Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" Review

After nine years, something has been lost in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's follow-up to the original Sin City film from 2005. The visual aesthetic is still striking, and the performances are all perfectly zany. But the chapters in this new story don't gel quite as nicely as before. In turn, this Dame packs less punch that it leads on.

We pick up a few years after the end of the first Sin City. Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe) appears to have a larger role than before, with a tighter grip on the city now that Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is gone. Nancy (Jessica Alba) is struggling to find meaning in her life without Hartigan's guidance. She starts to find it with help from Marv (Mickey Rourke). 

At some point, the narrative is presented in a slightly disjointed fashion, seeming to try and service as both a sequel and prequel at the same time. I say "prequel" because we have Josh Brolin taking over the role of Dwight from Clive Owen. It works to some extent. The visuals are always eye-popping, and the acting performances are appropriately zany. But Brolin's segment often feels padded with unnecessary exposition, seemingly for the sole purpose of tying in more characters, like Chris Meloni & Jeremy Piven as a pair of foolhardy detectives. 

Brolin plays Dwight "pre-facial reconstruction surgury"; this surgery is what would lead him to look like Owen in the first film. We also get to see how Manute (Dennis Haysbert) got that funky gold eye...

I enjoyed the addition of Eva Green as the titular "dame" Ava, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, the bastard son of Senator Roark (Boothe), but I prefer Owen's rendition of Dwight to Brolin's. Rourke's Marv is arguably the most fun character to watch across both films.

Fans of the last movie or of Miller's original graphic novels are the only clientele that need apply. All others will be better off saving their money.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

"The Giver" Review

Phillip Noyce directs The Giver, based on the Newberry Medal-winning book by Lois Lowry, with style and grace. The film possesses the appropriate visual flair, but save for a handful of acting performances, the rest of the production falls flat. In 2014, the story just doesn't translate well from page to screen. If this had come out 15 or 20 years ago, The Giver may be considered a landmark in young adult / science fiction storytelling much like its original source material was.

Everyone who read the book in 8th grade might remember a handful of things about The Giver. It follows Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a boy who lives in a utopian society devoid of color or emotion. There are no feelings of jealousy or hatred; no war, crime, poverty, love, or joy.

Now here's where the creative liberties really set in. In the film, Jonas is about 18 years old instead of 12. At that age, kids are selected for their careers within society. Jonas is chosen to inherit the position of "receiver of memory." Every day, he trains with a mysterious community elder called "the giver" (Jeff Bridges) who lives in a strange dwelling on the edge of the city. Through his training, Jonas learns what life was like before "sameness." Perhaps the story's greatest strength is how he grapples with the weight of these emotions and memories.

What kinda sucks about the movie is that they give Jonas a 17-year-old Mila Kunis lookalike (Odeya Rush) to serve as the object of his affections, once he finally learns what those feelings mean. He implores this girl, Fiona, to come with him and the baby Gabriel as they attempt to escape to the "boundary of memory." The screenwriters essentially turn the third act into a rousing, mildly violent, prison escape piece which definitely isn't what the book is about. I guess they had to do something to make the latter part of the story cinematically engaging.

Meryl Streep stars as the Chief Elder; an actress who can typically set her films apart from the competition singlehandedly. Even with the equally incomparable Bridges at her side, Streep's performance isn't quite enough to distinguish The Giver from the Hunger Games and Divergent movies of today. However she proves to be a rather menacing blockbuster villain.

On the whole, the movie's liberties are inconsolable despite strong performances and satisfying visuals. Count me out if they decide to make Gathering Blue.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Let's Be Cops" Review

It's far from a masterpiece, but Let's Be Cops proves to be a satisfyingly hilarious buddy-cop adventure from Luke Greenfield, a director with a pretty weak back catalog including flops such as The Animal and Something Borrowed.

Heck, it earns points for at least being an original concept with a unique spin on its subgenre. 

The film re-teams lead actors Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr., perhaps best known for their respective roles as Nick and Coach on FOX's New Girl. The two bring their familiar chemistry to the table once again, which proves to be the movie's greatest strength despite a couple nagging character flaws.

Ryan O'Malley (Johnson) is a deadbeat who spends his time re-living the glory days of his college football career by playing pick-up games with the neighborhood kids. Justin Miller (Wayans) is Ryan's roommate and has been struggling to find acceptance in his career as a video game designer. Both of these guys are enormous tools; Ryan always take things too far, and Justin tends to run away when the going gets tough.

One night the pair decide to attend a costume party dressed as police officers. During their night out girls on the street start looking at them lustfully, and guys come up to give high-fives. With their tarnished egos adequately inflated, Ryan and Justin proceed to take on the responsibilities of real policemen. These newly-minted "cops" are forced to walk a fine line between coming clean and acting for the greater good when they find themselves caught up in an organized crime ring. In the process, the guys come to find their self-worth, and their major flaws are remedied.

The leads are bolstered by a strong supporting cast, including Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries), James D'Arcy (Cloud Atlas), Rob Riggle (21 Jump Street), and Andy Garcia (The Untouchables). Dobrev and Riggle prove the most endearing to watch, while D'Arcy's and Garcia's roles are fairly one-note for such talented players.

It more than serves its purpose as a mindless late-summer comedy, but Let's Be Cops comes out a decided second to this summer's other buddy feature 22 Jump Street.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" Review

Not good by any stretch of the imagination, though not nearly the disaster I had anticipated, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merely squeaks by as mindless summer entertainment. It's nothing more than "froth," if you will, as Will Arnett's character puts it. Sometimes that's all you need, but this adaptation isn't quite brainy enough to earn my hearty recommendation.

No offense, Donatello.

Fans of the Turtles franchise have probably seen this plot carried out before: during a freak laboratory accident, a young April O'Neil saves four baby turtles and a rat by dropping them in a sewer. Years later, April (Megan Fox) is now a news reporter hot on the tail of a conspiracy to take over New York City. As she investigates, April crosses paths with her grown-up pets who now act as vigilantes fighting against the evil of Shredder and his private army known as the Foot Clan.

It's pretty standard good-versus-evil stuff, although a handful of action sequences prove to be rather diverting. Late in the film, there's a downhill chase on a snow-covered mountain that shows just how clever and fun these turtles can be outside their usual cityscape.

I've heard lots of complaints about the way the turtles themselves are portrayed this time around. Actually, the filmmakers get the banter between the characters just right. You get a strong sense of brotherhood among these guys, and it's easy to tell they're teenagers with one or two cringe-worthy fart / boner jokes just in case anyone forgot.

The biggest issue is the fact that these "teenage mutant turtles" are about the furthest thing from "ninjas" you could imagine. Mikey, Donnie, Leo and Raph are all enormous brutes who look like they could go toe-to-toe with the Incredible Hulk much less round up puny Foot soldiers in the dead of night. These turtles frequently rely on brute strength to take care of things, hurling trucks at bad guys or punching them across whole rooms. These ain't the TMNT I know from my childhood.

Aside from the decent motion capture and voice work from Johnny Knoxville, Tony Shaloub, Jimmy Howard, Noel Fisher, Pete Ploszek and Alan Ritchson, the human performances are pretty dull. Fox is always nice to look at, but her display of emotion is about as engaging and wooden as a 2x4. Arnett isn't funny as Vern Fenwick, April's cameraman. It's annoying that he just tries to get in her pants the entire time. William Fichtner also stars as the shady businessman Eric Sacks, a role that the actor could play in his sleep.

This Michael Bay production is better than Transformers: Age of Extinction, but there have been so many better blockbusters this summer that this iteration of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is largely worth skipping.


"Boyhood" Pocket Review

If the film BOYHOOD is playing in your area, I urge you to check it out. It's a coming-of-age story that doesn't follow a typical narrative formula as much as it simply captures the essence of growing up. It's filled with hilarious moments made even funnier when you realize you've gone through the same experiences that Mason has. Terrific performances all around. Standouts include Ellar Coltrane as our boy, Mason, and Ethan Hawke as his estranged father. Director Richard Linklater filmed a little bit every year for 12 years with the same core cast! This is the year's best movie so far. 


Friday, August 1, 2014

"Guardians of the Galaxy" Review

It may not quite be the summer "savior" many had hoped, but Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy proves a raucously refreshing breath of clean air for the superhero genre. It may also be the funniest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Peter Quill a.k.a. "Star-Lord" (Chris Pratt) becomes the object of a galaxy-traversing manhunt when he steals a mysterious orb from a distant planet. Hot on his tail is Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), your traditional MCU villain, hellbent on usurping the mighty Thanos (a surprising turn by Josh Brolin) as ruler of the universe. In order to stop Ronan, Quill relies on a handful of misfits for help. Among them are an assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a muscle-bound psychopath named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, on hiatus from WWE), and a pair of anthropomorphic show-stealers. There's a walking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and a talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper).

Cooper's voice is practically unrecognizable as he attempts some goofy New York accent to bring Rocket to life. He and Groot handle most of the film's funniest moments. There's plenty of self-deprecating humor to go around, as the group are frequently referred to as "a-holes" and "a bunch of jackasses."  I think I actually laughed harder during Guardians than I did during 22 Jump Street. 

And I'd be remiss not to mention the stellar soundtrack. Music plays a big part in Quill's life, and it has an infectious effect on not only his compatriots but the audience as well. The playlist consists of several of the biggest hits from the 70s, including "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5, "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum, and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye.

On the flip side, I thought Ronan did nothing to separate himself from the Lokis and the Malekiths of previous MCU films. I wished for him to move out of the way so Thanos could finally take center stage. Sadly we haven't quite gotten there yet. Additionally, I felt the plot suffered due to a lack of backstory for most of the characters. Following our "guardians" on their quest feels jarring at times because we're suddenly thrown into action with a bunch of freaks we know nothing about.

I think the main reason why we're expected to "just go with it" is that the Guardians have a dysfunctional family dynamic that's not unlike the Avengers. They come together to fight a common enemy, but they have a hard time playing nice with one another. If nothing else, I'm happy this character dynamic somehow works because I'll never be able to take a talking tree seriously.