Friday, June 3, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows ★

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    "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" would almost be a quality picture if it weren't for the undeniable and overwhelming sense of incompetence that surrounds its production. Director Dave Green (who brought us the pedestrian and lifeless "Earth to Echo") and writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec pay homage to a sizable portion of "Turtles" source material (this includes the live-action films as well as the original animated classic), and yet they still don't seem to understand what made these four heroes so darn lovable in the first place. This is a franchise that desperately needs to recede from public view and fast.

    But that's the troubling part, isn't it? No matter how brain-dead the movie, audiences will undoubtedly flock toward it like moths to a flame. You don't have to be educated in film technique or theory to know that this is a poor exercise in filmmaking.

    Ironically, it is not the subject matter here that exudes culpability. (The plot-oriented mentality of the picture appears to be one of the few saving graces; the story, although lacking in profundity, is viable.) No, what troubles "Out of the Shadows" are a handful of performances that come off as completely untextured and an inane display of dialogue that becomes so mind-numbingly dumb and manufactured one can almost foresee any succeeding spoken line. (The majority of the latter comes directly from our sole leading lady in Megan Fox who, I think, has lost every ounce of her box-office appealI'm sure that 14-year-old boys still consider the young actress to be an ideal example of chewing gum for the eyes, yet her dumbed-down approach to acting has grown rather tiresome.) 

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    The rundown: After failing to annihilate the citizens of New York City and after plans for global domination were predictably derailed, the diabolical Shredder once again finds himself in a position to take over the world. (What else are bad guys supposed to do, anyhow?) He enlists the help of Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), a mad scientist obsessed with historical fame and destruction, and the ever-blundering Bebop and Rocksteady, and this inevitably leads to an unfavorable, repetitive use of situational ironyour cold-blooded protagonists fail to mar even a single villainous plotting, that is, of course, until the short-lived and stodgy climactic sceneand to several action sequences consisting entirely of excessive explosions and over-the-top special effects a la Michael Bay.

    April O'Neil meddles, Leonardo and Raphael inescapably quarrel and appearances by Casey Jones and the evil Krang only remind us of the franchise's finer efforts. (Although "Turtle" fanatics might swoon over the inclusion of these beloved characterizations, the wonderment attached to such dealings can never detract attention from the film's second-rate air.)

    Of course, it's not all doom and gloom when it comes to this latest "Turtles" installment: The minimalized approach to the designs of the characters (specifically the Shredder, who went from an oversized can opener to a convincing villain here) is a nice adjustment from the first film; the fast-paced action of the diegesis does well to disguise the picture's more dismaying aspects. Essentially, it is a comedic undertone and the inability to cash in on a theme concerned with acceptance that ultimately makes "Out of the Shadows" a deplorable addition to what can be considered a washed-up franchise at this point. (The film is clearly too comical for its own goodAs for the theme, we are routinely bombarded with conversations and motifs regarding the turtles' wish to be socially accepted, yet when the opportunity presents itself, the picture decides to neglect its message in favor of, well, nothing really.)

    Here is a franchise that needs to regroup. The original feature portraying these "Heroes in a Half Shell" succeeded because of its poignancy, and those four reptiles actually seemed to have miens that were as fetching as they were spot-on. And you know, if this spirit were to be rekindled, then I'm sure we would have a product worth rooting for.

    When the smoke clears, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" will simply become another summer box-office smash, and, unfortunately, some will merely see it as mindless entertainment. So, why the harsh criticism? I mean, the film doesn't pretend to be what it isn't (this is a phrase I've used generously over the years), and some would say that it entertains more often than not. Even vapid entertainment should have some defining characteristics about it, and it is this deficiency that must be corrected if these "Turtles" ever plan on returning to their glory days.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Jungle Book ★★1/2

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    My primary concern when it comes to "The Jungle Book," Disney's latest live-action presentation of a previously animated success, is with its shortage of spirit or, to be more specific, its cookie-cutter feel. Sure, it is a visually stunning specimen and a brilliant illustration of eye candy in its finest form, and, yes, it almost certainly follows the events of the original animated classic and Rudyard Kipling's source material to a T (sans two notable subplots involving an infant elephant and what can be deemed a "Beatles" inspired vulture trioalthough they make a reinvented appearance, their value is virtually nonexistent); nevertheless, I couldn't help but see the film for what it really is: a CGI-injected, ineffectually infused product with an aura that cannot outwit its artificiality. It has many more miscalculations than it does musings, and this "Jungle Book," for lack of a better description, is quite jejune.

    Director Jon Favreau ("Elf," "Iron Man," and "Cowboys & Aliens") undoubtedly knows how to produce a savvy and engaging picture, but that is surely not the issue here. In this instance, I would say that the film's shortcomings can be directly ascribed to a script that is not only subpar, but it is truly brimming with an inordinate amount of inexperience. I mean, the most important aspect of this coming-of-age tale (that being, Mowgli's acceptance of humanity) is heedlessly thrown to the wind; the tone of the picture can never really gain its footing, as many dark and dreary moments are offset by a handful of musical numbers that do more harm than good; and, much to my dismay, the character of Mowgli seems to have lost every bit of his rambunctiousness. (This is not to mention several unflattering examples of low-brow humor that, unfortunately, include the ever-scintillating pee joke and a sexual jest that is clearly on the wrong side of excessive.) As much as I would like to applaud this attempt to arouse a sense of wonder, I will not forgive such failings.

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    There is no doubt about it: "The Jungle Book" is a visual spectacle built to spellbind audiences with its stunning use of computer-generated imagery and photorealistic rendering, and, in turn, this produces an environment that is nothing short of sensational. Our animal counterparts even have a sense of magic about them as they become larger than life, physically speaking, and as they commit to dialogue that is as genuine as it is conceivable. And yet, what are we actually commending here? Although this film obviously takes pride in its appearance, there is nothing relatively new or innovative about its visual execution, and I have half a mind to believe that an on-location filming session would have given rise to many of the same results. (I'm sure that the studio was chosen for its convenience and for its undemanding nature, but practicability is not always an avenue for success.) 

    Surprisingly, even the casting choices come off as clumsy to some degree. It is true that Idris Elba is unquestionably menacing as the antagonistical Shere Khan, and Scarlett Johansson is plainly the best of the bunch. (Although short-lived, Johansson's seductive and sultry rendition of Kaa tends to evoke John Milton's serpent time and again.) With that being said, however, Ben Kingsley and Bill Murray (who voice the lovable personas of Bagheera and Baloo, respectively) seem to be just running through the motions, and Christopher Walken's King Louie, although cinematically treated in the same light as Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in the timeless "Apocalypse Now," is quite absurd and downright laughable. (Walken's Brooklyn accent is distracting and entirely unwarranted here.) As for the leading, tangible star and solo live performer in Neel Sethi, I've never seen a more unconvincing performance from a child actor before. "Jungle Book" is Sethi's first Hollywood role to date, and, with all due respect, it was hard not to notice. (In retrospect, I believe it was his passive approach to the character that marred an already monotonous outing.) Of course, as regrettable as it may be, Sethi's inadequacies could ultimately be a ramification of the production's prosaic mentality.  

     And this is the problem with the movie industry today. If I've said it once, well, I've said it a thousand times. It's all become flat-out spectacle, so to speak, with little to no depth. Audiences (and many of my contemporaries, for that matter) will surely admire the film's more technically induced moments; as troublesome as that fact is, I'm more concerned about the individual's capacity to sit down and view a picture devoid of such conventions. Sure, I've praised the use of special effects in the past, and I'm positive that I will do so in the future. Yet, in how many ways can one express admiration for the 3D platform before it inevitably becomes nettlesome? (The sense of visual depth that it provides is nothing more than a commonplace illusion, and if you were to ask me, I'd consider it a cheap trick.)

    "The Jungle Book" is by no means a bad film. It's just, the phrase "prepare to be wowed" never came to mind, and to say that the picture captured that "Old Hollywood" feel would simply be a harebrained sentiment. Now, Favreau is on record stating that his intention was to transport audiences to a magical realm comparable to that of James Cameron's "Avatar," and this, in my estimation, was the biggest error of judgment. For, "Avatar" had a fictional ambiance like no other, and the setting of "The Jungle Book" is wholly observable in our nonfictional reality. I'm afraid that Favreau may have forgotten just how beautiful existing Mother Nature can be.  
                    

Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ★★

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    Dear faithful reader: I regret to inform you of this rather unfortunate fact, but as your reporter, I'm afraid that it is my responsibility to do so. (In truth, it's wholly necessary.) "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" is not only an inferior specimen of filmmaking, but it is sincerely one of the most bloated and shallow superhero films that I can remember—it's large-scale entertainment with little grit and a whole lotta spectacle. "The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world," as our terribly miscast antagonist aptly puts it, can never live up to the hype in which it so effortlessly created, and the entire thing reeks of bad choices and even poorer pre-production decision making. (This would be in reference to a script that is as addlebrained as it is tone deaf and to a miscasting that places an extensive burden on the picture.) But there's a sleek new Batsuit and Batmobile, so I guess we're supposed to jump for joy.

     After a decisive showdown between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod that leaves the city of Metropolis in utter ruination, the "Caped Crusader" (more famously referred to as Batman) begins to see the all-powerful superhero in a new light: That is, he now sees him as a direct threat to humanity. More importantly, however, Capital Hill and the public also join in on the bashing and defamation of the "Man of Tomorrow," and it is this rift that ultimately fuels the childish conflict betwixt the two heroes—Batman's utilitarian mindset (you know, the frame of mind that holds the greatest happiness of the greatest number as its guiding principle) leads him to a handful of rash conclusions, and Superman, well, he resorts to finger-pointing and does very little to atone for past mistakes. (Essentially, our "Man of Steel" gets the short end of the stick.)

    Then there is Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, a character who is known for his cold and calculated comportment and antipathy for "The Last Son of Krypton." Eisenberg's zany take on this persona is beyond preposterous, and it just goes to show how important casting judgments can be. (In a manner of speaking, Eisenberg would have made a terrific Batman villain, presumably a Joker or Riddler type of personality, but his interpretation of Luthor is quite suspect, and it's not very convincing.) Additionally, a Lois Lane subplot never really gains traction—mostly because it is moronic and because it adds little to no value to the overall narrative—and the film relies much too heavily on philosophical inquiries and thematic checks that it can't cash. In short, it felt as if I was sitting through a Philosophy 101 course minus the stimulating subject matter. The picture attempts to examine issues of ethics and morality, yet these esoteric topics are hard to engage once escapism becomes the desired end.

    What's worse is the fact that both heroes deal in what I would regard as foolish absolutes, and this is something that irks me to the core of my being. Batman claims that "If we believe there's even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty" when discussing the newly discovered threat posed by the "Metropolis Marvel"; Superman asserts that he will have to convince "The Dark Knight" to aid him or else he must kill him. (I wonder if the filmmakers, and especially David S. Goyer who helped pen the script, realize just how dumb this makes their characters sound.) Tack on a nonsensical apocalyptic dream sequence, a Batmobile chase scene that is relentlessly loud and banal, and a climax that places every asset in a position to fail, and the end result is a movie that's simply ill considered.

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    And what about the inessential physical confrontation between our two testosterone-toting superheroes? Not to waste much space here, but if you were expecting anything in the realm of impressive, then I'm afraid that dissatisfaction will prove inevitable. For, the short-lived, CGI-driven fight scene falls short of any real expectations one should have of this climactic battle, and even though the film desperately tries to coax us into believing it is fundamentally necessary, the whole dustup seems to be unmotivated and uninspired. (If I were to be blunt, I'd say that it was blatantly fatuous.) As it happened, I had to hold in a chuckle or two during the heroes' first encounter, and I can only describe the scene as patently laughable.

    Ben Affleck is quite the enigma, isn't he? I mean, here is an actor who broke into Hollywood in a maverick kind of way (he won an Academy Award for co-writing "Good Will Hunting"), and yet most of his career has been bedeviled by bad scripts, bad publicity, and if I am to be brutally honest, bad acting. I've always said that Affleck makes for a great personality actor, maybe even an interpreter, but he has rarely crossed the threshold that would see him as a top-tier talent, and his proficiency behind the camera has far overshadowed his acting ability in recent years.

    Nevertheless, Affleck's rugged portrayal of Batman in "Dawn of Justice" is polished and well done, and I was even more amazed by his interpretation of the character of Bruce Wayne. (I wish that I could be as complimentary of Cavill as the "Man of Steel," yet he obviously took the outside approach, and the outside approach alone, when preparing for the role, and it is his lack of zeal that besets an already lifeless outing.) Correct me if I am wrong, but the beautiful and very skilled Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman may just be the finest performance of them all.

    The troubling thing about "Batman v Superman" is that it has all the bells and whistles and no substance. Director Zack Snyder ("Watchmen," "Sucker Punch," and "Man of Steel") tries his darndest to inject the picture with some degree of emotion, but his efforts merely come off as contrived and forced, and it would be difficult for me not to label the whole endeavor as a kid in a candy store type of offering. (Snyder utilizes both film and digital technology and makes use of color and light-diffusing filters, but what does this add to the savorless storyline? Not that it's any of my business, but I think Synder should become familiar with the "less is more" aphorism.)

    We tend to criticize these movies for being too predictable and formulaic, and although "Dawn of Justice" attempts to deviate from the conventional superhero path, it's all fairly ineffective. And you know, it is films like these that make one yearn for the days when the affairs of superheroes remained somewhat unnoticed by the political sphere; I think we've all had enough of the silly news flashes that may or may not incorporate television personalities such as Nancy Grace and Anderson Cooper. It might have worked in Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, which Goyer also helped pen, but here it is just plain obnoxious. (Of course, this particular convention is nothing new, yet it is something that has grown rather tiresome over the years.) I've mostly found superhero films to be quite enjoyable, but watch out for when Capitol Hill gets involved.  

Friday, March 4, 2016

Zootopia ★★★

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    Is it just me, or are Disney films becoming less magical and proportionally more preachy? Or, shall I say, increasingly self-righteous? Every picture produced by the megacorporation in recent memory seems to emit this sanctimonious attitude, and although they appear to have good intentions, this is something that we should not take lightly. (If this were the Golden Age of Hollywood, these types of productions would surely be viewed as "preachment yarns," which is essentially a euphemism for propaganda.)

    Don't get me wrong. I am never one to bemoan the manufacturing of a moral implication or social problem film. (On the contrary, I undoubtedly have a fondness for these kinds of movies, and I support their existence and continuation indefinitely.) It's just nothing's subtle anymore. It used to be children could view an animated picture without being bombarded by deliberately instructional dialogue and language that would have even a man of the cloth imploring for mercy; they used to have to work for the theme. Did "Dumbo" pound its audience with barefaced motifs in an effort to convey its central concern? It did not, nor did it have to.
 
    A message to the reader: If you are solely searching for a recommendation, then here it is"Zootopia" is truly a riveting film; I'm sure that adolescents will enjoy it immensely. If you wish to delve deeper into matters, then I suggest that you continue reading.

    On the surface of things, "Zootopia" or "Zootrópolis" if you live in Europe, the former also being the name of the modernistic, mammalian melting pot utopia that is our setting, is a winsome little movie that centers around the life of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny who has reveries of becoming an officer of the law. She is small in stature and cute as a button, and this doubtlessly leads to some minor prejudices and to several moments of individual success.

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    And then the film (almost expectantly) begins to transition into this allegorical, satirical narrative that is decidedly anti-prejudice, anti-stereotyping, anti-sexist, and anti-racist before it inevitably settles on a buddy cop storyline that is clearly more charming, and to tell you the truth, the latter saves the picture from complete nonfulfillment. (Let's just say the film's anti-discriminatory theme was laid on thick and often.)

    Characters utter mechanical phrases such as "Change starts with you" and "Try and make the world a better place," and if this doesn't sound like social conditioning, then I'm not sure what is. There's even a number entitled "Try Everything," which does have a quaint message of perseverance; nonetheless, contributing to a holier-than-thou ambiance that is indecently overbearing and unquestionably disreputable. Some might call these messages timely and examples of AmericanismI would hold them to be obvious and ineffective.

    Screenwriter Phil Johnston and writing newcomer Jared Bush go for broke, and, well, it would seem as if all subtlety is lost. Similarly, who could forget an on-screen persona in Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a devious fox nicknamed "Slick Nick," that is nothing more than a reimagined, modernized version of the "Pinnochio" antagonist named Honest John, and this time around, he comes complete with sappy backstory. What would appear to be original ultimately becomes clichéd, and I'm tempted to declare the entire product as a poor propaganda piece dominated by political correctness. (My reluctance to do so only highlights the worth of the film's more light-hearted sentiments.)    

    I, for one, do not oppose what's being broadcasted here. There's simply a bigger issue. Of course, every film has a message, whether it lies in the realm of moral implication or elsewhereeven the "Transformers" franchise has a theme of sorts. But to routinely make moral conditioning the sole motivation of a picture is problematic. (This isn't the first time Hollywood has been accused of propagandizing audiences, and it certainly will not be the last. Nevertheless, I'm afraid that this behavior has become Disney's latest modus operandi; it's a slippery slope.) Frankly, films that are this morally blatant should never be considered art, and they hardly warrant the classification of entertainment. Indoctrinating for good is still indoctrinating.

    On a side note, anthropomorphism has hit an all-time low. It's bad enough that we have succumbed to the ills of the twenty-first century. Must we destroy the lives of these innocent creatures as well? (Naturally, I'm just being a bit cynical, but this observation does deserve some form of recognition.) Our mammal counterparts engage with Iphones and Ipods at times during the production, and this only alludes to the influence of such things on our corporate-driven lifestyles. Maybe I'm just too old-fashioned for my own good.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Zoolander 2 ★1/2

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    There should be a new golden rule in Hollywood: If a sequel cannot be generated within a reasonable time frame, let's say a decade after the original, then please, do us all a favor and leave the script in the wastebasket where it belongs. As a matter of fact, make it five years. This way, critics can avoid writing condemnatory pieces littered with sarcasm and phrases that are as scornful as much as they are sincere; perhaps audiences can protect themselves (and their wallets) from pictures that are just plain awful—"really, really ridiculously" awful. (I would like to apologize in advance for what will indisputably become a scathing and negative review. One must know that it doesn't give me pleasure.)

    Of course, timing is seldom used as a determiner of a movie's merit, but you know, sometimes it should be. It's universally accepted that sequels, no matter the sort, rarely give rise to good results, and if they linger in development limbo for too long, the end product will usually speak of this notion. And yet, that doesn't seem to be the case here. "Zoolander 2" practically followed the same production path as "Dumb and Dumber To," which really just means that it was created out of desperation as opposed to prolonged and poor decision-making. (Both films seem to give off this sense of enervation as if the comedic minds behind the scenes had exhausted every last feasible joke and bad pun.) Now, I'm not saying that Ben Stiller made this movie because he ran of material, but perhaps there was a paucity of projects ready for producing.

    So, just how lousy is "Zoolander 2?" Well, apart from the film's imbecilic plot and distasteful dialogue, there is a plentitude of jests that clearly fall short of comical, and the entire moviegoing experience can best be summarized as uninterestingly flat and astoundingly obnoxious. (The term "dullsville" did come to mind on more than one occasion.) And the fact that it is predominantly nonsensical has nothing to do with itI mean, it surely has the same stupidity that powered the originaljust with less laughter. Mirthful moments are superseded by celebrity cameos, and much like the twosome of Harry and Lloyd, it is the characters' unceasing staticity that necessitates failure. (Derek Zoolander is just about the dumbest on-screen persona I've ever encountered; his lack of intelligence deserves our sympathy, not our enjoyment.)

    I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Regardless of how you spin it, "Zoolander 2" is scarcely entertaining. I can hear the retorts now"But comedy is subjective." Although a factual statement, I am speaking on behalf of the individuals who have an intellectual endowment beyond that of a five-year-old child. (The film's aim at satire is far more saddening than it is humorous; there are so many misfires and poorly executed punchlines that I almost felt bad for the actors who had to read such rubbish.) "The Cable Guy" was funny. "Tropic Thunder" was, may I say, borderline ingenious. "Zoolander 2" is simply shameful.

    It's rather hard for me to place all the blame on Ben Stiller (he's verily one of the last great comedy figures left in Hollywood), but as you can see, there is no other option. He wrote, directed and marketed this miserable excuse for a movie, and it is moments like these when I can't help but question as to what a filmmaker was thinking. But let's focus on the positives, shall we? "Zoolander 2" may be a shoddy addition to the comedy genre, yet it does serve as a first-class example of wasteful spending. Instead of committing to a project of this caliber, Stiller could have continued his journey as a director with pictures like "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which was a story that needed to be told. This is one of those films that I'm sure was a riot to make but painful for us to watch.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Deadpool ★★★1/2

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     "Deadpool" is excessively vulgar, ill-mannered, disturbed, off-color, and, at times, it can be downright depraved. I could run off countless adjectives of the like; however, I think you get the gist of it. And yet, it might just be the greatest superhero origin tale to ever grace the big screen. (While the character of Wade Wilson can ultimately be deemed an antihero, considering his inability to engage in selfless acts, for the sake of this discussion, I'm afraid that we must view this film solely as a constituent of the much-exhausted superhero genre.)

    Ryan Reynolds stars as the rude and crude central protagonist, and, you guessed it, Reynolds is a perfect cast. He is truly an uncanny representation of this maniacal, eccentric human being. In fact, he is so chipper in this rolewhich features an endless array of explicit and derogatory languagethat any future return to the romantic comedy variety for this leading actor may be in jeopardy. (Needless to say, I'm sure that most audiences will forgive any occupational collateral damage that results from this production.)

    When it comes to Reynolds' performance here, it's not so much about technique or method as much as it is about destiny. Clearly, Reynolds was born to personate this rather sardonic individual, and it would be relatively impossible not to notice a sense of relishing after every spoken line. (What performer wouldn't kill for a portrayal infused with this copious amount of range and freedom?) Throw in a bit part played by the always amusing T.J. Miller (a small-time actor who is made for comedic relief) and a supporting role filled nicely by Hollywood newcomer Morena Baccarin, and you pretty much have a cast that is built for box-office success.

    Now, I could discuss the picture's boorish dialogue and over-the-top graphic violence at some length (I dare not mention the specifics, yet this is obviously not a film intended for a younger viewing audience); however, much to my surprise, it is not this irrefutable display of indecency that defines "Deadpool" but its cinematic and technical uniqueness.

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    Director Tim Miller (in what is arguably the most scandalous directorial debut since Quentin Tarantino's sordid first effort entitled "Reservoir Dogs") instills the picture with such style that it almost becomes an ingenious work of art. There is an acceptable portion of tonal irony, several "breaking of the fourth wall" moments that never fail to rouse excitement, and, in some stretches, the film simply becomes a pragmatic yet riveting digital camera display.

    Even the script, penned by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick ("Zombieland," "G.I. Joe: Retaliation"), adheres to this somewhat intelligent and sophisticated air, structurally speaking. (A bulk of the dialogue seems to comment directly on the current state of affairs; this exercise in metafiction not only supplies the picture with this rich sense of refinement, but it essentially adds an extra layer of depth to what can already be considered a cinematically compelling piece.) As for the film's intellectually undemanding humor, I even found myself chuckling at a number of twenty-first-century witticisms that appear to be incredibly sincere, among other things.

    And what about that ever-important plotline? You know, the aspect of the story that really determines a film's direction. Mostly, "Deadpool" doesn't overly focus on its plot, and it basically becomes an engrossing, intimate character study that shocks as it delights. (The film's non-linear structure melds action with exposition to produce an entertaining and gripping experience, and, well, it succeeds invariably.)

    Which reminds me: I think my previous statement, which commented on this particular product's sorting, needs to be rescinded; for, "Deadpool" should never be aligned with the superhero class of filmmaking. If anything, this film builds on what is now becoming a highly profitable breed of its own in Hollywoodthat being, the anti-hero genre. Of course, one could make the argument that these types of movies have been around for years, yet there is very little evidence to suggest that it ever evolved into a full-blown model. (I mean, even Oskar Schindler comes off as an antihero in some capacity, yet these spirited personalities have never been more prevalent.)

    Here is a movie that's certainly more engaging than "Guardians of the Galaxy," the latter of which being the kick starter of this recent industry trend, and I believe it sets the bar perfectly for this year's upcoming "Suicide Squad." Most importantly, however, "Deadpool" seems to be the kind of picture that gives us good reason not to take it seriously. (This is something that most superhero films direly lack.) Let's face it, our society has become all too politically correct, and this unfiltered, almost Trumpian disposition provides us with a much-needed dose of reality. Hollywood needs "Deadpool."

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Norm of the North ★

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     Every so often on the film beat, there will come along a picture that is so blatantly bad that—not only does it test my patience as a critic—it requires one's unwavering sympathy. And "Norm of the North," a children's animated tale that features an inept and a rather cumbersome polar bear as its central protagonist, is that movie. Our pitiable title character is awkward, bubbleheaded and undeniably unprofitable, and comedian Rob Schneider lends his voice to this lead role which is about as demeaning as it is deplorable. (I could make a number of quips about Schneider's work here, but let's just say he's no Tom Hanks as Sheriff Woody.)

    It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that "Norm of the North" never stood a chance. I mean, its measly 18-million-dollar budget is hardly adequate when facing stiff competition from animated house juggernauts like Disney and Dreamworks (only a budget upwards of $150 million would be considered acceptable in today's Hollywood); there was never going to be any mass-produced action figures or McDonald's promotional tie-ins. Add on a first-time director in Trevor Wall and a writing crew whose credits include two made-for-TV "Scooby Doo" live-action endeavors, and you may have an idea as to why "Norm of the North" fails to succeed in just about every facet of filmmaking.

    Norm is a peculiar polar bear with a natural gift that allows him to speak and understand "human." This, of course, makes Norm a social pariah, as many of the other Artic creatures cannot understand his love for twerking and American pop music. But his status among his peers is the least of his worries. You see, real estate conglomerate Greene Homes is on the verge of closing a deal that will help make the Artic become America's latest colonization effort. Along with his three lovable lemming accomplices (which seem to be a cross between an Ewok and a Minion), Norm must make his way to New York City and infiltrate the evil corporation if he has any chance of saving his home and sparing the Artic from future twerking exhibitions.

    It would be unfair to give bad press to the film's visual incompetence (the computer-generated special effects on display seem to be outdated or just plain crummy) because it is the script, I think, that should shoulder most of the blame. Characters are dumbed down in an effort to make an even dumber plot more believable—I particularly feel bad for the leading female persona, Vera, who is naive, ignorant, and morally impaired—and the picture contains the worst kind of dramatic irony imaginable. (We know exactly what's going to happen to Norm before he does, and this predictable nature will have even the youngest of audiences hanging their heads in dismay.) Moreover, Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong) is certainly more eccentric than he is villainous, and the last half hour can simply be characterized as tearfully tedious.

    There are several instances in "Norm of the North" that truly make you wonder if it could all be more than just a poor example of children's entertainment. (Remarkably, a handful of ribs aimed at twenty-first-century society make it into the script, and although these clever jabs are offset by lowbrow humor, it only adds to the above-mentioned puzzled state.) One scene, where our bumbling protagonist callously refers to American tourists as "intruders," even led me to believe that the picture was an allegorical political commentary with an anti-immigration message. Of course, this could have merely been a consequence of the movie's mundane makeup, as this tends to create these so-called woolgathering moments. Simply put, this is one film that does not deserve the coveted benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Forest ★

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    For all you aspiring filmmakers out there, I just have one sound piece of advice: If you have any desire to get your foot in that metaphorical door, then all you have to do is make a horror movie. It's that painless. And I say this for several reasons. Obviously, the horror genre is not really known for its astuteness, and it provides one of the most straightforward blueprints for manufacturing a picture. (Of all the genres we've become accustomed to over the years, that of the horror variety contains the least complicated model of cinematic shorthand.) And yet, audiences can never seem to fully procure their fix, which, I admit, is quite baffling, especially when one looks at the overall worth of this breed of filmmaking. (The conventions active in this film genre are hardly exemplary; it just goes to show how viewers pine for those guilty pleasures.)

    Enter "The Forest," a movie that is unreservedly formulaic and markedly monotonous, and if we were to view it strictly for instructional purposes, it could be seen as a textbook exercise in film direction. (First-time filmmaker Jason Zada, who's patently a proponent of the John Ford philosophy of filmmaking, no doubt did his homework here as he gives us a slew of technically proficient establishing and long shots, sundry scenes with a serviceable demonstration of cinematographic composition, and he even finds the time to add in a "Malick shot.") The better part of the picture is utterly breathtaking—it plainly is—but where it gains in aesthetics it loses in suspense, and, structurally speaking, the latter is the whole shebang. Here's another lesson for the amateur auteur: Sometimes you must first become a drudge, then you can become a director.

    The film begins with a series of nonlinear, spasmodic expository flashbacks designed to introduce us to the character of Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) and the situation at hand. Well, here it is—Sara, one-half of a twin sibling set, is informed that her sister, Jess, who is also played by Dormer, has disappeared in the Aokigahara Forest or what is more infamously known as Japan's "Suicide Forest." This compels our naive protagonist to fly halfway around the world to begin a rescue mission, as being a twin enables her to rely on clairvoyance, and in this instance, it tells her that this is not a simple case of suicide.

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    Once there, Sara meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a traveling journalist and wily womanizer who helps her gain access to the forest and who stays with her overnight to ensure her safety. (If you are expecting even a broad report of the suspense found in the picture, then I'm afraid you're out of luck; for, there is very little to comment on.) There's a mishmash of supernatural and psychological terror, and the film induces more paranoia than actual fear. This is one of those cases where, I think, if you've seen it once, you've seen it all, and "The Forest" irrefutably suffers not only from a poorly written script, but it is infused with so many contrived plot devices and clichéd tropes that one would have to be completely oblivious to the conventions in use if satisfaction is to become even remotely attainable. (And I hate to ask this, but when are these antediluvian jump scares going to become obsolete? My guess is that they'll remain as long as one paranoiac displays panic-stricken symptoms.)

    The worst thing about this movie (beyond the aforementioned blunders and a jagged performance by Dormer—she certainly looks the part of the wholesome and trusting leading heroine, yet her reaction acting is far from adequate) is the fact that it lacks a workable story. Sure, the Aokigahara Forest appears to be the perfect macabre setting for a horror picture, but there's really nothing to be told. (In reality, it is more disheartening than anything else.) It's one of those ideas that seems terrific on paper, but when the product is finished, it just becomes another example of insipid storytelling. "The Forest" progresses from hardly frightening to predictable to laughable, all within a ninety-minute time frame, and the climax is nothing short of incompetent. If the latter half of the year is "art season," then January should be known as "nickel-and-dime season."    
         

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Revenant ★★★★

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    There comes a time in every film critic's career when you just have to admit defeat; Alejandro González Iñárritu's "The Revenant" certainly conjures up that rare momentit is a moment defined by what becomes an overwhelming sense of dubiety, and, well, it is products of this stature that simply force members of my profession to question their analytical acuity. (I'm afraid that viewing this particular picture under a humanistic or psychoanalytical lens will prove to be quite futile. For, Iñárritu's visionary epic is so rich in symbolism and metaphor that it would take extraordinary amounts of mental energy just to put forth an interpretation.)

    "The Revenant," a film that chronicles one man's perilous journey to vengeance (that being, Hugh Glass, a real-life frontiersman and nineteenth-century legend), is not only a tour de force that evokes an effortless sense of engagement, but it has to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing pieces ever produced in what is routinely becoming an era dominated by digital filmmaking. (The latest Arri Alexa equipment makes its debut here and once again provides evidence of the digital camera's ability to create a seamless and riveting picture.)

    Of course, much of this sublimity can be directly attributed to the use of natural lighting and to the actual time frame of filming. (One would think that these determinations played the biggest part when it comes to the film's visual beauty and breathtaking ambiance.) Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a duo that undoubtedly works well together, made the conscious decision to film only at "magic hour"; what a decision it was.

    We are given a rather muted color palette and an array of pastel hues that captivate and inspire, and, above all, it calls to mind the efforts of Terrence Malick (most notably that of "Days of Heaven"), an American director who is known for indulging in such techniques and a frequent collaborator with Lubezki. (This is not to mention several scenes composed entirely of poetical voice overs and compelling dream sequences, which also reminds us of some of Malick's most poignant moments.) In this regard, borrowing from a fellow auteur may have been Iñárritu's greatest artistic commitment.

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    What makes "The Revenant" so masterful (besides what I would deem to be a magnificent and competent display of cinematography, which I will peruse in due time) is its complex and unforgiving setting and a handful of performances that never flounder in conviction. The harsh wilderness that accompanies our story here accentuates a number of themes posed by Iñárritu with relative ease as it captures the brutality of nature with a neverending sense of authenticity and as it creates a mood that is surely as tense as it is taut.

    In fact, Iñárritu manipulates the perception of this environment in such a way that it essentially becomes a character in its own right, and, structurally speaking, it could arguably be viewed as one of the most indispensable pieces of the puzzle. For, this unforgettable backdrop also becomes a determiner of character, as it pertains to the persona of Hugh Glass, and a symbolic reflection of the truth of human nature. (The latter of which is best encapsulated by the temper of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), our resident antagonist and a portrait of man's innate callousness.) I have always beenand always will bean advocate for on-location filming, and, in many ways, "The Revenant" demonstrates its usefulness and irreplaceability time after time.

    Which brings us to the unforgettable performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, who steps into the role of Hugh Glass, and Tom Hardy, the aforementioned embodiment of man's brutish nature. Although limited in dialogue, DiCaprio truly gives a gut-wrenching performance, and, truth be told, this is something that I did not expect from an actor who is theoretically past their prime: Is it possible that DiCaprio has not yet hit his ceiling? (However silly that inquiry may appear, it is a question that should be considered.)

    This is very much a new kind of role for DiCaprio; I'm sure that he is used to parts brimming with forceful dialogue and explicit conviction. And yet, the role of Glass warranted nothing less than pure physical exhaustion, and, with regard to technique, it required an overabundance of strained facial features and agonizing expressions. In an effort to successfully convey the instinctual aspect of this character, DiCaprio had to basically transform into an individual completely incapacitated by this overpowering sense of savagery. (This exhibition of primitive behavior is best evidenced by DiCaprio's devouring of a raw buffalo liver, which, in many respects, summarizes his dedication entirely.)

    As for Hardy, he is cold, calculated and unquestionably authentic in a role that surely demanded such distinctions. Hardy, an actor who continues to rise to stardom in Hollywood, becomes the quintessential villain here, as he ruthlessly commits acts of treason and as he wallows in the darker side of humanity. Although Hardy's dialogue becomes frustratingly inaudible at times (a criticism that he has assuredly heard before), he matches DiCaprio in both spirit and drive, and this only adds to the film's universal appeal.

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    In any case, however, it is Lubezki's expertise in the field of cinematography, along with Iñárritu's exceptional vision, that really makes "The Revenant" thrive. The methodical execution of the camera's movement not only helps create a mood characterized by its ability to keep one on the edge of their seat, but it really becomes another participant in the action, so to speak. (There are a number of scenes in which the mobile camera essentially mimics the movements of the human apparatus, as it pans and tilts and surveys the surrounding area, and, in a very real way, it increases our involvement considerably.)

    Furthermore, there are 360-degree pans, still shots of the moon and nearby flora, and enough extreme close-ups of gushing wounds and incessant gore to make anyone turn their head in revulsion. The incisive decision-making of this captivating collaborative effort even leads to a handful of instances where the lens of the camera becomes a tangible window into this world of beauty and brutality. (This is in reference to a variety of scenes where the lens is blanketed by a character's breath or a splattering of blood, and it is these unprecedented moments, I think, that determine the film's overall worth.)

    What is Iñárritu trying to communicate here? At the very least, "The Revenant" is a picture concerned with survival, loss and the perseverance of the human spirit, yet it appears to encompass so much more. (One could even argue that its theme is simply that of texture, as it combines almost every thematic component, with regard to film structure, to produce a seemingly unblemished work of art.) Sure, there are motifs that allude to man's brutish inner self and visual metaphors that can only be interpreted by Iñárritu; however, it would be foolish of me not to designate the film's theme as a philosophical riddle. Considering the overemphasis of the phrase "Revenge is in God's hands now," I believe our riddle may have something to do with the delicate sense of trust between man and divine being.

    "The Revenant" is a film that must be viewed more than once; it is the perfect follow-up to Iñárritu's critically acclaimed "Birdman," as this picture verifiably proves that this director has no boundaries. Nevertheless, what we should really be asking ourselves is this: Is Iñárritu really this adroit, or is he just working in a weakened field at this point? Of course, they don't make film directors like they used to, and the cream of the crop are inevitably reaching the twilight of their careers. I tend to believe that "The Revenant" would stand firm even with greater competition, and although some may feel as if this was the apotheosis of Iñárritu's relatively young career, history would tell us that there is more yet to come.