Category Archives: Movie Reviews

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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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