Saturday, August 9, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

It might be somewhat redundant to say that I've always been a huge fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I'm pretty sure that every self-respecting male who was born in the '80s at least knew the four turtles and probably loved them. As for me, I practically memorized the movies, owned toys of each character in many variations, played several versions of the video games depending on which system I was using, and regularly pretended to be my favorite turtle (either Donny or Mikey) while playing with my older brother (either Leo or Raph) and sister (a somewhat disgruntled April O'Neal). With all that being said, I wasn't immediately won over by the idea of a slick Hollywood reboot of one of my favorite childhood franchises. To me, the definitive version of the turtles is probably the beloved cartoon series that ran during the late '80s and early '90s, though I have very formative memories of the live action movies as well. However, despite a lack-luster teaser trailer, I tried to keep an open mind when viewing this film. I had a feeling it wasn't going to be great, but I did at least hope for some nostalgic joy out of the experience if nothing else.

April O'Neal is a put-upon journalist, relegated to reporting fluff pieces despite her dreams of finally breaking a big, important story. With a recent upswing in crime (led by the mysterious Foot clan), April snoops around the docks as the clandestine group attempts to steal materials from a shipping container. Rather than reporting on the robbery, however, April witnesses a vigilante completely overpower the dangerous gang single-handedly, leaving an ancient Japanese symbol scrawled on the side of one of the containers. Without much hard evidence to back up her fantastical story, she decides to sneak up on the Foot clan as they take hostages in the subway, hoping to see the vigilantes in action long enough to snap a photo. However, they arrive and disappear in a flash, and it's only after she follows them to the roof that she finally lays eyes on the heroes - who turn out to be four mutated turtles with highly developed martial arts skills. With her career hanging in the balance, April tries to decide whether to report her findings and endanger the anthropomorphized reptiles, or to fight along side them against a dark and mysterious figure known as the Shredder.

The intro to this movie was more or less what I expected, with April's first appearance coming well before the titular heroes in a half-shell. One of the big concerns I had about this film going in was Megan Fox's portrayal of the turtle-friendly reporter. Having seen her (which is about as close to a compliment I can give her) in the Transformers films, I had a feeling she wasn't exactly the best decision for the role. Indeed, there are several times throughout the movie that I literally cringed at her line-readings and facial expressions. However, she mostly satisfies her quotient here as the most she's really asked to do is stand around and look pretty. I don't know why we spend so much time on her character - particularly since it doesn't pay off in any way - but I suppose it could have been worse. At least the script didn't require her to do any real acting.

I know there have been a lot of complaints surrounded the new designs of the turtles. I can't tell you how many angry comments or articles I've read about the decision the animators made when it came to their updated look. For me, I honestly didn't have that big of a problem with it. It takes a few minutes to acclimate to their new appearance, but I kind of liked the updated gear they wore and the more "realistic" features of the turtles. The worst part was definitely their nostrils, but I was able to get over that fairly quickly. If the design doesn't mimic the previous incarnations too much, don't let that persuade you that the animators aren't turtle fans. There are a few direct call backs to the previous films, and one shot in particular was taken straight out of the cartoon's opening sequence. These little nods to the previous incarnations of the ninja turtles definitely took me back, and I appreciated the effort taken to honor what came before in some way.

What I didn't necessarily like about the turtles this time around was their personalities. Maybe it's just my familiarity with the previous versions of each of the characters, but I found their connection to pop culture to be a little forced and even pandering at times (especially with Mikey). I would have liked it better if the turtles were a little behind the times. To me it would make more sense for them to be scrounging old VHS tapes from the '80s in their sewer, thus creating a built-in comedic element as well as giving us characters that were a little more consistent with what we've seen before. Having just seen Guardians of the Galaxy do this exact thing so effectively, I feel it was a missed opportunity for this movie not to bring in more of that '80s nostalgia.

With a reboot like this you're obviously going to get new origins for the characters, otherwise it would just be a remake of the 1990 film (which it pretty much is, if you think about it). The good news is that the new backstory for the turtles was actually kind of clever, and I think it might even make a little more sense than the original version. Before I compliment this screenplay too much, however, let me also add that it's pretty much a direct rip-off of The Amazing Spider-Man with plot points from the original TMNT film sprinkled in as filler. Shredder's plot is almost exactly the same as the Lizard's, the turtles' origin is almost exactly the same as Spider-Man's, and there's even a moment that the top of a building crashes down (which is in the trailer) that's exactly the same as what we saw in Spider-Man. It's incredibly lazy screenwriting, and I found myself wishing they could go back in time and write another draft of the script before principal photography began.

This movie is about 65% action and 35% thread-bare plot. The action can be pretty entertaining at times, if not a little overwhelming on the senses, but the story is so pedestrian it's seriously infuriating to sit through. A lot of that can probably be pinned on the fairly inexperienced director, but I have to think this is more of a script-based problem. There are so many characters that shouldn't have even been in this movie (Will Arnett and William Fichtner, I'm looking at you), and many others that don't get enough development for us to even care about them. I even wish we could have spent more time with the Shredder, as the shadowy style in which he was filmed made him seem kind of mysterious. The mere fact that we spend so much time with April at the beginning and don't even see any resolution to her story arc is perhaps the most incriminating evidence against this script.

Overall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a pretty mediocre movie. There are parts I enjoyed (primarily the fight scenes with the turtles) and a whole lot that I was disappointed by that I won't discuss in order to avoid spoilers. Luckily this is a very short movie, clocking in at less than 2 hours and making it far easier to stomach as a result. Mostly, I'm irritated by the potential this film could have had. It wouldn't have taken much more effort to make this film work, but as it is there's nothing I can really endorse about it. Kids might find some enjoyment here, and I honestly don't think it's entirely bad. Still, all this film deserves is a generous two and a half stars.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014) is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

**What did you think of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Do you think it's a worthy update or did they miss the mark? Let me know in the comments below!**

Friday, August 8, 2014

FlashBack Friday: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday! Yes, it's been a few weeks since I reviewed The Last CrusadeThere have been a few new releases that have taken up a lot of my writing time. Plus, if I'm to be perfectly honest, I wasn't exactly looking forward to setting aside two hours to watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull again. Not that I've hated this movie. In fact, my history with this film is a little weird, as I've seen it only twice before now and had fairly different experiences each time I've watched it. The first time was at a dollar theater in 2008, and I remember being more or less okay with the film as a whole, though I thought the ending was a little confusing. It probably didn't help that the trailer for The Dark Knight that played before the movie, making me wish I'd seen that instead. Still, I remember feeling pretty positive about the experience, though I knew it wasn't as good as the previous films in the series. Over the years it seemed like people became more and more bitter about this movie, some equating it to The Phantom Menace in it's mistreatment of the beloved character. This passionate backlash actually made me curious to see it again, so I rented it one weekend when my wife was visiting family in 2011. I was a little surprised to find it passably entertaining, though my negative feelings about the ending had intensified dramatically. Well, oddly enough I'm maintaining my trend of seeing this film every three years, and yet again my viewing experience this time couldn't have been more different.

Perhaps my tastes have changed over the years, or maybe I've just become a lot more analytical. Either way, I knew I was in for a long, gruelling experience the moment this film began. Unlike the classic, foreboding intros we got in the previous films (well, the good ones anyway), we begin with an Elvis Presley song announcing to the world that this adventure is taking place in the 1950's. This alone wouldn't necessarily bother me too much, however just like with Temple of Doom this musical scene of teenagers racing their convertible against a humvee (or the '50s equivalent) full of Soviet soldiers goes on way too long and adds absolutely nothing to the story. With Raiders and Last Crusade, the introductory scenes are pivotal, getting right to the point and establishing characters and relationships that actually draw us into the story that follows. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, they use the first half-hour of the film to set up things that never come up again.

Before I get too far into my complaints, I do want to point out that I actually kind of like how Indiana Jones is taken back to the warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored. That vast city of mysterious wooden crates that we saw at the end of Raiders was definitely something I wanted to explore in a future movie. The problem is that we see hardly anything that would make the long-awaited visit even worth our time. If all we're coming to this intriguing location for is to find some alien skull that ultimately has nothing to do with the actual alien skull that everyone's really seeking, then I would've rather had this be some random warehouse or underground facility that has no ties to the previous films. A better alternative might have been to take us to a nuclear waste disposal area of some kind, which would more organically tie in to those Russia vs. USA themes Spielberg's half-heartedly trying to force-feed the audience.

Despite the nonsensical nature of the setting, this scene is chalk-full of inconsistencies and technical errors. Never mind the fact that the crystal skull is only magnetic when the screenwriters want it to be, or that an army of Russian soldiers (and a back-stabbing colleague) can't seem to hit an aged Indiana Jones with a single bullet to save their lives. I was actually happy to see some moments of amazing stunt-work, with Indy jumping off the rafters, swinging on a chain and kicking a Russian through a sheet of glass in one continuous shot. But there are other times when the laws of physics are simply thrown out the window. The scenes that tend to work best in these movies are the actual in-camera special effects and stunts. What's truly unfortunate is that Spielberg and Lucas decided to smear digital effects over almost every action set piece in the film.

Everyone knows about Indy's miraculous (and ludicrous) escape from the nuclear blast. It's infamous with fans of the series, who casually refer to ridiculous coincidences in other films that result in the hero's salvation from insurmountable odds as "nuking the fridge". It is an unbelievably stupid moment, and one that Spielberg takes full blame for including. I won't harp on too much more about it, as it's the story that makes me more frustrated than the implausible cop outs that are taken to get Indiana Jones out of tough spots. For example, after Indy is brought back to some U.S. base and scrubbed down, he's interrogated by FBI agents who claim that he's some kind of suspect for treason thanks to his involvement with the double-crossing Mac. Indy is then fired from his teaching position as a result of their investigation, and then is lectured by the dean of the college about the heightened paranoia of the U.S. government. Thank goodness we got all that set up about the political climate of the period, because it's really going to come in handy when the story takes us to South American jungles in search of an alien temple... oh, wait...

Then, the story feels the need to force in a long-lost son (played by the controversial Shia LeBeouf) so that Indy doesn't have to do anything cool for the rest of the movie. By that I'm not saying that Mutt's swinging through the jungle like Tarzan is cool, but Indy just seems to sit back and let other people do the interesting stuff. While I still like Harrison Ford in this film, the screenwriters really give him nothing worth doing the entire movie. They get out of every difficult situation by simply pointing the crystal skull at whatever is stopping them, and even the clues to finding the hidden temple are being spoon-fed to him by the brain-addled Oxley. I really wish they had cut out at least half of the supporting cast and had this be more of an Indiana Jones film than an imbalanced ensemble of people we don't care about.

Ultimately, the themes this movie sets up in the first act go absolutely nowhere. The FBI agents are never seen again, there's no resolution to the Russian/American tension, and most of the back-story Indy tells us sounds infinitely more interesting than the actual adventure we were given. Instead, they give us almost an hour of the characters driving through a CGI jungle, fighting off giant killer ants, swinging with monkeys, and surviving three impossibly high waterfalls without so much as a scratch. Even the concluding epiphany after the UFO finally disappears into another dimension doesn't have anything to do with the previous two hours of footage. "Knowledge was their treasure." So, is that some kind of vague tie-in to Mutt dropping out of college...? When was treasuring up knowledge ever set up or even mentioned in this entire movie? I mean, sure the Russians wanted knowledge, but look where that got them.

To wrap this rant up, I just was to say that there actually are a few things to like here (Harrison Ford's performance, the occasional Indiana Jones theme, some nice call-backs to the other movies, and a few decent action scenes), but unfortunately this ends up being a completely garbled mess of a movie. I don't know if Ford has another film in him, but I do hope they pull something together to make up for whatever happened here. Maybe if they keep it focused more on Indy, try not to point out how old he's getting at every opportunity, and rely more on old-school practical effects, they can have a better chance at restoring some of the magic to this series - or at least send Indy off with some dignity. I didn't think it was going to get worse than Temple of Doom, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which is a terrible title, incidentally) is the absolute pits of the Indiana Jones series. My lingering affection for the character is going to result in a higher score than it probably deserves, but I've decided to give this movie two stars.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images

**What do you think of Indy's fourth movie? Do you think it's total trash or do you find yourself defending it to your friends? Let me know in the comments below!**

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Believe it or not, this is actually a really good movie. I feel I have to say that right off the bat because from the trailers and other promotional material it's easy to assume that this is some kind of half-baked attempt to cash in on the Marvel brand without any real effort. If that's how you're feeling let me tell you right now, you have nothing to worry about with this movie. It's not some farcical placeholder until the better films in the series are released. This is the real deal, and though I had this one ranked high on my most anticipated list of 2014, I'm just as pleasantly surprised as everyone else who's seen Guardians of the Galaxy. This was easily Disney's biggest risk with the Marvel franchise, and possibly of any film they've ever released. Even comic book fans have to do a little research to remember who this rag-tag band of misfits is, and the studio has invested upwards of $170 million in this property. Luckily, they've had such success with the previous films that they must have felt they could afford a bomb. Even more luckily is that Guardians not only surpasses expectations, but it may be one of the best Marvel films to date.

Peter Quill was abducted from Earth as a child in the year 1988, taking nothing with him but his backpack and his Walkman into the far reaches of space. Twenty-six years later, Quill travels to a hostile planet in his attempt to retrieve a mysterious orb for an enormous reward. Before he can get away with the relic, however, he's intercepted by a group of Kree warriors, led by the cybernetically-enhanced Korath. Quill barely manages to escape and heads to the planet Xandar to claim his reward. But before he can do so his benefactor suddenly backs out of the deal, claiming that a dangerous being called Ronan is also after the valuable antiquity. What neither of them realize is that the orb contains a powerful object that could bring about the galaxy's ultimate destruction in the wrong hands.

I don't want to go too much further into the plot, because it's actually kind of complicated in a very clever way. James Gunn was a somewhat unusual choice to write and direct this movie, as his credits are more or less limited to quirky, low-budget fare. However, with the angle they've chosen to approach this obscure property he's actually one of the only directors I can think of who could have pulled it off. One thing that will probably be mentioned by anyone who sees this movie is that it's freaking hilarious. I have to say that it bugs me when each person in a movie has the exact same snarky sense of humor (like Iron Man 3, and even The Avengers to a certain extent). In Guardians of the Galaxy, however, every character has a distinct personality and contributes to the overall humor of the group. Sometimes the comedy can be a little forced in films like this, but Gunn has a knack for inserting the comedic moments in scenes that desperately need them in order to maintain a consistent tone. Much of that tone is set by the music, primarily consisting of oldie hits that most people already enjoy. This kind of thing can sometimes get on my nerves, but here there's actually a story reason for the music being in this film, and it gives us a constant connection with our lead character.

This story is really well told, especially when considering the more light-hearted approach they've taken with it. There are serious moments, courtesy of the incredibly frightening Ronan and the looming presence of the mad titan Thanos, but Gunn does a great job of keeping this movie perfectly balanced. Each of the guardians are given a pretty strong character arc, especially the leader of the group, Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord, though no one really calls him that). Most of the film is devoted to telling his story, and the emotional journey the character takes is really satisfying to see. It definitely helps that Chris Pratt is perfectly cast to bring an instant likeability and relatability to this lesser-known character. His every movement, either when dodging laser blasts or breaking out some retro '80s dance moves, Pratt completely nails this performance. His presence may be one of the best things about the film, and definitely helps get people invested in the conflict who might not otherwise care about a distant, intergalactic conflict.

I really enjoyed all of the guardians, from Groot's sweet, simple demeanor, to Drax's overly proper and serious personality, they each bring something different to the table that really complement the other members of the team. Having said that, one of the huge scene-stealers is also the smallest - Rocket Racoon. Voiced by an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper, Rocket is a gruff, short-tempered creature with a troubled past and an affinity for assembling extremely dangerous weaponry. His interplay with Quill and especially his Han Solo-like ability to communicate with the otherwise incomprehensible Groot make him an incredibly enjoyable character to watch, regardless of his CGI animal form.

That brings me to another thing I should probably mention. I'm usually a big proponent of 2D for theatrical viewings, but for this film I actually think the 3D might bring some extra visual flare that the 2D version may have lacked. All of the CGI was extremely convincing and I still really enjoyed it in 2D, I just think the action scenes might have popped a little more with the extra layer of 3D. Again, this isn't something I typically recommend, but I think it might actually be worth a look in that format.

Bottom line, Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the funnest (and funniest) movie of the year. You'll be quoting this film for days after seeing it, and it provides an intriguing look at some of the rarely-seen corners of the Marvel universe. Stay after the credits (of course), but if you don't understand what you saw then simply look up the first movie that Marvel has ever produced. That should give you some interesting backstory on what probably seems like a pretty off-the-wall stinger to most movie-goers. This film wasn't without its flaws, but I still think it's one of the better Marvel films to date, and definitely the most risky one so far. I give Guardians of the Galaxy a very solid three and a half stars. Go see it!

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language

**Are you excited for Guardians of the Galaxy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!**