Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

When it was first announced that a live-action TMNT movie was in the works and that Michael Bay was involved, a lot of concerned fans made their voices heard. Worry quickly escalated to fear once it was revealed that the shell-sporting heroes would no longer be mutants, but in fact extra-terrestrials. Now that the film has arrived, I think it's safe to say that, while it isn't quite the popular disaster many were anticipating, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lacks the soul and joy to make up for its poor casting and overly brooding tone.

While this dark 'Turtles' reboot isn't exactly directed by Michael Bay, his presence is heavily felt. The martial arts master is obviously inspired by the long-lasting Asian stereotype, as is his nemesis. A lot of the action sequences, and even a few non-action, feature camera work that's so dizzying that, on more than one occasion, I had to look away from the screen. Dutch angles abound and there are more pointless, large-scale explosions than I could count on my hands. But perhaps the worse Bay offense comes from the casting (and eventual objectification) of Megan Fox.

For the first thirty minutes or so, Fox's April O'Neil takes center stage. She's a B-news reporter with a passion for the truth who is fully dedicated to her job. She runs around in her yellow jacket, digging for news scraps wherever and whenever she can. Her sidekick and cameraman, Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), exists as the obligatory comic relief who is more creepy than funny. Now the problem with Fox is, well, she's not a very good actress. She only seems capable of one expression and incapable of selling the roll of the inspired reporter who literally runs towards danger, even as everyone else is running away, all for the sake of a good story. Fox's soulless performance sucks any possible joy that could have and would have made this film more enjoyable had anyone else played the role instead.

Things get more interesting once April's introduced to Splinter and the turtles. This is where Tony Schalhoub's rat master of ninjutsu spews forth yet more exposition about his rat-pack's (pun intended) journey; just in case you missed the first five minutes of the film, which outlines the same events. However, Schalhoub's Splinter is the highlight of the film and I didn't mind indulging the redundancy of it all. As for the turtles, the tone becomes less oppressive once they become the main focus of the film and Fox's April disappears almost completely. However, their comradery, while entertaining at times, felt unbalanced. For most of the movie Raphael was a jerk who seemed to hold a disdain for his reptilian brethren. By the end, their not-so-brotherly bond couldn't fully combatant the overly serious tone and look of the film.

On a lighter note, the visuals are impressive and the 3D was often put to good use, even if most of the film is dark. The revamped Shredder suit becomes less a dorky spectacle and more a sweet piece of high-tech badassery as the film progresses through its many martial arts-based actions sequences. Sadly, the poor casting and unejoyable tone leave us with is a shell (again, pun intended) of what could have been a fairly entertaining, cheesy action romp.

Grade: C-

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel's latest, Guardians of the Galaxy, is the most fun you'll have at the movies all summer, bar none. Director James Gunn's "crash-bang!" entry into the ever-expanding Marvel superhero universe is a fresh, often hilarious, action-packed thrill ride full of colorful, eye-popping visuals and purely delightful performances.

In a cinematic universe full of super-powered baddies looking to conqueror and destroy, Marvel's superhero films all tell the same tale: saving the day. In this way  'Guardians' follows suit. However, no Marvel film has been able to tell this tale in such a fresh, exciting way since Joss Whedon's The Avengers, so far proving that more is in fact better.

What makes Gunn's film stand apart from other Marvel superhero movies is its consistent brand of self-referential, outright hilarious tongue-in-cheek humor; not to mention its brilliant use of some of the cheesiest classic songs of the 1970s. Even from its amusing title sequence featuring Chris Pratt's endearing Star-lord letting loose to Redbone's "Come And Get Your Love," it's clear that Director James Gunn is interested in showing his audiences a good time.

The casting of this band of misfits tells you everything you need to know about the offbeat tone of this movie. From Chris Pratt's charming take on Star-lord to Zoe Saldana's straight-faced Gamora; to Vin Diesel's Groot, who is capable of communicating so much with such a limited vocabulary; through even Dave Bautista's tormented Drax, who also gets a lot of laughs. However, it is Bradley Cooper's wisecracking Rocket Racoon who steals the show. Each character in this motley crew is given a plethora of opportunities to make us laugh out loud as well as garner our sympathies in a handful of truly touching, heartfelt moments.

The good times keep on rolling with some of the best choreographed action sequences this year. From beginning to end, there is an abundance of "crash-bang!" action. Combine that with these first-rate visuals and you've got yourself one aesthetically pleasing picture.

Even if you find yourself scratching your head at some of the more complex details of the story, such as the Kree (did I say that right?) peace treaty or the origin of the universe and its infinity relics, Guardians of the Galaxy is a pleasurable outing for anyone looking to have a good time at the movies.

Grade: A

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: Hercules

Hercules, or more correctly "Heracles," is one of mythology's most powerful and most iconic tragic heroes. He has slain the Nemean Lion, severed the many heads of the beastly hydra, and, perhaps most sickeningly, washed clean the Augean stables in a single day. Despite his numerous triumphs, however, there still remains one labor that the mighty son of Zeus just cannot seem to conqueror: Hollywood.

Despite past trials, the demigod has not wrought much success out of box offices. Least I remind you of the god-awful (pun intended) flop that was this year's The Legend of Hercules? Let us not forget either the Disney animated feature that was beloved by the children of its generation and laughed at by everyone else. Praise the gods we have Dwayne Johnson and Brett Ratner!

Caught somewhere between Disney's light-hearted, happy meal affair and Renny Harlin's overly dark blunder, Ratner's Hercules is a hammy production that walks the line between a fresh retelling of the myth and a comedic spoof.

Dwayne (as I call him, because we're on a first-name basis) rocks a sendoff of the mythic hero as if he was born to play him. On the outside Hercules struts his well-sculpted, well-oiled physique to waves of adoring villagers like a rock star taking it all in, but on the inside he's tormented by his past and Dwayne express all of it poetically, lending credence to the longevity of his wrestler-to-actor career.

Now having accomplished his twelve labors, Hercules now lives life off his reputation as a contracted killer. He's hired by the King of Thrace, brilliantly portrayed by John Hurt, to lead a band of would-be soldiers against a warlord who threatens his lands. Hercules goes about his business, cutting through armies like butter, tipping over horses, and snapping the jaws of rare breeds of blood-thirsty wolves as if there were nothing, all the while we're lead to believe that he's not really the son of Zeus, he's really a mortal, and that his warrior friends helped him accomplish all those labors. Yeah, right.

Despite the committed performances from both Dwayne and Hurt, the true Scene-stealer Award goes to Ian McShane. He plays Amphiaraus, a well-known oracle of sorts who catches fragments of what's to come from the gods. In  addition to providing a large bulk of the comedic relief, Amphiaraus also provides a large majority of the heartfelt exchanges with Hercules. From consoling Hercules on his demons to motivating him in dire times of need,  McShane's Amphiaraus is an all-around pleasure.

And perhaps that's the best thing about this film: not only does it deliver as a solid bit of popcorn entertainment, but it's also full of heart and nobody in the bizz does tormented teddy bear better than Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Add to that Ratner, who can also string together cohesive action sequences as good as anybody, and you've got yourself a well-balanced romp.

Grade: B