Friday, August 29, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review

As a product of the 1980's I was very much in love with the Ninja Turtles as a kid. There have been three live action Ninja Turtles movies and one CGI animated movie over the years, but none of them have captured the fun of the cartoon that ran from 1987-1996. Nickelodeon Movies decided to try a reboot after the rise in popularity of their current animated TV show. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) was far from good, but I think it depicted the Turtles better than previous big screen appearances.
The city is in need of heroes. Darkness has settled over New York City as Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and his evil Foot Clan have an iron grip on everything from the police to the politicians. The future looks grim until four unlikely outcast brothers rise from the sewers and discover their destiny as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) must work with fearless reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) and her wise-cracking cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett) to save the city and unravel Shredder's diabolical plan.
When the trailer for Ninja Turtles came out the internet exploded with irate protests that Michael Bay was directing, and thus would allegedly ruin, another well loved 80's cartoon show. Let's set the records straight; Michael Bay only produced Ninja Turtles. There wasn't nearly enough gratuitous action or explosions in this movie to be a Michael Bay movie. If you want to rage against a director for this movie, you must aim your fury at Jonathan Liebesman, who is known for other such atrocities as Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans.
Ninja Turtles has a long history of being Ninja Turtles. It's a pretty simple, if ridiculous, premise. You've got four mutant turtles who were taught Ninjutsu by a rat, and now they fight the evil Shredder and the Foot Clan. If you deviate too much from that, it won't be Ninja Turtles. There were some creative liberties taken in their original story which started to rub me the wrong way, but I could see why it was done; it gave the Turtles and April O'Neil a reason to work together early in the movie. Everything else remains pretty true to the source material; the Turtles looks really good and they were depicted well. They skateboard, cracks jokes, invent wacky gadgets, love pizza, use martial arts to fight bad guys, and say things like "cowabunga, dude."
The human characters were probably the worst part of the movie. Megan Fox is not a good actress; she's good at looking hot, but she doesn't really do that here. Will Arnett is good at being funny, and he wasn't. Shredder is technically a human character, but he's flat and has no personality. He's just a bad guy in a crazy bladed robot armor suit who is bad for the sake of being bad. Of course they had to make him huge and have a mechanical suit because Turtles are, like, eight feet tall or something and can knock anyone out easily. If the Turtles were more human size, Shredder's superfluous armor wouldn't have been necessary. It was pretty cool, but it made the character less interesting.
The end of story rips off end of The Amazing Spider-Man. They are so ridiculously similar you can't help but wonder if someone got sued. Overall the story is pretty weak, but it felt like the kind of story and plot you'd see in the cartoon show. It's simple, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and it shows us the characters fighting one another. Really, what else do you want? Much-loved as the Turtles are, they aren't exactly complex characters. This movie felt like I was watching a long cartoon show. It felt more like the classic cartoon than the previous movies did. Was it good? No way! But I thought it was fun, and it made me want to eat a frozen pizza while sitting on the floor in front of the TV in my pajamas and watch Ninja Turtles like I did when I was six. That's got to say something about how this Ninja Turtles movie manages to tap into the nostalgia of the 1980's cartoon show, and for that I must give this movie props.
This rendition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is better than I expected it to be, but still not as good as I had hoped. The story is weak and seems to plagiarize other blockbusters toward the end, the human characters are terrible and uninteresting, the Turtles themselves were great and couldn't have been better, the special effects weren't bad, and the action scenes were pretty good. Overall it felt more like the classic 1980's cartoon than any of the previous big screen appearances, but still wasn't a great movie. It lies in the awkward realm of not being good enough to recommend but still not so bad as to avoid completely. Kids are going to enjoy it a lot, and if your kids do, this is worth getting a copy of. Otherwise it's a renter, and then only if you're already a fan of Ninja Turtles.

What 1980's cartoon would you like to see a good big screen adaptation of? Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

Marvel's Cinematic Universe has grown in popularity by featuring some of the lesser known heroes from their comic books. When its latest movie installment was announced, few people had any idea what to make of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); it was an obscure title that had less notoriety than that of Thor or Hawkeye. But when the trailer was released, everyone was psyched to catch this sci-fi action movie. And it did not disappoint.
Brash adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself the object of an unrelenting bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a powerful villain of the Kree race with ambitions that threaten the entire universe. To evade the ever-persistent Ronan, Quill is forced into an uneasy truce with a quartet of disparate misfits--Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a gun-toting raccoon; Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree-like humanoid; the deadly and enigmatic Gamora (Zoe Saldana); and the revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). But when Quill discovers the true power of the orb and the menace it poses to the cosmos, he must do his best to rally his ragtag rivals for a last, desperate stand-with the galaxy's fate in the balance.
Part of what made this such a fun movie was the diversity of the characters. It's funny that DC comics has been so hesitant to make a Wonder Woman movie on the grounds that audiences simply aren't ready for something like that. Then Marvel goes, "Hey! Here's a heavy weapons wielding raccoon and a talking tree! Have fun!" Rocket is a hilarious  pint-size tough guy who is a bounty hunter, a mercenary, and a master of weapons and battle tactics. He's not like a ridiculous throwaway furry sidekick in the middle of The Avengers; he was genetically created to be a mean fighting machine. Peter Quill is kind of a mix between Han Solo and Marty McFly in that he travels around space, making out with hot alien girls, and acting like a rogue, while looking for a higher purpose. Quill also has an obsession with 1980's nostalgia, which makes for some great lines and funny references. Gamora is a rebel formerly aligned with Ronan and seeks to overthrow his plans from within; she's also a very lethal assassin. Drax is a warrior in search of vengeance after Ronan killed his family; he's very literal minded which creates a lot of comic relief, even though Drax is oblivious to it. Finally there is Groot. He's an innocent; everyone starts out as a miscreant except for Groot, who is a hundred percent deadly and a hundred percent sweet. All of these characters have their moment to shine and all of them get great lines. Each character was fun, relatable, and even lovable from the start.
Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me a lot of the first Star Wars movie. There is a group of ragtag rabble traveling the galaxy to stop a tyrannical villain and they meet a variety of delightfully engaging characters along the way. In truth, Ronan gets more lines and screen time than Darth Vader did in that first movie, but doesn't have nearly the presence. Most of the Marvel villains, apart from Loki, have been pretty generic and uninspiring. They're evil for the sake of being evil. Other characters were great, and if you've been watching other Marvel movies you'll see some familiar faces. The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), The Other (Alexis Denisof), and Thanos (Josh Brolin) return from other movies. The cast also includes Nebula (Karen Gillian of Doctor Who fame), Nova Prime (Glenn Close), Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), and John C. Reilly as a Nova Corpsman. There's even some cameo voice over work from Nathan Fillion, Rob Zombie, and Seth Green. As was the case for Star Wars characters, few are granted much depth in Guardians, though we get a sense of their personality and history. None of the characters in Star Wars would have been that interesting without giving them the chance to develop further in future movies. Similarly most of the characters and storyline in Guardians should be taken as they are. We know we'll see them again in the future where they will develop even further.
The special effects here are stellar. Groot and Rocket are CGI animated, of course. There's lots of highly detailed digital backgrounds and green screen stunts, and it all looks fantastic! The resulting visuals look gorgeous and really help sell the setting of the movie. While there is a lot to take in, you should still watch for the many easter eggs strewn throughout the movie. There are lots of references to other Marvel movies and storylines that have yet to become movies, tons of 1980's nostalgia as per Quill's preferences. Some of it is easy to miss, and some of it went right over my head because I'm more familiar with Marvel's earth-heroes, not the cosmic heroes.
The story is a bit of a mess, but it's an extremely good-natured mess, full of humor and warmth. It's got kind of a Sci-fi B-Movie soul (also much like the original Star Wars) and it encourages you to enjoy yourself even when you're not quite sure what's going on. It's a simple story with lots of plot holes in it, but the sheer fun and energy of the movie overshadows these lapses in narrative. It's a lighthearted and self-referential comic book movie with loads of action and fight scenes, some laugh-out-loud moments, and some surprisingly touching scenes as well. The humor is occasionally juvenile, but even then it's in a witty sort of way.
The music was almost a character unto itself; it's a collection of 80's classics that blended beautifully into the story. Sometimes it was used in to ramp up the energy of action scenes, while other times it was used for humorous irony. Following the debut of the trailer, Blue Swede's version of "Hooked on a Feeling", which was prominently used throughout the trailer, went up 700% in sales the following day.  Not only is the movie great fun, but the soundtrack is also worth getting!
Guardians of the Galaxy was far better than I had anticipated, and I was already hoping for a good summer blockbuster. Director James Gunn tossed together a dizzying blend of superhero bravado, outer-space adventure, and off-the-wall comedy while introducing the world to some of Marvel's strangest and most enjoyable characters. The story has some weak points to it, but the funny antics and edge-of-your-seat action will keep you from dwelling on them too much. The movie is much more fun than should be expected this time of year. I highly recommend seeing this in theaters, and getting a copy when it becomes available on home video.

A note on the post-credit scene: You should of course stick around for Marvel's traditional post credit scene. I half expected a teaser for, like, The Avengers 4, or something. I won't tell you what it is, but it introduces another very obscure character. I laughed, but it made me wonder if they're actually going make a movie for this character, of if they were just joking around. That would probably be even weirder than putting a gun-toting raccoon on screen. At any rate, I laughed.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

One of 2011's big summer movies was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it was absolutely amazing. Like most blockbusters it left a big opening for a sequel, and this year it finally arrived. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) did more of what made the first one so good and was a logical progression in the storyline while paying homage to the original classic.
Ten years after his escape from captivity Caesar (Andy Serkis) heads a vast colony of apes and chimps living a self-sufficient life in the woods outside San Francisco. In the city itself, a depleted group of Simian Flu survivors struggle to exist; their best hope being to revitalize a hydro-electric dam which will restore their power. However, to reach it they must pass through Caesar's domain. Group leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Caesar have a mutual respect which allows the restoration to take place. But Caesar's embittered lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell), a victim of animal experimentation, has no faith in humans and usurps Caesar, plotting a full-scale attack on the city, most of whose inhabitants regard the apes as savages responsible for wiping out most of the human species. It is down to Caesar and Malcolm to join as voices of reason and re-establish peace to benefit both camps.
The story here is more complex and engaging than what the synopsis above suggests. The movie, at first, looks predictable, and you think you know where the story is going to go. But then it goes in a different direction, and by the time you think you know how it's going to unfold, it goes in another direction. It takes us in logical directions and remains interesting, but you don't see the plot twists coming which keeps the story fresh and positively engrossing. There are so many fascinating plot developments that by the end of the movie you truly have no idea how it's going to end, who will win, who to root for, or indeed if the complicated conflict can be resolved at all. While Rise and Dawn are essentially independent of the rest of the Planet of the Apes movies, this is the bleakest of the Planet of the Apes movies, but it's so compelling!
Andy Serkis was praised in Rise for his acting and portrayal of Caesar. He's been lauded as the best motion capture actor there is, and with good reason. In Dawn he's only one of several actors portraying apes, and while they all do a great job, Serkis is a cut above the rest. There are several major ape characters and they all have distinct features that set them apart from the others. There are a few shots of extreme close-ups of the ape characters. These are so detailed and intricately animated, that you'd never guess it wasn't a real ape. Even when there are apes riding horses (a quintessential image of the classic Planet of the Apes movies) the apes are still proportioned and move like actual primates. Great as the human actors are, Serkis again steals the show, even though he's never seen on camera.
My favorite part of Dawn is the complex themes. War and peace are mulled over a lot in this movie. We are shown that when two sides really want to fight, it's very difficult to stop them. At the same time we are constantly shown how a populace's opinion can be swayed by its leader, for good or for ill. We are also shown that a conflict is never as simple as "us versus them." There are individuals in an ordinarily peaceful society who want to fight and will go to great lengths to persuade others to their cause, and there are also societies that have smaller groups of people who want peace and are not represented by the larger society. There's a lot of ingroup/outgroup social psychology going on in this movie. War includes many people, but it's never as simple as it appears at face value. Each individual is fighting for what they believe is right and just. The complexity of war is so beautifully captivated here; it depicts war in a negative light naturally, but shows us there's more to it than we probably assume. 
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was truly an outstanding movie. There's evident patience and intelligence to the filmmaking as well as exploring genuine ideas about diplomacy, deterrence, law and leadership. There's an intelligence and emotional resonance in the story that I'm sure anyone could relate to. The visual effects are absolutely incredible, and will have you sold on this imaginary world the movie creates. I genuinely loved this movie and I recommend seeing it; it's well worth the price of movie tickets, and certainly worth owning on blu-ray when it becomes available. Just make sure you've seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes first.

IGN did a neat featurette about acting as an ape and using motion capture in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for more info about the amazing ape characters:

What is your favorite movie that has used motion capture technology? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Lucy Movie Review

One should never trust a movie by its trailer. The director nor the production crew actually makes a movie's trailer. Very often, the movie studio shows us what it thinks we want to see in order to get ticket sales up even if it's a misrepresentation of the movie. Lucy (2014) was marketed as a big budget action movie, but what we were given was something very different. Not necessarily bad, but very different.
It was supposed to be a simple job. All Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) had to do was deliver a mysterious briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-Sik Choi). But immediately Lucy is caught up in a nightmarish deal where she is captured and turned into a drug mule for a new and powerful synthetic drug called CPH4. When the bag she is carrying inside of her stomach leaks, Lucy's body undergoes  unimaginable changes that unlocks her mind's full potential. With her new-found powers she seeks out the other drug mules to retrieve the CPH4 and further expand her abilities and knowledge. Lucy receives invaluable help from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the leading authority on the human mind, and French police captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked). With these newfound powers and knowledge, Lucy is at a loss as to what to do with them. She suspects that between the mob tracking her down and the affects of the drug on her physiology she may not have much time left to live.
Lucy and Limitless are very similar in premise. Both allege that we use only 10% of our brain and that great abilities and achievements can be reached if we can use a greater percent of it. This is a stupid myth that has no basis. But as I said in my Limitless review, it is grounds for potentially interesting sci-fi stories.
Lucy is not the action flick we were promised in the trailers. In fact, I think all of the action scenes in the movie were in the trailer itself. Even then, the action wasn't always riveting. It's interesting because the director, Luc Besson, also directed The Fifth Element and that was an action packed movie. Lucy acts as a vehicle to illustrate a philosophical idea. During a high-speed car ride through Paris, Captain Del Rio is trying to stay calm and tell Lucy, who is driving, "I'd rather be late than dead." to which Lucy responds, "We never really die."  In fact, the movie tells us point blank at the end of the movie, "Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it." Lucy's interpretation of life is interesting, but I hardly felt like I knew what to do with my life afterwards. It wasn't much of an action movie, and while it threw around interesting ideas I don't think it was all that great of a philosophical movie either.
One of the weirder things that was done early on in the movie was random cutaway shots of animals. It made sense, but I felt it was redundant. At the opening of the movie, Lucy's scumbag boyfriend is trying to get her to take the locked suitcase full of drugs into the hotel for Mr. Jang. This cuts away to a mouse approaching a baited mouse trap. A few moments later when the mob is closing in to abduct Lucy, it cuts away to national geographic stock footage of a cheetah stocking an antelope, and again with the cheetah dragging the captured prey after the mob has picked her up. Yes, we know it's a trap, we know she's been caught. Why make this wildlife analogy? It interrupted the flow of the movie and took the audience out of the movie by showing them something non-sequitur. Fortunately they stopped doing this early on; I'm not sure why that bit of randomness lasted through the editing process.
There were several scenes that I would have done differently had I been the director. Later on in the movie Lucy's powers have made her so removed from normal humans that she begins to lose her humanity. Given that, in a scene where the mob has her at gunpoint, it would have made more sense to have her make the gunmen each shoot themselves. That would have been gross and not something I'd like to watch, but would have better illustrated how far removed she has become from her humanity. But instead she makes the guns levitate out of the gunman's hands. There was some lost potential in several scenes.
Lucy is rated R, but it is a tame R. There was little profanity and some minor suggested sexuality; I've seen much worse in PG-13 movies. Really this movie gets the R rating from the violent action, and I didn't think there was a lot of that. There's some pretty overt blood splatter and gore resulting from gunplay and blade weapons in two or three scenes. I've seen much gorier stuff, but apart from these scenes, this really isn't that bad. If the violence had been toned down just a little it would have safely been PG-13. Still, it's not something to take young viewers to, and if you're put off by some graphic gunplay you may want to skip this movie.
Lucy was nowhere near what the trailer promised us, but if you can get around the marketing's bait-and-switch, it's not a bad movie. I'm glad I saw it, I'd be up for a second viewing. What Besson has done here is taken a silly concept and elevated it to a level that can best be described as insane poetry. It tries hard to be philosophical, but wasn't as deep as it thinks it is. It was marketed as an action movie, but it's not all that action packed. The action was good, but it wasn't the point of the movie. Johansen is amazing as ever, and her performance makes all the nonsense more believable than it otherwise might be. I'd recommend seeing this if you can handle a few short scenes of blood and gore, but it's a renter.

I know you are already using 100% of your brain, but in the whimsical world of sci-fi, what would you do if you could unlock 100% of your brain as was done in Lucy? Comment below and tell me about it!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Knights of Badassdom Movie Review

One of my coworkers recently discovered what a geek and movie buff I am, and she insisted that I watch Knights of Badassdom (2013). I'd seen the trailer some time back and had a small interest in seeing the movie. She let me borrow her copy and I did got a kick out of it, though the weird humor is only going to appeal to a small demographic.
Joe (Ryan Kwanten) is completely disconsolate after his girlfriend Beth (Margarita Levieva) dumps him. In an attempt to break him out of his funk, Joe's geeky buddies Eric (Steve Zahn) and Hung (Peter Dinklage) drag  Joe out to the woods to join them in a large scale Dungeons & Dragons-style Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game. Trouble arises when a prop spell book that Eric purchased on the internet ends up being a genuine tome of grimoire. While pretending to raise Joe's character from death, they unwittingly conjure up a blood-lusting succubus from hell that takes on the appearance of Joe's ex-girlfriend. Joe, Erik, and Hung are joined by fellow LARPers Gwen (Summer Glau) and Gunther (Brett Gipson) to stop the demon. Unfortunately, all they have to fight with are Styrofoam prop weapons.
This cast is brilliant. The movie itself is a celebration of geeky enthusiasm, so the geek icons that appear in Knights of Badassdom make it all the more fun. Ryan Kwanten is known for playing Jason Stackhouse in HBO's hit series True Blood. Peter Dinklage is a fan favorite as Tyrion Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones series. And Summer Glau is well known for her role as River Tam in the Firefly series and as Cameron Phillips in Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles. While these characters don't necessarily reference the roles that made them geek icons, the fact that they are all together will certainly excite geek viewers.
The weird humor is only going to appeal to a specific demographic. It's absolutely geek-style humor. In the scene where the three friends first meet Gwen and Gunther, Erik quips, " And Guinevere the fearless, who's plus-three ass of perfection should keep the memory of she who should not be mentioned at bay." referring to Beth the ex-girlfriend. Gwen responds to this with, " Plus-three? Clearly you underestimate my endowments." There is another scene where other LARPers are speaking in articulate Old English while subtitles appear below translating the dialogue into complaints about his wife making him clean out the garage. The dialogue is witty and funny; most of the jokes will be the most funny to people who play Role Playing Games or who know people who do. The humor seeks to point a finger at the LARP community and laugh at their strange hobby every bit as much as it makes self-referential in-jokes that only LARPers would likely understand.
This is a Horror-Comedy movie, and it clings to horror tropes like an alien facehugger to John Hurt. Clearly none of the characters in Knights of Badassdom passed Horror Movie survival 101; the monster will get you if you have sex, drink, or go off on your own and be different. For a comedy, I would have expected this to be done with some irony, much like Cabin in the Woods did, but it fell short and just ended up being a gross run-of-the-mill slasher sort of movie. The deaths were silly but gross; it looked as fake as any low budget movie gore would, but still was gross.
Knights of Badassdom was kind of fun. The story was hard to take very seriously, even for a comedy. The humor was hit or miss, but when it hit it was funny; more so if you've ever played Dungeons and Dragons. The cast was lots of fun, I understand that the main cast went through Live Action Role Playing sessions before filming and Peter Dinklage was declared the most successful out of everyone. That would probably have been more fun to watch than this movie was. Knights of Badassdom reminded me of a grittier, more crude, and very violent version of Unicorn City. Unicorn City is squeaky clean, family friendly movie that features lots of geek humor while Knights of Badassdom is a crude and bloody romp that features a lot of geek humor that is intended for more mature audiences. Both have their merit and I'm glad I saw them, but neither of them is worth more than one viewing.

If you were to make a geek-fest movie, what collection of geek icon actors would you use? The more mismatched the better! Comment below and tell me about it!