Friday, September 19, 2014

“The Maze Runner” – Only missing David Bowie.

I hope the fad of Hollywood turning Young Adult (YA) books into movies never ends. It’s a never-ending source of dystopian futures, vampires, werewolves, witches, idyllic (and impossible) teen romances, teen angst, and the continued insistence that junior high kids are actually “young adults” and not “older children, most of who have entered that phase where they hate their parents and their parents have fantasized strangling them with their stupid skinny jeans.” If you think I’m being sarcastic, well, I am – but not for the reason you think. The fact that the film rights to the books are being snatched up by the dozen means that more of them will be written and I love books. It also means that we get excellent adaptations of phenomenal books like The Hunger Game and equally abysmal adaptations like Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, The Mortal Instruments, and I am Number Four (I actually enjoyed two of those, though wouldn’t defend them as good movies – I’ll leave you to guess at which two). The sarcasm is pointed at the supernatural themed books, which really have oversaturated the genre and many of which we could all do without. While it’s true that they provide great fodder for my reviews, they have gotten incredibly redundant and completely uncreative. So, let’s all give Stephenie Meyer a round of applause for writing one decent book and three crappy books and Summit Entertainment for turning those books into one okay movie and four increasingly bad sequels that inspired a legion of writers and studios to emulate them with a lot of hastily written crap and even worse film adaptations. Seriously, clap – they make some of my reviews really easy (and fun) to write.

In all fairness, I get that a lot of children like those supernatural books, regardless of how poorly they are written. For some reason besides good storytelling, they can’t get enough of them and I’m okay with that. The books that interest me the most are the dystopian future, action/thrillers, or science fiction books and, yes, there are plenty of those that are just as poorly written. This brings me to our subject movie, The Maze Runner – another dystopian future (or post-apocalypse, if you like) book and also one that I haven’t read yet. I’ll find out soon enough if the book is worth reading (it’s next on my list), but the only thing I knew about it prior to watching the film is that a teenager was going to run through a maze. This actually fit will into my current philosophy of having zero expectations going the slate of fall movies. Having said that, my expectations were actually set pretty low considering the recent spate of shitty YA adaptations. And, no, I didn’t see The Fault in Our Stars. Whatever.

Considering my cynicism of YA movies, you should know that I had to make a choice to screen The Maze Runner or A Walk Among the Tombstones (the latest Liam-Neeson-kicks-everyone’s-ass movie) because they were screening at the same time. I chose the former because (1) I’ve loved mazes and labyrinths since I was little kid and (2) the floor and ceiling of a YA adaptation is much further apart than a Neeson action flick. While I’m sure the Neeson flick was probably decent, I’m happy to say that The Maze Runner far exceeded my undeservedly low expectations.

The Maze Runner begins by showing us our main character, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), waking up in an ascending elevator with amnesia. When the elevator stops, he is greeted by a group of young men in the center of a glade surrounded by giant stone walls. They explain to him that they all have amnesia as well, though can still remember their names. They also tell him that for three years, a new boy has risen in the elevator (along with supplies) once a month and that the walls form the center of an enormous maze. For those three years, they have sent runners through the maze to find a way out, but still have not found the exit, that the maze entrance opens every morning and closes every night, and that nobody has ever survived a night in the maze. As we meet various characters of the group, you can see similarities to Lord of the Flies, though nobody is going to drop a boulder on fat and nerdy Chuck (Blake Cooper). Thomas has an immediate interest in the maze, as do we, but the film makes us wait awhile before we actually get to see more than just the entrance from the glade. Like Thomas, we have to be patient and that means sitting through explanations of their little society while they simply tell us things about the maze. After a little while, the movie picks it up a notch when one of the runners come back “stung.” We later find out that the sting was from a griever – a thing that turns out to be some kind of cybernetic spider – and the runner is infected with some kind of disease. The leader of the group, Alby (Aml Ameen) goes into the maze the next day, is also stung, and Thomas runs in to help him (and Minho – Ki Hong Lee), as the entrance is closing. Finally, we get to see the maze and it’s almost worth the wait.

In this first real look at the maze, we meet a griever and see some of the layout first hand. If you are expecting anything even remotely as imaginative as the Labyrinth, you will be very disappointed. There are walls and vines, but you don’t get to see any of the shifting walls and passages that the boys mentioned earlier, there is no Bog of Eternal Stench, and David Bowie is nowhere to be found. Obviously, Thomas and friends will survive the night (and the griever) or this would be a very short and pointless movie. When they return to the glade the next morning, more things go wrong, the first girl shows up (Teresa – Kaya Scodelario), they go back into the maze a couple more times, the big why is revealed and we are left hanging because of course this is the first book in the trilogy.

For me, I was both pleased and disappointed in the film. I was disappointed because I really wanted the maze to be more than what it turned out to be. It’s worth noting that (in the movie at least) the maze almost doesn’t matter, which might actually explain why it ended up being so vanilla. It’s also very inconsistent – they tell us that the maze changes every night, but then show us a complete map of the maze created by the runners. They tell us that nobody has ever survived an encounter with a griever, yet are well familiar with their stings and their aftermaths. When they reveal the reason why the boys were put in the maze in the first place, you will question why the grievers exist at all. I’m sure the book has a lot more detail and the sequels will answer more questions, but it seems like maze was given far too little attention.

On the flip side, I was pleased because the movie did a very good job of building an intriguing story with intriguing questions and then answering some of those questions. It flows really well and develops the characters through the dynamics of the group. They also tell you about the larger world outside the maze and fit everything you see into that world by the end of the film. In fact, if you saw Divergent, you know exactly what I’m talking about – Divergent refuses to even acknowledge the bigger world (at least until book 3) and makes you wonder why you should care about anything that is going on. The Maze Runner does exactly the opposite – you will care about the characters and what happens to them, even poor Piggy, er, I mean Chuck.

Rating: I’m as surprised as you that this movie is worth your money. It’s no Hunger Games or Labyrinth, but it’s at least in the ball park.

Friday, September 12, 2014

“The Drop” – Now you can rest in peace, James.

Can you imagine if the last movie we saw featuring the late James Gandolfini was Enough Said – a romantic comedy? I didn’t see the movie myself – and judging by the box office, neither did you – but the critics loved it and it garnered several award nominations, though zero Oscars. But come on, nobody wants to remember Gandolfini in a cutesy date movie much like nobody wants to remember that Michael Jordan finished his career with the Washington Wizards. They want to remember Gandolfini as a Soprano, or at least some kind of organized criminal. Thankfully, somebody out there was wise enough to make his last release The Drop – a movie in which he gets to say “fuck” enough times to make you think you might actually be watching a lost episode of The Sopranos.

As I said in my review of The November Man, this time of year lacks talked-about movies and is a graveyard for medium-to-low budget flicks that studios have no faith in. So, imagine my surprise to find that not only was The Drop good, but it was nearly flawless. My friend and I discussed the film at length on the drive home and, with the exception of an ending that felt like a last minute thrown in and cop out, we couldn’t find any obvious problem with the movie. It’s exactly the kind of movie that any actor would love to be their last.

(Mild SPOILERS ahead with zero cussing.)

The movie starts out by telling us that a river of dirty money exchanges hands in Brooklyn every night and that the crime bosses choose random bars to move the money – referred to as drops. Now, you might think that Gandolfini is the main character in this movie by my earlier words, but it’s actually Tom Hardy. Hardy plays Bob, a bartender at a local bar run by his cousin, Marv (Gandolfini). The plot of the movie revolves around a plot to steal one of the drops, but the characters are the most interesting part of movie. Excellent development of the characters moves the plot forward, so let’s take a look at them.

Marv is a former crime boss (we’re never sure how big) that was pushed out by a group of Chechens who took over his bar nearly ten years earlier. Now, he still runs the bar, but is nothing more than a bar manager forced to pay money to the Chechens’ racketeering and protection scheme. When two guys rob the bar, he keeps his head and just hands them the money, which doesn’t fit anything we know about Gandolfini characters. He is disgruntled about his lot in life and is susceptible to reckless decisions, as Bob will later fill us in on. If you’ve seen the previews, you know that Marv is planning something and it’s exactly the kind of thing we want Gandolfini characters to do.

Speaking of Bob, he is the most interesting character in the film, as he should be. He’s a simple guy who lives by himself and tends to the bar. He is initially presented as simple-minded, but it becomes apparent that he might actually be the brains in his partnership with Marv. For Bob, everything is black and white. Anyone who beats a dog or a woman is a punk, dogs are difficult to take care of, and bodies or body parts must be properly disposed of. This is most apparent when, after the bar is robbed, the arm of one of the bandits is left hanging on a fence outside the bar with the money that was stolen. Marv asks what was the intention of leaving the money with the arm and Bob simply answers “I think they intend us to return it to them.” See what I mean? Simple.

Nadia (Noome Rapace) lives near Bob. She enters the movie when Bob finds an abused dog whimpering in her trash can. Bob insists she help with the dog and the two form a bond over the poor dog. Nadia has her secrets (as does Bob) and is as reserved as Bob, but the two of them open each other up over the course of the movie. Nadia also has a crazy ex-boyfriend who is responsible for beating and leaving the dog (to get her attention) and targets Bob as a threat when he sees the two of them together.

Crazy ex-boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), is believed to have killed a guy right around the time Marv lost the bar and pops up more and more as the movie wears on. At first, he is just a creepy stalker guy, but he slips into the larger plot as all of the events and history start connecting as the movie builds. You will hate this guy, not the least because he steals Bob’s umbrella just before a rainstorm. That’s just wrong.

Detective Torres (John Ortiz) is in charge of investigating the initial robbery of the bar. He attends the same church as Bob, is upset that the church is closing, and is far too interested in the fact that Bob never takes communion at mass. If there’s a weak character, he’s it. I was never quite sure what role he would play and he never really figures into the plot. His job seems to be to figure out mysteries and clues just after they are revealed to the audience. He doesn’t figure into the climax, but does get to deliver the best line of the movie near the end.

Everyone else includes Marv’s sister, the head Chechen mobster, a priest, a second detective and the two guys that perpetrate the initial robbery. They all get lines, but are really inconsequential, except the Chechen guy. He’s like a James Bond villain without a cool (goofy?) quirk, but a willingness to nail people’s legs to cargo vans. He’s sufficiently intimidating and you can see Marv’s fear and loathing every time the guy shows up.

What I found impressive with the story is how well all of these characters meld into the story unfolding throughout the film. The development was very well done and was the key component to the slow build of the drama and tension leading to the climax. You feel sorry for Bob and hope nothing bad happens to him, but slowly notice that there’s more to him than just a bartender. You root for Bob and Nadia to come together because they both seem like people who need another person in their life who isn’t crazy or reckless. You hate Eric because he beats dogs and steals umbrellas and just won’t leave Bob alone. You want to feel bad for Marv, but you can’t because he’s kind of a dick to his sister and Bob who are only guilty of looking out for Marv. You like the dog because oohhh, little puppy is just so cute.

My point is that this movie is definitely one of my top five of the year because the story and characters are so well done that you don’t even want to eat your popcorn or sip your drink because you might have to look away to do that. But, if there’s one thing that makes this movie stand out is how awesome Hardy’s performance was. I’m not the best person to be judging performances, but even I know that Hardy deserves an Oscar for this. Gandolfini can rest easy knowing that Hardy made this movie a great one for Gandolfini to go out on.

Rating: If you ask for any money back, Gandolfini will haunt you and it won’t be the cuddly Gandolfini from Enough Said.

Friday, August 29, 2014

“The November Man” – Parenting advice.

With the end of the summer movie season having gone by, we’ve entered the part of the movie year I like to call the second armpit (January/February being the first). This is the time when Hollywood takes a back seat to the new television season and the start of the NFL season, so basically doesn’t care what movies are hitting theaters until Thanksgiving. This is actually an interesting time to see movies because there is so little hype that you have no expectations going into a movie, thus are most likely to be surprised – good or bad. Kicking off the armpit is Pierce Brosnan’s return to action in The November Man and I can say this armpit’s not smelling too bad so far.

(SPOILERS dead ahead.)

The November Man might as well be called Not-Quite James Bond or Almost-Jason Bourne. Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, a grizzled CIA agent brought out of retirement to help extract a deep-cover agent from Russia. The agent, Natalia Ulanova (Mediha Musliovic), has discovered crucial information about prospective future Russian president, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski) and must get out of Russia before Federov’s men kill her. Not surprisingly, the extraction mission goes awry, Natalia dies, and Peter is framed as an enemy of the CIA. Luckily, Natalia shared her information with Peter before her death and the film becomes a race between Peter, the CIA, and Federov’s assassin, Alexa (Amila Terzimehic) to find Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko) who knows how to find the girl that Natalia named to Peter. Got all that? Lots of action and killing ensues and Brosnan does his best to remind us that Liam Neeson isn’t the only old guy who can still kick ass.

The movie follows a pretty generic path, twisting where you’d expect, revealing the mystery in a timely manner, and delivering the motivation of the villains in the form of the clichéd monologue. It’s exactly what you expect and want from a movie like this and it is successful in providing intrigue and entertainment. Where it gets weak is with the secondary character, David Mason (Luke Bracey), Peter’s former protégé who is tasked with hunting down Peter.

The first scene of the movie takes place five years earlier with Peter giving Mason a lesson in love – that lesson being “don’t.” Peter points out the obvious – loved ones and relationships make agents vulnerable. What’s odd about the lesson is that comes in response to Mason flirting with a waitress. Maybe Peter knows something we don’t, but what if Mason just wants to get laid? The film seems to go out of its way to make a puritanical commentary that sex can only be had in meaningful relationships. I can tell you from experience that this is just flat out false. As the film wore on, that commentary was reinforced twice and both instances were equally full of shit.

The first instance wasn’t even in the movie at all; it was from the woman sitting behind me who was campaigning for worst parent of the year. As a parent myself, there are many things I think about, including how I would handle certain situations, and this woman demonstrated choices that can only be described as “how NOT to parent.” Bad parenting choice number one was taking her seven-year old daughter to an R-rated movie. R-rated means bloody violence, nudity, and a liberal use of the word fuck. I have no intention of hiding those things from my own kid, but I’m not going to go out of my way to expose him to those things if anything to avoid the inevitable nightmares he would have from watching a guy fall from a balcony and smash his head open. Yeah – that happened in the movie.

Bad parenting choice number two was what this woman believed was appropriate for her daughter to see. About thirty minutes into the film, there’s a scene in a strip club featuring topless women and the woman’s reaction to her daughter was “Oh! You have to cover your eyes for this part.” Are you kidding me!? Apparently, she’s perfectly okay with her kid watching people murder each other and telling each other to fuck off, but a couple of naked boobies cross the line? Does she honestly believe seeing boobies or sex is more traumatizing than graphic violence and murder? Or is she actually hoping her kid will learn to murder people, but keep it in her pants? What should scare you even more about this woman (and every parent with similar beliefs) is that she’s allowed to vote. But I digress.

Getting back to Mason, the second instance is actually in the movie and all but announces “sex=love.” Mason is living in Belgrade in an apartment across from the hot, young, blonde, American Sarah (Eliza Taylor). Sarah’s cat is always getting into his apartment and after eight weeks of constantly rejecting her pussy (sorry, I couldn’t resist – the innuendo is anything but subtle) and living by Peter’s earlier lesson, he agrees to go on a date with her. In a single night, they go from not even knowing each other’s names (seriously) to scene number two that the seven-year old behind me wasn’t allowed to watch. In the very next scene, Peter has a gun to her head and is forcing Mason to admit his feelings. Not only was I expecting Sarah to turn into a ninja (she doesn’t, even though everything prior seemed to be setting her up as a plant), I was wondering how the CIA’s screening process missed a guy who falls in love with someone the moment he puts his dick in them. Unless, of course, the CIA is in the habit of hiring agents with the emotional experience of recently devirginized teenagers. Then, it makes perfect sense.

The other weak part of Mason is that he is obviously going to help Peter at some point, defying his orders. The problem is that he never has a good reason to flip, which makes the climax of the film a little hard to swallow. Mason is such a poorly developed character that he could very easily be removed from the movie and the movie would barely change at all. A tiny tweak at the end – like using the red herring in place of Mason – and we wouldn’t have had to suffer through several pointless scenes.

Aside from Mason, the movie is a solid action/spy thriller. The pacing is very good and the film never overindulges in action scenes, gratuitous death shots notwithstanding. Mostly, I’m just glad to see Brosnan in an action role again because I always liked him as James Bond and nothing is worse than Hollywood trying to cram Jai Courtney or Shia LeBouf down our throats as believable action stars. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to introduce my two-year old to Predator. Haha – just kidding.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back. If they’re going to include pointless sex scenes like the one between Sarah and Mason, the scenes should really be longer, if anything, just to mess with people like the woman behind me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

“If I Stay” – If I Care.

While it’s true that the majority of reviews I’ve written cover action and superhero movies, I have been known to watch and even review romantic comedies and romantic dramas from time to time. In fact, I’ll do it just to break up the cacophony and seemingly endless string of action flicks if for no other reason than sanity. One can only take so many explosions, car chases, and shoot-outs before one’s brain threatens to arbitrarily start shutting down random limbs and organs in protest. So it was that I decided to screen If I Stay, a movie that is the opposite of an action flick, though does still feature a high speed car wreck. (Full disclosure: I actually was hoping to screen Expendables 3, but no advanced screenings were held.)

I don’t want you to think I go out of my way to avoid chick flicks just because I’m a dude. I just prefer action flicks in theaters because of visual and audio effects that are far better on the big screen. But, just like with action flicks, other movies need to have coherent stories with decently written characters for me to like them. P.S. I Love You and Definitely, Maybe are two very good chick flicks that I enjoyed very much. Last year, I went out of my way to watch Safe Haven – a movie that was not only a chick flick, but a Nicholas Sparks chick flick – and my brain was very happy with me and thought the movie was pretty good. One thing about If I Stay – it was a little awkward going alone to a movie aimed directly at teenage girls (and sitting next to gaggles of them), but that’s really their problem.

Going into If I Stay, I only knew what I saw in limited trailers – Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is in a terrible car accident and her boyfriend, Adam (Jaime Blackley) sits by her comatose body in the hospital pleading with her not to die. It’s the kind of movie that screams tear-jerker and talking with a couple people beforehand, they heard the same thing. I fully expected the entire theater to be under water by the third act, as a quick glance around the theater showed a gal-to-guy ratio of roughly 79-to-1. Instead, I heard only one person outright sobbing and only a handful of sniffles. Either the women and teenage girls in the theater were really good at stifling their sadness or this movie failed to elicit the response it so openly demanded. The latter seemed to be true as I only saw dry eyes leaving the theater and my own reaction was “The book had to be better than this film because the film kind of sucked.”

(Mild SPOILERS coming, but like the movie, they’re nothing to cry over. Thank you. I’ll be here all week.)

The biggest problem with the film is that it never lives up to its title. Most of the film is a mix of Mia’s spirit (soul? ghost?) wandering around the hospital where her comatose body lies and flashbacks of her past. During surgery a nurse whispers to Mia that she is the only one with the power to decide if she lives or dies, so the flashbacks and events in the hospital are supposed to be the things that she considers while making her decision. Except that doesn’t really happen. At no point during the film does it ever feel like Mia is really thinking about reasons to stay. In fact, the film gives her every reason not to stay, including her boyfriend (we’ll get to him in a moment). She just wanders from room to room, listening for any news about her father (Joshua Leonard), mother (Mireille Enos), and brother (Jakob Davies) who were also in the accident. They will even go so far as to have her grandfather (Stacy Keach) give her his blessing to give up on life because it would be easier. Inspiring guy, that Gramps.

Mia has two things from her past (besides her family) that are supposed to be the major things to stay for – love for Adam and love for her cello, or in other words, the two things that spend time between her legs. The cello is her deeper love and key to a successful life, culminating in an audition for Juilliard. Adam is her first love and key to a life as his girlfriend/groupie. You see, Adam is an aspiring rock star whose career begins to take off after he graduates from high school (he’s a year older than Mia). Before his ascent, he does everything he can to make Mia happy, takes her virginity in a run-down boathouse (though doesn’t have the courtesy to bring a blanket to protect from such things as splinters), and they even make plans to move in together. When he starts going on the road for gigs, he becomes a dick when she mentions her Juilliard audition because “that would break their plans to move in together” even though he continually breaks other plans they have (including her birthday). She rightly calls out his hypocrisy and they break up for a while because she doesn’t want to be his groupie. He later atones, they have make-up sex in her bedroom, then break up again later for the same reason. Guess what, Mia? You’re his groupie.

Unfortunately, the screenwriting isn’t remotely strong enough to make us believe in her love for the cello either. She constantly doubts her abilities and is essentially forced by her family to apply to Juilliard. What’s worse is nobody even bothers to bring her cello to the hospital as a kind of talisman to help wake her up, even though it was her entire life, or even tell her how important her music was to them (I’m looking at you again, Gramps).

As I sat there trying extremely hard to make connections between the hospital and flashbacks, I noticed a lot of little things in the movie that were either lazy or outright mistakes. For starters, when Mia’s spirit “wakes up” in the snow after the accident, she is wearing different clothes than what is on her unconscious body. The next thing I noticed is that Mia seems to have a physical effect on people or things when she touches them. I don’t if this was intentional or a mistake, but it really bothered me that people weren’t reacting to their clothes being scrunched up or wrinkled by some invisible force. This seemed confirmed early on by having Mia move between rooms only when doors were open, but the director gives up on this and just puts Mia where she needs to be when the script calls for it. The most egregiously lazy thing they do is put the guy who caused the accident in the room right next to Mia’s body, then completely forget they ever did that. Wouldn’t it have been great to see Mia confront the guy? If the actual story had been better, I might not have noticed these things, but then I wasn’t the only one lacking tears.

At the risk of being called heartless, I didn’t care if Mia decided to live or die by the end of the film. Or rather, I didn’t care any more about her than I did the rest of her family, and we didn’t spend the majority of the film with them. The film misses every opportunity to make us believe in the love between Adam and Mia or even Mia and her father, including having them play music together – until the end of the film, at which point it’s too late. They don’t even pick good background music to help tell the story or use music to move the story forward. Did the filmmakers even read the script (or book) before they made this film? You know what – don’t answer that. Like I said, I don’t care.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back. The movie really couldn’t have been more blah if it tried.

Friday, August 8, 2014

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” – You are not eight.

My original intention for this review was to revisit my rules for when it’s okay to remake a movie. But then I actually watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and realized it was far worse than I was expecting. I know what you’re thinking – “it’s a movie for kids, of course you weren’t going to like it.” First of all, that’s not fair. I like lots of movies that were intended for kids and I’m not just talking about the obviously good ones like Toy Story or Shrek. Second, just because a movie was made for kids doesn’t mean it has to be dumb by default. Kids are capable of recognizing crap too (I should know – my 2-year old tells me about his crap every time). Third, I’m in the generation that grew up loving the Ninja Turtles, especially the animated series. Remaking this movie was just as much for my generation as it is for a new generation. Finally, Turtles is rated PG-13, so it wasn’t aimed just at kids; it was aimed at everyone and makes it fair game for what you’re going to read in the rest of this review. But, just so you don’t think I’m being unfair and am misunderstanding the concept of kids’ movies, here you go – if you are eight years old or younger, you will love this movie. The kids in the audience sure did. But, since you aren’t eight (I know this because if your parents are letting you read this, they are terrible parents) you should know that this movie is fucking embarrassing.

Just because I’m curious, let’s take a look at my remake rules again and decide if this movie should have been made at all. For a movie to qualify for a remake, the original has to meet these specifications:

1. It didn’t win any Oscars. – Haha. Be serious.
2. It is at least 20 years old. – Check. Released in 1990 (and the sequels were released in ’91 and ’93).
3. It wasn’t great. – It was rated PG because it really was made for kids. It was also produced by an independent film company for just $13.5 million. Roger Ebert said “this movie is nowhere near as bad as it might have been, and probably is the best possible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie.” It supplies, in other words, more or less what Turtle fans will expect.
4. It wasn’t terrible. – See number 3.
5. The new version is really a new version. – There are a ton of similarities, but there are major differences in main plot elements, so we’ll go ahead and say check.
6. It doesn’t feature the flavor-of-the-month actor/actress/US Weekly headliner. – Megan Fox might just be the exact opposite of that sentiment and the rest are people you always forget are still actors.
7. It didn’t make a ton of money. – Whoops. The original was the ninth highest grossing film of 1990, pulling in a world-wide gross just under $202 million on that tiny budget of $13.5 million. Of course, $202 million is less than an opening weekend for blockbusters these days, so this isn’t an egregious faux-pas.

Verdict: I’ll allow it.

Having said all that, I don’t think anybody asked for a remake, especially not one from Michael Bay, who managed to alternate doing great service to Transformers, then following that up by dropping a steaming deuce on that service. I didn’t think he’d be able to make a worse movie than Transformers: Age of Distinction, but I clearly underestimated the man’s abilities. To be fair, Bay only helped produce the movie, so maybe I’m being a little harsh. The real blame for this abomination lies with the director (Jonathan Liebesman) and three (THREE!?!) writers (Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Evan Daugherty).

On the surface, the movie is essentially what you expect. Ninja Turtles, April O’Neil (Megan Fox), fighting, car chases, the Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), explosions, some sort of ooze responsible for mutating the turtles and their master, Splinter (Tony Shaloub – voice; Danny Woodburn – motion capture), the foot clan, evil plot to take over the city/world. Under the surface, the movie is lazy, poorly written, and miscast in ways both obvious and not so obvious.

(Here come the SPOILERS, but that shouldn’t be a problem since you’re not eight.)

The film begins with April trying to investigate thefts by the foot clan in an effort to prove that she is a real journalist. After two different run-ins with the foot clan and their battles with vigilantes (the Turtles), she has evidence of the vigilantes and extensive information about the foot clan that would make for a great story. But does her editor (the absurdly out of place, Whoopi Goldberg) believe her? Of course not. Does April whip out her pictures of the Turtles that are on her phone? Of course not. Does she have interviews or statements from any of the hostages from her last incident who also definitely saw the Turtles? Of course not. That would have given her credibility as a journalist, but nobody wants that – she’s Megan Fox. Bring on the damn Turtles.

Shortly thereafter, we get the obligatory fight scene where the foot clan has orders to capture the Turtles to get the Mutagen (the ooze) and the following dumb shit happens:
• When the clan and Shredder show up, Shredder gets into a one-on-one fight with Splinter, eventually defeating him. Yet, it never dawns on Shredder that Splinter would also have Mutagen in him and Shredder just leaves him there for dead.
• During the one-on-one, Splinter keeps telling the Turtles to save themselves and even closes a gate on them to keep them from helping them. Two things here. One, why does Splinter think five-on-one and winning is worse than one-on-one and losing? Two, it takes three of the Turtles all of their strength to barely lift a metal gate even though earlier in the film they are flinging shipping containers around like they are nothing and later in the film will hold up the spire of a skyscraper.

After the capture of three of the Turtles, we quickly move to the next big action scene in Sacks’ laboratory where he is draining the Turtles’ blood to extract Mutagen. The only dumb thing here is minor and not worth mentioning, but the ensuing car chase scene down the side of an Everest-ian mountain sure is. Not only is this scene extremely difficult to watch (due to the insipid 3-D and spastic camera and animation work), but it’s supposedly occurring in a mountain range with sewer entrances that lead into Sacks’ building in Times Square. I dare you to think of a lazier, fucktastic plot point than that.

At this point, the movie culminates in the final battle scene in which the Turtles will predictably prevail by using a crane-kick-esque movie to defeat the Transformer/Predator that is Shredder. Just to digress for moment, the Shredder’s armor was definitely concocted by Bay. There are scenes in which you will believe the Turtles and Splinter are fighting Megatron. Anyway, this final sequence brings us one of the most comically bad performances in the history of film in the form of Fichtner firing a handgun. Not only is he waving it around like a high school kid would do in a play, but the gun has no visible muzzle flash. He might as well be yelling “bang, bang” at that point because it wouldn’t be any more absurd than the delivery of his ridiculous final diatribe. In fact, one gunshot doesn’t even sync with his arm motion when he moves it in a firing motion. I’m fairly certain this film had no editor.

Before I get to the final atrocities seen in the film, we need to focus a bit on the terrible casting choices and putrid dialogue. The casting was just plain bizarre. Megan Fox can’t act her way out of a box, but it’s not surprising to see her in a movie like this. But what the fuck were Will Arnett and Whoopi Goldberg doing in this movie? Goldberg has spent far too much time as a yapping hen on The View to remember what acting actual entails and Arnett is asked to make sexual advances towards Fox as often as possible, which is pretty much the opposite of what anyone wants in this movie (not to mention they ask the same thing of one of the Turtles, which is also not funny; just gross). Even stranger is that they chose to cast voices for Splinter and one of the Turtles, but not the other three. Every time I try to think of a logical reason for that, my brain farts.

On the dialogue front, not only do we get a steady stream of bad deliveries and tired clichés, we get treated to Shredder switching from Japanese to English back to Japanese – because that was the one thing missing from this movie, forced usage of the old catch phrases that don’t resonate even a little bit, and the following lines from Sacks – “Time to take a bite out of the Big Apple,” “I guess April came early this year,” and his motivation “I’m going to be stupid rich.” Dude, you live in a castle and drive a helicopter; you’re just stupid.

It’s time to wrap this thing up, so here are the last three things that inspire jaw-dropping in the name of stupidity.
• In order to save Splinter, they need to get their hands on the Mutagen taken from their blood. Except, Splinter already has the same shit in his blood. I guess Shredder isn’t the only moron in this film.
• The Turtles thank April for not telling the world about them, even though she told her editor in the hopes of telling the rest of the world in the form of a news sotry, told Sacks about them (causing the entire last sixty minutes of the film to happen), and showed themselves to the entire world by standing in the middle of Times Square after falling from a skyscraper in front of hundreds of people.
• In what is the worst and most unnecessary product placement ever, the final scene shows two of the Turtles hiding on a giant Victoria’s Secret billboard by grabbing onto the depicted breasts of model Behati Prinsloo. I’m pretty sure eight-year olds aren’t going to get that joke and if they do, there are some parents who need to be arrested.

Rating: If you spent money to see this movie and aren’t accompanying your small children, you deserve to have your wallet stolen.

Friday, August 1, 2014

“Guardians of the Galaxy” – Nothing can stop Marvel.

Back when I wrote about Edge of Tomorrow, I casually commented that one of the most anticipated movies of the summer was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and that I had no idea why it was so anticipated. I’ve read approximately one comic book in my entire life, but I’m aware that they exist and have at least heard of most the titles of most of them. But, Guardians of the Galaxy? Up until a couple of years ago, virtually nobody had heard of that one, including me. I also joked that the only thing revealed in the trailers were the five guardians, a spaceship, a bunch of jokes, and a whole lot of action and I can honestly tell you that all of those things exist in this movie. My big fear was that the plot was either going to not exist or be a complete mess since the previews didn’t show a peep of it. Well, to answer your question, yes – I’ve only ever read one comic book.

Last week, after seeing Lucy, my friend opined that Lucy is fine as long as you don’t think about it. That very well might be the most backhanded compliment one can give to a movie. Essentially, what that statement means is that the film is a flaming turd disguised by an element or two that makes the film tolerable. In the case of Lucy, those elements are good action scenes and Scarlett Johansson walking around in a tight, black dress causing half the audience to drool and the other half to edge ever-so-slightly towards bulimia. But, when you start to think about the plot, the character development, or the various character motivations, you realize you can smell the turd and it’s not pleasant.

The interesting thing about said compliment is it is used almost exclusively by people to sugarcoat their real opinion for a certain audience or because they secretly liked the movie and don’t want to admit they have no idea what a well-written story/screenplay looks like (note: my friend is one of the former). Personally, I use that statement as a veiled insult directed at people who openly like movies that fit the compliment or the people who actually wrote/made the movie. In other words, when I say that Lucy is a tolerable action movie if you turn your brain off, I’m saying Luc Besson – and anyone who claims Lucy is more than a big, dumb action flick – is a moron. I’m not saying you can’t like the film or enjoy it (hell, I enjoyed the shit out of Battleship); I’m just saying don’t make it more than it is. For me, there aren’t many things funnier than people trying to explain the depth and gravitas of poorly written movies like Maleficent.

The converse to said compliment is that it is possible to make big, action flicks that are both fun and non-dumb, which brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy. Based on the previews, I fully expected that I would have to turn off my brain to enjoy the film. If you are in the majority of folks, the only thing you know about the film is that a tree, a raccoon, a green-chick, and two dudes come together on a spaceship to crack jokes and shoot people. That is not exactly the formula for a well-written movie; in fact, it’s essentially Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, but with intentional comedy.

(Side note: how hard are you trying to match up those characters right now? There is no way you are sleeping tonight without figuring that out.)

Where Guardians succeeds and so many others fail is that it delivers a very simple, straight-forward plot, focuses a lot on character development while using it to advance the story, and doesn’t use action just for the sake of action. The entire plot of the film, as you may have guessed, is that the five characters shown in the previews will save the galaxy from something. In this case, they have to save the galaxy from a villain named Ronan (Lee Pace) who is trying to get his hands on an Infinity Stone, which will give him the power to destroy entire planets. Simple, right? The plot advances through various events, bringing the characters together while also telling us more about the characters themselves, including their back stories and motivations for the actions they have taken and the actions they are going to take. There are a couple of minor, unanswered questions like – who is the collector (Benicio del Toro) and why have we now seen him in two different movies? – but those questions don’t make the plot harder to understand or outright nonsensical. In the context of the film, the collector is the guy who promised to pay Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a ton of money for the sphere containing the stone and that’s it. Simple, right?

On top of all that, there are smaller things that make the movie more entertaining than just about any movie this summer. For one thing, the movie is aware of itself. Another thing you hear people sometimes say is that a movie took itself too seriously or isn’t aware of itself. What that usually means is that the mood of the movie does not match the content of the movie. Not to harp too much on Lucy, but it definitely takes itself too seriously (after the first half, that is) in that it treats its own premise with far too much weight. The idea that a human gains multiple superpowers through expanded brain capacity by ingesting a large quantity of a drugs sewn into her stomach is absurd and should be treated as such (obviously, this is not how Lucy handled its own premise). Guardians is a comic book movie in which one of its characters is a genetically engineered, sarcastic raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and another is a tree named Groot (Vin Diesel). The mood you would expect is fun action and comedy dressed in special effects and that’s exactly what you get. That’s how you know Guardians is aware of itself.

Of course, the movie isn’t without its flaws. Chris Pratt gives an uneven performance – sometimes he’s really good and sometimes he’s soap opera bad. There are a bunch of thieves led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) that are superfluous and could easily be lifted from the movie without impacting the story. There are some really bad performances put forth by Karen Gillan as Nebula – who spends the entire movie screeching – and Pace, who over-delivers nearly every line he utters. Perhaps the most glaring flaw is best put like this – what the hell is Glenn Close doing in this movie?

The point I’m trying to make is that the movie doesn’t ask you turn off your brain, but also doesn’t ask you to think about anything either. It’s simply asking you to come along for a fun ride for a couple of hours and enjoy yourself. I’m not saying Guardians of the Galaxy is the best movie of the summer, but it might just be the most entertaining.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back. This movie turned out far better than even Marvel could have predicted.

Friday, July 25, 2014

“Lucy” – You got some ‘splaining to do.

I didn’t know who Luc Besson was until about two years ago. That doesn’t mean I hadn’t seen any of his work over the years; just that I had never heard his name. As a matter of fact, I’d seen some of his more well-known flicks – The Professional, The Fifth Element, and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, to name three. I liked all three of those flicks and The Professional might be one of the best movies of the last twenty years. After The Messenger, Besson got away from directing and started focusing almost exclusively on writing and producing. He was involved in a ton of movies from 2000 to 2010, with only a couple of notable hits – Transporter and Taken. In 2012, one of the worst movies ever written, and not just of those by Besson, was released in Lockout (of which Besson was both writer and producer) and Besson was suddenly on my radar. Lockout was quickly followed up by the completely unnecessary Taken 2. While Taken 2 was a commercial success, one would have thought Besson had hit a creative rock bottom at that point, but then 2014’s Brick Mansions happened and Besson proved that rock bottom is far lower than anyone thought possible. To be fair, 3 Days to Kill (which released in February, 2014) was at least watchable, if not outright entertaining, but that seemed more like an accident at this point in Besson’s career.

When I saw the first trailer for Lucy, I was a little blown away. It promised Scarlett Johansson becoming super smart and telekinetic and looked like a high-concept action flick, revolving around the mythological concept that humans only use 10% of their brains. Then, I saw that Besson was responsible for writing and directing Lucy and suddenly, I was blown back to where I started. At first, I tried to convince myself that maybe Besson was getting back to his strength – writing a movie exploring characters (like he did in those early three films) and judiciously inserting action scenes. Lucy seemed like the perfect character to explore and I thought the movie might be akin to a superhero origin story. You know what I mean – a character suddenly has super powers and must learn how to deal with them. Unfortunately, Besson was having none of that, writing a screenplay composed mostly of forced action sequences and scant character motivation, wasting a chance to go all Professional on us like we’d hoped.

(If you are one of the many people looking forward to seeing this movie, stop reading now or skip to the rating at the bottom. Then, go see the movie. Then, come back and the following SPOILERS will not be spoilers.)

The two comparable movies to Lucy that immediately sprung to mind were Limitless and The Lawnmower Man – both of them employing the same concept as Lucy in enabling a person to use more of their brain or enhancing their intelligence with a magic serum. Limitless was a complete waste of a movie, telling us that no matter how smart a person is, they must always resort to killing someone to solve whatever problem confronts them. The Lawnmower Man did a much better job of exploring the evolution of the main character, though it turned a lot of people off with its incorporation of virtual reality and Job morphing into a digital murderer. Lucy falls much closer to Limitless, though Lucy is at least entertaining as an action vehicle and doesn’t feature the artist formerly known as Robert De Niro.

I’d love to tell you Lucy features an interesting and complex plot, but it’s basically the standard Besson cliché of the main character being hunted and chased by drug dealers. Kang (the drug lord) kidnaps Lucy (Johansson) and three others and has a bag of drugs sown into the abdomen of each victim so that they can pass through airport customs safely. For reasons that don’t make any sense, Lucy is locked in some room and gets beaten up by one of her captors because she won’t let him rape her. The captor inadvertently ruptures the bag, the drugs are absorbed into Lucy’s body, and she becomes Spider-Man. Just kidding. She actually turns into the mom from Poltergeist for a minute, sliding up the wall and onto the ceiling while her body is being racked by seizures (I was simultaneously laughing and shaking my head during this ridiculous scene). Considering we’re told earlier in the film by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) that telekinesis doesn’t occur until at least 30% brain usage, this scene makes absolutely no sense other than to be an embarrassment for everyone involved. After Lucy recovers, the movie starts using her current brain usage (in convenient 10% intervals) as chapter transitions, and we see that Lucy is now at 20%. The rest of the film is nothing more than Lucy killing people and being chased by Kang and his men until the movie is over. I told you it was close to Limitless.

One of the most common things you hear about summer popcorn flicks is that they’re decent movies if you don’t think about them and that’s easy enough for the vast majority of moviegoers. I mean, how else do you explain the box office receipts for movies like Ironman 3 or Maleficent? My problem is that I do think about them because I actually give a damn about good storytelling. And, I’m not the only one. As my friend and I stood outside the theater after the film concluded giving our initial thoughts, another member of the audience walked up and asked what I thought of the film? After I responded with “It’s at least a decent action flick,” he said that he hated it and proceeded to tell me why. The best part about what he said – he sounded like I do after movies like this, but he got there a lot quicker.

The first thing he (I stupidly did not catch his name, so let’s just call him Bob) pointed out was the villain’s motivation was completely irrational. Lucy originally gets mixed up in the ordeal when her friend tricks her into delivering a case to Kang for him. Kang doesn’t know what’s in the case and, even after discovering what’s inside, doesn’t know what the drugs actually do. He just forces some junkie to snort one of the drug crystals, then shoots him in the head when the guy can’t stop laughing. Bob wanted to know why Kang was so adamant about chasing down Lucy, even though she spends most of the movie with a French cop; even though Kang knows what she’s capable of; even though Kang has no idea that the drugs are responsible for her condition. In fact, Bob correctly asserts that all of the characters in the movie, besides Lucy of course, are irrelevant, which leads us to Morgan Freeman.

Freeman’s Professor Norman’s entire purpose seems to be specifically to narrate. Seriously, that’s not a poke at Freeman – his entire job is to explain the theory of what a human is capable of if they can access more of their brain (during the first ten minutes of the film). The rest of the time, he just gawks at Lucy (and not just because she’s Scarlett Johansson) and makes surprised faces. Bob also hated that Freeman’s explanation was logical and thorough for the first 20% of brain usage, but turns to absurd fantasizing for the rest and a big “I don’t know” when asked about 100%. See what Besson did there? Clever, no? Yeah, you’re right – no.

Bob also noted that most of the action sequences were completely unnecessary. There’s a car chase scene in which Lucy is causing cars to flip and crash and explode in order to clear her path, even though she could easily have just pushed them aside and not injured or killed dozens of people. Then, in the climactic scene, she (feels? Echolocates? Professor X-es?) twenty-five men, including Kang, and tells the cop to hold them off because she has to concentrate. Okay – two questions: 1) concentrate for what and 2) why can’t she just take care of them first and then go concentrate? The answer to both questions is so that Besson can stage a pointless shootout between the cops and Kang’s men while Lucy turns into a mass of black tentacles in order to absorb all the technology in the lab and create the Construct from The Matrix (the place where Neo and Morpheus stand that is all white).

That all actually happens.

As Bob and I agreed on everything he and I were pointing out, we both realized that the real problem with the movie was the severe lack of development. Besson spent no time in developing Lucy, putting any thought into how she would react to the changes (in fact, he waives it all away by having her tell us that she’s lost all emotion), or the changes themselves. Of course, with a running time of 89 minutes, Besson sure as hell wasn’t going to cut the all-important car chase scene. Even the tension was artificial, as Lucy says she only has twenty-four hours to live and that the remaining bags of drugs are exactly the right amount she needs to get to 100% brain usage. To top it all off, the last line of the movie is probably one of the most confusing, nonsensical lines ever uttered in a film – “We were given life a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” If by that, she means not wasting it watching movies like Lucy, then sure, we do know what to do with it.

After Bob left, my opinion of the film had been knocked down at least seven dollars. Bob helped to crystallize the feeling I had during the credits – that Besson might have actually been calling the entire audience stupid. The lack of development throughout the film and accelerated pace through Lucy’s evolution gave the impression that Besson was in on a secret, but didn’t want to share it with us. He even emphasizes that point via the closing line I just shared with you and with spliced-in nature scenes used as analogies, delivered with the subtlety of a stick of dynamite. At this point, the secret isn’t whether or not Besson is smarter than us; it’s if Besson is even using his full 10%.

Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back (or three back if you only care about action). Lucy’s as entertaining as 3 Days to Kill, but 90% disappointment.