Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Back in May Marvel proved with Captain America: Civil War it could skillfully juggle over a dozen major characters without sacrificing storytelling clarity and intelligence. On the flip side, Suicide Squad - Warner Bros. third entry in its increasingly distressing DC Universe mega-franchise – fails miserably to coherently portray its leads’ journey on foot across a few city blocks. This is sadly becoming par for the course for the studio, who have this time assembled a fun, colorful, well-cast batch of antiheroes and tossed them into a tornado of sloppy, shapeless narrative chaos. Like Batman v Superman, this film is so desperate to set up future sequels and spin-offs it furiously forsakes its own enjoyment and overall worth.

There’s a kernel of splashy Dirty Dozen-esque genius to the Suicide Squad concept – wherein a taskforce of homicidal marquee supervillains are forcibly drafted into an unwinnable battle – that screams cool. It’s a twist on the comic book picture we haven’t seen on screen yet, and bolstered by endless resources to achieve its wildest ambitions. Too bad, then, this movie’s feverish imagination mostly begins and ends with its flashy, gaudy costuming and temporary tattoo budget. If ever there was an opportunity to embrace the crazy this was it! Did we really need another generic “Stop the boring, vaguely defined villain from opening a sky portal!” story conveyed with all the live-wire energy of Batman doing an open mic night comedy routine?

Speaking of ‘ol Bats, it’s no coincidence popular members of his legendary rogues gallery dominate, with assassin extraordinaire Deadshot (Will Smith) and vicious vixen Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) sharing the limelight, and the Joker (Jared Leto) periodically popping in from another (hopefully better) movie to boost marketability. The film makes zero effort to convince us they’re on equal footing with their dastardly supporting colleagues, who run the gamut from mildly amusing cartoons – Aussie safe-cracker Boomerang (Jai Courtney), fire-shooting Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and sewer-dwelling reptile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) – to bland half-finished sketches. No doubt team leader Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) are fascinating on the page, but here? Not so much. And what’s the deal with Slipknot? Adam Beach’s baddie appears to have been purposely edited out almost entirely, indifferently announced mid-picture with a hilariously speedy bit of dialogue blatantly pasted in during post-production.

So why has this insanely dangerous collection of psychopathic criminals with greatly varying abilities and powers been let out of their maximum security prison cells? Because fearsome government agency head Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, voraciously chewing scenery and spitting out exposition with grim purpose) believes America needs a secret weapon to thwart the potential threat of a Superman gone awry. However, just as her initiative is uneasily approved, vengeful eons-old witch Enchantress - who has body-snatched innocent archaeologist June Moone - escapes and awakens her unstoppable brother Incubus in order to destroy humanity. With the apocalypse fast dawning, Moone’s disgraced soldier lover Rick Flagg is forced into action alongside his disposable “suicide squad,” who are equipped with failsafe explosive devices and more than a little resentful about it. And, if the world being turned into a smoking husk wasn’t enough, ultimate wild card Joker devilishly schemes to free deranged girlfriend Harley from the clutches of justice.

One can be wholly forgiven for expecting Suicide Squad to be brimming with confidence. Lord knows, the omnipresent advertising campaign has projected nothing but! In reality, though, the film – which was written and directed by End of Watch and Fury auteur David Ayer – clearly isn’t. At all. Over-edited and reshot to death, the finished product bares the sweaty handprints of countless execs terrified of dropping the ball in the wake of Batman v Superman. Characters are introduced multiple times, vanish completely from the picture only to reappear without mention, and are given big climactic emotional beats that land with a thud due to their arcs being cut to shreds. The sporadically engaging first act is almost daringly unhinged; an extended series of mostly disconnected montages scored to a parade of idiosyncratic song choices, hastily scotch-taped together by Viola Davis voiceover. It’s something to behold certainly, and at least hints at a level of manic weirdness that never arrives once the central plot kicks in.

Given how visibly compromised Suicide Squad is it’s not fair to solely blame Ayer for how rudderless and incomprehensible the whole endeavor is. The film can’t even properly explain why Amanda Waller would form the group, given she’s friendly with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and other formidable heroes are shown to be active. More frustrating is the complete lack of tension and momentum in the plot. There’s no ticking clock and no compelling stakes to drive our antagonistic protagonists forward. You can feel the energy slacken as they wander aimlessly from one uninteresting fight scene to another without a clear mission objective, occasionally interrupted by talky diversions and unnecessary Joker business (the majority of Leto’s scenes as the Clown Prince of Crime – now a glitzy, angsty Scarface-wannabe who’s too silly to be scary – could be easily removed with no ill effect).

And yet, despite being a superhero spectacle lost cause, Suicide Squad gets two things very, very right; Deadshot and Harley Quinn. Every time Smith and the show-stopping Robbie – whose unqualified success as the fan fave villainess is slightly complicated by Ayer’s long-established misogynistic male gaze – are on screen we’re reminded we are in the presence of true movie stars. In a film over-burdened with dumb, empty posturing, they’re triumphant, exciting and hugely charismatic comic book translations that beg to be featured in a project deserving of their gifts. It’s a hoot to see them overshadow their underwritten co-stars and tangle (all-too-briefly) with Affleck’s Batman! Stop mucking about DC and get it done and done properly!

Problem is Warner Bros. and DC aren’t exhibiting much interest in cultivating well-crafted star vehicles for their rich staple of icons the way Marvel nurtured Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Guardians. And so we’re left with empty bundles of convoluted connective tissue like this and BvS and expected to care about buying into future chapters. Franchise building only works when the foundation is strong, people. Forget Harley and Killer Croc, the real Suicide Squad is the studio exec team spending innumerable precious days of their finite lives anxiously cranking these artless, unremarkable things out to muted response.

2 out of 5

Wednesday, July 06, 2016


There are two movies aggressively battling for dominance at the heart of The Legend of Tarzan, David Yates’s umpteenth update of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic literary icon. One is a genuinely fun, light-hearted throwback to post-Indiana Jones 1990s pulp adventures like The Mask of Zorro, The Phantom or Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. The other, alas, is a brooding, gloomy, half-realized attempt to channel the gravitas of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. These two approaches are so diametrically opposed to one another that the result is a confused, watchable mess with an identity crisis. It wants to swing freely and boldly from vine to vine, yet with heavy weights tied to its ankles.

Like so many misfired blockbusters, the project feels badly compromised by being over-developed. In the works since 2003, Tarzan was passed from director to director, with several writers attached. The final screenplay is credited to Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan), and undeniably feels like two very specific visions smashed together. After all, this is a film where multiple characters grimly mourn their deceased children while Christoph Waltz, playing a white suited, moustache-twirling baddie who chokes his prey with a ninja weapon-like rosary, shouts clichés like “Don’t shoot! You’ll hit the girl!” Either angle could theoretically be successful. Together, though? Tonal whiplash city.

An original tale, culling many elements from Burroughs’ stories, The Legend of Tarzan reintroduces us to famed jungle crusader John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) years after returning to his ancestral home of Greystoke Manor in Victorian London. Living a respected, if stale, aristocratic life, he’s caught off guard when gun-slingin’ American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) urges him to investigate Belgium’s developments in the Congo. Extremely reluctant to accept the invitation, he ultimately decides to make the journey due to pressure from his wife Jane (Margot Robbie, suitably plucky in her pretty thankless job), who sees the trip as an opportunity to reignite their love affair and help ease the grief of losing their son. Soon after arriving, however, the trio becomes embroiled in a horrendous plot, overseen by King Leopold II’s representative Leon Rom (Waltz), to enslave the native population and dig up a vast diamond fortune. 

Director Yates, who so deftly balanced darkness with wonder and joy in the last four Harry Potter entries, would seem the perfect talent to somehow make The Legend of Tarzan’s clashing sensibilities work. Unfortunately he only half succeeds, imbuing the more high-spirited sections with the necessary energy. There’s a lot of welcome goofy and broad material, from set-pieces involving gorilla fights, Jurassic Park-homaging ostrich flocks, crocodile attacks and a nifty mass stampede, to small moments like (Apocalypto-inspired?) surgery via ant pincers, and some solid buddy comedy between Skarsgård and Jackson. These flights of fancy are a genuine kick, and leave one wishing for a version that really sold just how cool it would be to be Tarzan! Who wouldn’t want to pal around with fearsome animals, scamper around treetops and take down cartoonish bad guys in order to save the day?
Because, given the picture’s ridiculous $180-million-dollar budget (it was shot a couple years ago in a warehouse and given the Avatar/Jungle Book CG treatment), shouldn’t this be an unabashedly exciting family-friendly spectacle? It just makes economic sense. And every attempt Yates makes to try to get dark and somber fails miserably. No one buys a ticket to watch Tarzan mope and refuse to get his groove back, but that’s just what Skarsgård is forced to do for far more time than desired. We can buy Bruce Wayne, and his scary armored alter ego, as a tormented soul. A bare chested, tree-climbing hero in a loin cloth, though? Not so much. No matter how hard composer Rupert Gregson-Williams’s Hans Zimmer-lite score blares into overdrive trying to convince us we’re witnessing the mighty rebirth of a painfully serious superhero.

There’s also the issue of just how difficult and problematic this mythos is to transport to modern day cinema. Do we truly need another story about a brave Caucasian savior protecting African people? The superior 1999 Disney animated take smartly focused more on animal conservation. Here, though, our protagonist is responsible for thwarting slavery and talking sense into a deceived tribal chief (Djimon Hounsou, in a role so brutally undeserving of his considerable gifts). Making Jackson’s sidekick a fairly active participant in the direction of events helps a bit, however he's still a supporting player and no one on-screen champions him the way they do “the white ape.” The world was a very different place when Tarzan was introduced in 1912, and it’s highly debatable whether this is material that desperately needed to be resurrected in this form. And by making unwelcome stabs at being gritty and grounded, the movie invites more criticism than it might have had had it just been a silly and carefree swashbuckler.

Maybe we wouldn’t be motivated to ask these types of hard questions if Yates and his team had found a more compelling, thoughtful and artistically satisfying way to drag Burroughs’s brainchild into 2016. This adaptation isn’t an embarrassment (no comparisons are warranted, for example, to the disastrous and porny 1981 Bo Derek star vehicle Tarzan, The Ape Man), it just never really justifies itself. The Legend of Tarzan will probably please those receptive to its campier minor charms, but it’s certainly nothing to beat one’s chest for.

2.5 out of 5

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


We’re two months into the summer 2016 movie season and, so far, the narrative has been one of baffling failure, with costly blockbusters (aside from Marvel and Pixar franchises) repelling audiences one after another. But look beyond the gossipy disaster stories and there’s been another trend quietly unfolding, which is the encouraging success of skillfully directed, modestly budgeted horror counter-programming. Both Jaume Collet-Serra’s shark thriller The Shallows and James Wan’s spookhouse extravaganza The Conjuring 2 deliver in spades the type of clever empty calorie thrills and bracing excitement we’ve been conditioned to anticipate from their infinitely more expensive and hyped competition.

As a filmmaker, Collet-Serra isn’t exactly known for his grand auteurist ambition or innovative storytelling. However, previous efforts Orphan and Non-Stop have proven his worth as a peddler of colorful, imaginative and wildly entertaining trash that twists seemingly simple genre set-ups into something weirder and more unique. Consider The Shallows another feather in his slightly askew cap; an immersive single protagonist survival tale that is one of the few killer shark movies to land closer on the quality measuring stick to Jaws than, say, Shark Night 3D.

Headlined by a very game and committed Blake Lively, playing a grieving young surfer held captive a mere 200 feet from shore by an aggressively territorial great white, The Shallows is an impeccably assembled exercise in ever-ratcheting tension. The Barcelona-born director, operating with a mere 17-million-dollar budget, embraces his limitations by keeping his vicious CG co-lead obscured – a sleek, breaking fin here, a murky shadow there – much the way Spielberg so famously did back in the sunny days of 1975. And, similar to that enduring classic, or 2003’s effective Open Water, anxiety is generated by not quite knowing where the marine threat is from moment to moment. As we watch our heroine battle her way through various minor tasks, such as nasty self-surgery or travelling from a floating whale carcass to a sturdier rock, we’re always on edge, waiting for the leviathan to rise up.

Of course, this being a Collet-Serra joint, things invariably get pretty bonkers at a certain point. Although this characteristic descent into cartoonishness doesn’t quite work as well here – due to the stripped down, you-are-there nature of the film – as in past endeavors, his go-for-broke dedication to cheeseball overkill is bizarrely admirable. The man is nothing if not consistent. And if he keeps cranking out B-movie fare this fun, technically proficient and well-acted (even Lively’s avian co-star Steven Seagull turns in a stellar performance), his peculiar brand of high-concept craziness will always be welcome.

While The Shallows helmer has always played on the cheaper end of the studio genre flick system, James Wan – who exploded onto the scene in 2004 with cheapie shocker phenomenon Saw – hasn’t just flirted with the big time, he’s fast become a major player; pulling off Furious 7 with style, despite tragic complications, and signing on to captain DC’s Aquaman. But, watching the frequently terrifying, lovingly crafted sequel to his 2013 smash hit The Conjuring, you sure can tell where his warped heart truly remains. Any hack can create a cheap showcase jump scare for trailers to milk. He digs into this superior follow-up like a man possessed, infusing it with enough feverish, pulse-quickening suspense sequences to fuel over a dozen schlocky one weekend wonders.

Once again drawing inspiration from the true life (entirely bogus) experiences of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (portrayed on celluloid by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), The Conjuring 2 tremendously fictionalizes the famous events surrounding England’s late 1970s Enfield Poltergeist case. This scenario, which begins with simple bumps in the night tormenting a woman and her four children, before gradually evolving into possession and unthinkable supernatural chaos, affords Wan a wide variety of hellish scenarios to exploit to their profoundly chilling hilt. As mysterious hands push objects out of darkened tents, chairs travel uneasily across rooms and aged specters leer, scream and leave bite marks, you can practically sense the creator grinning sadistically between the frames.

What really makes this franchise work like gangbusters – as opposed to Wan’s two genuinely solid but unremarkable Insidious installments – is the grounding presence of Wilson and Farmiga. They’re so thoughtful, warm and compelling that their very human love story is as involving as the ghastly happenings surrounding them. And because we’re invested in them, and by extension the characters they’re fighting to protect (predominantly Frances O’Connor and talented young Madison Wolfe), the building dread and traumatic frights arrive loaded with an impact that’s surprisingly emotional as well as visceral. The Conjuring 2 again shows Wan to be a formidable master of the form, a ghoulishly ingenious talent rarely better than when he’s dragging unsuspecting ticket-buyers into the horrible recesses of his most hypnotic cinematic nightmares.

The Shallows: 3.5 out of 5
The Conjuring 2: 4 out of 5

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Film Review - FINDING DORY

Pixar has gotten a lot of flak over the last few years for their increased focus on sequelizing their most popular – and *cough* profitable – brands. And yet, with the huge, bold exception of 2011’s running-on-empty Cars 2, the rest have outdone or, at the very least, honored their delightful predecessors. Both Toy Story follow-ups were widely celebrated and embraced by fans, while the underrated Monsters University prequel brought enjoyable new energy, personalities and off-beat humor to the world created by Monsters, Inc.

Finding Dory, the dubious-on-paper extension of 2003’s Finding Nemo, once again proves the studio knows how to milk a property with creative zest, soulfulness and smarts, if a little less richly so than in the past. Returning writer-director Andrew Stanton (who also masterminded Wall-E) knows how to tell an involving tale and deliver the required emotional wallop, and here he ups the ante in terms of ambitious action set-piece staging. And although it’s pretty unlikely many will place this entry above its now classic Best Animated Feature Oscar-winning forebear, it does earn its place next to it on the shelf.

On a visual level, the film is arresting to behold. Vibrant and practically exploding with bright, striking colors Finding Dory captures the same sense of relaxing, tranquil beauty that comes from witnessing the most awe-inspiring of underwater sights. This movie is meant to be seen on the big screen, and it’s also the rare 3D experience that won’t leave you feeling ripped off when you’re tossing your plastic glasses into the recycle bin after the show. There’s an immersive quality to the animation Pixar’s team of artist wizards have accomplished that not only irresistibly draws you into the wondrous setting, but also helps keep your attention rapt during some of the more busy and ultra-cartoony later happenings.

Tugging at the heartstrings right from the get-go, the picture opens with an effective and adorable childhood flashback wherein the short term-memory challenged blue tang (Ellen DeGeneres as adult Dory, Sloane Murray as infant) is separated from her loving parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) after wandering off on her own. Unable to remember how to get home she embarks on a scattered and lengthy expedition, forced to depend on the kindness of strangers, all the while travelling farther and farther from her destination. This sad, fruitless journey ultimately draws her to the panicked Marlin (Albert Brooks), as he searches for his lost son.

Cut to one year later. Living happily with Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing Alexander Gould), the plucky and carefree Dory experiences a sudden revelation about the location of her lost parents following a clumsy stingray accident. Dragging her two reluctant pals with her, she ventures to the California-based Marine Life Institute (which has a prominent celebrity spokeswoman!), where injured and sick fish are rehabilitated for release back into the ocean. There she finds an invaluable ally in surly seven-armed octopus “septopus,” Hank (Ed O’Neill, perfectly world-weary), who agrees to help in exchange for assistance in attaining a transfer to permanent aquarium captivity. As the two clownfish attempt to save Dory from herself, she and Hank embark on a chaotic and dangerous odyssey through the park in order to complete her lifelong quest.

Intentionally mirroring their protagonist's brief attention span, Stanton and his co-writers have structured their film with an emphasis on sporadic incident over smooth narrative flow. This approach unquestionably allows for a wider variety of mini-adventures, as both Dory/Hank and Marlin/Nemo head off in different directions, with an abundance of fertile possibilities for comedy and go-for-broke imagination. In addition to Hank’s endless hilarious camouflage demonstrations, there’s also plenty of time for memorable encounters with new series additions such as short-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a pair of hooligan sea lions (reunited The Wire co-stars Idris Elba and Dominic West) and a particularly dim loon named Becky. Also extraordinary is a visit to a fish petting pool that manages to be simultaneously nightmarish and totally side-splitting.

However, Finding Dory’s emphasis on lightning-paced episodic escapades also makes the film feel a bit hurried. Kids will undoubtedly get a rush from its madcap drive, but older viewers may yearn at times for the comparatively more restrained storytelling techniques of superior Pixar efforts such as Up, The Incredibles or Ratatouille. Especially once the genuinely moving tear-jerking developments arrive and it feels like the movie’s nervous about allowing much breathing room for fear of losing momentum.

Because it’s hard, as an adult, to not desire more occasional pauses to appreciate and consider the picture’s compelling and powerful central theme; highlighting the countless challenges placed on those living with special needs. The best section of the film – which belongs in the pantheon of all-time great Pixar achievements – is an extended first-person sequence where a distressed Dory finds herself alone, confused and helpless, and must rely on her own unique coping strategies to talk herself through the situation. It’s scenes like this, as well as the poignant time spent with our heroine and her parents, that reminds us just how magical, essential and matchless the studio can be when they’re firing on all cylinders.

And, frankly, Pixar’s most fearsome competitor at this point – outside of the extremely odd Disney or Dreamworks miracle like Zootopia or How to Train Your Dragon - is themselves. Having created a procession of modern masterpieces they’ve set a bar that’s just not possible to clear every time out. So although Finding Dory only belongs somewhere in the middle of their priceless catalogue, it’s still a sweet, fun and engaging spectacle that enthusiastically swims along in very, very good company.    

3.5 out of 5

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Film Review - WARCRAFT

Is there a more fantasy genre-specific term for technobabble? A term to better describe all the multi-syllable mythical and otherworldly names, places, creatures, weapons and so forth that are endlessly name-checked in streams of incomprehensible dialogue? Fantababble, perhaps? Or magibberish?

That query drifted frequently through my mind while patiently trying to keep up with Warcraft, Duncan Jones’s visually impressive albeit inexplicably impenetrable adaptation of the insanely popular orc-tastic Blizzard video game of the same name. Rarely in history has a tentpole franchise hopeful been so unwelcoming to the general public, burying the unprepared under an increasingly maddening barrage of bewildering exposition that serves only to deepen the frustrating disconnect. This film doesn’t just refuse to give proper bearings; it smashes your movie-going internal compass under the weight of a swinging war hammer.

You almost have to admire the picture’s refusal to cater to non-converts. It’s an undeniably ballsy way to kick-start a 200-million-dollar cinematic property, after all. But this approach – which essentially requires the audience to jump in feet first and just go with the flow - is seriously counterproductive on both a business level (although China doesn’t seem to mind, judging from box-office receipts) and, more importantly, a creative one. If the film can’t plainly communicate to the viewer why the Warcraft universe is cool and original, why would we ever want to see more? And that’s a critical question, given that this inaugural chapter is basically just a confusing cliffhanger prologue to a sequel that will likely never exist.

It’s a bummer, because Jones proved in his first two features, Moon and Source Code, to have a firm grasp on emotionally rich high concept storytelling with a great understanding of character. We were genuinely invested in Sam Rockwell’s lonely space station crisis, and to see Jake Gyllenhaal break free from his inescapable repeating time cycle. The self-described Warcraft fan, who co-scripted with Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond), seemed like a good bet to wrangle the game’s convoluted lore into a workable, grounded narrative with compelling heroes and villains. Judging from the results, though, the dense material utterly thwarted him.

Based predominantly on the first game entry, Orcs and Humans, Warcraft establishes two adventure plots on an unstoppable collision course. On one side is the brave, noble orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell), a loving husband and father, who reluctantly joins his horde as they follow demonic lord Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) through a portal bridging their own depleted world to the rich, lush realm of Azeroth. Upon emerging, however, the massive mean green armies fast begin raping and pillaging villages, provoking King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), on the other side, to assemble a team of fighters – including the poor man’s Aragorn Lothar (Travis Fimmel), guardian wizard Medivh (Ben Foster) and his apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) – capable of leading an aggressive defense effort. As the two factions clash, liberated half-breed slave Garona (Paula Patton, in unfortunate 60s Star Trek Orion body-paint) uneasily weighs which side to pledge allegiance to, unaware of the powerful significance she is destined to play in the outcome.

In case it’s not evident in the preceding synopsis, this is pretty broad and colorful fantasy fluff that could easily fuel a really fun and exciting yarn. So why is Warcraft solemn to the point of paralysis? Ever trudging forward with grim self-importance, the film stubbornly avoids almost all semblances of humor (with a couple super lame exceptions) and playfulness and instead delivers a sleepy procession of stilted actors delivering jargon-riddled exposition with all the passion of a live encyclopedia reading. If Lord of the Rings was capable of finding considerable room for high-spirited swashbuckling and light comedy, amidst the suffocating darkness of Frodo’s journey, there’s no excuse for the dearth of it here.
With that said, Peter Jackson’s now classic trilogy also understood the importance of engaging personalities with clear motivations. Simply put, almost no one in Warcraft has a logical objective or inner life. And how then are we supposed to care when not a single character sticks after two hours? It’s not fair to blame the actors for being almost uniformly forgettable and/or bland (minus Kebbell, whose solid mo-cap work is nonetheless dwarfed by his far more memorable Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Koba performance), when the screenplay doesn’t give them anything interesting to say and keeps altering their progression to suit the necessities of the fragmented plot. According to reports, Jones was forced to slash about 20 minutes out of the runtime, and it’s obvious; scenes often smash together abruptly with a whole lot of connective tissue seemingly cast into the nether unceremoniously.

For all of its deficiencies as a satisfying summertime blockbuster, though, Warcraft isn’t a painful or unpleasant sit almost solely due to its technical ambition. Jones may not be able to spin an engaging tale to save his life here, yet he’s nonetheless having a total ball with his budget and effects departments. The art direction and costumes are first rate, and the crazy amount of attention paid to world-building is commendable (this is one unapologetically geeky endeavor). Whereas the human stuff is pretty dire, you can tell the helmer’s heart is with the orcs. Each member is impeccably and elaborately designed, and there’s tangible joy every time the hulking giants start pummeling their enemies or one another. Even if the picture doesn’t set any bars with its CG action sequences, there’s more than enough instances of clever and inventive combat staging to meet genre requirements and then some.

Considering the stunningly lousy 23-year-long catalogue of video game movies, it’s regrettable Warcraft, with its boundless resources and behind the camera talent, wasn’t the one to break the mold and prove that a great adaptation is possible. Alas, lacking any real heart, momentum or coherence, it never makes a convincing argument for the brand becoming an ongoing silver screen presence. As for Jones there’s no doubt he still has plenty of magic left in him, but hopefully next time he funnels it into a project that casts a spell of enchantment, as opposed to one of disappointment.

2 out of 5

Thursday, June 09, 2016


Unlike its noxious sludge-pile predecessor, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows can make the proud claim of not being the worst major studio release of its year. A noticeable course correction and casual retconning of the depressingly successful 2014 franchise reimagining, this sequel, directed by David Green, relentlessly pumps the classic animated series nostalgia gas pedal. Not only are Rocksteady and Bebop on hand to rectify the generation-scarring failed promise of 1991’s Secret of the Ooze, so are Krang, Casey Jones, Baxter Stockman, the Technodrome and the Pizza Wagon (*complete with manhole-shooting play action)! It doesn’t add up to much of a movie, but will undoubtedly sell some merchandise. And let’s not pretend the latter achievement wasn’t the primary creative intent.

Once again returning to his powerful producer chair, Michael Bay’s presence can be felt strongly throughout. As far as some of the slick cinematic style and action goes, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, Out of the Shadows also boasts the tedious half-assed and repellent hallmarks of the Transformers franchise (Bumblebee even has a cameo). The plot is seemingly made up after the fact in the editing room, and there’s just enough frat jerk male posturing, awkward misogyny, crass product integration and scatological juvenility to fill out the standard check list. Want to see a giant CG warthog enthusiastically stare down his pants at his altered junk? This is the motion picture for you, my friend!

As Out of the Shadows opens, the now slightly kinder and gentler green machines are suffering serious morale issues. Confined to their underground dwellings, alongside wise sensei Splinter (Peter D. Badalamenti, voice by Tony Shalhoub), they yearn for acceptance from the humans they protect above. While Leonardo (Pete Ploszek – taking over voice duties from Johnny Knoxville) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) are willing to make the necessary sacrifice, Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Raphael (Alan Ritchson) are going stir crazy and fostering growing resentment towards their brothers’ willingness to continue the lonely status quo. 

Crisis brings them back to the surface, though, when April O’Neil (Megan Fox) stumbles across a conspiracy linking TCRI scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) to the incarcerated – and inexplicably no longer monstrous and, um, dead - Shredder (Brian Tee, replacing Tohoru Masamune). After the heavily bladed adversary is transported to the mysterious Planet X, during a daring prison convoy escape, he strikes a pact with the slimy, sinister alien Krang (Brad Garrett) to collaborate on a plan for Earthly domination. With a potential doomsday scenario on the horizon, the turtles, April and disgraced corrections officer Casey Jones (Stephen Amell) embark on a dangerous scavenger hunt to track down otherworldly technology that will prevent the invading conqueror from entering their realm. Unfortunately, this task is further complicated by the emergence of Stockman’s lumbering experimental animal/human hybrid warriors; the unstoppable rhino Rocksteady (WWE wrestler Sheamus) and his snorting warthog accomplice Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams).

Among the litany of maddening problems plaguing the previous entry, the most damning was its utter inability to make the title protagonists likeable. Oddly, this had never been the case previously. And although Out of the Shadows hasn’t quite solved the problem it is closer to the right track. The designs are still horrendously unappealing to look at, and they rarely seem to occupy any sort of tangible reality (the movie is so fake-looking it should probably have been 100-percent animated), but the personalities - Donatello in particular - feel more polished, energetic and distinctive. Michelangelo, alas, remains a grating bro-tastic embodiment of Bay-ian id and would benefit from even more toning down. At least Master Splinter no longer looks and behaves like psychotic nightmare fuel, which is nice, and he actually scores a funny or two.

These Poochie-fied versions of the TMNT are again undone by not being grounded by compelling storytelling. Whereas the 1990 film plunked them into an adventure that was fun, lively, and even occasionally emotional, Out of the Shadows writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec strand them in a nonsensical narrative that feels like bad fanboy improv. During Rocksteady and Bebop’s creation we’re informed humans have dormant genes connecting them to various members of the animal kingdom. Sure.
Apparently content to aspire to the base artistic heights of an old Saturday morning cartoon/toy commercial, the movie often lazily tosses out internal logic with the sewer water. Shredder’s abrupt trip to Dimension X unfolds as if crucial footage was lost after production wrapped, for example, and at one point the heroes fly from Brazil to New York seemingly in minutes. Even worse, the all-important McGuffin quest driving the picture feels ripped out of one of Bay’s cruddy Transformers flicks and just consists of characters frantically competing for confusing, vaguely-defined plot points without any momentum or suspense.

The screenplay does correctly place the turtles center stage, though, with Out of the Shadows’ many supporting figures offering distractions generally more appreciated than irritating. Since no actor is capable of delivering a good performance with material this dire, those who camp it up walk away looking the best. Gone Girl scene-stealer Perry’s turn as the loony Stockman almost (Almost!) persuades us into desiring a Baxter-as-fly threequel, and Sheamus and Williams are unexpectedly enjoyable as Rocksteady and Bebop, who are done about as well as one could hope.

Fox’s April is more problematic; the actress has an active non-damsel role with plenty to contribute, yet is alternately presented as shameless eye candy in tight tank tops and, early on, a ludicrous Britney-esque schoolgirl costume. That said she has serviceable chemistry with the amiable Amell - whose convincing physicality helps make up for the fact he’s as edgy as Batman Forever-era Chris O’Donnell – and a mugging Will Arnett as Vernon Fenwick. As a concerned citizen, it’s also my responsibility to note the immeasurably talented Laura Linney shows up as a nosy police chief, possibly against her will. Future viewings will have to determine whether she’s blinking H-E-L-P-M-E in Morse code.

Franchise newcomer Green, despite being saddled with a lost cause screenplay, is still head and shoulders above previous director Jonathan Liebesman as far as colorful visuals go. His early action sequences – predominantly the early truck chase and a wildly over the top race down the river rapids of Brazil – are poppy and engaging, and he’s undeniably strong at staging impact shots ready made for trailers and TV spots. By the time the city-shaking climax hits, however, the helmer is totally overwhelmed, delivering a final battle with Krang (barely a character, sadly) that’s the most fragmented and unsatisfying computer effects-driven finale since last summer’s wretched Fantastic Four.

As disposably inane and hacky as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is, it’s nonetheless undeniably aided by the bottom of the barrel expectations established by part one. Hardcore brand loyalists will eat up the non-stop fan service and likely be willing to overlook the soulless cash-in junkiness and Bay-isms surrounding it. As for the rest of us? Better to write off this broken incarnation and wait for the next mutation. 

1.5 out of 5

Thursday, June 02, 2016


Ever since bursting onto the silver screen and ushering in the blockbuster superhero craze in the summer of 2000 Marvel’s X-Men have battled an unending onslaught of formidable and colorful foes. Usually, these battles have generated big thrills for audiences, and allowed the filmmakers to infuse these poppy comic-book morality tales with of-the-moment social commentary and intriguing subtext. X-Men: Apocalypse, on the other hand, delivers a serious game-changer; a big bad who achieves the ghastliest of triumphs in singlehandedly sinking the entire movie around him into a muddy abyss of meaningless mediocrity.

Although it seemed like a promising concept to introduce the hulking blue OG mutant as the primary antagonist for this sixth adventure (even Magneto needs a breather occasionally), in execution the character is a complete and total disaster. Somehow managing to render Oscar Isaac – among the most electrifying actors working today – unwatchable, Apocalypse is an abysmal amalgamation of horrendous makeup work and a total absence of personality, compelling motivation or philosophical interest. And, unlike past lame-duck genre villains like Thor: The Dark World’s Malekith or Amazing Spider-Man’s Lizard, this wheezing gasbag is given copious amounts of screentime to bore fans to sleep with endless ineptly written quasi-mystical monologues. A-Narcolepsy is a more fitting moniker for him.

It shouldn’t have been this way. After Fox drove the franchise off the ever-loving cliff with The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the one-two punch of Matthew Vaughn’s First Class, and returning series godfather Bryan Singer’s Days of Future Past reignited the brand and opened the door to boundless opportunities. So why does Apocalypse feel so creaky, obligatory and behind the times?

The sad part is it actually starts off well! After an enjoyably goofy flashback involving the entombing of Isaac’s evil En Sabah Nur in ancient Egypt, the picture engagingly bounces around, reintroducing us to the colossal cast and establishing the newbies. Unfolding in an alternate 1983, ten years (?!) after the Sentinel project-thwarting exploits of Days of Future Past, Apocalypse sees the former teammates scattered across the globe. While Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) focus their efforts on easing the lives of troubled X-kids - such as Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan’s Scott Summers - Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has embarked on a solitary stealth war against mutant prejudice and Magneto’s (Michael Fassbender) become a quiet family man in his native Poland.

Fate and superhero movies being what they will, however, things rapidly go awry. Magneto’s peace proves tragically short-lived, fueling a self-destructive quest for revenge. His thirst for vengeance brings him to the attention of the reborn Apocalypse, who enlists him – alongside Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel (Ben Hardy) - as one of the Four Horsemen who will aid him in his civilization-ending game plan. After a violent attack on the X-mansion, Xavier and his youthful team, which includes the ultra-popular Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), must band together in order to take down their gravest threat to date.

As amusingly convoluted as these X-film narratives can be, the modest joys offered by Apocalypse come in the table setting and diversions, not the deadly dull central plot. It’s genuinely fun to watch Cyclops’s mini-origin scene where he learns about his powers, or follow along with him, Jean and Nightcrawler as they escape the school to hang out at the mall (and slag Return of the Jedi for being a typical lousy threequel; a swipe aimed at Last Stand but applicable here). The classic Stan Lee or Chris Claremont eras of comic stories always nimbly balanced high-spirited good times with serious gravitas, and Singer – as he did in X-Men and X2- again strikes that right balance with the youth-oriented escapades and the heavier Magneto/Charles/Mystique material. Even an inelegantly cut-and-pasted section featuring a major cameo you can no doubt guess manages to succeed on pure energy despite being almost hilariously pointless.

Unfortunately, just as we’re pulled into the lives of these endearing individuals, the omnipresent threat of Apocalypse keeps rearing its head to suck the life out of the proceedings. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg (Days of Future Past, Fantastic Four 2015) never cracks the character and keeps falling back on repetitive lunk-headed dialogue that throws around weighty terms until its blue in the face (pun intended) without actually adding up to anything substantial or interesting. At one point a TV prominently shows an old Star Trek episode, where the Greek god Apollo is revealed to be an alien who was cast from Earth after humankind no longer needed divinity for inspiration, which appears to hint at the film’s thematic objective but yeegads did it dissipate into nothingness in the transition from conception to reality. So instead we’re left with way too many scenes of Isaac gasping, brooding and staring off into space before the big finale.

Alas, those crossing their fingers for a slam-bang payoff will be disappointed, as the third act is an insufferable disaster. Abandoning all attempts at creating an absorbing conflict, Singer stages a massive multi-mutant war that’s embarrassingly clumsy. Pity this film for opening so shortly after Captain America: Civil War because that smash hit’s unforgettable airport throwdown shows up Apocalypse’s Cairo-set climax six ways from Sunday. As the cast strikes silly poses and wages overly-gymnastic wire-fu combat in front of awful green-screen backdrops, in a sea of glitchy CG swirls and nonsense, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the hours of effort that went into pre-shoot training. The helmer, who actually exhibits technical competence earlier when staging a frenzied cage fight and another show-stopping Quicksilver sequence, bungles moment after moment and fails to grasp any understanding of geography or communicating the basic function of each character within the scene. God only knows what direction poor Michael Fassbender was operating under as he hung from a cable grimly visualizing the hokey 1s and 0s engulfing him.

A strange feature of these pictures has been their ongoing ability to attract stellar talent and then shirk from exploiting it to its fullest potential. McAvoy and Fassbender are again the MVPs, and perform the heavy lifting, yet Apocalypse doesn’t pay off their relationship with the fireworks it demands. Similarly, despite completing a hugely significant arc over three installments, the impact of Mystique’s journey is blunted by Lawrence’s drowsy “Get me outta here!” performance. Of the up-and-coming (read: cheaper) stars Smit-McPhee makes for a fantastically naïve and lovable Nightcrawler, while Turner and Sheridan are charismatic enough to dodge unkind comparisons to Famke Janssen and James Marsden. And, playing the infinitely entertaining Quicksilver, Peters has fast and confidently grown into the franchise’s most invaluable scene-stealer.

This being an X-Men film, though, there’s always a few mutants given frustrating short shrift, with Psylocke, Angel and Storm drawing dead this time around. If you’re not going to develop three of the Four Horsemen, why bother wasting so much time setting them up? Also, Rose Byrne, reprising her First Class Moira Mactaggert role, is a somewhat baffling addition who initially acts as an exposition machine before assuming the position of a glorified background extra once the world needs saving.

Despite Singer and company persistently hyping a seventh installment in this continuity, the stiff and awkward Apocalypse signals a desperate need for reinvention and new creative blood. Being the first of the superhero movie mega-properties, X-Men has earned its rightful place in cinema history and maintained an admirable consistency of vision, even when quality occasionally flagged. Yet with the unconventional Deadpool, and in-development New Mutants, aspiring to make the X-verse fresh and exciting again, these films have sadly lost their formerly unique luster. In short, these mutants need to evolve in order to truly thrive again.

2 out of 5

Thursday, May 26, 2016


If nothing else, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising deserves points for having noble intentions. Whereas 2014’s Neighbors used its riotous Yuppies vs Frat Brats premise to explore the dividing line between the recklessness of youth and grown-up responsibility, this second installment has its sights squarely set on the entrenched misogyny of college party culture and the necessity for gender equality. Very timely subject matter, to be sure, and there’s an admirable amount of anger and witty insight contained within the picture’s rat-a-tat joke structure. Alas, despite having its heart firmly in the right place, this second go-round’s laugh ratio is notably reduced from its predecessor, and the freshness has mostly leaked out.

Pardon me if I’m repeating myself, but comedy depends on surprise to succeed. Familiarity is the enemy, as the goal is to constantly catch the audience off guard. This is why so many sequels deliver weary diminished returns. For every A Shot in the Dark, Clerks 2 or 22 Jump Street, which expand and push the property into weird and unexpected places, there are a dozen lame recycle jobs like The Hangover Part II, Horrible Bosses 2 or – God forbid all that is good and holy in the universe – Caddyshack II.

Ultimately, Sorority Rising lands somewhere in the safe, albeit unremarkable, middle ground; it at least offers some funny new gags and ideas. The film also benefits from having great established character dynamics to fall back on. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne continue to be an infectiously amusing on-screen couple, and they have big time chemistry with Zac Efron’s dim and directionless aging hellraiser. Throw in some shot-in-the-arm supporting parts for favorites Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo and you’re at least guaranteed a pleasant enough time. Is that really enough to warrant the revisit, though?

When we’re reacquainted with Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen and Byrne), they’re proud, if unrefined, parents on the verge of selling their infamous home. However, as the residence sits in escrow purgatory and the prospective buyers begin assessments, disgruntled college student Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) flees the outdated and “rapey” atmosphere of her campus’s frat and sorority scene in order to establish her own female-friendly party house next door. Operating under the dubious mentorship of Efron’s developmentally arrested Teddy Sanders, the girls fast hurl the Radner’s quiet domestic lives into chaos. With their critical real estate transaction on the line, the married pair are forced back to the juvenile front lines once more against an even more resourceful and crafty foe.

Perhaps sensing the lingering threat of sequelitis, returning helmer Nicholas Stoller, who shares screenplay duties with four (!) other writers including Rogen, keeps the energy consistent throughout his picture's brief 92-minute runtime, never letting the occasional dud comic beat disrupt momentum. He also stages some impressively creative and effective setpieces, such as a massive tailgate-party-turned-marijuana-heist sequence (complete with shirtless Efron dance number, for those curious) and a repurposed emergency airbag bit, that nail their intended comedic targets and then some. Stoller doesn’t bring the technical panache of, say, Hangover auteur Todd Phillips, but he continues the strong streak of bouncy workmanlike efficiency he brought to memorable past crowd-pleasers Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek and, obviously, Neighbors.

Where Stoller and his team drop the ball, though, is with the new characters. One of the masterstrokes of the first film was creating an authentic connection between the opposing sides and then splintering it. It was fun to watch Rogen and Byrne battle their urge to rebel and be carefree again, and Efron had a compelling arc that ended on an unexpectedly touching resolution. The talented Moretz and her two sidekicks, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein, bring everything they’ve got, yet the movie never fashions an interesting relationship between them and the Radners (imagine if the wonderful Byrne had been inspired by their “Girl Power!” call to arms, for example). Instead they’re narratively tied – through credulity-straining circumstances – to Efron’s Teddy and that somewhat unsettling bond just doesn’t gel. And a subplot thematically linking the rambunctious sorority with Mac and Kelly’s parental anxieties about their daughters feels a script pass or two away from working. Had these three actresses, who fight for their right to party with as much comic might as their male counterparts did, been given equally juicy material Neighbors 2 might have been a more valuable endeavor!

Despite its likeable cast, positive messages and occasional glimmers of originality and wit, it’s tough to recommend making the effort to see Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising on the big screen. Back in the golden age of video stores, this would make for primo rental fodder; humorous and breezy enough to entertain, however not substantial enough to feel passionate about one way or another. It all just makes you wish Stoller and his game team of actors had scrapped the easy sequel route and instead dreamed up a new concept genuinely worth running wild and crazy with.

2.5 out of 5

Friday, May 20, 2016


The primary reason Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s wonderfully entertaining new superhero battle royale blast, works is that no one involved actually wants to fight. Rather than merely smash these crusaders dimly against each other purely to generate CG pyrotechnics, the film recognizes these are relatable, flawed personalities who actually like and respect one another. Everyone wants to get along, so when anger-induced fallout occurs it hurts emotionally long before it does physically. And, since the storytellers visibly adore the participants, they’re more interested in clashing philosophies than shallow black and white disagreements. Our sympathies transfer back and forth throughout because there is no easy correct answers to latch onto, just well-intentioned, thoughtful people sucked up into an uncomfortably messy political situation.

Whereas previously these costumed saviors answered solely to their own moral codes and likeminded colleagues, Age of Ultron’s climactic Sokovia war, as well as an early skirmish in the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda, has changed everything. Early in Civil War the Avengers are gathered and told that, due to the massive collateral damage caused by their operations, new legal documents have been ratified which will place the group under the oversight of a United Nations committee. For Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., rarely better or more grounded in the role), this act helps absolve him of his own guilt, and ensures a potentially safer future for the world’s civilians. Cap (Chris Evans) disagrees. Wary of political agendas, he argues for personal responsibility and the freedom to step in when an ugly situation rears its head.

Unlike the dismal and dour Batman v Superman, which gave us a murky squabble escalated by blind hatred, distrust and zero communication, Civil War screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who penned the previous two Cap entries, cleverly use this easily defined and potentially game-changing scenario to explore the contrasting attitudes of their two leads. Whereas Steve Rogers has fought valiantly against the very worst that can transpire under administrative rule, Stark is constantly searching for a means of preventing violence before it happens even if it means making hasty decisions. This is ultimately a quarrel over peacekeeping ideology, that just so happens to be waged by two dudes in crazy outfits.

And while it may seem like Stark is the obvious villain in the equation, Cap himself also falls victim to his own vulnerabilities once former friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan, appropriately brooding), aka the deadly Winter Soldier, emerges back onto the scene. The target of a massive manhunt stemming from a horrific terrorist attack, the amnesiac assassin finds a defender in his former friend, who throws caution and accountability to the wind in order to uncover the catastrophe’s true culprit. As Stark struggles to regain control of the divided Avengers and bring his AWOL associate back into the fold, new players such as vengeful Wakandan ruler T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and the mysterious Zemo (Daniel Brühl) enter and turn up the heat even further. Soon, the question isn’t whether the two clashing team leaders will work out their differences, but rather whether there will even be a cohesive team left to unite by story’s end.

Not enough praise can be given to returning Winter Soldier directors Anthony and Joe Russo. They have, against all betting odds, thrillingly pulled off an extremely daunting and complicated project, stuffed with characters both established and in need of establishing, with flashy aplomb. While they may not be ultra stylish auteurs, they’ve proven among the best in the business at juggling gargantuan casts without ever forsaking memorable individual moments or arcs, no matter how slight. The fact that they succeed so astonishingly well in the often overbearing Marvel machine, especially in the wake of Joss Whedon’s oft-criticized stumbles in last summer’s similarly busy Age of Ultron, speaks volumes about their talent.

Although many will dismiss Civil War as being Avengers 2.5 in all but name, this is very much a Captain America film, buoyed by Evans’ consistently compelling and earnest performance, and featuring significant support from series regulars Barnes, Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp) and Anthony Mackie’s increasingly invaluable Falcon. And yet, as much as this quartet’s journey is the movie’s driving force, we never feel like we’re not seeing enough Iron Man, War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) or Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Ultron holdovers Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) are given ample time to mature from plot devices into fleshed out figures, and Boseman’s Black Panther is a formidable, dignified presence that launches his upcoming solo adventure to the top of the must-see pile. He shares a crucial conversation with Brühl’s unexpectedly complicated antagonist that’s so well-written it’s as remarkable as (almost) all the splash page spectacle.

One can’t talk about scene stealers without mentioning Civil War’s two most powerful secret weapons: Ant-Man and Spider-Man. Paul Rudd’s pint-sized reluctant do-gooder charmed in his fun, if under-ambitious, 2015 introduction. Here, however, he’s on a whole other level, milking every second of his modest screen-time to voluble crowd-pleasing effect. His biggest moment in the spotlight is both a wonderful surprise as well as the picture’s comedic highpoint. Spidey 3.0, on the other hand, had a lot going against him after the disastrous and tarnishing Amazing Spider-Man debacles. What a difference spectacular casting and dialogue makes. Newcomer Tom Holland nails Peter Parker’s gee-whiz nerdy charisma, and he makes an ideal polar opposite to the snarky seen-it-all Stark. Plus, this Friendly Neighborhood Webslinger could not be more exhilarating to watch as he cheekily takes down unamused fellow warriors in combat.

The Russo brothers’ attention to character pays off time and time again in the go-for-broke set-pieces. Although an early scuffle with Frank Grillo’s Crossbones is undone a little by spastic camera movement and editing (and further aggravated by the lousy 3D conversion), the directorial duo more than deliver with an astonishing and frantic foot-chase through a traffic-clogged tunnel and the impactful and draining final bout between the two wounded and weary leads. The real showstopper, though, arrives at the mid-point as all of the assorted headliners throw down in a deserted German airfield. By far the best action sequence in Marvel’s cinematic history, it’s a triumph of endless fist-pumping beats, humor and inventive pair-ups. The directors understand the simple geeky pleasures of comic book fisticuffs in a way few do, and this is undeniably their masterpiece. It alone warrants the ticket price.

As much as it’s easy to gripe about the cynical nature of current franchise filmmaking practices, this picture is a testament to what it can achieve when all involved are committed, inspired and firing on all creative cylinders. This chapter is not only a top-ranking champion in the Marvel canon, alongside the first Avengers and Winter Soldier, it also serves as a serious confidence booster for the Russos’ ability to make their massive upcoming Infinity War two-parter an event worth anticipating. Even as doom 'n gloomers trumpet the horn for superhero fatigue and the eventual end of the studio’s omnipresent box-office reign, Captain America: Civil War proves that Marvel, like Cap, are still the very best at what they do and won’t be walking away any time soon.

4 out of 5

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


In a 21st Century Unnecessary Sequels DVD box set, The Huntsman: Winter’s War would fit comfortably just after Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction and Evan Almighty. Sure, it’s nowhere near as fundamentally unwatchable as those, um, films, however it is equally disposable, shoehorning only the most slight of additions into the simple mythology established by 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. This movie exists solely because that flick made okay money. So what if no one even really liked it! The same business strategy worked like gangbusters for Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, right?! Oh…

Honestly, who out there was left deeply yearning to learn more about Chris Hemsworth’s statuesque Thor-lite by the end of that movie? Yes, the charismatic actor was one of the very scarce bright spots in that dreary and dull modern fairy tale revival. On paper, though, Eric the Huntsman is a thinly conceived figure, short on personality and recognizable characteristics. There, he at least served a crucial plot function in escorting Snow White to her destiny. Whereas here, serving as (arguably) the lead, he’s completely upstaged by eminently magnetic returning villainess Charlize Theron and great franchise newcomers Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain. When your central figure is a swaggering blank, it doesn’t exactly inspire much investment. Just sayin’.

Acting as both prequel and follow-up to the now foggy events of its predecessor, The Huntsman: Winter’s War (spoiler: there is no winter’s war) opens with Theron’s social climbing sociopath Ravenna assuming command of her kingdom through magic and murder. Watching from the sidelines is her fair sister Elsa Freya (Blunt), a naïve optimist carrying the child of a married man, who is abruptly driven down a similar dark path after fate turns cruelly against her. Now wielding formidable ice powers, she sets her sights on becoming a conquering warlord (“If she could not raise a child, she would raise an army,” slumming narrator Liam Neeson gravely tells us), transforming captive orphans into fearsome cannon fodder. Chief among Freya’s recruits are Eric (Hemsworth) and Merida Sara (Chastain), two top-ranking combatants whose forbidden romance draws the wrathful ire of their emotionally scarred Queen.

Flash forward seven years. Eric, now an honorable servant to Snow White (Kristen Stewart’s mute body double), is assigned to complete a dangerous recovery mission of Ravenna’s enchanted mirror, which threatens to spread doom across the land. Teaming with a duo of wise-cracking dwarves (Nick
Frost and Rob Brydon, battling valiantly with comic fool’s gold), his truncated Lord of the Rings-esque quest soon brings him into conflict with his chilly former ruler, as well as his long lost beloved.

As hollow and pointless an exercise as The Huntsman is it must be stated for the record that it's actually quite superior to the last film. Thankfully tossing off the smothering cloak of self-seriousness, Winter’s War is a much brighter and campier affair that moves at a decent clip and spends little time wallowing in its characters’ miseries. It’s the sort of nonsense B-movie fantasy epic one might catch on Netflix one boring night and think “that was actually okay!” before totally forgetting about it.

Unobtrusive director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan - taking over series duties from scandal magnet helmer Rupert Sanders - smartly lets his actors’ charisma carry the flimsy show, never letting the effects and half-baked action set pieces overwhelm (admittedly, this is perhaps a strategy motivated less by artistic intention than a reduced budget). The fantasy universe is pretty vaguely sketched in, consisting mostly of random shots of moss-covered snakes, badgers and really giddy pixies gesturing wildly, yet also kind of vanilla pleasant. There’s none of the gaudy fake green-screen atmosphere that sunk similar entries like Maleficent or Jack the Giant Slayer.

It’s utterly miraculous that The Huntsman not only managed to draw such an astonishing cast, but that said cast didn’t just phone their efforts in. After all, it would be hard to blame them with this junky and derivative material. Theron and Blunt are having an absolute ball, vamping it up with wild abandon. Although they unfortunately never quite approach Faye-Dunaway-in-Supergirl levels of hammy thespianism, they still go well above and beyond the call of duty. Likewise, Chastain makes for one darn persuasive action heroine. Clad in black leather and speaking in a Scottish brogue, the talented actress’s ass-kicking turn here inspires serious anticipation for a more deserving blockbuster star vehicle. As for Hemsworth, he’s appropriately Hemsworthian; effortlessly charming, good-humored and likeable. He swings Eric’s hand axes as ably as Thor’s mighty hammer, if not as memorably.

Since this is a movie made in 2016, it of course ends with a teaser for a dubious next chapter. This choice is especially egregious given we’ve just witnessed a clear wrap up of all the remaining story threads few really cared to see wrapped up in the first place. As a fantasy entry, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is inoffensive and cornball silly, coasting by on its fun performances and ultra-low expectations. By the time the credits roll, though, it should be abundantly clear to all but the most faithful that the studio really needs to stick an ax in this franchise, because it’s definitely done.  

2.5 out of 5

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Remember when Avatar was supposed to revolutionize cinema beyond just perpetual added 3D glasses charges? James Cameron’s box-office phenomenon, hailed for its photo-real environments and digital characters, may not have been a storytelling bonanza, but it did establish exciting possibilities for the future of special effects pictures. So what happened? Aside from the anomalies that were Gravity and Life of Pi, audiences were mostly gifted with synthetic fodder like John Carter, Jupiter Ascending and The Hobbit trilogy, along with a glut of blockbusters boasting phony green-screen universes. And what seemed so special and promising in 2009, has lately been largely replaced in studio marketing materials with breathless hype for the in-camera practical methods of superstar talents like J.J. Abrams, George Miller and Christopher Nolan. CG technology is capable of birthing wondrous spectacle. Alas, all too often it only leads to wondrous eyesores.

This is why Jon Favreau’s visually sumptuous and boundary-pushing The Jungle Book is such a refreshing surprise. Sidestepping the deadly pitfalls that have doomed so many recent would-be fantasy epics, this high-tech take on Rudyard Kipling’s beloved late 19th century story collection is an absolute celebration of astonishing sights and sounds, topped off with a few scares, some laughs and plenty of heart. Kids will love it, while adults may be more than a little startled to find themselves just as invested in the magical proceedings. Take note all filmmakers aspiring to translate animated hits to live-action: this is how you do it. The bar has been set.

No doubt you could all recite the story on autopilot. It, of course, involves Mowgli (plucky newcomer Neel Sethi), a young orphan raised by wolves, who must make a perilous journey to the Man Village after drawing the murderous attention of the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Actively rallying against this forced relocation, the boy struggles stubbornly against the stern guidance of his mentor, the wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kinsgley), before being separated and left to fend for himself in the dark and dangerous wilderness. It’s during this period he meets Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), a carefree and somewhat opportunistic honey glutton, who offers a free-spirited alternative to a life of civilization. Cue the song.

As many will recall, Disney has made two major valiant efforts to tame this renowned material before. The company’s 1967 animated version – the last hand-drawn masterpiece that ol’ Uncle Walt had a significant hand in producing – is an undisputed classic, filled with wonderful songs (three of which are included here, a little too discreetly), iconic characters and some genuinely intriguing era-specific allusions regarding Mowgli’s struggle to decide between a ‘normal’ human existence and Baloo's very 60s counter-culture lifestyle choice. It’s a fantastic picture, and likely the most subtextually rich adaptation we’re likely to get.

When the company made the move to live-action for the first time in 1994, with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, directed by The Mummy helmer Stephen Sommers, much of the innocence and quirkiness was stripped away. In its place audiences were presented with a more mature and straight-forward Tarzan narrative and plenty of wonderfully grotesque Indiana Jones-esque adventure sequences. Not a great effort by any means, yet still a diverting and occasionally thrilling one.
All of this is to say that Favreau, a director rarely recognized for his aesthetic daring and reliability, had a mighty big hill to climb with this third Disney take. But climb it he does! Teaming with Avatar’s brilliant effects supervisor Robert Legato, the director utilizes the same lightness of touch, character insight and talent for staging interesting action that made his work on the first two Iron Man entries so memorable. Shot entirely in a Los Angeles warehouse (!), The Jungle Book is an utterly convincing miracle of unpretentious state-of-the-art movie-making, delivering frame after frame of absolutely gorgeous and evocative imagery, as well as kinetic set-pieces that vibrate with awe and suspense. It’s rare nowadays to recommend seeing a motion picture in 3D (Good God, is it ever…). This one bucks the trend, though, and demands to be seen as it was intended in the best theatre possible. An iPad viewing won’t be a tenth as exhilarating. 

If there is a bone to be picked with The Jungle Book it’s one that also plagued the 1967 version, which is a noticeably episodic narrative. Screenwriter Justin Marks – who’s only noteworthy produced project is 2009’s infamous Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li – does what he can to smooth out the story, and succeeds a fair deal more often than not. Weaving in an environmental message that feels organic to the plot (and pays off nicely), he actually, in some ways, improves on Disney’s animated milestone! Mowgli, mostly just a naïve dope there, this time shows a brightness, physicality and resourcefulness that is a lot of fun and will likely prove more engaging for young viewers looking for a protagonist to relate to. The script also adds much-appreciated detail to oft-underwritten parts like Mowgli’s adopted wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), and gives Shere Khan a motive that’s actually reasonably sympathetic even if he himself isn’t. The boost in screentime for these figures does, unfortunately, result in a reduced role for Scarlett Johansson’s unsettling Kaa, which is too bad but hardly a cardinal sin, and perhaps takes a beat or two away from further heightening the emotional stakes of the friendship between Mowgli and Baloo.

Generally speaking, it is often difficult not to roll one’s eyes at current day Hollywood’s chronic propensity for relying on A-list stunt-casting when it comes to animated characters. The Jungle Book is undisputedly guilty of this, however, to its credit, the majority of the actors work splendidly. Elba does a hard right turn away from George Sanders’ amusingly pompous 1967 Khan turn, offering up a baddie who exudes menace and looming violence. It’s doubtful we’ll ever see a Khan that out-terrifies this incarnation. A genius choice on paper, Murray is as good as you’d expect as Baloo, although it’s nearly impossible to improve upon Phil Harris’ legendarily acclaimed performance. Still, the actor brings the perfect amount of goofy, rough-around-the-edges charm to the celebrated bear, and plays nicely off the noble gravitas of Kingsley’s majestic kill-joy Bagheera. As King Louie, a potentially cringe-inducing Christopher Walken is anything but, unexpectedly instilling the towering ape ruler with an intimidating hardboiled New Yawk gangster attitude (trust me, it works).

It’s honestly more than a little astounding how legitimately engaging and creatively inspired this movie is, especially following in the wake of the oddly hollow Alice in Wonderland, the crummy Maleficent and the lovely-yet-forgettable Cinderella. Favreau and his team have crafted a surefire entertainment for all ages that’s immersive, rousing and enthusiastically stimulates the imagination, as opposed to pounding it into submission with dull-witted noise and fury. By mashing up the enduring whimsical spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s tales with next level craftsmanship, The Jungle Book takes you on a heck of a ride so long as you, to paraphrase Kaa, trussssst in it.

4 out of 5