Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature ★

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    It breaks my heart to review films such as "The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature." No, really. For whatever reason, animated pictures have become more or less intolerable as of late, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but this diminution in quality doesn't seem to be a temporary trend. In truth, the genre has all but lost its allure and drawing power. (Although I'm playing ignorant, I do have a hunch as to why the art of animation has diminished in value here in the twenty-first century: No imagination, no novelty.) And we wonder why our youngsters are becoming dumber by the day.

    In so many words, "The Nut Job 2" is boring, bland and all around bovine, and it's the kind of movie that makes ninety minutes feel like an eternity. (It will also test the sobriety of anyone with half a brain.) A list of grievances: The forgettable characters, led by an overconfident and smug squirrel named Surly (Will Arnett), belch out lines of dialogue infused with the film's multiple themes (we're told that there are no shortcuts in life, and there's a lesson in teamwork and diligence), but before long, the narrative sheds its solemnity in favor of inane humor and clichéd storytelling. (I shouldn't have to tell you this, but the banter on display will only appeal to small children, and if you're lucky, a salvific slumber will save you from any further suffering.) Topping it all off, the computer-generated imagery is below par, and the paint-by-number plot threads hang looser than a "fille de joie" on a Friday night. (Unfortunately, I am compelled to provide a summary of the story in the ensuing paragraph, so consider this a fair warning.)

    The film opens with the rodents of Oakton living large in the basement of a local nut shop, and according to Andie (Katherine Heigl), the determined yet uncoordinated female lead, they've become lazy, fat, and have forgotten their survival instincts. (I would make an effort to examine this aspect of the plot in an allegorical light, but I fear the script could never muster up that manner of meaning in a million years.) By sheer accident, their new abode is destroyed, and they must once again turn to the neighboring park for shelter and sustenance. And if that wasn't uninspiring enough for you, we're subsequently introduced to Mayor Muldoon (Bobby Moynihan), a timeworn antagonist fueled by greed and, well, that's about it. You see, Muldoon aspires to eradicate Liberty Park so that he may open "Liberty Land," an amusement park fashioned out of used parts. Surly and Andie will have to rally the troops if they are to stop the mayor of Oakton from committing this avaricious act and reclaim their former dwelling.

    Parents: I'm really tired of ripping these movies—it's exhausting, and there are only so many ways one can condemn this perversion of children's entertainment. But I trudge on for two reasons: because it's my job, and I'm obligated to inform parental audiences of the asininity that has crept into every children's picture not being produced by Disney. (This surely doesn't mean that Disney and their sister company, Pixar, will avoid future castigation. It just means, very simply, that their films have a smidgen more soul to them.) I have been saying this for years; there's no harm, I guess, in beating a dead horse for the umpteenth time. If these production companies wish to restore the art of animation to its past glory, then it has to start with better writing and source material of a higher standard. In the case of "The Nut Job 2," just file it under insipid mediocrity.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Girls Trip ★

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    A note to the reader: I just want to make this crystal clearI am not a woman, nor am I a black woman. I know nothing about the intricacies of sisterhood and womanhood, and I will not pretend as if I have the faintest inkling on the subject. But I do know film, and this review is a straightforward, free-flowing statement describing, in as much detail as possible, my thoughts on this particular movie. This is purely the opinion of a beat writer with an extensive knowledge of the medium.

    With that being said, "Girls Trip," a film that is unapologetic in its vulgarity and rotten humor, does everything in its power to showcase the ups and downs of this sororal clique, yet it does little in the way of women's empowerment, and the entire production reeks of immaturity. (More to the point, it is a movie solely for the braindead and feebleminded, and it's an enormous waste of one's time.) The story is simple enough: Four women, separated by life's unpredictabilities, come together for one last shindig, which in this instance, takes place at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Louisianathe ideal setting for humor heavy on the lewd and crude. There's Sasha (Queen Latifah), a struggling journalist turned tabloid reporter; Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), a recent divorcee and the "responsible" one; Dina (Tiffany Haddish), a risk-taker who, I guess, is the funny one; and Ryan (Regina Hall), a well-established author and television personality.

    At this juncture, I usually delve into the plot and begin to dissect any discernible themes, but what's the point? ("Girls Trip" is a long-winded raunchfest, and the movie's licentious material will have film fans feeling more disgusted than cheerful.) Is the script really that unpardonable? Well, let's see: There's an overuse of the F-word and N-word, talk of stuffing illegal drugs in one's "booty hole," a discussion on how to perform oral sex with a grapefruit, and several references to male genitalia which I dare not utter here. All told, this sinfully sordid affair should set back women's equality a decade at the very least. (Sober moments are in short supply, but even when they do surface, the movie cannot separate the sincere from the unsavory.)

    I mean, I get it. No one is going into "Girls Trip" expecting anything other than brainless comedy. The problem, though, is the film's scattered air and its weak attempts at empowerment. (A subplot involving infidelity is confronted head on by the movie's end, which, I suppose, is meant to give female audiences an inspiring take-home message, but the damage had already been done.) Would it have killed the writers to tone down the folly so that their message would be more viable? Apparently.

    I've never been a fan of these types of pictures; I hate to see such talent wasted on projects that have more slapstick than smarts. (Pinkett Smith is the only bright spot amidst the heap of incomprehensible trash, and I applaud her for her efforts.) Coupled with last month's "Rough Night," it seems that Hollywood is determined to depict women behaving badly (and enjoying themselves while doing so), but this reversal of formula is far from flattering, and I just can't stand behind it. I know what you're thinking: Why should men have all the fun? Admittedly, male conduct on the big screen has historically been less than honorable, but that is our nature. Allow me to put it this way"Girls Trip" isn't a good look for anybody.

Friday, June 16, 2017

47 Meters Down ★

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    Here is the plot of "47 Meters Down," this summer's annual shark-infested thriller, in a nutshell: Two siblings, Lisa and Kate, embark on a fun-filled trip to Mexico in order to overcome life's mundane tendencies and messy breakups. (In essence, one's a nervous Nellie, and one has trouble saying "No." I'll let you guess which is which.) After a drunken night out with a pair of potential suitors, our threadbare protagonists elect to take on shark cage diving, the latest craze among the thrill-seeking crowd. Once underwater, something goes awry—as the title implies, they become trapped "47 meters down"—and we're left with roughly 60 minutes of plodding suspense and pointless maneuvering. The uneventful score, composed by Thomas Hajdu and Andy Milburn (a Princeton duo widely known as "tomandandy"), is mechanical and useless, and the principal characters, portrayed by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt, are nothing short of moronic. (Forgive me for being blunt, but I've seen enough dumbed-down female personas to last a lifetime. Case in point: While gearing up for their initial dive, one of the simple-minded sisters, it doesn't matter who, quickly progresses from a petrified state to one in which she asks the other, "Does my butt look cute in this?" These actresses deserve better, and so do we.) I promise you this—by the film's end, you'll be rooting for the sharks.

    It's pretty clear where this half-hearted production pinned all of its hopes: on the allure and pull of its two leading ladies. (I'm trying to remember the last time Moore starred in a live-action setting, and Holt, God bless her, couldn't muster a line of dialogue with any sort of conviction even if she wanted to.) Granted, they both should receive credit for enduring the physical demands required of the roles, yet muffled screams and incessant hyperventilating aren't exactly attributes of an Oscar-worthy performance. It comes with the territory, or in this instance, the subject matter. Moreover, director Johannes Roberts and underwater cinematographer Mark Silk frequently swap disheveled camera angles for substance, and this creates an ambiance completely devoid of terror and emotional intensity. Although close-ups abound—the majority of which focus on the panic-stricken eyes of our daring yet doltish heroines—the best shots simply went unused. (It would help to have an editor who understood the principles of continuity editing.) Sadly, we're never given a reason to fear these notorious predators, except, of course, for their reputations and past on-screen appearances. Spoiler alert: The ill-famed antagonists are rarely seen until the climax of the film, and their long-awaited arrival is upstaged by a script that is inherently misguided, and above all, it evinces inexperience. Evidently, the writers thought it would be wise to rob Moore's character of her defining moment for a plot twist that is about as foolish as it is gutsy, and this injudicious move only gives substance to the stance that risk-taking doesn't always pan out in cinema. (You know, it's one of those endings where a reverie is confused for reality in an effort to shock and startle audiences; I have to say that it wasn't very effective.)

    I can't believe Hollywood is still churning out these tacky, stale pictures. (As one would expect, revenue remains the chief incentive, yet there has to be a limit on these shark attack movies, which are bordering on unwatchable.) I mean, Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" actually meant something, and "47 Meters Down" can be dubbed the fast-food variety of the genre. For reasons I cannot fathom, the viewing public continues to have an eternal fascination for these flaccid, watered-down productions—"Shark Week" will even hit theaters for a one-night event next month. I hate to be the bearer of bad news (on the contrary, I enjoy it immensely), but all this fear and trembling at the hands of these predaceous creatures is entirely ungrounded. As a matter of fact, here are a few nuggets I found while researching the film's misunderstood villains: 

    (1) As reported by The Washington Post, on average, 28 people were killed each year from 2001 to 2013 by man's best friend. How many died as a result of a shark attack? Well, if you round to the nearest whole number, sharks killed about one individual per year during this span. 

    (2) More importantly, however, according to the Shark Research Institute, 100 million sharks are slain every single year by humankind, and yet we're frightened to death of this predominantly fabricated evil. 

    Now, I understand the method behind the madness, but movies such as "47 Meters Down," regardless of content, aren't worthy of our attention—to sum it up with a few choice words, it's just not interesting writing. And so, in the opinion of this critic, save your precious time and avoid this piffle as if it were the plague. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ★★★

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    Call me crazy, but in an industry where sequels and spin-offs are a dime a dozen, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise has long remained ahead of the field. (This is mostly due to its familiar storytelling and to a booze-hounding protagonist who's as personable as he is inebriated.) And to think that these films have preserved in the face of redundancy time and again only makes them that much more admirable. Indeed, there's a slew of shortcomings that tend to sabotage these productions: puzzling plotlines, wishy-washy acting, and hammy dialogue to name a few. And yet, there resides an indefinable charm, the kind that has moviegoers suspend their disbelief and empty their pockets. This fifth "Pirates" installment may not fit the bill as obsessive filmmaking, but it's a step above its predecessor, and—oh, I dunno—there's just something about the Caribbean that kindles ebullience.

    Here is a brief run-through of the plot: The film picks up as Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the newest hero to hit the high seas and son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), devises a plan to help his father rid himself of the terrible curse that entails a lasting commitment as captain to the Flying Dutchman. (To make a long story short, Henry must retrieve Poseidon's legendary trident if he is to break the anathema and reunite his loving family.)

    Concurrently, Captain Jack Sparrow (played by the always animated Johnny Depp) is down on his luck—the reward for his arrest has even plummeted. After an unsuccessful bank robbery attempt, the egocentric pirate captain finds himself in an often experienced position: that is, captured by the British army and set to be hanged. (Unbeknown to Jack, this is the least of his worries. For, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead pirate hunter, wants him dead for a previous dispute.) Enter Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a mysterious young woman who is also sent to the gallows albeit for a different reason—the practice of witchcraft. (You see, she's not really a witch but intelligent; her intellectual capacity provides the opportunity to rouse up a statement on gender, which I found to be quite misplaced.) Following an action-packed rescue from certain death, the trio made up of Jack, Henry, and Carina set off for Poseidon's tomb in what becomes yet another egoist tale where every character fends for themselves.

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    Let's face it, this is the type of movie where you know what you're getting going in. (One could view this flagrant repetition negatively, but I find that most audiences prefer pictures that they're accustomed to, which explains the popularity of genre films.) It's no surprise that every "Pirates" story is the same old schtick: there's exotic locations, outstanding art direction, themes with a touch of destiny, childish humor, and of course, who could forget Jack Sparrow's shenanigans, which the latter has become the central concern of the last several installments. (Not only does Depp take center stage in "Dead Men," but every scene is constructed in an effort to place Sparrow in a comical circumstance and nothing more—luckily for us, Depp is still amusing.) 

    I will say this: Despite a beat-around-the-bush plot, a recycled score, and a couple of underdeveloped supporting characters (namely the newcomers), Jeff Nathanson, a writer who's worked on a number of industry sequels, knows how to spin a good yarn. In fact, I would say that this is a fitting end to the "Pirates" universe; however, there's obviously more to come. (Make sure to stay for the post-credit scene that insinuates this unavoidable continuation.) 

    How could you not love Geoffrey Rush? The veteran actor once again steals the spotlight as Captain Hector Barbossa, and even though Depp's Sparrow may garner the most attention, I've never come across a more perfect portrayal of a pirate before. (Rush delivers an electric performance with such style and panache that I almost felt sorry for the other actors appearing on screen.) As for Depp, the Oscar-nominated journeyman continues to serve as a vital contributor to the series, regardless of age or decline in stardom. Depp's character of choice, apart from a growing likeness to Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, displays the same mannerisms and drunken demeanor, and my only complaint pertains to the actor's unwillingness to let this role pass on—as much as I have enjoyed the hijinks of Jack Sparrow over the last decade and a half, it's time for Depp to dabble in the art of drama anew. 

    Other notable mentions: Bardem, an actor who is no stranger to parts brimming with villainy, was clearly the right pick for the role of the ruthless and vindictive Salazar; Thwaites and Scodelario, two rising stars in Hollywood, certainly have their work cut out for them if they are to carry these films with the same magnetism as the original ensemble cast. 

    More so than anything else, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise is about fluid storytelling and cinematographic freedom, and first-time directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg hit the nail on the head with their execution. From bird's-eye views to sublime director interpretive shots (most notably in the gallows scene), these Norwegian filmmakers prove they have a knack for punctilious filmmaking. (More importantly, they bring a sense of continuity to a story that is undoubtedly at a crossroads.) Will I be reflecting on this movie a week from now? I doubt it. Nevertheless, there's more than enough substance here to warrant a positive review, but I have the feeling that I may not be as understanding next time around. Savvy? 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Monster Trucks ★1/2

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    Paramount's latest debacle entitled "Monster Trucks," a movie about a young man who befriends an unusual creature that is keenly adept in the art of truck driving, should serve as a reminder of how half-baked ideas seldom give way to box-office greatness. (It should also provide hope for every wannabe screenwriter in the greater Los Angeles area—if Paramount considers the plot of "Monster Trucks" to be worthy of development, then anything is possible.) This action comedy, which is painfully purposed for the youngest of viewing audiences, may have an appealing cast with genuine promise, yet I could never heap praise on a picture whose main attraction is a giant squid. (In truth, Creech, as the beast is called, is more of a cross between an octopus and a whale; nevertheless, there doesn't seem to be much room for marketability.) And I thought E.T. was repugnant.

    Tripp (Lucas Till) is an ambitious North Dakotan teen who desires to leave his hometown in search of bigger and better things. (The movie implies that it is the dullness of the surrounding countryside that fuels this inclination, and this is not only a slight to the residents of North Dakota, but it's a poor excuse for a motivating force.) Meanwhile, Terravex Energy, which is plainly a representation of Big Oil, hits trouble on a nearby fracking operation when it unleashes three subterranean creatures, one of them being the likable yet repulsive Creech. Eventually, Tripp and Creech happen upon each other, and from this point forward, the feature blossoms into a full-fledged chase film with enough meaningless drivel to make any contemporary of mine sick with boredom. (As for me, I'm afraid that I've become accustomed to these one-dimensional productions, which are slowly becoming the standard in Hollywood.) The only thing worse than the simplistic storyline is the manufactured villains, which, believe it or not, includes a Terravex bounty hunter by the name of Burke (Holt McCallany).

    "Monster Trucks" has all the makings of a Steven Spielberg adventure: there's the troubled teenager with parental issues, the presence of a human-unearthly bond, as well as a conflict stemming from a corrupt corporation, but nothing can subdue the elephant in the room—that being, the unattractiveness of the material. In fact, this is what I like to call a "step back" film, as all parties involved showed signs of regression in their particular filmmaking positions. (It also gives our screenwriter and director an opportunity to view their work objectively, which I'm sure will be a harrowing experience.) Filmmaker Chris Wedge, who's mostly known for his role in several animated successes, shows his competence behind the scenes in what becomes his live-action debut, yet sweeping camera movements and nifty boom shots cannot divert one's attention from the disastrous dialogue that propels the script. (Take away the subtheme concerned with environmentalism, and you have a screenplay that could have been written by any imaginative child or film school dropout.)

    I'm saddened to see budding actress Jane Levy and up-and-coming actor Lucas Till in such abysmal working conditions—quite honestly, they hardly stood a chance. (Levy is as charming and capable as they come; Till, if given the proper nutriment, could become the next Marvel Avenger.) Unfortunately for them, neither star looks or sounds the part—they play a pair of teenagers even though they're clearly much older—and their passionless performances can be chalked up to a bad case of casting fever. (Meaning, they were chosen for their popularity as opposed to their fitting the characters.) Young actors take heed: Sometimes, one must forgo a paycheck in favor of what's suitable, which the latter is more conducive to long-term success.

    Film criticism is a paradoxical profession—this has been the theme of much of my work—and pictures like "Monster Trucks" only prove this notion. On the one hand, the movie's climax is thoroughly engaging, and you'd be hard pressed to find a more jovial conclusion. And yet, where is the lasting value? Where's the significance? (These are rhetorical questions, mind you, but they still touch on the complications associated with film commentary—should we regard the medium strictly as escapism or evaluate it as an art form? There's also the question of whether or not a children's picture should be graded on a different scale (less stringent), but that is neither here nor there. The intent is key no matter the profundity.) Oftentimes, I must decide if I am to give a film, whose aim is that of amusement, a pass for its superficiality or condemn it for the same reasons. (Hence, the contradictory nature of the craft.) In many cases, subjectivity will inevitably rear its head; this is one of those instances. Needless to say, "Monster Trucks" just isn't very good.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Blair Witch - Zero Stars

Blair Witch Movie Review

    Much like "The Forest," a 2016 horror movie that relies heavily on its macabre setting to spur success, "Blair Witch" takes audiences into the Black Hills Forest of Maryland where it proceeds to bore and benumb, and I couldn't help but feel as if I'd seen this rodeo before. (Perhaps that is because this sequel to "The Blair Witch Project" functions more or less as a rebootit not only resembles the fictitious documentary in terms of its story and structure, but it attempts to frighten viewers with the same uninvolving and predictable plot devices.) The formula here is simple: build up a small amount of suspense until there's about a half hour of running time left in the picture, and then pummel moviegoers with an inordinate number of jump scares and grotesque images in the hopes that at least one audience member's blood curdles. Not to sound too harsh, but I hated this movie.

    The storyline goes something like thisJames Donahue (James Allen McCune), a younger sibling to one of the missing hikers from the first film, stumbles upon some video evidence that suggests his older sister may be alive. (Although it has been 20 years since her disappearance, and despite the fact that the FBI scoured the area with little confirmation of her survival, our impressionable protagonist believes there is still hope. To be fair, the FBI never found D.B. Cooper, either.) Donahue recruits a couple of poor saps to aid him in his search (this includes a childhood friend named Peter (Brandon Scott), an aspiring filmmaker in Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and two locals who are obsessed with the Blair Witch legend), and before you know it, the horror flick becomes a carbon copy of the original minus the ingenuity. In layman's terms, the motivation for this particular venture into the woods is dissimilar, yet the happenings that take place are all too familiar.

    Sure, there are several different subjective viewpoints this time around (each character has his or her own filming device), and there are a handful of pulse-pounding moments that might stir up some frightful feelings, but one has to see the bigger picture. (I rarely award a movie zero stars; it is the lack of inherent value, I think, that brings about this rather unenthusiastic assessment. And you know, sometimes you have to send a message.) Of course, there is nothing structurally significant about this film, and outside of a gripping performance by Hernandez, the acting seems to be bumbling at best. Let's call a spade a spade"Blair Witch" is offensively banal and bromidic, and Lionsgate should be ashamed of themselves for this obvious money-grabbing effort.

    Part of the problem is that there is no accountability when it comes to films of this magnitude; I could never blame the actors or filmmakers for their involvement. (It's hard enough getting work in Hollywood as it is, and you've got to take what you can get.) This is simply a blatant attempt to repackage a prior success and sell it as if it were something that it's notunique and worthwhile. I mean, it is "The Blair Witch Project" just refinished and with less inventiveness. Case in point: Screenwriter Simon Barrett is on record stating that his participation in this collusion merely consisted of the crafting of one or two minor characters, and he was basically given a synopsis that mirrored the first script. (Perchance the protagonists could have been a tad more interesting.) Even if "Blair Witch" bombs at the box office, the consequences will surely not be felt. For, Lionsgate has a multitude of profitable products, so what's the big deal if one doesn't perform up to par? It's low-risk filmmaking at its finest, and that, folks, is the real issue.

    In the meantime, can we not put an end to the found-footage film? Clearly, the horror genre has used up all of the allure attached to these kinds of movies, and the camerawork involved could be pulled off by any regular Bob Burns. Which brings me to my follow-up question: Are we ever going to get back to true terror in cinema? Today's horror selections are visibly plagued by an inadequate amount of suspense, and if the truth be known, they also seem to suffer from poor scriptwriting and acting that is by all accounts dreadful. I know I've said a variation of this before, but filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock or even Wes Craven (bless his soul) are not walking through that door. At this very late hour, the horror genre is undoubtedly ailing, and it is going to take more than a heavy dose of jump scares and shaky camera movements to generate something of a worthy offering. One can only trust that next time Lionsgate will spare us all and forget to pull the trigger.

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 apathetic "Earth to Echo") and writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec pay homage to a sizable portion of "Turtles" lore (this includes the live-action films as well as the original animated program), and yet they still cannot comprehend what makes these four heroes so lovable in the first place. Have they no feel for cinema? 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 continue to 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 fistful of performances that come off as completely untextured and an inane display of dialogue that becomes so mind-numbingly dumb and manufactured that 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 finally run its course.) 

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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 extravagant explosions and over-the-top special effects à 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 affixed to such dealings can never detract attention from the film's second-rate air.)

    Be that as it may, 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 obviously 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 had miens that were as fetching as they were spot on. My bet is that 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 see it purely 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.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Angry Birds Movie ★★

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    In what is the second animated feature this year to display a dearth of ingenuity (the remarkably pathetic "Norm of the North" being the first), "The Angry Birds Movie" hits theaters this weekend with little anticipation, and its existence really only calls attention to the lack of imagination that now beleaguers every children's film in production—I'd call it a case of pestilence, yet I think it has more to do with incompetence than actual malady. (Unless, of course, one considers stupidity to be a shining example of affliction.) These flightless feathered friends are quite personable—there is no denying it—but charisma can only do so much. If anything, it is a middling script that grounds these "Angry Birds," and screenwriter Jon Vitti, a man who has contributed to the likes of "The Simpsons" and "The Critic," should receive a heap of the blame. I don't mean to be impertinent, but I expected more from a Harvard graduate.  

    Red (Jason Sudeikis), a cynical and quick-tempered fowl, is finding difficulty fitting in on Bird Island, the reclusive home to these "Angry Birds" and a debatable microcosm of our very own half-witted society. It's not that Red is socially awkward or exceptional in any way—he's simply averse to conformity. (While others indulge in yoga sessions and froyo binges, our uncongenial protagonist lives a life of solitude and disenchantment. All things considered, this sounds like my kind of bird.) This misanthropic demeanor eventually results in Red having to take compulsory anger management courses along with Bomb (Danny McBride) and Chuck (Josh Gad), two offbeat rejects who have everything in common with our chief character except one thing: They actually aspire to be accepted. (If you happen to find this plot summary a bit tedious, then I implore you for your patience. You see, there isn't much else to discuss.)

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    The rest of the picture plays out as a persistent and vexing bad pun (Vitti's wordplay is childish and empty, though you have to give credit for the crafty usage of "cardinal sin"), and our writer even shows us his ribald humor by including quips that refer to men's testicles as "giblets." Why am I sharing this? Well, I hope to notify you of the film's rebarbative and off-putting sense of self; perhaps I can safeguard a few small children from mental scarring in the process. As for the conflict, a horde of brightly green-colored pigs arrive on the island in a manner that evokes the colonization of the early Americas, and in predictable fashion, it is up to our petulant hero to save the day. (Not only does the climax ooze of predictability, but it fails to conjure up a single moment of suspense. Color me not surprised.) 

    All in all, this dutiful effort hints at two things: (1) It proves that a superb showing in the voice acting and art departments cannot overcome a script that doles out more idiocy than intrigue. (2) It also suggests the fruitlessness of the source material. The apps, which are far more fascinating than some spiritless screen adaptation, clearly have a longer shelf life, and "The Angry Birds Movie" will sputter on as a bonafide demonstration of ineptitude at its finest. (It is the movie's mixed messages that make it difficult to award merit—for instance, the film comments on the dangers of conformity and the elation associated with inclusiveness, yet these contradictory statements only complicate matters further.) This botched attempt at satire deserves about as much praise as any video game-based film, and that would be next to nothing.

    I'm beginning to understand why the Disney corporation cleans up every year at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. For, the competition is weak and altogether undeserving. (With the exception of DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon" franchise, Disney should have little cause for concern.) Now, I've given this issue some considerable thought, and all I can say is that there seems to be a disconnect amongst the interests of today's youth and quality entertainment. (Godawful writing also plays its part, yet one cannot ignore the forgettable fads and fixations in which our children are exposed to year after year.) After a while, this merry-go-round of poorly produced films intended for a juvenile audience becomes tiresome, and I'm not sure if there is a feasible solution or savior in sight. If only Don Bluth were 30 years younger and primed to make a run at Best Animated Feature.

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 visually stunning 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 novel to a T (sans two notable subplots involving an adolescent 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 and 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") knows how to produce a savvy and engaging picture, but that is plainly 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 exorbitant 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 find 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 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 extravaganza built to spellbind audiences with its staggering 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 this 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 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 explicitly the best of the bunch. (Although ephemeral, 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 from the timeless "Apocalypse Now," is 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 immersive 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. Naturally, 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 ineluctably 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 primarily 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 undeniably 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 relatively nothing 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 without 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 assist 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 an unavailing 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 for 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 so happens, I had to hold in a chuckle or two during the heroes' first encounter, and I can only describe the scene as glaringly farcical.

    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 personation of the character of Bruce Wayne. (I wish that I could be as complimentary of Cavill as the "Man of Steel," yet it is clear that Cavill adopted the "outside only" approach to acting when preparing for the role, and it is his lack of zeal that underscores what is largely a lifeless exhibition.) Correct me if I am wrong, but the beautiful and very skilled Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman may just be the most agreeable 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 hint of emotion, but his efforts merely come off as contrived and forced, and the entire endeavor can best be described 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 filtersor some other technique to achieve the sought-after resultsbut 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 insufferable. (Of course, this practice is quite standard, yet it is something that has become problematic over the years.) I've mostly found superhero films to be enjoyable, but watch out for when Capitol Hill gets involved.