Category Archives: Movie Reviews

John Wick (R)

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John Wick is a superb action movie that is completely worth the price of admission if you’re a fan of watching countless nameless minions getting shot repeatedly. Honestly, this review can be summed up in that one sentence. The preview that I saw floating around for the past month or so has been bragging about how this is Reeves’ best film since The Matrix (small praise given the choices, really) but I’ll go one better and say it’s my favorite performance of his to date.

In this movie Keanu plays an emotionless killing machine by the name of John Wick (essentially the same robotic performance he always puts forth), and it’s wonderful. You can play tragic backstory bingo as you’re watching the intro scenes: immensely successful assassin for the mob; check. Managed to get away by accomplishing something terrible; check. Found true love only to have her die of some unfortunate disease; check. Terrible wrong is done to him after he’s lost her that drags him back into the seedy underbelly of society that he thought he’d escaped; check and check. It’s all rather shameless in its setup but for one bit that I’ll talk about in the spoiler section where it gets downright demented.

We launch into the film proper as the inevitable horrible events that lead to the wholesale slaughter play out. The world built here is done immensely well, adhering with almost religious devotion to the “show, don’t tell,” principle of movie making. You might recall that in my Maze Runner review I had a beef with the fact that they showed us plenty but never really made it clear what it meant. Here they demonstrate how much of a difference it makes when the principle is applied correctly… and it’s done with nothing more than a simple gold coin.

 

Heads up: explosive spoilers ahead!

 

After reclaiming his history through a good ol’ sledgehammer montage (and while the villain laments that his son was stupid enough to incite the wrath of a man named after a flammable substance), we see a case loaded with weaponry and neatly stacked golden coins. John’s home is then invaded by generic commando units who are swiftly dispatched whereupon he calls an old acquaintance and requests a dinner party for five. A team quickly arrives at his house with all the necessary tools for the removal of human remains and sanitation of any evidence their presence to which John pays the leader with five of his many coins. Throughout the rest of the movie, the coins are used as tools for admission to secret clubs, payment for services, and any activities associated with “The Continental Club” which is a secret society of vague purpose but undeniable coolness.

Willem Dafoe is also present playing the role of, well, Willem Dafoe. He’s a sniper friend who’s been hired to kill John. His scenes are entertaining as always and I really have no complaints, but the only thing that really makes them noteworthy is the fact that he’s the one playing the character. It also permanently linked this movie to Boondock Saints in my mind, which can only be a good thing.

The rest of the characters are pretty stock. There are plenty of generic goons, a mob boss, his worthless child whose stupidity causes the whole mess, Ms. Perkins (the femme fatale who’s pretty much wasted), and, oddly enough, Dean Winters (who you’ll most likely know from Law and Order: SVU or Mayhem from the Allstate commercials) who is playing a generic villain side-kick. There’s absolutely no character development and it doesn’t matter in the least. All that character fluff would only get in the way of the gun fights and each is a thing of beauty. Fights are fast paced, tense, and brutal and I really don’t have much to say beyond that. You should see them for yourself.

The last thing I have to talk about is one of the first scenes in the movie after the flashback montage. It’s not terribly spoilery given that I’m pretty sure they mention it in the trailer, but it is the only real heart wrenching scene, and the only one that I actually had to think about to decide what my feelings on it were. Feel free to head away from the review if you want to form your own feelings about it. The movie’s good and you should see it.

So, that scene.

The trailer makes it obvious that he had a cute puppy and it died, but it doesn’t really lay out just how traumatic the scene really is. Firstly, the dog is courier delivered the day after his wife’s funeral right as John’s trying to come to terms with her passing and it comes complete with a final postcard from beyond the grave read by his wife’s actress telling him to love again. Second, the dog is just about the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. It beats out the cutest kitten memes on the web. Third, you see genuine bonding between John and the puppy, probably the most human behavior you can hope to see from a Keanu Reeves performance. Then the home invasion occurs. It’s brutal, merciless, downright horrifying to watch, and it’s capped off by the puppy dying terribly. Beaten and bloody, John crawls over to the puppy and passes out beside it. I’ve seen a lot of messed up things in my life but that was one of the harshest things I’ve had to watch in my escapist action schlock as opposed to, ya know, real world news.

At first I was honestly a little offended by it. Make no mistake; this is blatant manipulation of the audience’s emotions while simultaneously setting up the film. After you’re likely to want to go out and get a beagle for yourself, but that scene will sour the idea. It took some time for me to be able to accept how necessary it was to the whole film, the helplessness established in this scene cements the total loss of his wife’s death and shatters any humanity left in him. What we see for the rest of the film is a weapon unleashed by tragedy and it’s glorious. It doesn’t make the manipulation any less blatant, but it’s one I find acceptable in this context. That being said, I’ll likely skip that scene during any further viewings because dear lord is it ever screwed up.

Up next week: Big Hero 6.

The Book of Life (PG)

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The winner this time ‘round was The Book of Life, a children’s movie centering on a Mexican holiday called The Day of the Dead which falls on November 2nd. I was cautiously optimistic going into this one and I’m happy to say that the film exceeded my expectations and rates a solid ‘good’ in my book. It doesn’t offer many surprises during the journey but it shows great visuals, likable characters, and an excellent look at the concepts of strength and courage. All in all it’s everything I’d hope for in a children’s movie. Except for the music, there’s really no redeeming the soundtrack they picked for this thing.

In my Boxtrolls review, I mentioned not really liking Claymation much. Despite my opinions of Claymation and stop-motion animation, I’m a huge fan of CG and traditionally animated films. I like the technology that goes into them, the effects they can pull off with so much more ease than a live-action, and just the general feel that you get when watching them. What I don’t like is when studios use the excuse that it’s okay that the plot was weak or the characters generic because “it’s for kids.” That’s just lazy and frustrates me every time because there are so many examples of great movies for children that remain entertaining to this day. Good news is that today’s film gets to be added to the pile of worthy films for children rather than just a cash grab to distract the offspring for an hour and a half while you nap.

I’m a sucker for good effects and this film didn’t disappoint. The animation shines most during the scenes of the Land of the Remembered (essentially Heaven). Everything is bright, vivid, and joyous, with all colors of the spectrum radiating from the screen. The last movie that transported me so effectively was Guardians of the Galaxy and they had three times the budget and the full might of Marvel Studios behind them. By visuals alone this is worth seeing on the big screen.

From here on watch yourselves because there are spoilers laying in wait!!!

The main characters aren’t quite as stunning as the setting. Manolo, our main protagonist is absolutely a character you’ve seen before. He’s charming enough, but doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He enjoys the spectacle of bull fighting but cannot bring himself to perform the final act of killing the bull (they also gloss over the fact that the bull would normally have numerous spears thrust into it during the fight before the actual killing blow because that would’ve likely damaged the PG rating). He’s a disappointment to his father and family, but still catches the eye of Maria, the love interest of the film. He eventually overcomes adversity, accepts himself for who he is, and ultimately wins the day. It’s a stock tale, but one told well enough to keep from feeling too stale.

His counterpart Joaquin is his childhood friend and the other one vying for the hand of Maria. He’s big, he’s brave, and he has a spectacular mustache. He is absolutely the model of masculine awesomeness. He also has a magic medal gifted to him by the semi-villainous Xibalba (played by the always delightful Ron Perlman) that makes him utterly immune to damage, death, stubbed toes, and any other inconvenience that mere mortals have to contend with. He’s a hero of the people and, well, a bit of an idiot when it comes to recognizing what Maria wants in a man.

Finally we’ve got the real star of the show: Maria. I like how she doesn’t fall victim to typical movie clichés. A frequent trope that films fall for is having the token tomboy tough girl. In this trope, the woman spends the entire film aggressively arguing that she’s every bit as tough as a man, until ultimately needing to be saved by one because he’s the hero and she’s not. Maria, on the other hand, simply acts when she feels things aren’t going the way she approves of them. She calls out both of the boys when they’re behaving like morons, but obviously cares about both of them. She wastes precious little time demanding to be treated as an equal and simply behaves as one regardless of what those around her are treating her as. Ultimately she does get caught by the generic bandit leader Chakal, but she isn’t a damsel. She just rolls her eyes at the development.

We see a handful of other characters in the Land of the Remembered that are colorful, witty, and entertaining. Just enough of their stories are told to make us want to know more but not to the point that it crowds out the main three. The gods Xibalba and La Muerte are ever present, their interest in the trio revolving around a bet for control of the Lands of the Remembered and the Lands of the Forgotten. Instead of simply making the darker Xibalba an outright villain, he comes across more as a grumpy husband, in love with La Muerte but bitter that she gets the finer things. Certainly not an admirable character, but not hateful either and the film actually ends on a kiss between the two deities rather than the typical wedding kiss you would usually expect.

Ultimately the movie is about balance rather than good overcoming evil as we tend to see with this type of movie. Manolo comes to terms with who he is rather than simply what his family wanted, Joaquin learns to be a hero without his magic medal of invincibility. Maria, well, she pretty much understood the shape of things from the outset and gets to marry the man she loves. All in all, thoroughly enjoyable.

But that music, gah. To say it is bad would be an understatement. Not only do they butcher classic songs and resurrect songs best forgotten, even their original songs play as trite and unnecessary. Manolo’s other love in life is music, he constantly has a guitar at his back or in his hands, and everything he plays is god awful. In another movie this would be a minor gripe but they made music a heavy part of his character and then used consistently lousy music. Make no mistake: The Book of Life is a good movie, but that soundtrack holds it back from being great. Absolutely worth a watch, especially if you have kids, you just may be wishing for a fast forward button when Manolo starts singing about his feelings.

 

Hope you enjoyed the review and here’s hoping you guys pick a great movie for me to see next week!

 

Dracula Untold (PG-13)

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I admit that I was dreading this one. Hollywood and company have pretty much milked the essence of the vampire film to death at this point. Drained it of all the vital fluids it once possessed. Left it as a barren husk, a shadow of its former self… you get the idea. After the advent of the sparkly vampire, well, I was quite ready to be done with this particular form of monster.

Color me surprised to have to admit that this film was pretty decent. Nothing groundbreaking or original, but good popcorn fare (preferably with white cheddar flavoring). It paid tribute to the original Dracula and gave him a solid character arc. It clashed with what I understand of the actual historical figure, Vlad of Tepes, but liberties must be taken when depicting a man famous for making human shish kabobs. The movie also suffers from a serious lack of memorable characters (besides Dracula), but it doesn’t let the focus shift away from him so that weakness is somewhat forgivable. If you want to see a film where a vampire runs around killing Ottoman soldiers you could do worse than Dracula Untold, though in my opinion this film would have benefited from an R Rating so they could show proper violence.

That concludes the portion of the review that can be considered spoiler free. From here on out, I won’t be rushing to guard my thoughts on specific scenes. That being said, there’s really not a lot to spoil.

The trailer pretty much established everything that goes down: the Ottoman Empire was a bunch of jerks, they demand child soldiers, including Vlad’s son, Vlad kills some guys,  then has to go become a vampire to have a chance at surviving a ludicrous amount of enemy soldiers. The only real twist is the fact that he’s given a three day window in which, should he resist the urge to drink blood the curse will be lifted and he won’t become the monster everyone knows and loves. Not that we believe for an instant that things will play out that way, it’s just a nice little piece that establishes some stakes throughout the adventure.

Frankly this movie had a shot at being a lot better than it was. For every favorable thing I have to say about it there’s something to hold it back. Most of the battles are fun but the first one abuses shaky cam to the point where I had to look away several times. Dracula himself is a broody anti-hero who I tend to like, but every other character is boring and forgettable, even the woman he’s madly in love with. The Master Vampire is an impressively intimidating monster, a perfect example of ancient power to be feared, but he talks far too much, spoiling a fair amount of his fear factor.

Nowhere does the film show its weakness more than with the antagonists in the film. They embody the mustache twirling villain of old, with no character or desires beyond evil for evil’s sake. Most troublesome is Sultan Mehmed (whose name I had to look up because I didn’t care enough while he was on screen to remember his name). Judging from the dialogue we get between him and Vlad early in the film, they grew up together, fought numerous battles together, and outright considered each other brothers (not that they share even the barest examples of history beyond saying that they have it). No real reason for his desire for 1,000 children to turn into soldiers is given beyond him wanting more troops. Even then it doesn’t truly feel like he wants them to aid in further conquest, he just… wants them. In an action movie a hero is defined by the villain he faces and Dracula’s villain is, at his most aggressive, still just a chump.

All my griping aside, I still say it’s a serviceable film, provided you’re looking to flip your brain off for a couple of hours. If however you want more dramatic fare there’s better stuff out there right now. For pure junk food film, this one hits the mark quite nicely. The PG-13 rating does detract from the mystique of the vampire mythology a bit, but it also makes things somewhat more tolerable if you want to bring your (teenage) kids along.

Well, we’ve got a new crop of movies out this week as well as plenty of old ones to pick from too. So cast your vote below! Comment on the FOX 28 Facebook (facebook.com/fox28spokane) if you have other movie suggestions.

The Boxtrolls (PG)

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So here we are again as I work towards being somewhat current with the movies I review. Today I’m taking a look at The Boxtrolls, and I have to say that this one’s a bit tricky for me. While I can appreciate the effort and talent that goes into Claymation, it always comes off as ugly to me. It makes the experience of watching a whole film that celebrates the art form somewhat unpleasant.

That being said, they went all out with this one. I can’t think of any stop motion film that I’ve seen with animation this fluid. So much of it works so well, in fact, that the moments where it doesn’t come together (the rare scene where expressions or models seem to move just a little too much) it’s actually a jarring reminder that the film is comprised of individually posed models painfully adjusted fractions of an inch for each fame of animation. Sure, they padded the crowds with CG extras, but the dedication to the craft shines through. If you love animation then you don’t need to read any further; this is absolutely a film you should see. If you need to know more, read on into the more spoiler-y part of this review.

 

Spoiler territory ahead!

While I can’t say that I loved the look of The Boxtrolls, it did its job of sucking me into the world quite nicely. Everything I saw looked like it belonged in the bizarre city of an undefined era that they put in front of me. The technology was believable, the characters unique, and the overall personality of everything present was quite clear. That’s also the movie’s problem.

See, with the exception of two henchmen to the film’s big bad, I really didn’t like any of the characters in The Boxtrolls.

The main protagonist, named Eggs after the box he wears, is about as generic a character as you can imagine. There’s nothing particularly bad about him, he’s just a bland do-gooder looking to protect his family of box dwelling trolls. His female counterpart Winnie, on the other hand, is a gratingly obnoxious brat of privilege. She’s the daughter of the apparent leader of the city (there’s actually a triumvirate of white hat wearers but he’s the only one that seems to have much say) and is routinely neglected by him, which leads to her acting out. She’s simultaneously the most believable character of the group and one of the most unlikeable, in my opinion.

The premise is fine, with the titular Boxtrolls living underground, hiding from the surface dwellers who hate them, only coming out to grab bits of shiny to tinker with. Archibald Snatcher, villain of the film and town exterminator, uses circumstance to elevate the hatred of the Boxtrolls and negotiates to get his own white hat for power, prestige, and a fine assortment of delicious cheeses. Our hero Eggs is exactly the circumstance used, a child taken by the trolls when he was very young and raised by them, eating bugs and getting serenaded by a lovely handsaw violin. We flash forward through a montage of the boy growing up while more and more Boxtrolls are captured before we’re into the story proper.

And honestly, that’s where the movie started losing me. The setup was good but after they had everything in place it got outright boring. There was running around, decent effects, character moments, and it was all just bland and predictable. Of course the father figure, Fish, gets captured, of course Eggs goes on an adventure to the surface to save him, of course he ends up working with the bratty daughter of the town leader, and of course it’s revealed that Snatcher was using the Boxtrolls he caught to build a giant death machine so he could kill the ones that remain. (It’s a kids film, we can’t have the wholesale slaughter of something like a hundred hideously adorable trolls, now can we?)

One incredibly clever bit that comes up in all of this, though, is that Snatcher is so consumed by his quest for a white hat that he refuses to admit a pretty appalling short-coming in his plan. I’ll leave you to discover THAT for yourselves.

There’s also a full scene where we see Eggs, who has all the manners of any proper Boxtroll, trying to navigate a high society dinner event and failing quite horribly. He’s inevitably kicked out as a menace and realizes he’s going to have to save his family by himself. After a requisite scene of moping the final act kicks off with a giant steampunk war machine breaking into the Boxtroll cave, capturing the remaining trolls, and whisking them away for execution. All my lizard brain needed to hear was ‘giant steampunk war machine’ to be snapped back into rapt attention.

The action was good, the moral about not hiding and being true to yourself was good, and the added pleasure of Snatcher’s final defeat was wonderfully played. I just wish I hadn’t had to sit through an incredibly dull middle portion to get to it. All in all, I don’t regret seeing the film, and I can see this as being a solid choice for anyone with kids they need to entertain (though you’ll probably want to keep an eye on their table manners after that dinner scene). If you’re not an animation buff, you may want to wait ’til it’s available on video or catch it as a matinee.

One final note, since you stuck around for the whole of the review, I’m rewarding your diligence by giving you a say in which movie I get subjected to, I mean… watch next. I am, however, begging you not to pick 50 Shades of Grey when it comes round. 

The Maze Runner (PG 13)

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PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Greetings people of the Internet, I’m back! Apologies for the absence, but I’ve spent the last two months holding two jobs, followed by acclimating to the new one, and having precious little free time to go watch movies or have fun in general. The paychecks have been nice though.

Anyway, I’m getting back into the swing of things with a movie that’s been out for a little while but I’d only just gotten to see: Maze Runner. Based on a book by a guy I’ve never heard of, it’s a series that I know nothing about. With that in mind, I can only judge it by its own merit and how much I wanted to flip a table by the end (spoilers: less than TMNT, more than Guardians). While I try my best to keep my life spoiler free, I had heard some mediocre things about this one so I had already come in with lowered expectations. As a result, I had a mostly pleasant experience with the film…until the last ten minutes.

The basic plot, as set up by the trailer that you’ve probably seen if you’re thinking about watching it, is that there are a bunch of kids trapped at the center of a maze for unspecified reasons. There’s running, there’s a maze, and there are terrifying creatures to ramp up tension at every turn. And honestly, it is for the most part a decent romp…until the last ten minutes.

The main character, Thomas, wakes up on an elevator with no clue what’s going on. Right out the gate the movie does a good job of setting up terror and confusion and intrigue. He’s greeted by a group that I was mentally calling “The Lost Boys” for the whole run of the movie. Antics ensue and you get the typical run of impressive set pieces, decent CGI, and occasional child murder. It’s a mostly entertaining romp with many questions raised and precious few answered. The actors do their jobs well enough, you mostly buy into the setting, and you get a good show for the price of admission until… you get the idea. There are still better films out there, but if you’ve got nothing better to do with your afternoon it’s not a terrible way to kill a few hours.

So that’s the spoiler free version. From this point on, I’m going to assume that you either don’t care about spoilers or have already seen the movie and are curious whether a stranger on the Internet agrees with you or not.

Read on at your own peril and amusement.

I’d have to say the movie would have ranked as a solid “Good” in my notebook if not for that ending, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The primary issue that this film has is that while it’s great at setting up mysteries, it’s less great at delivering the payoff. A sticking point for me is that it maintains some of those mysteries by having characters behave like morons. From the very beginning it’s made clear that the Maze is dangerous, a place not to go and such. Instead of having someone simply explain that the gates shut themselves every night and anyone trapped outside will be ripped to shreds by giant techno-spider death machines, we get to see the main character tackled by the guy who’s totally not going to be an enemy by the end of the film. Even after the tackle (kudos to the effects team btw, I half felt like I was the one hit by it) they don’t actually say that’s what happens, they just wait ‘til the gates close and then act like Thomas was an idiot for not expecting that to happen.

That was a lot of words to complain about a single scene, but the basic issue throughout is that no one questions obvious things they should be questioning. I haven’t read the books and it’s entirely possible that that’s the exact point the author was trying to make. But all I’ve got to go on is a movie full of characters not asking very obvious, very relevant questions, and by the end It’s outright angering to me that some things are allowed to slide. To me this movie has the exact opposite problem that a lot of films have: it’s actually lacking in exposition. Showing, rather than telling, is how the medium is supposed to work and it’s hard to fault a movie for emphasizing that approach to storytelling. However, when we have no clue what’s really going on by the end of the movie unless we’ve already read the books, something’s failed in the telling.

The Maze itself is awesome to look at, though I can’t really accept the excuse for them not climbing to the top being that the vines didn’t grow tall enough. There were plenty of trees inside the vale; they could have built a proper scaffold to get to the top. The Maze shifts daily, making every run a little different. Mostly it’s an excuse to have several cringe-inducing moments of Thomas nearly getting pancaked. The Maze monsters, called Grievers, are pretty horrifying to look at, but slightly head scratching in light of the revelations at the end.

And that ending, hoo boy. So, the bulk of the movie is high paced, heart pounding, and even occasionally properly scary. Then we get to the big reveal of what’s really going on. The whole point of this massive maze is science. Not just any science, of course, science to save the human race from extinction. A phrase repeated often enough you’ll be rolling your eyes every time you hear it gets even more ridiculous when you hear what it actually stands for “Wicked is good.” Wicked stands for World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department.

Congratulations, you’ve just made the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division sound a whole lot less silly.

Apparently this group is tasked with testing exceptional children with an immunity to some sort of super virus (though the infection can be forced it seems), and to do that testing, they must construct a colossal environment for the express purpose of putting them at extreme stress to alter their brain chemistry or some such nonsense. It’s asinine, it’s out of far left field, and nothing about it real. THEN it’s revealed that something else entirely may be going on because the woman who finished explaining all this and then shot herself is revealed two scenes later to be alive and well and then the credits roll. It’s all well and good if the characters are clueless as to what’s going on, but I don’t like it when I feel obligated to look up the source material just to understand what I just watched.

So yeah, those are my closing thoughts on The Maze Runner. Coming up next a movie that should be a bit more fun: The Boxtrolls.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (PG 13)

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There wasn’t much of a chance that I’d enjoy this film, and until I signed on to do review blogs for this website, I had fully intended to skip it. That being said, I did have some expectations going in based on past experiences with Michael Bay and my own childhood love of the series. Somehow the movie managed to disappoint me on both fronts.

 

I’ll say from the outset that they didn’t do everything wrong with this film; there are genuine moments of humor to be had. The problem is that for every minute of entertainment or every glimpse at an interesting idea, thereare ten minutes of boredom and an idea so stupid that it negates any cleverness they’ve achieved (with the exception of one scene that I will explain at the end). The net result is something that’s somehow more disappointing than a full on train wreck that has convinced me to never watch a movie associated with Michael Bay again.

 

Enough stalling, on to the review. Chances are you know what you’re getting into at this point. I doubt there’s a movie-goer out there that hasn’t heard of the Turtles, it was a cornerstones of my childhood built on a single stupid song. Four pet turtles get infected by magical science goop and become nighttime vigilantes battling against the evil Shredder and his Foot Clan. It’s a silly premise that’s pretty tough to take seriously and to the film’s credit, it doesn’t spend much time focusing on drama and moping.

 

The film fails in much the same ways that Bay’s Transformers franchise fails: not enough focus on the title characters. It’s nearly 20 minutes before we actually get to see our four pizza addicts, and they fade into the background for even more time after that. No, this is a story about April O’Neil, the frequent Damsel in Distress of the show. It’s a good choice in direction to make her an actual capable character who doesn’t need much saving throughout, but any points gained there are lost by the fact that she’s boring as heck and gets like no funny lines. Her sidekick is even worse. Played by actually amusing actor Will Arnett, it’s painful to watch him fail at every step to get a laugh. These two basically bumble around the movie checking off boxes in Generic Action Flick Bingo while failing to draw out more than a small chuckle or smirk at a particularly awful bit of dialogue.

 

The Turtles themselves do fare slightly better and often feel like actual characters, albeit hideous monstrosities that are in no way fun to look like. Many, though definitely not all, of their interactions are fun and the one scene that I’m gonna put at the end for spoilers is honestly rather brilliant. Michelangelo is obviously the one that got most the attention here, getting most of the funny lines and if you’re laughing hard during this film it’s probably because of him. He also gets the creepiest lines and frequently says things to and about April that go way past the realms of good taste and into restraining order territory.

 

Then there’s the villains and we get the one thing in the movie that actually takes me from bored to angry. Shredder was the single most memorable villain from my childhood and they turned him into the most generic of mechanical foes with a penchant for posing like Wolverine. Except for the one scene where you see him without the armor you never really feel like he’s a threat or even like a character. He just struts around the film growling and shooting swords that never hit anything important.

 

The only real saving grace in the movie for me was William Fichtner. He plays billionaire genius playboy philanthropist Erick Sacks, financier/lackey to Shredder. Fichtner hams it up in every scene, having fun with an obviously stupid plot and coming across as a man with a plan. Unfortunately, most of the fun to be had with Sacks falls apart when his motivations are revealed. This man is rich enough to build an unstoppable suit of power armor that launches magnetically controlled swords that instantly inflict slow-mo on the audience and never hit, has a skyscraper in the middle of New York City capable of supporting a generic final confrontation battle, has deep ties to the NYPD and no doubt plenty of congressmen in his pocket already and ya wanna know what his great motivation in all this is? He’s going to make money off of selling a cure to the horrible chemical weapon he’s going to release on the city that will be initiated at his own building. Nope, no way that plan could go awry.

 

Here are my final thoughts:

 

The movie bounces from boring scene A to boring scene B, with occasional clever references or painfully obvious comments about turtle soup that feel less like homages and more like weak fanbaiting. The characters are ugly, boring, or both and the only thing I have to say about Splinter is that he’s possibly the ugliest creature in the whole film. It’s nice to see them make April something other than a Damsel, but they forgot to include personality into the new character design. It suffers from a severe lack of actual ninja action and stealth, but that’s somewhat understandable since the only tool the team seemed to have to go off of was the teachings in a random self help book on ninjutsu that washed up in the sewers one day. Bottom line, avoid this movie in theaters and at most pick it up as a rental.

 

Now for the one thing I really did enjoy in the movie that I feel worthy of the spoiler warning, don’t read this bit if you want to have something to hold on to during the doldrums of much of the movie.

 

Last chance.

 

All right, so late in the movie, shortly before the final boring battle atop the skyscraper, we are treated to the surreal scene of a still shot with the titular characters all crammed into an elevator. There’s no dialogue, just the frequent ding of the elevator passing each floor. For no obvious reason Mikey starts smacking his nunchucks together in a beat, slightly awkward but a bit amusing. Instead of berating him into silence as has been the case for most of the film, Raph actually joins in, clanging his sai together in a counterpoint. Don and Leo join in and we’ve got a tiny little band playing in this cramped elevator and for one moment it’s entirely my turtles, the door reaches the top, opens up, and the boys charge out to meet their foe.

 

Then we’re back to the schlock that made up the rest of the movie and I’m back to wishing I was watching Guardians of the Galaxy again.

Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13)

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PHOTO SOURCE

WARNING: Plot Spoilers Ahead!!!

Greetings Fans of Fox, I’m Dan, the new movie review blogger on this little chunk of the Interwebs. Full disclosure: this is actually the second movie I’ve gone to see for the sake of reviewing, the first was Lucy and that didn’t go so well. Suffice it to say that I didn’t enjoy it and I strongly suggest watching something like Hercules instead.

Today we have better fare: Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that made it completely clear in the trailers that it doesn’t take itself seriously. That’s an important trait in an action movie where two of the leads are a talking raccoon demolitionist and a sentient tree that only speaks three words. After a brief intro scene of dramatic back-story that makes you wonder if you’re watching the wrong film we’re launched forward 26 years to the present day to see what’s become of Peter Quill, our protagonist. What follows is something I’ve never actually seen on the big screen that completely destroys any lingering melancholy from the intro.

Guardians is not a complicated movie. Scrappy outlaws band together to fight a big bad. The motivations and personalities of every character is clearly established early on: Quill is essentially Han Solo and every scoundrel hero you’ve ever seen, Gamorra is the femme fatalle badass with a tortured past she’s bottled up, Rocket is the victim of inhumane experiments that left him with a huge chip on his shoulder and a bit of an inferiority complex, Drax is a musclebound wrecking ball who takes every sentence literally, and Groot is Groot. Much like The Avengers, Guardians spends much of the early acts having the characters spend more time fighting each other instead of working against the actual genocidal fanatic reaping a swathe of destruction in his hunt for them and the mystic mcguffin they’re carrying (spoiler to pretty much no one: it’s an Infinity Stone).

Also standing out is Michael Rooker as Yondu, Quill’s abductor/surrogate father/secondary antagonist for much of the movie. He’s a sort of pirate king running a band called Ravagers that’s apparently large enough to be known to the galaxy as a whole yet small enough that the entire fleet can spend its time running after a single renegade member. The relationship between Yondu and Quill is hilariously twisted, with Yondu repeatedly bragging about how he didn’t let his men eat the younger Quill when they first picked him up (though it’s revealed that they were actually there because they’d been hired to abduct him as cargo for his father).

I’ve spent four paragraphs avoiding talking about much of the plot because, honestly, there isn’t a whole lot of it. Good guys acquire the mcguffin, they figure out what it is, bad guy gets the mcguffin and gains phenomenal cosmic powers, good guys band together to get the mcguffin back, save the day and kill the bad guy. Along the way we get some fantastic set pieces, ridiculous outfits, and hilarious one-liners, as well as a jaw-dropping after credits cameo that’ll probably leave half the viewers scratching their heads in confusion as to who the character is, and the other half simply confused that they chose to have him show up.

All told, this movie is 121 minutes of ridiculous fun with one of the better soundtracks I’ve ever heard. It gets my full approval and you should go watch it. Also, it has Karen Gillan, which is more than motivation enough to see it in my book.

X MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (PG-13)

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(Insert TERMINATOR 2 soundtrack here).
Well, we blew up the world again. In X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, humanity reaps its own destruction by inventing an army of giant, autonomous murder robots – so honestly, we kinda deserved it. The film opens in a charred post-apocalyptic future where a scattered mutant resistance (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Ellen Page) have hatched a convoluted time-travel plot to implant the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into his younger body circa the 1970’s, before said autonomous murderbots can be funded by Congress.
The reason for funding them? The assassination of scientist Bolivar Task (Peter Dinklage) by mutant Mystique (blue Jennifer Lawrence).
Now awakened in a baffling age of lava lamps and waterbeds, Wolverine must track down the younger versions of his mutant cohorts (Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and… good lord, just Google the rest) and rally them to stop bickering and save the future. And because this is an X-Men movie, no one will until the very, very end. Seriously, Wolverine’s task feels like herding super-powered cats. It’s not screenwriting – it’s crowd control.
Luckily, the action is terrific. Director Bryan Singer stages some memorable set pieces (the best one, a time-freezing Pentagon break-out, is almost worth the price of admission alone) and orchestrates teleportation portals and fire blasts with uncommon imagination and visual wit. Minute to minute, it’s entertaining and sharply produced.
But the writing struggles to get off the ground. X-MEN is overstuffed with franchise obligations and never has time to offer any compelling drama (heck, look at the poster – you could play Where’s Waldo on it). None of the well-cast actors get to do much aside from look pretty and perform a few crowd-pleasing mutant tricks. Because there’s a half-dozen central protagonists but no clear villain, and no one ever seems to be in true mortal danger, the tension plateaus halfway through. Your enjoyment here will depend on your investment in the previous entries. By the end, I found myself simply not caring.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is great fan service but only an okay movie. If you loved Bryan Singer’s previous work in the franchise, you’ll have fun. If you’re a comic book outsider like me, proceed with caution.
DARK KNIGHT, this ain’t.
2.5stars
-Taylor Adams
Photo source: http://comicsalliance.com/new-x-men-days-of-future-past-trailer-video/

GODZILLA (PG-13)

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The last time an American studio tackled Godzilla, we got Roland Emmerich’s disastrous 1998 film, where the titular lizard was a ten-story velociraptor with Jay Leno’s chin. It was so singularly awful, it might be the reason aliens haven’t yet contacted us.
This year’s smarter, grittier GODZILLA, helmed by indie up-and-comer Gareth Edwards, is hell-bent on getting the fire-breathing antihero right. The setup is taut and promising as an unseen force levels a Japanese nuclear plant and site supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) suffers a tremendous personal loss. The official explanation is “uh… earthquake,” but Joe insists it was something else – and he’s soon proven right. Now two giant monsters are on the warpath (although they both look like the CLOVERFIELD monster with a staple remover for a head) and the world’s last hope may be a mysterious third creature rising from the ocean: an ancient apex predator from a forgotten time. Says one scientist: “Let them fight.”
And they do. Eventually. Be patient with this one, as Edwards saves the coolest stuff for the final thirty minutes. GODZILLA is directed with a remarkable sense of restraint and the beasts are revealed in only teasing glimpses at first, often limited by shaky, ground-level viewpoints. It can feel forced, as when an early showdown in Honolulu abruptly cuts to a child’s bedroom hundreds of miles away, but in doing this Edwards confidently avoids the numbing excess of Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS lineup. We’re forced to wait a little while to see the movie’s true stars in all their scaly glory, so when we finally do, it’s genuinely powerful.
Big chunks of this movie demand a second viewing. The promised monster brawl in San Francisco is a showstopper. A H.A.L.O. jump through layers of hellish smoke and ash unfolds like a cinematic oil painting. An airport lobby window becomes a widescreen panorama of fiery destruction. The action is quick, brutal, and carries a visible human cost.
Previous Godzilla iterations have been viewed as an exorcism of Japan’s post-Hiroshima demons, and this American spin seems to be after a different boogeyman: the whims of an indifferent Mother Nature. The big lizard can’t even step out of the ocean without triggering a devastating tsunami that kills thousands, and he barely seems to notice us because, collectively, we’re really not worth noticing. Godzilla is millions of years old. Can you blame him for not really caring about this strange little ant colony of concrete and buildings that sprouted up in the last thousand years? This humbling smallness, combined with a Spielberg-ish sense of awe, gives the movie its teeth.
Also, at one point Godzilla literally performs a Mortal Kombat-style fatality. So there’s that.
It’s B-movie euphoria assembled with A-movie talent. I had a big, dumb grin on my face through the whole thing.
stars3.5
-Taylor Adams
Photo source: http://screenrant.com/godzilla-2014-movie-posters/

NEIGHBORS (R)

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In NEIGHBORS, Seth Rogen plays something new: a responsible adult.
At least until the gleefully mean-spirited, escalating prank war begins. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are Mac and Kelly – frazzled new parents still settling into their quiet suburban lifestyle. When the vacant house next door is bought by the notoriously rowdy Delta Psi Beta fraternity, Mac and Kelly initially hit it off just fine with frat leader Teddy (Zac Efron). They even have a great time at Delta Psi’s housewarming party. Only problem is, the parties keep happening. Every. Single. Night.
One broken promise and a noise complaint is all it takes to torpedo Mac and Teddy’s friendship and trigger a devastating feud between generations.
But underneath the airbag chairs and Roman candles fired at cop cars, NEIGHBORS is actually a surprisingly insightful meditation on growing up. Both sides of the fence face dramatic life changes, and everyone struggles in their own way to hold onto past glories. Mac and Kelly are desperate to recapture the spontaneity of their youth and can’t even leave suburbia without a stroller and seventy-five pounds of baby gear. Meanwhile, Teddy’s graduation date looms and he has no academic achievements or career ambitions to speak of. Each side reminds the other of what they’re losing. Everyone stands at the edge of their own personal abyss in NEIGHBORS, and there’s real pain under the belly laughs.
Seth Rogen is reliably funny here, although I can never tell if he’s acting or just being Seth Rogen. Zac Efron is surprisingly sympathetic as a vacuous party animal facing the end of his world. And Rose Byrne comes out of nowhere, stealing scenes left and right with razor-sharp comic timing. She deserves her own movie.
It’s funny, but not quite as funny as it could have been. One of the best gags is marred by CG that could’ve been rendered on an N64. Some scenes lurch and stumble, like they weren’t written so much as engineered to be stages for the improvised genius of its stars. Sometimes this pays off spectacularly, but other times, those stars just don’t align and we’re left with a meandering story that feels bloated even at 97 minutes. NEIGHBORS offers frequent chuckles but not as many big laughs as the talent promises.
Still, it’s immature enough to be good fun and smart enough to touch nerves. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, you’ll probably enjoy NEIGHBORS.
stars

-Taylor Adams

Photo source: http://www.impawards.com/2014/neighbors.html

BRICK MANSIONS (PG-13)

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Okay. Maybe I was too hard on TRANSCENDENCE.
Quietly dumped into theaters last weekend, BRICK MANSIONS is an epic saga of a Detroit neighborhood, a stolen neutron bomb, and a whole lot of jumping and climbing. The Motor City (played by Montreal, for some reason) is depicted here as a dystopian urban sprawl where a good-guy cop (Paul Walker) must team up with a wall-running vigilante (David Belle) to track down a ticking WMD before it renovates several city blocks. Faced with an impending nuclear holocaust, this duo keeps finding excuses to get in badly-filmed fistfights with each other, at one point over a vehicle. Actual dialogue: “My van!”
Yep, BRICK MANSIONS is stupid. Deeply, profoundly stupid. It’s an eye-watering shot of 200-proof, triple-distilled stupid. If you asked Homer Simpson to make a movie, this 90-minute brain injury is more or less what you’d get. And there’s nothing wrong with that, by itself. Some of my favorite films are proudly mindless. Stupid movies can be liberating, if they’re directed with enough skill and gusto to help us forget logic and simply marvel at their grand, idiotic wonders.
BRICK MANSIONS isn’t.
And it commits the cardinal sin of action movies: the action sucks. Every fight scene is over-edited into a disorienting slurry. The choreography is fine and Belle’s spider-monkey parkour stunts are impressive, but the over-caffeinated cutting destroys any sense of rhythm or physical space. It could have been edited in a blender, whirling from one bizarre angle to the next with a frequency that even Michael Bay would call excessive. BRICK MANSIONS mistakes the 180-degree rule for a 360-degree rule, and then still somehow breaks it.
Worst of all, it’s utterly unnecessary. BRICK MANSIONS is a PG-13 remake of 2006’s R-rated DISTRICT B13 (a perfectly awesome French movie that didn’t need remaking) and accomplishes nothing except make the original look even better. This sanitized, Americanized version is just a copy of a copy, redrawn in crayon by a disinterested studio exec. Fingers crossed that FAST SEVEN is a better career sendoff for the late Paul Walker, because he deserves so much more than this Shakespearean exchange:
“My van!” “No, my van!”
Movies like BRICK MANSIONS frighten me because they suggest that IDIOCRACY is coming true.
stars
-Taylor Adams

TRANSCENDENCE (PG-13)

 

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The plot of TRANSCENDENCE hinges on Luddite terrorists that are tech-phobic enough to murder software engineers, but tech-savvy enough to lace their bullets with radioactive material.
That’s the first gut-punch to your suspension of disbelief, and it’s only ten minutes in. TRANSCENDENCE is just warming up.
Johnny Depp is renowned scientist Dr. Will Caster and he’s close to achieving his life’s work: creating a self-aware artificial intelligence, because we all know SKYNET went so famously well. On his way out of a public exposition-delivering appearance, Caster is ambushed and shot with a radioactive bullet by the aforementioned terrorists in a coordinated attack also involving computer bombs and a poisoned birthday cake (did Dr. Doom help these guys out or something?). Luckily, the resulting radiation poisoning gives a dying Dr. Caster just enough time to upload his consciousness onto his computer.
This new Cyber-Depp quickly escapes and infects the internet as a rapidly evolving, sentient computer virus with unknown goals. As the singularity incorporates every electronic device on earth, Caster’s former colleagues, the FBI, and even that terrorist group find themselves in an uneasy three-way alliance. Caster is clearly no longer human – but does he have any humanity left at all? And if not, can he even be stopped?
I wanted to love TRANSCENDENCE. Melding a human soul with software is heady, thought-provoking stuff, but the unfocused shotgun blast of a screenplay fails to cohere into much of anything. We’re left with a sprawling mess that introduces fascinating ideas and then immediately drops them to jaggedly rush into the next scene. The storytelling is as smooth as a dryer with a brick in it. It can’t even seem to decide on a genre – so we get a drama without enough character development and a thriller without enough danger.
Because the script is such a mess, the outlandish scifi concepts aren’t given the attention they need to work. At a breathless pace, TRANSCENDENCE introduces nanotechnology via raindrops, superhuman hybrids, and a climactic computer virus with baffling consequences. It’s just too much fi and not enough sci to ground everything. By the time the third act rolled around and Cyber-Depp started attacking everyone with magic CG tentacles, my mind had wandered back to the low-key narrative riddles of OCULUS, which was playing in the theater next door.
And that’s too bad, because TRANSCENDENCE also has some real strengths. The cinematography is starkly beautiful, the ideas are big, and the cast is terrific. If you adjust your expectations a few rungs, you can still salvage an okay time with this one. Some individual scenes work pretty well, and there’s no denying the coolness of the stuff on display.
But Michael Crichton could have written it way better.
And he’s dead.

2stars

-Taylor Adams

Photo Source: https://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/yahoo-movies/johnny-depp-goes-digital-in-new–transcendence–poster-180357010.html

OCULUS (R)

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As far as horror movie antagonists go, a homicidal wall-mounted mirror is pretty iffy. It’s hard to build tension when the villain could be killed by a baseball.

But OCULUS is up to the task. We follow Kaylie (Karen Gillan), a young woman obsessed with documenting an allegedly haunted mirror’s supernatural powers before destroying it. She’s rigged her parents’ old house with video cameras, alarms, and even a last-resort “kill switch” in the form of a swinging yacht anchor bolted to the ceiling. Excessive? Not really. For her, it’s personal – eleven years ago, her parents purchased the evil antique and went murderously insane. Her brother Tim was institutionalized after being forced to shoot his father, so this is present-day Kaylie’s chance to prove Tim’s innocence. These parallel stories melt into one as the mirror’s powers grow, blurring past into present and raising disturbing questions. Did Kaylie and Tim ever really grow up? Or are they losing their minds, too?

OCULUS toys with these ideas but doesn’t overdo it. Luckily, the script is too disciplined to lose its head up its own butt via INCEPTION-style plot convolutions. It’s a superb little ghost story that favors smart, psychological chills over loud noises and arterial splatters (although it has those, too). Because the mirror influences what its victims can and can’t see, even moments of apparent safety can hide horrific surprises. Imagine biting into an apple – and realizing it’s actually a light bulb when the shards crunch between your bloody teeth. This movie perfectly captures the icky discomfort of never quite knowing what’s real.

Karen Gillan makes a strong lead. Many horror films simply dump oblivious characters into harm’s way like it’s feeding time for whatever monster is named in the title, but Kaylie is scrappy, intelligent, and seemingly prepared for everything. It’s not until later, when there’s no turning back, that she realizes how badly she underestimated her enemy. As we learn that the mirror can hijack human thoughts (its other hobbies include killing houseplants and eating dogs), we begin to wonder if Kaylie’s myopic obsession is really of her own free will – or if it’s just another fishhook the mirror planted in her brain eleven years ago. Who’s targeting who?

Heck, a better title might’ve been: SERIOUSLY GUYS, JUST LEAVE THE MIRROR ALONE. This is a bleak story about puny humans tangling with an entity that exists beyond time, and Kaylie’s plan is, at best, a three-dimensional solution to a four-dimensional problem. Guess how well that goes.

For all its first-rate chills, OCULUS does need you to occasionally meet it halfway. Big chunks of the plot are open to interpretation and the mirror itself is never explained. There’s no origin story. It wasn’t bullied by the other mirrors in Fred Meyer’s home décor section or anything. It’s just evil.

But why dilute fear with logic? Accept this movie for what it is and you’ll find a nightmare worth having – a classy, devilishly entertaining creepshow that just wants to mess with your head.

And ruin apples forever.

stars3.5

-Taylor Adams

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (PG-13)

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER wants to be a political thriller, but it also wants its characters to fly around in wing-suits. It comes pretty close to having it both ways.
Picking up where Joss Whedon’s THE AVENGERS left off, our favorite recently thawed WWII-era super-soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is struggling to fit into the modern world as an agent of the NSA-like S.H.I.E.L.D. Soon, he’s wondering if he’s playing for the right team. After all, when the good guys start planning preemptive attacks via giant floating super-weapons, are they still the good guys? As Rogers untangles friend from foe, he also searches for the mysterious “Winter Soldier,” an assassin with a metal arm (which at least narrows it down a bit). Thrusting a Greatest Generation hero into our post-9/11 debate between civil liberties and national security definitely makes for an intriguing setup, but in the end THE WINTER SOLDIER still boils down to the usual comic book fluff. Apparently even in this digital age of drone strikes and WikiLeaks, no problems exist that Captain America can’t just punch to death.
And that’s okay, because while THE WINTER SOLDIER may be an undercooked political thriller, it’s one hell of an action flick. The urban gunfights crackle with grit and menace. The audio direction is top-notch, using moments of unexpected silence to throw us off and build real suspense. And the fight choreography is a joy to behold, finding an impressive variety of ways for Captain America to beat people up with a shield. Many, many concussions are delivered in the name of freedom.
I could recommend this movie on the strength of these visceral action sequences alone, but it’s a solid piece of entertainment all around. Even those not already aboard Team Marvel will find plenty of thrills, laughs, and twists. Although THE WINTER SOLDIER is crammed with supporting characters, it juggles them confidently and never drags or feels bloated, even at 136 minutes. The titular villain has limited screen time but owns every second of it.
The only weak link in the cast is, shockingly, Golden Globe-winner Scarlett Johansson, who’s dull and zombie-like here as Black Widow. Apparently she was going for “tough” but overshot into “stoned.” And despite all the hot-button topics THE WINTER SOLDIER flirts with, it just doesn’t say enough to justify its political aims.
But who needs politics? This is a slam-bang action movie about the visual poetry of Captain America hitting bad guys so hard, they forget math.
stars
-Taylor Adams

NOAH (PG-13)

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Rock monsters. This movie has rock monsters.
Technically, they’re fallen angels – cursed by God to dwell on earth as towering, Ent-like beasts – but they’re one of several bizarre creative choices in Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH that never quite mesh with the biblical source material. It’s like watching THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and noticing that the first nail in Christ’s palm is being hammered in by Megatron.
Russell Crowe is Noah, an ordinary man charged with the daunting task of building a big you-know-what before an even bigger you-know-what reboots the earth. To be fair, mankind deserves it. This prehistoric world is a Cormac McCarthy-esque wasteland of stripped forests and roving cannibals. As Noah and his family construct the ark and the rain begins, a Cain-descendant warrior-king (Ray Winstone) takes notice and marshals his forces to attack. Now Noah must fend off both a desperate world that’s not ready to be exterminated, and his own decaying sanity.
Aronofsky is fearless in his retelling, taking one artistic gamble after another. Aside from the rock monster subplot (which doesn’t pay off), he visualizes the creation of the earth via still photography (which does). We also get glimpses of the garden of Eden, hellish panoramas, and a nifty spin on Darwinism. I was stunned by how often NOAH showed things that other films would have only alluded to.
Too bad so much of the first half feels like an artsy spinoff of LORD OF THE RINGS. The rock monsters are the most glaring problem (they were scrubbed from the trailers because they’re so breathtakingly stupid), but Aronofsky takes other fantastical liberties – including lizard-dogs, fire-rocks, and magic pregnancy tests – that are almost as distracting. Some viewers will find them flat-out insulting.
The second half, and the real focus of the film, is Noah’s personal struggle with the enormity of God’s task – and luckily it’s terrific. Crowe is utterly convincing as a flawed man caught between the apocalypse and the corrupted race that earned it. Emma Watson owns several heartbreaking scenes, and Ray Winstone manages to be both credibly evil and oddly persuasive. He is, after all, merely fighting for his life as the water rises. Wouldn’t you?
That’s what makes NOAH worth watching, rock monsters and all. It embraces the moral complexities of a story that ends in the deaths of millions. It dares to ask tough questions of its characters, and of us. God’s messages to Noah are absolute but not always clear, so where do you draw the line between faith and blind obedience? The climax resonates because it presents a situation where doing the wrong thing makes sense – and doing the right thing doesn’t.
It’s a brave and fascinating movie, but the book was better.
stars
-Taylor Adams

DIVERGENT (PG-13)

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I was certain I’d hate DIVERGENT. I expected a steaming bowl of doe-eyed teenage crap, fresh off the studio assembly line to kill time until Katniss’s next outing. I was ready to rip it apart. I was looking forward to ripping it apart. Heck, I had a thesaurus handy so I could find synonyms for “god-awful.”
But… DIVERGENT is actually pretty darn good.
This is coming from someone who hasn’t even read Veronica Roth’s source novel. I’m nowhere near the target audience. Generally, I only read books that have body counts. This technicality is the only reason I read John Green’s THE FAULT OF OUR STARS (uh… spoiler alert).
As far as I can tell, DIVERGENT is set in a world where HARRY POTTER’s Sorting Hat escaped Hogwarts and now runs post-apocalyptic Chicago. In the aftermath of an unspecified war, young adults are tested and sorted among five societal factions – such as the Erudite (scientists) or the Dauntless (soldiers). You commit to this through a grand public ceremony, where you slice your palm open and drip blood into a bowl. Couldn’t they just have you fill out a form or something?
Our hero Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) takes the test, but discovers she’s something else. Something called a “divergent.” This marks her for death, unless she can conform to this rigid world. But… does she want to?
Like all good fantasy/sci-fi, the world of DIVERGENT is an interesting lens to view our real one through. Just like college, you’re presented with a set of trades, you choose one, and then you’re locked into a lifestyle. You must succeed in your field or you become “factionless” – depicted as dirty, desperate and homeless. So basically, God help you if you major in Philosophy.
DIVERGENT hits all the right adventure/romance beats. The casting is spot-on (right down to the bit roles, like Jai Courtney as a sneering henchman), and the mandatory love story benefits from real chemistry between the leads. There are enough intriguing ideas, nifty visuals, and punchy fight scenes (pun intended) to make two and a half hours fly by.
It’s also clearly the first entry of a trilogy – for better and worse. As it builds its universe, this movie dumps a truckload of setups and offers precious few payoffs. Towering questions central to the premise – such as, “Why is there a hundred-foot fence around Chicago?” – remain unanswered. But the foundation is certainly there for the sequels to build upon. If you’re a fan of the book, see it. I think you’ll be pleased.
As for me? I have a bunch of synonyms for “god-awful” and nothing to use them on.

stars

-Taylor Adams

NEED FOR SPEED (PG-13)

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NEED FOR SPEED is a wheezing, dried-out corpse of a movie, reanimated by the black magic of EA Games.
Based on the popular video game (your first red flag), the film’s sole accomplishment is making 200-mph races boring. Clocking in at over two hours, it’s astonishing that a movie calling itself NEED FOR SPEED would be so, well, slow. Long stretches of time are devoted to soap opera angst and brutally unfunny comic relief. It’s either a tedious death march or a $10 nap, depending on how light of a sleeper you are.
The flimsy plot doesn’t justify the butt-punishing runtime. Our hero is Tobey (Aaron Paul), a legendary street racer wrongly convicted for the death of his best friend. The real killer is fellow racer Dino (Dominic Cooper), and we can tell because he wears black and uses slightly more hair gel. After serving two years in prison, Tobey must avenge his buddy, woo a pretty car broker (Imogen Poots), and bring Dino to justice. This all unfolds with the urgency of a slower-than-average glacier, in a parallel universe where cops don’t know how to use spike strips. Michael Keaton also appears occasionally, like he got lost on his way back to the nineties.
Nothing works here. The storyline feels like an exhibit of all the things they tell you not to do in Screenwriting 101, failing to deliver even the guiltiest of pleasures. The stakes are low, the car crashes are minimal, and the body count totals to one.
The cast does their best but it’s futile. Aaron Paul is a talented presence, so it’s a real bummer to see him out-acted by the car he’s sitting in. Dominic Cooper is miscast as the villain – we’re told Dino is a ruthless killer, but he looks more like the shift manager at a local McDonald’s. And Imogen Poots is wasted on a weak romantic subplot, wedged into the story with all the grace of a drunk driver hitting a curb.
In short? NEED FOR SPEED is awful. It’s so bad, I’m not even sure Jesus could forgive it. You know how some movies show bonus scenes during the end credits? So does this one – but I didn’t watch. I couldn’t take any more. I elbowed through the audience like a linebacker and left the theater like it was filled with tear gas. Life is too precious.
So in that respect, I guess I’ve failed as a movie critic. Maybe there’s a small pocket of brilliance hidden in the end credits. Maybe it turns into SCHINDLER’S LIST. I don’t know.
Even if this movie cured cancer, I would have a hard time recommending it.
stars
-Taylor Adams

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (R)

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The human body is seventy percent water. According to 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, the other thirty percent must be ketchup.
People don’t just bleed in this hyper-stylized movie. They explode. Gallons of red stuff splash and spurt with every death, all rendered in CGI too cartoonish to be disturbing. Every character is basically a human-shaped water balloon swollen with blood, ready to burst at the slightest poke. It’s pretty awesome.
Yep, I liked it. 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a shamelessly entertaining semi-sequel to the 2007 hit. Running parallel to the events of that film, we follow Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he defends Greece against an invading Persian fleet, masterminded by the memorably psychotic naval commander Artemesia (Eva Green, who steals every scene she’s in). Because this is a Frank Miller adaptation, expect troubled heroes, gory action, and epic speeches. And because this is ancient Greece, expect character names that will take several tries to pronounce on the drive home.
The broader scope of the story is both good and bad. It’s nice to see more of this colorful, blood-drenched world, but it loses some of the focus and against-all-odds oomph that made the original film resonate. Even with Eva Green’s gloriously deranged performance, I doubt it will become a cult classic.
No worries, though, because 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is single-mindedly driven toward one goal: being awesome. Every aspect of this production – from the indulgent slow-motion kills to the booming Black Sabbath credits song – is designed for maximum spectacle. Early on, we see Persian warships surfing into battle atop a hundred-foot tidal wave. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how water works, but that doesn’t matter because it’s just so awesome.
I enjoyed the heck out of this film. You might, too. Like Zack Snyder’s original, it’s a bloody, fist-pumping war cartoon; a take-it-or-leave-it experience that’s utterly impervious to logic. I’m not even sure I can call this an acquired taste, because lots of people will have no interest in ever acquiring it. But for me? After a long day at work, sometimes a stylish, slow-motion decapitation just hits the spot.
Please don’t quote me on that.

stars

-Taylor Adams

NON-STOP (PG-13)

NONSTOP

NON-STOP is basically two hours of Liam Neeson playing “Clue” on an airplane.

Alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) needs to find out who’s murdering people on his flight. Fast. Every twenty minutes, another passenger will die unless $150 million is deposited in the mystery killer’s bank account. As the body count rises, everyone aboard the plane becomes a suspect – Bill included, when the authorities realize the bank account is (gasp) his. Against a ticking clock, our haggard hero must save the plane, stop the killings, and punch whoever’s responsible in the throat.

It’s a fun, twisty mystery for a while. The film presents a whole crowd of murder suspects, all exchanging shifty glances and red herrings. Every time the ingenious script seems to paint itself into a corner, it knocks down a wall. Major plot twists are hidden inside smaller ones, carefully arranged like narrative time bombs (and one literal one). The direction is marvelous, too – one particular shot halfway through the film gracefully swoops from end of the plane to another, eavesdropping on a half-dozen characters with evolving agendas. A lot of skill went into this film, and it’s easy to get swept up in the suspense.

But it’s hard to stick with it. How’s your suspension of disbelief? Because NON-STOP will put it through a triathlon. It’s not just the numerous plot holes (don’t even try to count them) – it’s the jarring tonal difference between where it starts and where it ends. The first half is a plausible, low-key murder mystery at 40,000 feet, and the second half descends to LEGO MOVIE absurdity. Poison darts? Check. Fighter jets? Check. Zero-gravity shootout? Double-check.

The last fifteen minutes drop to face-palm altitude. When the criminal mastermind is finally unmasked, he/she delivers a forced and bewildering “how I did it and why” speech, like an unusually violent episode of Scooby Doo. I guess the villain’s motivation doesn’t matter that much; it’s the end of the movie and Liam Neeson is in a neck-breaking mood.

NON-STOP isn’t a bad thriller – it’s just hard to love. It’s too smart to be mindless fun and too stupid to be anything more. Heck, 2008’s TAKEN delivered twice the butt-kicking with half the fuss.

I guess I like Liam Neeson better when he’s creating the body count – not cleaning up after it.

2stars

-Taylor Adams

POMPEII (PG-13)

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I have never rooted so hard for a volcano before.

W.S. Anderson’s POMPEII spends most of its runtime copying other movies – and not even the right ones. Surprisingly, the disaster itself is largely sidelined so we can get a poor man’s GLADIATOR crossed with a stupid man’s TITANIC. Our star-crossed lovers are Milo (Kitt Harrington), a Celtic gladiator with a murdered family to avenge, and Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of Pompeii’s ruler. She’s being blackmailed into marrying the third corner of this love triangle: Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), a snarling Roman senator. Who will survive the coming disaster? More importantly, who cares?

That’s POMPEII’s biggest problem. None of the characters are written or acted well enough to earn our sympathy. They just sort of stand there, posed in various scenes cribbed from better films, and recite stilted dialogue like kids in a school play. It’s a bizarrely lifeless movie. Worse, it wastes a full hour on tedious stage-setting while the volcano impatiently grumbles in the background. Milo and Cassia’s chemistry-free romance feels like a studio-mandated attempt to please a demographic that wouldn’t be caught dead in a W.S. Anderson movie anyway.

Eventually Mount Vesuvius erupts, possibly because it’s as sick of the characters as we are, and delivers the flaming rocks, pyroclastic flows, and tsunamis promised by the trailer. It suffers a bit in comparison to 1997’s DANTE’S PEAK, but at least Anderson is finally copying the right movie. The city’s fiery demise is undeniably cool, but in a glossy, digital way. It feels more like a PS4 game than a real-life disaster. We don’t see any of the blood, grit, or burns, so our heroes might as well be fleeing a giant wall of cotton candy.

The movie does have its guilty pleasures, though. Anderson shoots a handful of kinetic fight scenes with some memorable (PG-13-rated) spills, and Kiefer Sutherland seems to be the only actor here with a pulse. He sinks his teeth into the cardboard role of Corvus, delivering every line with mustache-twirling evil and a baffling accent. Of course, it’s bad acting, but it’s so bad, it transcends badness and becomes kind of awesome. POMPEII needed more of Sutherland’s energy.

At least the volcano wins.

stars

 

Review By: Taylor Adams

THE LEGO MOVIE (PG, 2014)

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I was going to start this review with “I can’t believe I liked a movie based on a toy,” but then I remembered that I enjoyed TRANSFORMERS.

So… I can’t believe I liked another movie based on a toy.

Emmet (Chris Pratt) is an anonymous construction worker in a perfect (vaguely fascist) Lego metropolis where the coffee is $37 and the number one sitcom is “Where’s My Pants?” Every day is choreographed to an excruciatingly catchy Tegan and Sara song and overseen by the Orwellian President Business (Will Ferrell), sold separately. When Emmet stumbles onto a mysterious artifact, he sets in motion an ancient prophecy that could save – or destroy – not just his Lego universe, but all of them. He soon allies with an ensemble cast including Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), and Batman (Will Arnett). And Abraham Lincoln. And pirates. And a unicorn-cat thing.

I promise, it’s funny.  Funnier than anything I’ve seen in a long time. THE LEGO MOVIE boasts a razor-sharp script and a canny sense of the absurd, hurling joke after joke and challenging you to keep up. Chris Pratt’s empty-headed but sincere hero is a standout comedic performance in a cast full of them. Who’d have known a movie about a toy brand would have more laughs than both HANGOVER sequels?

Visually it’s stunning, although not always for the right reasons. Every inch of the Lego world is lovingly animated, right down to the authentic smudges and imperfections on the pieces. Even the dust and smoke is made of tiny bricks. It’s imaginative and vibrant, but also a little overwhelming. Every frame is crowded with so many small touches of genius, and it’s all edited so blisteringly fast, that THE LEGO MOVIE sometimes looks like a colorful headache. But it’s a headache worth having.

This excess of creative passion is why I like this movie so much. It overachieves. It works hard. The plot is lightyears ahead of competing fare, eventually launching its third act into a sort of CABIN IN THE WOODS-ish meta-narrative. Few movies are brave enough to even try this, and even fewer stick the landing. To be fair, THE LEGO MOVIE does stumble a little bit toward the end, when the cleverness reaches a sort of critical mass, the fourth wall falls, and the story grinds to a halt so we can be force-fed a moral about the importance of individuality. Cue the hugs.

The real moral is “buy Legos.” It’s the funniest, best Lego commercial ever.

stars

 

By: Taylor Adams

LONE SURVIVOR (R, 2014) Review

LONE SURVIVOR (R, 2014)

Directed by Peter Berg

85695 The centerpiece of Peter Berg’s LONE SURVIVOR is a 40-minute running gunfight down the jagged cliffs of the Hindu Kush. It’s one of the most effective and bruising action sequences I’ve ever seen. This is both good and bad; nothing else in this sincere but clumsy film comes close to matching its power.

12Based on the memoirs of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (same title), LONE SURVIVOR dramatizes the disastrous 2005 Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan.

Through faulty equipment, a thorny moral dilemma, and simple bad luck, Luttrell and three other SEALS find themselves cut off and vastly outnumbered by Taliban fighters on unforgiving terrain. By the end of the day, nineteen American lives have been lost.

5656Berg honors them all by exposing the meat grinder of modern combat in the film’s middle act. Bullets snap off rocks and thunk into trees. Ears ring.  Shattered bones pierce skin and lungs gurgle with blood. It’s visceral, intense, and merits comparison with the famous D-Day landing sequence in Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Prepare to wince. A lot.

And that’s the point. This film renders the battle so convincingly, it’s impossible not to be in awe of the real-life heroes that fought it. Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and the supporting cast hit the right notes here (sharp-eyed viewers will note the real-life Luttrell appearing in an early cameo). Particularly impressive is the sound design and stunt work, which makes you feel every onscreen injury.

With such a powerful depiction of combat, it’s too bad that the rest of the movie is only good. The script is workmanlike, bookending with clumsy voice-overs and an unnecessary framing device. It opens post-battle and recounts it via flashback, which tells us nothing that the title LONE SURVIVOR didn’t already. These bells and whistles unfortunately dilute some of the impact.

But the film’s biggest misstep is the third act. Anyone who’s read the memoir (that’s your cue to read it) can tell you the final leg of Luttrell’s true survival story is a fascinating example of local Afghan heroism. This is still included, but Berg also injects an unneeded climactic battle. Cars explode, AK’s are fired, and bad guys are stabbed in the nick of time, per Hollywood timing. Inventing a gunfight that never happened isn’t necessarily bad, but here it takes the focus off something that did happen. Whether the studio forced Berg’s hand or not, it’s a cheesy piece of revisionism on a true story that didn’t need revising.

Still, at its worst, Lone Survivor is watchable. At its best, it’s unforgettable. That’s a fair trade. After all, on the drive home, no one will be talking about the uneven storytelling – it’s the heroism of the men of SEAL Team 10 and the Afghan tribesmen that lingers long after the credits.

stars

 

By: Taylor Adams

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Gravity 3D (Review)

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“A dazzling movie about all the different ways space wants to kill you.”

Seconds into GRAVITY, a text crawl helpfully informs us that “life in space is impossible.” Cuaron isn’t kidding. From the start, he drops us into a place where claustrophobia and agoraphobia collide; a fever dream of sweaty desperation against a bleak panorama of nothing. It’s a gorgeously produced, 90-minute panic attack of a film. And it’s one of the few releases in recent memory that really demands to be seen in 3D.

Roughly the first twenty minutes are a single, uninterrupted take – which is great for audience immersion and bad for audience blood pressure. Tension quietly builds as we watch reluctant astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) conduct repairs on the Hubble Telescope. It’s just another day at the office, except the office is miles above the atmosphere and wants to kill you. NASA Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) notes an incoming debris field but assures Stone and Kowalski they’re safe. Spoiler alert: they’re not. The Hubble suffers the space-equivalent of a shotgun blast and our heroes are left untethered, falling into the frictionless void. From here on, it’s a straight-up survival tale.

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Everything you’ve probably heard about the 3D visual effects is true.

They’re jaw-dropping. But GRAVITY works as more than a shiny tech demo thanks in a large part to Bullock’s performance. She’s a relatable human presence, even when she’s dwarfed by all the expensive lights and sounds.

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She earns our empathy and convincingly takes us from horror, to grief, to exhausted humor (“I hate space,” she gripes after a particularly close call). We root for her as she fights for every gulp of air. Because of Bullock, GRAVITY’s final thirty minutes are an emotional gut-punch.

And that’s why this is an excellent film and not just a well-made one. As technically complex as it is, what resonates is its narrative simplicity.

The plot can be described on a t-shirt. It features a handful of locations and approximately one subplot. The onscreen cast is basically just Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and a fire extinguisher. Not a second is wasted here, and that’s one of the highest compliments a thriller can receive.

Of course, there are nits to be picked. George Clooney’s performance has a little too much George Clooney in it. The Hubble Telescope, the ISS, and the Tiangong all seem to orbit within (space)walking distance of each other. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the convenient physics of a certain death scene, and no doubt the armchair scientists will find a smorgasbord of inaccuracies. None of these issues dent the film’s power.

As an experience, GRAVITY is tough to criticize because virtually everything about it works. Cuaron’s directing is masterful, the script is clean-burning, the acting is affecting, the technical aspects are mind-boggling, and even the score is stirring. No wonder this movie has been grabbing every award that isn’t nailed down. And it’s back in theaters – what are you waiting for?

Review by: Taylor Adams

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