Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS

** SPOILERS **

Stealth. Cunning. Silence. These are some of the hallmark traits one can associate with ninjas. Traits entirely absent from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the cacophonous, ludicrous follow up to the successful 2014 reboot. The prior Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took pains to establish this world of mutated, talking, pizza eating, humanoid teenage terrapins (proudly) named by the fetching intrepid reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) after Italian Renaissance painters: stern leader Leonardo (Pete Plozek), techie-nerd Donatello (Jeremy Howard), hard charging Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and party animal (literally) Michaelangelo (Noel Fisher). Louder and dumber than its predecessor, like a five year old banging dishpans together, Out of the Shadows squarely aims to recreate the weekday cartoon from the 1990s, with wall-to-wall CGI mutant creatures colliding into each other making tons and tons of noise, signifying nothing.

A year after defeating the evil ninja master Shredder (Brian Tee) and his ninja Foot Clan, the Ninja Turtles continue their thankless mission of protecting New York City from evil. But all is not harmonious within the four brothers. The Turtles are divided by their desire, like Ariel the Little Mermaid, to be part of that world above and be accepted. Their chance comes via a purple ooze from another dimension, a gift to Shredder from Commander Krang (Brad Garrett), a talking sludge of Pepto Bismol puke housed in a robot body and the most ridiculous and unsightly CGI creature in a movie bursting at the seams with them. This ooze could turn the Turtles into humans, an opportunity the Turtles reject after quick, arbitrary soul searching. Shredder and his mad scientist Tyler Perry instead use the ooze to transform a couple of bumbling henchmen Rocksteady (the WWE's Sheamus) and Bebop (Garry Anthony Williams) into a giant mutant rhinoceros and warthog respectively. The Turtles and April O'Neil recruit their own backup: not just April's old cameraman turned preening Hero of the City Will Arnett (who publicly took credit for Shredder's defeat so the Turtles wouldn't be publicly exposed), but also Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), a corrections officer in a goalie mask who fights ninjas with a hockey stick. 

Out of the Shadows unabashedly plays as a live action cartoon toy commercial. New vehicles like the Turtles' Battle van and the Foot Clan's motorcycles are trotted out and all but boxed and placed on Toys R Us shelves. The great threat to New York City is Krang's Technodrome, a massive Death Star-like base that arrives through a ripple in the sky in pieces, which the Ninja Turtles fight to prevent it from fully assembling. Every human, including Laura Linney as a police captain, plays the material as broad as possible, which is to say every performance is terrible. Everyone in Out of the Shadows who's not a mutated animal of some sort is thanklessly wasted by the overwhelming spectacle of CGI dominating the screen every moment. Wasted most of all is Megan Fox, who anchored the first movie with a heroic lead performance, but in this sequel, she's an arbitrary sidekick to the Turtles with no arc of her own, left to just react and reassure all the other humans meeting the Turtles for the first time that they're all right. Out of the Shadows is 112 minutes of being bludgeoned in the face by a bo staff, sai, katana sword, and nunchucks, and then a whole large pepperoni pizza is shoved down your pants.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Magnficent Seven

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

** SPOILERS **

I Seek Righteousness. But I'll Take Revenge.

The Magnificent Seven reunites the stars and director of Training Day, Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, and Antoine Fuqua, in a rootin'-tootin', shoot-em-up remake of The Three Amigos. The Magnfi -- what's that? Yul Brenner? Steve McQueen? There was a previous Magnificent Seven? Wait, what? The Seven Samurai? Akira Kurasawa? Are you sure? Huh. Well, okay. Let's start again.

The Magnificent Seven reunites the stars and director of Training Day, Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, and Antoine Fuqua, in a rootin'-tootin', shoot-em-up remake, transplanting all of the action to the Old West mining town of Rose Creek, which is under duress from scheming robber baron Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard plays Bartholomew Bogue, the most evil man in 1873, who rolls into Rose Creek with a private army, takes over the gold mining operation, and threatens to kill everyone in the town if they don't accept his offer of $20 for their plots of land. He burns down their church and makes a bloody example of some of the townsfolk, including Matt Bomer, the husband of Haley Bennett. Looking for revenge, Bennett gathers up "all she has" in gold coins and sets off to hire as many bad ass movie star gunslingers as she can afford. She can thank her stars and garters she found Denzel.

Denzel is excellent as Sam Chisolm, a duly sworn bounty hunter and evidently the fastest gun in the West, who gets real interested when he hears the name Bart Bogue. Denzel and Bennett recruit Chris Pratt, stepping into the Steve McQueen role, as Josh Faraday, a comedic magician cowboy, but deadly. Together, Denzel and Pratt bring in Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, the best shot with a rifle in the Civil War, Vincent D'Onofrio as Jack Horne, a legendary frontiersman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, an honorable Mexican bandito, and two guys competing for the coolest minority of the Seven, Byung-hun Lee as knife-wielding Chinese bad ass Billy Rocks, and Martin Sensmeier as heart-eating Comanche killer Red Harvest. The screenplay by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, has fun bringing the Magnficent Seven together, landing some ribald jokes as these dastardly guns for hire bounce off each other. Denzel and Hawke wink at their prior collaboration by playing old friends, Pratt goes after Garcia-Rulfo with some off color teasing for being Mexican, but no one is aiming for any particular depth in their characters. The Magnificent Seven plus Bennett and Saarsgard's pure movie star charisma are the nine bullets in Fuqua's chamber.

Once the Magnificent Seven arrive in Rose Creek, our heroes quickly roust Sasgaard's remaining forces from the town in a show of force and spent the seven days until Sarsgaard returns with his army to prepare the townspeople for war. There's some comedy in the ineptitude of some of the towns folk in trying to shoot, but otherwise, the last act of The Magnificent Seven is a straight-forward, ultra violent, melee of gun blazing, men being shot off horses, wild charges blown to smithereens by dynamite, and the most fearsome weapon of the 19th century, a gatling gun, ripping the town and most of the characters to shreds. Denzel and Sarsgaard have a final confrontation that turns out to be very personal, indeed. After saving tween Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire and teen Chloe Grace Moretz in The Equalizer, for once Denzel turns out to need saving by the white girl in his movie. It's a neat twist to see Haley Bennett bail Denzel's ass out of a jam. Not all of the Magnificent Seven make it out of The Magnificent Seven alive, but this able remake on the surface provides enough gun-totin' entertainment  to corral the audience's rooting interest and earn the classic theme music finally playing over the closing credits as we all ride off into the sunset.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Blair Witch

BLAIR WITCH

** SPOILERS **

Say fifteen years ago (in movie time, seventeen years ago in real life time), your sister set off with two friends into the forbidding Black Hills Forest of Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. They all disappeared. After an extensive manhunt, their footage was later found, which, if watched, argues pretty conclusively that 1) they are dead and 2) going into these woods to film a documentary is a very, very bad idea. Would you A) leave well enough alone, or B) go into those same woods with your friends and also film a documentary? All it takes for James Allen McCune is for a blurry reflection in a cracked mirror that could maybe possibly be but probably in all likelihood isn't an image of his missing sister Heather Donahue to be found within her unearthed footage to get him to pack up his buddies and head off to meet the Blair Witch. His sister could still be out there, he reckons. Fifteen years later? What does McCune really expect to find? Best case scenario she's living underground in an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt situation. In all likelihood, she's dead. But no, this Blair Witch foolishness runs deep in the family blood.

Blair Witch treads the same haunted ground as the original The Blair Witch Project, the 1999 phenomenon that kickstarted the found footage horror movement. Treads it far too closely. When they arrive in Burkittsville, McCune and his friends, filmmaker Callie Hernandez, skeptical Brandon Scott and his girlfriend Corbin Reid, meet up with a couple of shady locals, Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry, who are all too willing to lead this Scooby Gang into the woods and plow them with the spooky local legend of the Blair Witch. After spending a largely uneventful night camping, mistrust is sown within the group when a bunch of stick figures of the Blair Witch's logo are found all over their camp site. Things get worse in a hurry: Reid's foot is injured and she's stricken with a mysterious illness. The Scooby Gang walks the woods for a full day looking to escape only to wind up right back at their campsite. Robinson and Curry are banished from the group, blamed for planting the stick figures as a hoax, but they reappear later that night claiming it's been five days since they'd last seen them. Then everyone starts dying (the Blair Witch doesn't buck horror movie tradition and kills the black guy first), as the unseen Blair Witch attacks them all in an endlessly dark and stormy night.

The Scooby Gang entered the woods to make their documentary armed with the latest technology: ear mounted HD cameras, iPhones, GPS tracking devices, and even a drone. Against the supernatural Blair Witch, all their technology fails them (the drone turns out to be particularly useless all around). Similarly, technology failed Blair Witch. The power of the original Blair Witch Project lay in its stripped down simplicity; it felt like the cheap, no-budget documentary assembled from disparate footage it was purported to be. Its raw straightforwardness enhanced the creepiness of being lost in the woods, stalked by an unseen force. Director Adam Wingard achieves some effective atmosphere early on -- the moment when Reid snaps a Blair Witch stick figure and Curry collapses in a manged heap is a standout -- and the ladies in the cast, Hernandez, Curry, and Reid are game to be scared like visitors to Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, but Blair Witch's self-conscious camera work and editing cuts the suspension of disbelief and nullifies the intended verisimilitude.

We are told on the outset the footage we are watching was assembled from footage found in the Black Hills, but whoever edited this footage decided to cut it like a standard horror movie, complete with bludgeoning sound effects. By the time McCune and Hernandez come upon the dilapidated cabin of the Blair Witch, their mad dash into the cabin and fatal final encounter with the Blair Witch drags on and on with ear-splitting hysterics. A rehash of the chilling signature shot of the original of a man standing in the corner achieves no impact during the relentless cacophony of the final sequence. One of the new intriguing new ideas not beholden to the original was the cut on Reid's foot, which turned out to be a thoroughly missed opportunity. We are teased with the possibility of a creature or a manifestation of the Blair Witch growing inside of her, but instead, she just ends up pulling some sort of slug from her leg before the Blair Witch does her in. And how about that Blair Witch, huh? She's really into her own branding, what with the dozens of stick figures she puts together to scare campers. The Blair Witch should just set up shop on the side of the road and sell her stick figure logos to tourists, make some ca$h. Ultimately, Blair Witch proves you can't teach an old witch new tricks.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Snowden

SNOWDEN

** SPOILERS **

There's a line in Oliver Stone's JFK quoted by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) during his marathon courtroom filibuster: "A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government." The uneven but riveting Snowden is in some ways a spiritual successor to JFK, wherein Oliver Stone returns to his theme of one man compelled to air truths inconvenient to forces in power at great risk to himself. Snowden dramatizes the life and deeds of Edward Joseph Snowden (embodied with clockwork-like precision by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the controversial former CIA programmer and NSA contractor who copied and leaked classified information about the NSA numerous secret global surveillance programs to the Guardian and mainstream press in 2013. Part techno-thriller, part relationship drama, and part heist, Snowden urgently presents the reasons why Edward Snowden chose to blow the whistle on the ability of governments worldwide to spy on its citizens without legal cause for suspicion, yet Stone and Snowden feel coldly remote and oddly restrained, only baring their teeth without dramatically going for the jugular.

Snowden leaps about from Edward Snowden's 2013 Hong Kong meetings with reporters from the Guardian and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), whose documentary Citizenfour about Snowden won an Academy Award, and Snowden's years leading up to committing treason under the Espionage Act and his subsequent escape and refuge in Russia today. Stone and Gordon-Levitt humanize Snowden as a young computer genius lacking a high school diploma and suffering from epilepsy who, after being discharged from the military due to injury, was recruited into the CIA's global communications division. As Snowden's mentors in the CIA and NSA, Rhys Ifans and later Timothy Olyphant are presented as decidedly cynical and sinister, citing the usual tropes of the global war on terrorism as justification for what Snowden summarizes as the preservation and continuation of the United States' global interests in economic and cultural dominance. After being stationed in Sweden, Japan, and finally Oahu as an NSA contractor participating in and writing the programs allowing for the scope and breadth of governmental secret global surveillance, Snowden's crisis of conscience compels him to smuggle thousands of documents and abscond to Hong Kong to leak the information to the mainstream press.

Stone and his co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald meet the daunting challenge of sorting through and making the voluminous amount of esoteric data involved in Edward Snowden's story accessible to the audience. Stone is decidedly in his wheelhouse delivering cinematic exposition as he combines crackerjack editing with Snowden narrating the insidious acts of the NSA and making his case against the clear-cut violation of the ordinary citizen's right to privacy. One of the faults in our Snowden lies in the love story between Snowden and his real life partner of ten years Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Despite the grueling pressures of attempting to maintain a relationship while your work life is shrouded in secrecy, Gordon-Levitt's Snowden seems to have a more enticing chemistry with his keyboard than he does with Woodley's petulant Mills. Snowden can be accused of glossing over the criminality of Edward Snowden's actions, asking the audience instead to judge the man by his intent, and what blowing the whistle on the NSA ultimately cost him. Snowden's secret weapon ultimately is Edward Snowden himself, who appears in the final minutes of the movie, a welcome sight. Hero? Traitor? Whatever you think about Edward Snowden -- or about anything -- Snowden convinces that if you type it in an email, text it to a friend, speak it on your cellphone, or post it on the Internet, someone you don't know is seeing or hearing it, your privacy settings be damned.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Sully

SULLY

** SPOILERS **

Sully is like a warm, comforting mug of cocoa, easing you into relaxation as your grampa Clint Eastwood spins a yarn of a Real Thing That Happened Not Long Ago. On January 15, 2009, United Airlines flight 1549, captained by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. Moments after liftoff, a flock of birds collided with the plane and destroyed both engines. With only 208 seconds to act, and not enough speed or altitude to return to LaGuardia or land in Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, Sully makes the impossible call and in turn performs the impossible: he lands his airplane in the Hudson River intact, saving the lives of all 155 souls on board. It is the first water landing of an airplane ever performed without a single loss of life. It was called the "Miracle on the Hudson." Sully is a hero. Who doubts this? Not Eastwood, and not Sully.

Played with quiet dignity by Hanks, Sully attempts to balance his newfound celebrity with the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into his competence in the days following the incident. The questions of whether Sully and his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) obeyed proper procedures during the emergency are the NTSB's main sticking point. They claim the left engine of the airplane was operational, despite Sully's claims, and that their computer simulations showed the aircraft could have been landed back at LaGuardia. With class, stately elegance, and remarkable visual effects depicting the dramatic landing of the airplane in several stunning sequences, Eastwood and Sully disprove anything but the quick thinking and calm, experienced professionalism of Sully and Skiles saved the lives of everyone on that plane. Eastwood depicts the heroic response of New York City's rescue teams that rose to the occasion to quickly disembark the passengers from the waterlogged aircraft with aplomb. Sully himself is finally allowed a genuine moment to feel well-earned pride at his heroic feat. In Sully, we know that everything is gonna work out in the end, and then you know what? It does! Sully leaves us with a flying high feeling.




Sunday, September 4, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

** SPOILERS **

Kubo and the Two Strings is exquisite. Directed by Travis Knight and gorgeously animated in eye-popping stop motion by Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings delivers a moving message of the power of family and the importance of story. In Ancient Japan, a mother (voiced by Charlize Theron) and her infant son flees her family and takes refuge in a cave above a tiny village. Her son lost an eye, taken by her father, whom we learn is a powerful god called the Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). Eleven years later, her son, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), bright, heroic, and well-liked, uses magical music and origami to dazzle his fellow villagers with tales of his father, the samurai Hanzo, who battled the Moon King and once sought a magical suit of armor and an unbreakable sword. Kubo is warned by his mother, who suffers from mental illness, to never stay out past sundown. One night, Kubo does, and is found by his mother's evil Sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara). Accompanied by a magical but stern Monkey and an amnesiac comic relief former samurai transformed into a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo is plunged into a thrilling adventure to find the missing pieces of the magic armor his father once wore so he can defeat the Moon King and restore honor to his family.

The visuals are extraordinary. Kubo's quest alongside Monkey and Beetle sees him battle a giant skeleton with multiple swords, including the Sword Unbreakable he seeks, impaled in its head. In a forbidding lake, Kubo and Beetle find the breast plate of his magic armor, along with a number of terrifying gigantic eyeballs serving what seems to be a Sarlaac monster at the bottom of the lake. There are violent battles between the Sisters and Monkey, but the screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler keeps the focus on Kubo's emotional growth, while weaving in evocative themes of the power stories contain. A revelation involving the always-bickering Monkey and Beetle, as well as the final battles between Monkey and the Sisters and Kubo and his grandfather the Moon King imbuess Kubo and the Two Strings with poignant family drama. Though Kubo employs famous non-Asian Hollywood actors to voice Asian roles (George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa voice only minor roles of villagers), Kubo and the Two Strings vividly brings to life a dreamy vision of Ancient Japan, where origami is magic and the powers of darkness can be defeated by the light of a family's love.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Don't Breathe

DON'T BREATHE

** SPOILERS **

Don't Breathe is a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to break into Daredevil's house and rob him blind. Er, blinder. Well, maybe Daredevil wouldn't go on a murderous rampage against home invaders, but his crazy old blind ninja teacher Stick would. I digress. In the tidy, effective Don't Breathe, Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, and Daniel Zovatto dream of a sun-kissed life in California far away from crappy, rundown Detroit. Thus, they break into homes and steal shit. They're like millennial Robin Hoods -- robbing from the rich to give to themselves, since they're poor. Zovatto gets a line from his fence about an easy mark: a blind old ex-soldier (Stephen Lang) living alone in an abandoned neighborhood. His daughter was killed by a rich girl (rich people! Damn rich people!) and he was paid off a million dollars to not press charges. The old Blind Man keeps the money somewhere in his dilapidated old house, they think. With that kernel of info to go on, Minnette, Levy, and Zovatto go breaking and entering.

For cat burglars, Levy, Minnette and Zovatto are awfully loud. The old man is blind, not deaf; in fact it stands to reason his hearing would be even better than a sighted person's. And yet, the three hoods make little effort to not cause a ruckus smashing windows and stomping around the creepy house, even before Zovatto thinks he gassed the sleeping Blind Man. However, they didn't reckon the old dude to be like a blind Terminator. Lang is a relentless, remorseless killing machine who knows his ramshackle abode far better than the kids do, and he has a dog that's an equally relentless, remorseless killing machine. Trapped in the house and desperate to escape, Levy and Minnette still manage to score a cool million bucks in cash from the Blind Man's safe, yet they ignore a couple of prime opportunities to just blow past the Blind Man and make a break for it. They use their cell phones liberally early on, but then somehow forget they even have cell phones with flashlights when the Blind Man turns off the lights and chases them. 

Instead Levy and Minnette plunge themselves into the house's enormous, labyrinthine basement, sub-basement, and crawl spaces where they learn the Blind Man harbors a terrifying secret. One so twisted and heinous that Don't Breathe does a wild turnabout and literally tells the audience it's okay after all that these kids are robbing this old Blind Guy, because he's a total sicko. Minnette is the brains of the operation and Levy turns out to have the heart and resourcefulness of a true survivor, but neither is a match for the Blind Man's WWE fighting style. (It is kind of satisfying to see the Blind Man pop Minnette in the kisser over and over. Poom! Poom! Poom!) We also learn that even though he's blind, the old man can slice the nether region of a woman's pants open with a pair of scissors with lickety split ease and precision; most dudes with sight have trouble unhooking a girl's bra. Don't Breathe manages to succeed in asking the audience to root for terrible people to survive against an even more terrible person, but its greatest achievement is ruining Thanksgiving for years to come. Millions of people who watch Don't Breathe will likely be unable to see a turkey baster and not be grossed out ever again.

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