INDEPENDENCE DAY EXTRAVAGANZA: Everything you need to know about the movies that couldn’t beat a three-week old cartoon about a talking fish

 

It’s actually nowhere near as bad as we first thought.

2016 has been bad enough to finally cause Hollywood to re-examine the sequel-based business model, but this is the single weekend everyone will be pointing to. The biggest weekend of the year yeilds three new releases — the second sequel to a bizarrely popular horror franchise, a Spielberg-Dahl adaptation and a live-action Tarzan movie — all expected to finish second place to leftovers, despite the latter two of them costing a combined $320 million to make.

Over the three-day weekend, the expectation was the inexpensive one would pull in $30 million, Tarzan would bring in around $25 million and The BFG wouldn’t break $20 million, and that’s kind of what happened, but the actuals have a couple of key differences that completely change the narrative. One, the totals are all a few million higher — the weekend’s total gross was expected to come in at just under $200 million, but as of Monday morning it’s already at $214.6 million and expected to add another $7 million over the holiday. The other difference is that Legend of Tarzan, expected to be another big-budget embarassment for Warner Bros., almost doubled expectations with current estimates putting it at a $45.6 million four-day total. We’ll get into the economics of the situation during the week, but first, here’s some reviews.

This is one of those rare, perfectly titled movies — it’s not about Tarzan, it’s about the legend of Tarzan. Clayton’s reputation hangs over him and the entire jungle like a specter. For him, it’s a destiny he’s tried to reject, and for everyone else it’s the fear of his impending wrath. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

The weekend’s surprising success story, The Legend of Tarzan, is bizarrely based less on the multi-media source material and more on King Leopold II of Belgium’s real-life reign of terror over the Congo in the late 1800s. Leopold has determined to settle his debts with the territory’s world-renowned diamonds, and has sent his champion, Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to collect them. Rom strikes a deal with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who controls the diamonds, to bring his archenemy Tarzan to him alive in exchange. In England, John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård) has turned his back on his feral upbringing, but is lured to accept Rom’s invitation by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants to prove Leopold is building the territory’s economy on slavery. Clayton returns to Africa and begins a reluctant transformation back into Tarzan, the legendary boy raised by apes.

As studios have been doing lately, Warner Bros. put their franchise tentpole in the hands of an experienced director — David Yates, best known for guiding the last three and a half Harry Potter movies. I adore two and a half of those movies, and was really excited to see what Yates was going to do with this movie. It’s very easy to see why people aren’t taking to it — just about every cut has a continuity error, or what feels like a continuity error. This is clearly by design and gives the film a sinister, dreamy vibe, but isn’t conducive to telling a heavily physical story, and that comes back to bite them.

As the movie picks up and trends toward more action scenes, they don’t shift to a more traditional way of shooting it, and most of the action scenes are really unsatisfying because of it. As great a job they do building up Tarzan into this walking myth and give him almost druidic qualities, they miss a lot of opportunities to show him performing mythical feats. The payoff just isn’t there.

Mark Rylance is getting a ton of credit for his motion-capture performance here, and that credit is due but the animation lets the performance down. Watching the BFG, it’s clear that Rylance was putting a ton of effort into the raw performance that gets lost in translation. His voice is much more interesting than the rest of the character, creating a weird sensation. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

The BFG follows an extremely annoying little orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who sees a giant (Mark Rylance) outside her window. To keep her from talking, the giant plucks her away and takes her to Giant Country to spend the rest of her days. This puts Sophie in considerable danger, since the other giants all eat children. The giant in question, however, weaves dreams, has routine excursions to Dream Country where he weaves dreams and then blows them into the heads of London children, which is a whole other fantastic element to the movie that isn’t well explained. In contrast to the cruel orphanage, Sophie takes fondly to her captor, whom she dubs the big fucking gun the big friendly giant.

This movie is ugly as sin. Director Steven Spielberg is one of the best ever at gracefully incorporating fake elements into a montage of real images, a skill that still eludes many filmmakers, but here he’s trying to incorporate a real element into a montage of mostly fake images, and he seems as green as a film student. Barnhill spends most of the movie trying to act against a green screen, and it shows. It pauses for dramatic reveals and extended exploratory sequences of the BFG’s home, the tree where he captures dreams and the cave where he weaves them, but not only is it all unconvincing CGI, even if it were a real set it wouldn’t work because what’s supposed to be wondrous about these scenes is the sense of scale, and we’re never given that.

Roald Dahl’s BFG was always going to be a tough book to adapt to film because not much happens in it. It’s more focused on taking readers through this wonderful world that Dahl has imagined. Spielberg tries to do this here, but the world isn’t wonderful. The rest of the movie is built on the foundation of the viewers’ hopeful reaction to the magical land it presents, but if you don’t have that reaction, the result is a movie that seems very in-its-own-head and inaccessible. It feels a lot like you’re listening to a child describe his playtime fantasies — when it’s your kid you kind of have to smile and nod, but when it’s one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, it should probably be more engaging on its own merit.

As much as they drone on, most of the villains’ metaphorical power comes from their garish character design. Election Year is full of bold choices that immediately communicate whatever themes DeMonaco has on his mind to the audience. Photo courtesy Universal Pictures.

The Purge: Election Year is the third installment in the four-year-old franchise that feels like it’s been around forever. These movies don’t make a ton of money, but they’ve grasped the public imagination in a way most studios can only dream of. Election Year follows Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a senator running for president on the platform of ending the annual Purge, and her chief of security, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo). In an effort to assassinate Roan, the ruling party switches up the rules of purge night, allowing high-level government officials to be targeted. Barnes sets up a fortress, but they are betrayed, and most of the movie is spent following them on the run.

This movie series has defied expectations and the traditional path movies take at every opportunity. The first movie was a sleeper hit with broad societal influence that belayed its modest $64.5 million domestic gross. Each subsequent movie has made more money than its predecessor. After Anarchy took viewers out of safety and into the Purge proper, Election Year is mostly more of the same. It’s got a lot of remarkably well-executed disaster elements mixed with the over-the-top metaphors and monologuing about America that have become the series’ icons.

I really love the direction this series is going. Despite feeling like a bunch of cheap throw-away action-horror flicks, writer/director James DeMonaco has lorded over each installment. They’ve got a great unrelated anthology feel to them, but each movie has had one more old character recur. In Election Year, it’s Barnes, which is great because he’s such a terrific character. The only character to feature in all three movies is the first film’s stranger character (Edwin Hodge), who is revealed to be more than a random passer by in the subsequent movies. It’s the best of both worlds — weaving in the implications of older stories, but still telling new ones. I’m excited to see where they go from here.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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