets; the hugely unexpected sound of Public Enemy issuing from a downed spacecraft; the reassuringly square banter between Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Karl Urban’s “Bones” McCoy, the former adorably deadpan and the latter continuing to refine his Al Gore impersonation. These and other appreciated elements, though, still don’t make for a satisfying whole given all the generic explosions and phaser warfare and poor Idris Elba having to serve as one of the least interesting villains in the Star Trek canon. And each of my smiles, such as the one that accompanied the glorious Bea Arthur baritone of castmate Shohreh Aghdashloo, was countered by a look of puzzlement, if not active displeasure, at the significant narrative cheats. Why is Zoe Saldana’s Uhura given no say on her troubled relationship with Spock when even the Vulcan is allowed to yammer on about it? How does Kirk navigate his motorcycle over terrain that, as we can clearly see in an overhead shot, would be physically impossible to drive through? How, when Pegg’s Scotty is dangling from the edge of a cliff, does the man survive? (That we’re never shown his miraculous escape made me want to punch someone.) Still, on a hot and muggy day, Star Trek Beyond makes for a passable two hours in air-conditioning. And while I was grateful for the subtle acknowledgment of Leonard Nimoy’s passing, I was even more moved when, toward the end, Kirk made a toast to “absent friends,” and the subsequent shot – one that appeared truly coincidental – found Anton Yelchin’s Chekhov center-screen. Tragically, the 27-year-old actor didn’t live long. But while did, bless him, Yelchin sure as hell prospered.
1:55 p.m.-ish: The most well-attended of my day’s four films, by a considerable margin, turns out to be Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. This depresses me to no end, even if it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, and I gird myself for two hours of conservative cackling as that chinless wonder Dinesh D’Souza again espouses the rabidly paranoid conspiracy theories he and co-writer/director John Sullivan foisted on us in 2016: Obama’s America and 2014’s peerlessly terrible America. It turns out, however, to be a relatively staid affair. Barring a pair of Ladies of a Certain Age who laughed at the obvious punchlines and gasped – literally gasped – with outrage when footage found Bill Maher opining, “If you’re a racist, you’re probably a Republican,” there was none of the vocal mania one might associate with a certain, recently televised political convention. And while there was the expected applause at the end, it also came right after a particularly adventurous, quite captivating performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and, y’know, congregated crowds are supposed to applaud the National Anthem. So I thank my fellow patrons for not making me worry that I might leave our screening in a body bag. It was actually the movie itself that was all but foaming at the mouth.
There are moments in which D’Souza’s and Sullivan’s abject amateurishness almost makes this hateful political screed fun. If it wouldn’t have been rude, I would have roared at the early scenes that found D’Souza – serving eight months in a halfway house for violating federal campaign-finance laws – starring in his very own Shawshank Redemption and getting wise to the ways of Democratic con-artistry. The historical re-creations, covering everything from 1860s plantation life to D’Souza’s 2014 sentencing, were so Ed-Wood-tacky they were practically endearing. (Mikaela Krantz’s shrill, hysterical portrayal of Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have been out of place in Glen or Glenda – or Reefer Madness, for that matter.) I loved the secret room at “Democratic Headquarters,” the one with the “KEEP OUT” sign on its door, that D’Souza sneaks into to uncover all of the party’s horrible hidden secrets, such as the fact that Abraham Lincoln was actually a Republican. (Don’t even middle-school students know this?) And for the first time in their big-screen oeuvre, D’Souza and Sullivan don’t appear wholly talentless, with some of their eye-catching, off-kilter compositions looking not unlike what Tom Hooper was up to in The King’s Speech. But otherwise, yeah, the experience is like having two heated Fox News pundits on either side of you screaming in your ears for 105 minutes. The more noxious insinuations and assaults aren’t worth addressing, except to say that they’ve already been addressed – by D’Souza and Sullivan, who previously played out their “the Dems invented slavery” and “the Dems invented the KKK” and “Obama and the Clintons are out to rule us all” cards in 2016 and America. (The only material given more weight this time is “serial rapist” Bill’s “sex addiction,” which, naturally, is shown to be Hillary’s fault.) What’s most galling is D’Souza’s incessant, unsubstantiated certitude. “It all began when the Obama administration tried to shut me up.” “I got Obama right.” “No Republicans owned slaves.” Convicted felon D’Souza just says these things and we’re meant to blindly take him at his word. On that note, however, it is fascinating that the man never once name-drops the Republican candidate for president, who’s only referenced here in talk-radio sound bites that find him castigated for “trafficking in hateful rhetoric” – a claim that D’Souza not once refutes. Hillary’s America may start on a note of panicky, end-of-days terror, but by its end you realize you haven’t been at the movie equivalent of Donald Trump’s convention speech; you’ve been at the movie equivalent of Ted Cruz’s.
4:05-ish: Walking into the cineplex wa-a-ay back at 9:55 a.m.-ish, I pass a cardboard advertisement promoting Ice Age: Collision Course with the tagline “Kiss Your Ice Goodbye.” Ah, if wishing made it so. I’m struggling to think of a successful film franchise I detest more than this repeated headache from 20th Century Fox’s animated division and can’t come up with one, and what makes it worse is that the asteroid threatening to destroy our “beloved” characters in this fourth sequel doesn’t, unfortunately, do the trick – they can easily return for another dipstick adventure in a few years’ time. By then, however, I may have to be seriously medicated to not instinctively retch at the sounds of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Wanda Sykes, and other slumming Ice Age comedians I once liked whose voices now set off an involuntary gag reflex. (Denis Leary is let off on a pass, because he sounds as miserable doing his job as I am listening to him do his job.) I may also have to invest in an updated thesaurus, because by the advent of Ice Age 6: Yup, We’re Still Expecting You to Pay to See This Crap, I’m definitely gonna have to come up with a few new variants on the word “hate.”
Here, I hate the sub-Honeymooners shtick involving Romano’s and Queen Latifah’s woolly mammoths Manny and Ellie, who engage in such hackneyed sitcom crises as Manny forgetting their anniversary and not wanting daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) to – horrors! – eventually leave home to live with her husband. (I also hate hearing whiny Adam Devine play that husband.) I hate the nauseating nattering of the lisping Leguizamo and the senior sassiness of Sykes, to say nothing of the Frick-and-Frack dopiness of Seann William Scott’s and Josh Peck’s opossums. I hate the prehistoric dialogue peppered with “Sweet!” and “Cool beans!” and “Whatever!”, and the completely unsurprising arrival of “Dream Weaver” on the soundtrack. I hate that so much time is spent in the magical land of Geotopia, as every second spent there reminded me that I wasn’t watching Zootopia instead. (I hate feeling compelled to mention that Jennifer Lopez, Nick Offerman, Max Greenfield, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Melissa Rauch are even involved in this thing.) And I really hate that these desperately unfunny, excitement-free Collision Course scenes fight for screen time alongside the antics of that astoundingly irritating squirrel Scrat – now in outer space, still chasing that acorn, and subjected to animated torture the likes of which we haven’t seen outside of Itchy & Scratchy. As the movie toggled between sequences on Earth and beyond it, I didn’t know which locale I was less looking forward to returning to, and despite a few amusing asides by Simon Pegg (him again!) and a smart, lightning-quick Planet of the Apes gag, everything about directors Galen T. Chu’s and Mike Thurmeier’s film left me annoyed and exhausted. (While Hillary’s America was too thunderously inept to ever be boring, I easily yawned more than two-dozen times during this piece of far-more-professional Hollywood product.) At one point, Scott’s and Peck’s weasels lick rocks to get their navigational bearings, and just as one is about to lick a particular clump, the other stops him by saying, “That’s a turd.” Well, the Ice Age critters ought to know.
5:50-ish: If I stick around the cineplex, it’s only 75 minutes ’til the next showing of the debuting Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, a big-screen extension of a TV series I’ve never once watched. If I get in my car, it’s only 20 minutes ’til home. Guess which choice I make.