Monday, August 20, 2007

TMNT (2007)

I consider myself to be very much a child of the '80s, or more specifically, a lover of '80s pop culture. I think the only pop culture phenomena I didn't get into were the Transformers and G.I. Joe. Look up in my attic, and you'll see toys representing the Ghostbusters, He-Man, and Super Friends, along with a handful of Thundercats and even MASK toys. Also up there are toys based on my favorite reptilian superhero quartet, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I've spoken in three other reviews that I totally bought into Turtlemania in the late '80s, and although I was sad to see their reign over America's children end, I can't say that I didn't see it coming. Yeah, there were a few attempts to resurrect the Ninja Turtles, like that forgettable live-action show in 1997 and the Saturday morning cartoon that Fox began airing in 2003. But truth be told, I never really got into either of them. Because of that, I was beginning to think that maybe I'd put actually aside some childish things after all.

That is, until I heard that an animated sequel to the live-action movie trilogy was going to be produced. I knew that it was a movie I had to see. But for years, it went through developmental hell. John Woo was attached to direct at one point, and there was talk of making a movie that would balance live-action actors with computer-generated characters. However, the choice was made to go with a fully CG-animated film that — with the title abbreviated to merely TMNT — finally hit theaters on March 23, 2007, just one week shy of the original movie's seventeenth anniversary. And on that day, there was much rejoicing from yours truly.

In the years since they triumphantly defeated Shredder and the Foot Clan, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have put their glory days as a crime-fighting quartet behind them and have gone on to different things. Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) started his own one-turtle tech support company; Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) is "Cowabunga Carl," a costumed performer for children's birthday parties; and Raphael (Nolan North) has become an aggressive Batman-like masked vigilante known as "The Nightwatcher."

The fourth Turtle, Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor), has recently returned to the sewers of New York City after a year in a Central American jungle, where he was sent on a soul-searching mission by Master Splinter (Mako) with the intention of making him a stronger leader. Leonardo's return is greeted warmly by Donatello and Michelangelo, but he quickly finds himself butting heads with a resentful Raphael.

However, the hostility between Leonardo and Raphael isn't all that the Turtles have to worry about. Having left her life as a television reporter behind, April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has gotten into the archaeology business, with live-in boyfriend — and hockey-masked vigilante — Casey Jones (Chris Evans) handling the transportation and delivery of the artifacts she discovers. April has recently been hired to track down a collection of four ancient stone statues for billionaire industrialist Max Winters (Patrick Stewart), who has big plans for them. Very, very big plans.

Three thousand years ago, Winters was once known as Yoatl, a warrior king that sought to conquer the world. He had learned of a constellation named "the Stars of Kikan," which align every three thousand years, creating a portal whose energy would grant immortality to whomever opened it. Yoatl did open that portal and became immortal, but the consequences were dire; his army was turned to stone, and thirteen monsters were unleashed upon our world.

With the Stars of Kikan once again nearing alignment, the man now known as Max Winters prepares to break the curse of immortality that has plagued him for so long. As he readies to once again open the portal, he calls upon the remnants of the Foot Clan and their leader, Karai (Ziyi Zhang), to search for the thirteen monsters so he may return them to their dimension. He also successfully revives his four stone generals — Aguila (Kevin Michael Richardson), Gato (Fred Tatasciore), Santino (John DiMaggio), and Serpiente (Paula Mattioli) — and charges them with capturing the monsters.

But once the four generals realize that Winters will be taking away their immortality along with his own by sending the monsters back, they go into business for themselves. As things come to a climax, the Ninja Turtles must get past their sibling rivalries and stop the portal from releasing even more monsters into our plane of existence (and thus causing, for all intents and purposes, the apocalypse).

While it might not be a movie of Pixar-like proportions, TMNT is a wonderful little movie that doesn't let its shortcomings get in the way of its ability to entertain its audience. Yes, I just might be a little bit biased because I'm a fan of the Ninja Turtles, but their cinematic resurrection is a lot of fun to watch. The animation is fluid, the action is tight, and the voice acting is well-done. And though I thought the plot needed a little work, everything comes together to create a charming movie that I believe both kids and adults could enjoy.

As someone whose childhood was spent in front of the television watching their animated adventures, in the toy stores buying their action figures and playsets, and at the arcade pumping quarters into their video games, I have to say that I was in no way, shape, or form let down or disappointed by TMNT. It's everything I could have possibly hoped for. TMNT is the kind of cartoon that I'd have loved as a child, and the kind that the part of me who refuses to grow up still loves to this day.

Writer/director Kevin Munroe has done a fantastic job in putting this movie together. Munroe and Hong Kong animation studio Imagi have crafted a movie that looks nothing short of spectacular, like the characters have been taken straight out of the original comic books. I've read online that some people weren't into the movie's particular style of animation because it was more cartoony and stylized than the ultra-realistic CGI in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but I think that it works just fine for the Ninja Turtles. I point specifically to the epic showdown in the rain between Leonardo and Raphael. The character design in this scene looks particularly fantastic, wonderfully accented by the individually animated drops of rain. The work of Munroe and Imagi is gorgeous, and it's almost enough to make that worth the price of admission alone.

It's enhanced by the amazing music composed by Klaus Badelt, a score that properly and excellently evokes all the right emotions for each scene. It's marvelous music that really works even outside of the movie. Munroe also takes the opportunity to sneak in references to the franchise's past. Props from the three live-action movies — Shredder's helmet, the broken canister of ooze from Turtles II, the time scepter from Turtles III — all appear; a veiled reference to the Triceratons from the comics appears in the background of one scene; Michelangelo's "Cowabunga Carl" costume resembles the appearance of the Turtles in the '80s cartoon. It's these little things that make the movie just as special for the longtime, diehard fans as it would be for people just now getting into the Turtles. You almost have the movie more than once to catch everything.

Munroe's script is also acceptable, but the plot is unfortunately muddled. There's the feud between Leonardo and Raphael, Max Winters and the four generals, the Foot Clan, and the thirteen monsters (that are pretty much overblown MacGuffins). It's kinda tough to follow what's going on even if you're paying extra-close attention, and when you can make heads or tails of it, some parts feel kinda hollow. I appreciate his attempt to tell a story without going back to the all-too-familiar Shredder well, but I got the impression that Munroe just slapped something together in order to get the franchise off and rolling again.

And could the setup for the sequel have been any more obvious? They might has well have just said, "You guys are gonna fight Shredder in the next sequel, and it's gonna be awesome." If you're going to beat subtlety into the ground, why not finish it off all together?

However, there is some good in Munroe's script. The jokes are really funny for the most part, the verbal references to the past iterations of the Ninja Turtles are a lot of fun, and the way he has written the characters really pulls you in if you allow yourself to care about them. He also brings the long-smoldering rivalry between Leonardo and Raphael to the forefront and handles it well, though it almost comes at the expense of making Donatello and Michelangelo background characters. I'd also would have liked seeing more screen time for Karai, but I guess the mystery behind her can be built upon in future movies.

Lastly is the cast, one of the movie's most crucial ingredients. Veteran voice actors James Arnold Taylor, Nolan North, Mitchell Whitfield, and Mikey Kelley all bring a lot to the table as the Ninja Turtles. All of them are great, with Taylor and North handling the pathos, Whitfield handling the exposition, and Kelley doing the comic relief thing with gusto. The rest of the cast is composed of actors who gained fame with live-action work, all of whom are wonderful. Mako, who sadly passed away eight months before the movie's theatrical release, is fantastic as Master Splinter, bringing a sense of wisdom, fatherly warmth, and humor that the character needs.

Patrick Stewart is also fine as Max Winters, though not a whole lot is asked of him. He does have a great voice, though; I'm surprised he doesn't get more voice work than he does. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Chris Evans hand in sweet, amiable performances as April O'Neil and Casey Jones, and Ziyi Zhang is well-suited as Karai, contributing a performance that adds to her character's mysterious nature. Even the cameos by Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Smith are awesome.

Is TMNT a perfect movie? No, I can't say that it is. But it is a lot of fun, and that's really all that someone like me can ask for. It's an entertaining movie, taking a property and making it as kid-friendly as ever, yet letting it grow up and mature with the audience that fell in love with the Ninja Turtles twenty years ago. If the movie's intentions were to satiate old fans, create new ones, and reinvigorate a brand name that had become something almost resembling a relic of days gone by, then TMNT just might be a success. It reminded me why I became a fan of the Ninja Turtles to begin with, and most importantly, why being a kid in the '80s was so much fun. So I'll give TMNT three and a half stars (leaning towards four) and a loud, proud "cowabunga."

Final Rating: ***½

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hollywoodland (2006)

I think it can be stated without much argument that Superman could be called the greatest comic book superhero of all time, having long ago transcended his origins on the printed page by becoming a true cultural icon that is as much a part of Americana as baseball and apple pie. The Man of Steel has had his share of memorable moments since he first appeared in the pages of Action Comics #1 in 1938, but one moment connected to the character is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Millions of children across America during the 1950s were absolutely enthralled with the television show The Adventures of Superman, making the show a huge hit and bringing fame to its lead actor, George Reeves. But these same children were devastated when they awoke on the morning of June 16, 1959, and saw the headline "TV'S 'SUPERMAN' KILLS SELF" on the front page of their local newspapers. Reeves, the man a generation of youngsters had come to see as the real-life face of their beloved superhero, was dead due to a gunshot wound to the head.

Investigators concluded that the shot was self-inflicted, but the five decades that have passed since then have given way to conspiracy theories that perhaps Reeves was not the one to pull the trigger after all. These theories eventually evolved into Hollywoodland, a movie that concurrently tells both the rise and fall of Reeves's career, as well as a fictionalized account of an investigation into his tragic demise. And folks, it's a damn fine movie.

Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a sleazy private detective, working out of a cheap flophouse apartment with his secretary and live-in girlfriend, Kit Holliday (Caroline Dhavernas). When he isn't stringing along his clients to make as much money as possible, he struggles to stay connected to his estranged son Evan (Zach Mills), one of the many young boys negatively affected by the death of George Reeves (Ben Affleck). After hearing that Reeves's mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), believes that her son was murdered, Simo smooth-talks her into hiring him to look into it.

But what begins as a way for Simo to make an easy paycheck and get his name in the newspapers turns into something much more. As his investigation continues, he begins to discover that a number of people in Reeves's life had a motive to murder him. Turns out he was sleeping around with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), whose husband ― MGM Studios general manager Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) ― has no qualms with using underworld connections to make "potential problems" disappear. Another suspect is his fiancée, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), with whom he frequently quarreled. 

And then there's all the holes that appear in the case. The suicide contains questionable physics, there were no fingerprints on the gun, there are two mysterious bullet holes in the floor, and there's the fact that it took forty-five minutes before any of the people at Reeves's house at the time called the police. So how did George Reeves die? Did his fiancée shoot him after a particularly bitter argument? Did his mistress, angry over having been left for a younger woman, have her husband put a hit on him? Or in a bout of depression brought on by his floundering career, did he shoot himself after all?

Hollywoodland is not just a story about the fictional investigation into an actor's death. It is a story of how one reacts after to hitting rock bottom, and how there are so many ways things can go wrong, but only so few ways things can go right. It is a story of love and loyalty, of the search for fame and the disillusionment that can come with it, and ultimately of redemption. It's a story that is told wonderfully, with wonderful direction, acting, and writing that makes it a fantastic movie.

Let's go with the screenplay first. Penned by Paul Bernbaum, the screenplay bounces back and forth between Louis Simo's story and the last ten years of George Reeves's life. When I first saw Hollywoodland during its theatrical run last year, I wished they had just stuck to Reeves's story, which I believed to be the more intriguing of the two. But upon revisiting it on DVD, I don't know if the stories could coexist without one another, because the characters are so much alike. Their stories might have quite different conclusions, but they oddly mirror one another. Both start the movie just trying to get a little attention, but as things progress, both Reeves and Simo learn that the things they want are not always what they appear to be. Simo's lousy relationship with his estranged wife and son and accepting any job that comes along as long as he gets a paycheck parallels Reeves's love life and the hardships being recognized as Superman had on his career. The fact that Simo's story ends so differently from Reeves's makes his death feel more tragic, and leaving one to wonder just what could have happened had Reeves's real life tale had its own happy ending.

Bernbaum also takes things in a different direction than most film noirs by not settling on one particular resolution. He doesn't point any fingers at who's to blame for Reeves's death, but instead takes a page from Akira Kurosawa's classic Rashomon and presents three different theories as to what happened, allowing the viewer to make their own conclusions. It's an intriguing way to handle things, and it gives the audience something to talk about once the credits have rolled. The relatively open ending makes for a great topic of debate, and perhaps it was the best way to keep the mystery of Reeves's death alive.

Making his feature film debut after directing television shows, particularly numerous episodes of The Sopranos and Sex in the City, Allen Coulter shows a lot of promise as a movie director. His work here is sound, successfully balancing the two separate timelines with ease. He and cinematographer Jonathan Freeman craft a visually appealing film with their great camerawork, filming Simo's scenes somewhat roughly and Reeves's with a fancy elegance. Certain color schemes and lighting techniques are also used to enhance the movie. Things are bright and happy during many of Reeves's scenes, shadowy during Eddie's scenes and when Reeves undergoes moments of emotional crisis, and moving to washed-out sepia tones during Simo's scenes. These differences in color really go a long way in establishing the proper mood and tone for the movie. Helping this is the fine music composed by Marcelo Zarvos, a blues and jazz-oriented score that really gives the movie a big boost.

Last but not least is the movie's greatest ingredient, its cast. Every actor and actress in the movie does a fantastic job, especially those playing the four primary characters. Adrien Brody is great as washed-up private eye Louis Simo, handling well the character's arc as an opportunistic slimeball that learns over the course of the movie that there are perhaps more important things in life than money and recognition. Diane Lane is nothing short of wonderful from start to finish as Toni Mannix. She plays the role with a certain vulnerability, yet is still a strong, take-charge kind of woman when she needs to be. Bob Hoskins also turns in an admirable performance as Eddie Mannix, but since it seems like he's used to playing heavies, it's probably not all that much of a challenge for him at this point in his career. Robin Tunney, Lois Smith, and Jeffrey DeMunn also do fine jobs as Reeves's fiancée, mother, and agent respectively.

But perhaps my favorite performance among the cast was Ben Affleck. Hollywoodland marks Affleck's big comeback after spending three years out of the scene, and it's ironic that he's playing George Reeves. Reeves's career stalled out after The Adventures of Superman, and though he still got work in movies like From Here to Eternity, he went to his grave known primarily as Superman. His story is a sad one, the movie depicting him as so unable to break away from the shadow of the Man of Steel that he was left left a depressed and brokenhearted man. Quite similarly, Affleck's career suffered a severe slump as well, thanks to a combination of his overexposed relationship with Jennifer Lopez, and the bad luck of starring in four straight movies — Gigli, Paycheck, Saving Christmas, and Jersey Girl — that underperformed at the box office. But Hollywoodland marks his return to movies, and it's a good place for him to start. Affleck plays the role perfectly, sucking the viewer in with his at times humorous, at times utterly sympathetic performance. It's a shame that he didn't receive at least a nomination for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, because he definitely deserved it.

I wouldn't say that Hollywoodland isn't the greatest neo-noir ever made, but it's certainly one of the best in recent memory. It never tries to be more than what it is, and that is a tale of a man who reached for the stars, yet ultimately could not pay the high cost of living in Hollywood. George Reeves's life ended under disheartening consequences no matter who you believe pulled the trigger that night, but to paraphrase the movie's tagline, dying in Hollywood perhaps brought him a greater fame than he had in life. And it goes without saying that that fame made for a great movie.

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Every genre has a number of sub-genres, some more prevalent and noticeable than others. Take, for example, action movies. There's numerous styles of action movies, but few are more clichéd the "buddy cop" movie. Movies like Point Break, Die Hard With A Vengeance, and the 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, and Rush Hour franchises are all about a duo (one or both of whom are a police officer) that get into a few gunfights and car chases, cause lots of explosions and chaos and mayhem, and save the day without a moment's hesitation.

After successfully lampooning horror movies in their marvelous British zombie flick Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost teamed up once again to give American action movies the same treatment with Hot Fuzz. And just like their previous movie, Hot Fuzz is nothing short of spectacular.

Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is the perfect police officer. So perfect, in fact, that he manages to outclass and outperform every other officer on London's Metropolitan Police Service on a regular basis. His mind-boggling overachievement earns him not only a promotion to the rank of sergeant, but a transfer as well. Nicholas's superiors have decided to reassign him to a town where he won't be able to make them look bad anymore: Sandford, a sleepy rural community that appears to be virtually devoid of any crime whatsoever.

Once he arrives in town, he's immediately enforcing the law, clearing out a pub full of underage drinkers and arresting someone for drunk driving. Turns out that the drunk driver is his new partner, Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), the naïve but enthusiastic son of the local police chief (Jim Broadbent). A devoted fan of police-centered action movies, particularly Point Break and Bad Boys 2, Danny is completely in awe of Nicholas, who he believes lives a life as dangerous and as exciting as the lives of his favorite movie characters.

But as the two new partners bond, Nicholas finds himself having a rough time adapting to his new, simpler life in Sandford. Outside of writing parking tickets, catching shoplifters, reprimanding a farmer for illegally clipping a neighbor's hedges before discovering a massive cache of unlicensed weaponry in his barn, and tracking down the occasional lost swan, nothing of note happens in Sandford. That is, until the murders begin. The small town is rocked by a series of violent deaths that, despite all evidence pointing towards foul play, are dismissed as tragic accidents, with only Nicholas convinced that these accident victims were murdered.

As he tries to get to the bottom of things, the fact that people just aren't murdered in Sandford causes his fellow police officers to relentlessly mock his overzealousness even in the face of the bizarre, unlikely explanations for these so-called "accidents." But Nicholas remains undaunted, vowing to catch the killer even if it costs him his reputation (or worse). But just who is the murderer? Is it Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton), the sleazy supermarket owner that's way too suspicious for his own good? Could it be one of Sandford's more eccentric residents? Or could it be someone else entirely?

Hot Fuzz is quite similar to Shaun of the Dead, in that both of them successfully and hilariously satirize their chosen genres before actually becoming a great genre film in and of themselves. And although Hot Fuzz doesn't hit start really going wild with the action stuff until the last thirty minutes, it's an amazing twist on all the silly conventions that appear in every movie like this. Until then, it's a pretty straightforward murder mystery. That's the great thing about Hot Fuzz, too. Recent parodies — the Scary Movie franchise, Date Movie, Epic Movie — have no respect for the movies they mock, just stringing things along from one weak gag to the next with nothing remotely resembling a story.

Hot Fuzz, on the other hand, actually crafts a story and lets the humor develop naturally from that. It has a sly intelligence that, although it pokes fun at the silliness recurrent in other cop movies, also exhibits why the filmmakers love these movies so much. The best kind of parodies are the ones that draw humor from imitating clichés, not denigrating them. That's why the brains behind Hot Fuzz have been making such great comedies, because they understand that.

The direction by Edgar Wright is wonderful, teaming with cinematographer Jess Hall to visually reference the style of various directors to emphasize the movie's satirical nature. The fast-paced style of Tony Scott's Man on Fire and Domino are humorously referenced in scenes that would be considered mundane otherwise, while they use the murder mystery angle to work in visual nods to Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, Roman Polanski's Repulsion, and Dario Argento's Italian giallo movies.

Wright also uses music to emphasize things, using certain songs by various British rock bands to add either humor or a certain semblance of dread (or both) to particular scenes. For example, the character of Simon Skinner drives by the locations of the murders while listening to music that oddly coincides with the victims or how they met their end. It really enhances the sleaziness of the character, which I'm sure is what Wright was aiming for. And Wright's use of certain bits of music taken directly from action movies — such as the music from the trailers for all four Lethal Weapon movies — also really enhances the satire as a whole. The score composed by David Arnold also successfully imitates the typical music heard in action movies, enhancing the exciting and dramatic scenes as necessitated and being quite effective in the process.

The screenplay pegged by Wright and Simon Pegg is also thoroughly spectacular. Things really don't start getting crazy-go-nuts until the last thirty minutes of the movie, but that's not to say that the first ninety aren't worth watching. The movie is very much driven by its characters and its plot, and neither are letdowns. Each of the characters has something about them that makes them worth watching, and the dialogue is full of lines worth quoting once the end credits have rolled. Wright and Pegg also set up numerous gags, both visual and through dialogue, that end up coming back at later points in the movie to humorous effect. And while the humor during the first hour and a half is a tad more restrained than the over-the-top finale, the whole thing is comic gold.

Wright and Pegg also make sure to reference various action movie standards, from character constructs to one-liners to how the action goes down. There are also numerous subtle jabs at these clichés too, especially the "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" relationship between Nicholas and Danny. It seems like a lot of these "buddy cop" movies have a faint homoerotic subtext, whether it's intentional or not. Wright and Pegg seem to have noticed that, and the duo have Nicholas and Danny share numerous moments that would seemingly lead to a lurid encounter. But things stay purely platonic, which only makes the whole thing that much funnier.

Last but not least is Hot Fuzz's amazing cast. The team of Pegg and Nick Frost make the entire movie, as the pair have a spectacular comedic chemistry together. Separately, they're just as entertaining. Pegg is fantastic portraying Nicholas as a straight-laced, tough-as-nails supercop that's so devoted to upholding the law that he has no clue how to loosen up, while Frost plays Danny with a childlike enthusiasm that makes the character thoroughly lovable.

But let's not forget the rest of the cast, either. Timothy Dalton gleefully plays the role of Simon Skinner, almost as if he were Snidely Whiplash come to life. Jim Broadbent is warm and amiable, and Paddy Considine, Rafe Spall, and Olivia Colman are a lot of fun as members of the Sandford police force. Colman's character's double entendres and the smart-alecky antagonism of Considine and Spall's characters toward Nicholas and Danny are some of the movie's lesser-acknowledged highlights, and the performances of the actors make that so. Even the cameos from well-known names like Bill Nighy and Cate Blanchett are great.

Hot Fuzz might be considered a parody of action movies, but it's about a much a parody of those films as Chicken Run is a parody of World War 2 prisoner-of-war movies. It's more of a comedic homage to movies of a similar style, but even if it's considered a parody, I'm willing to bet that Hot Fuzz is better than most of the action movies that it imitates. It's phenomenal from start to finish, an entertaining movie that's worth being watched by both fans of action movies and comedies. Shaun of the Dead was a tough act to follow, but Wright, Pegg, and Frost pulled it off nicely. I'm giving Hot Fuzz four and a half stars and a hearty seal of approval.

Final Rating: ****½