Monday, November 24, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay ― Part 1 (2014)

When I entered that darkened theater two years ago to see The Hunger Games, I was unsure of what to expect. I feared that it would be another dull, dreary adaptation of a young adult novel in the same vein as Twilight and its damnable sequels. But when I left, I was not only pleasantly surprised, but actually impressed by how good the movie was. It's not a huge leap to assume that I'm not the only one that felt that way, as the movie did huge at the box office, as did its equally good sequel, Catching Fire. It was only natural that Hollywood would get around to turning the third book in Suzanne Collins's trilogy into a movie as well. And much like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn, the final Hunger Games novel would be turned into two movies. Because why make a ton of money off one movie when you can make twice as much with two movies? So since it'll be next year before we get to see the full novel realized as a film, let's go ahead and check out the first half of Mockingjay and see where it goes.

District 12 is no more. Bombed into nothingness by a vengeful President Snow (Donald Sutherland) after Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) committed a blatant act of defiance to conclude the Quarter Quell. The few survivors seek refuge in the underground bunkers of District 13, the thought-destroyed district left isolated and independent from the rest of Panem. It is there that the fires of rebellion burn the hottest, and with Katniss among the refugees, District 13's president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), sees an opportunity to raise the stakes of their rebellion.

Katniss's actions during her actions in the Hunger Games arena have sparked angry riots across Panem, and Coin asks her to accept her role as "the Mockingjay" and become the face of their movement. Her answer is a flat no, refusing to associate with the rebellion because they allowed Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) be taken into the Capitol's custody in the chaos following the Quarter Quell. Things change, however, when Peeta begins appearing on television extolling the virtues of the Capitol and pleading with the Districts to lay down their arms.

Convinced that Peeta is being coerced into these pro-Capitol speeches, Katniss agrees to become the Mockingjay on the condition that Peeta be rescued. And with District 13's propaganda pieces making their way into the districts through a series of hijacked TV broadcasts, the civil unrest begins to grow even further. The citizens of Panem rising up against their oppressors, however, will make rescuing Peeta may be harder than it seems. Because if one thing is for certain, it's that President Snow is not a man to be angered or trifled with.

I'm not a fan of this recent trend of splitting the last book in a series into two movies. You're only getting half a story, and both halves run the risk of feeling bloated because having to make two movies means being unable to streamline the source material. And honestly, those are the biggest problems I have with Mockingjay ― Part 1. The movie isn't a bad one, but thanks to the novel's bisection, it feels woefully incomplete and far too padded out.

Director Francis Lawrence returns to the franchise's helm, and his work here is once again fantastic. He crafts something with a bigger, broader scope than one would expect from these "adapted from tween literature" movies. I also thought he did a great job making District 13 feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. But the bad part is that the movie starts feeling sluggish and slow after a while. There are moments where the movie repeats itself or resorts to useless filler rather than eliminate the expendable fluff from the book and just give us one single movie out of it. For example, there's a scene where District 13's citizens must retreat to safety due to an air raid. The scene goes on for what feels like forever and it isn't really all that exciting to boot. Lawrence could have easily chopped a few minutes out of it and it wouldn't have hurt the movie in the slightest.

I also felt like the movie did not end with as big a bang as it could have. Thanks to a dull epilogue, it just sort of coasts to a stop. Had the epilogue been removed outright and the movie ended with the violent scene just before it, the cliffhanger would have been the right punch in the gut to make the "one book, two movies" thing worth it. Perhaps writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig wanted to use it to give us a few steps forward into Mockingjay ― Part 2? That sounds plausible. But all it did for me was just give me five minutes to cool down between what could have been a pretty great ending and the closing credits. It just feels like more padding in a movie already full of it.

The movie's cast, however, is so good that it makes up for nearly every flaw. Among the supporting cast, Liam Hemsworth does a fine job. I can't say I've ever really been a fan of Hemsworth before, but he's seriously upped his game here and actually provides one of the movie's most compelling moments. The same can be said for Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson. Claflin is really charismatic and likable, while Hutcherson's increasingly strung-out appearance and obviously intimidated behavior make him all the more sympathetic.

Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman all make impressive contributions, and while Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks don't get a lot of screen time, both are wonderful to have around. (The fact that the audience I saw the movie with loudly cheered and applauded when Harrelson and Banks make their first appearances says a lot.)

I was also very impressed by how into his role Donald Sutherland has gotten. His President Snow is cunning, calculating, playing a mental game of chess where he is always two steps ahead of Katniss and the rebels of District 13. His coldhearted yet civil (almost unnervingly friendly) demeanor makes him off-putting and intimidating without him even really having to try. Sutherland makes Snow a great villain, one of the best I've seen in the last few years.

But as with the first movie and Catching Fire, the movie is once again owned by Jennifer Lawrence. My respect for Lawrence's talent increases with every movie I see her in, and I can say I was also impressed by her work here as well. She brings a heck of a lot more to the character than one would expect, a ton of nuance and depth that lends a lot more gravitas to Katniss. Katniss feels real because Lawrence makes her real. Every angry, impassioned speech, every overwhelming feeling of defeat and anguish and loss; they all hit the mark because Lawrence is that damn good.

The Hunger Games movies have never been completely perfect. Good as they may be, they all have their own flaws. And Mockingjay ― Part 1 is the most flawed of them all. I'm sure my appreciation for it will increase once I'm able to watch it concurrently with the second half next year, but the movie just seems like a step down from the first two movies. I will say I thought they were brave for making the movie more of a quiet drama rather than an action movie, but that isn't really what I wanted to see. But Mockingjay ― Part 2 is only a year away, right?

Final Rating: ***

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nightcrawler (2014)

"If it bleeds, it leads."

If you've ever wondered why there are so many tragic and sensationalistic stories on every TV news show and every newspaper headline, those five words up above are the simplest explanation. Good news doesn't get the ratings that violence and scandal do. That idea serves as the core concept for the recently released flick Nightcrawler, a brilliantly done neo-noir that takes a look at the more lurid parts of broadcast journalism. And if you want my opinion, it's a hell of a movie.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), an unemployed petty thief selling stolen scrap metal for chump change in order to scrape together whatever cash he can. But steady work looks to be on the way for Louis one night when he passes a car accident on the highway. Among the police and EMTs is Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who Louis notices filming the scene before calling a local TV news director to negotiate the sale of his footage. If legitimate businessmen won't hire him, Louis thinks to himself, then he'll just go into business for himself.

Pawning off a stolen bicycle for a camcorder and police scanner, Louis tries following Joe's lead but doesn't have much success initially. But when he gets a lucky break and lands some exclusive footage of the dying victim of a carjacking, he manages to sell it for an impressive sum to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director whose channel is struggling in the ratings. Louis and Nina quickly form a business partnership that sees Louis getting more and more successful. So successful, in fact, that he's able to hire a assistant in the form of a naïve young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) to help him out. But the need for better, more intense footage soon gets to Louis, and reckless driving isn't enough to get him there. Soon he's tampering with evidence and staging crime scenes in order to get more dramatic shots, a path that will take Louis down a very dark, morally grey road.

Nightcrawler is not a particularly happy movie. It's a dark movie that has no problem following its lead character as he heads into some ethically questionable territory. Its critique of the salacious, overly sensationalistic parts of journalism that puts every tragedy that befalls every well-to-do white suburban family at the forefront isn't anything that hasn't been pointed out in the past. But by putting us right in the thick of it and using its lead character as a lightning rod for it, Nightcrawler constructs itself in a way that makes it absolutely fascinating to watch and hard to take your eyes off of.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy doesn't really approach the material he's tackling with a lot of subtlety; I've read one review that compared Nightcrawler to someone taking Peter Finch's "I'm as mad as hell " monologue from Network and turning it into a feature-length movie. But that doesn't hurt the movie, as Gilroy still builds it into something special. I will say that I got the feeling while watching it that perhaps Gilroy might have studied a lot of Michael Mann and Brian De Palma movies while preparing to make Nightcrawler. His direction doesn't have quite the same artistic flair as Mann or De Palma's work (and I'd love to see how either of them would have tackled this one), but there's something about Nightcrawler that gives it a similar vibe. There's a certain grimy feeling to it, something inherently seedy, a grittiness that makes the gorgeous Los Angeles cityscapes we see feel more unsettling than anything else. It feels a lot like what Mann similarly did with the city in Collateral, or how De Palma framed Philadelphia in Blow Out. And that's actually not a bad thing at all.

Gilroy's script, though, is where the movie starts getting good. Like I said, there's not a lot of subtlety or nuance in how he tackles his subject matter, but it really works as a character study of those involved with it. The story itself is secondary; it isn't so much a linear narrative as it is a series of vignettes that show what Lines Louis will cross as he pursues his odd vision of the American Dream. He's a captivating character to watch because of how charismatic he is despite being a really unlikable person at his core. The flowery dialogue Gilroy has written for him sounds like cheap clichés that were stolen from some corporate motivational poster, something that works perfectly for the character. He's obviously putting on an act, hiding his ultirior motives as he manipulates people for his own gain.

It's helped by the fact that Gilroy has assembled a great cast. Rene Russo and Bill Paxton (whose role is too small and thankless, honestly) are good in their roles, while the fact that Riz Ahmed isn't given a whole lot to do actually makes sense since his character isn't either. But like how the story belongs to his character, Nightcrawler belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal. He's utterly fantastic in the role. The idea that Louis is putting on a façade that belies his amoral, greed-driven nature is made even more evident through Gyllenhaal's performance. He comes across like he's channelling elements of Christian Bale in American Psycho, only less blatantly psychotic but equally cutthroat and sociopathic. Gyllenhaal's Louis is constantly thinking, planning, attempting to stay one step ahead of everyone else. It's an amazing bit of acting that makes Nightcrawler worth seeing just for Jake Gyllenhaal alone.

I don't have any problem saying that Nightcrawler is right up there with Birdman as one of the best movies I've seen during all of 2014. It stumbles once in a whole, and there's a few scenes that run a little too long, but it still succeeds at being an exciting, entertaining thriller. Everything about it is crafted in such a way that keeps you from being able to take your eyes off of the screen. It's a unique take on a long-discussed idea, a neo-noirish flick that doesn't hold back. Nightcrawler is that kind of movie.

Final Rating: ****

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

"A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing."

This quote, apocryphally attributed to the late writer Susan Sontag, appears as a rather prominent piece of set design in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). While the idea behind that quote factors heavily into Birdman's plot, the irony of it is not completely lost on me either. Birdman is a movie that does not need me or anyone else to critique it, whether our reviews are either positive or negative. It simply is what it is. But if you want my personal opinion, Birdman is one hell of a movie. It flawlessly blends humor and drama into a movie that is worth your time and effort, because it's the best I've seen all year.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once one of the hottest actors in Hollywood, his career bolstered by his starring role as the winged superhero Birdman in a series of blockbuster movies. But when he stepped away from the role after Birdman 3 out of fear of being typecast, his career nosedived and he ultimately faded into relative obscurity. His only notoriety comes now from people vaguely recognizing him and telling their young children, "He used to play Birdman."

Twenty years after he left the Birdman franchise, Riggan has decided to make a comeback by adapting the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" for the Broadway stage. It's an ambitious effort, as Riggan is writing, directing, and starring the play. But with opening night looming, problems arise with enough frequency that the whole thing seems like a comedy of errors. They start off (relatively) simple: Budgetary woes threaten to cripple the production and nearly cause Riggan's producer and best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to keel over from the stress; his co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) claims she's pregnant with his baby; lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a nearly inconsolable bundle of nerves because this is her first role on Broadway; and all this as Riggan tries to get a handle on his rocky relationship with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab and struggling to maintain her sobriety.

Things start snowballing quickly, however. Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a last-minute replacement for another actor who was injured during rehearsals, is incredibly talented, but is also a prima donna whose obnoxious and volatile behavior puts him at odds with Riggan and the rest of the cast. Embarrassing moments from the disastrous preview performances start going viral. An influential New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) has already promised to absolutely murder the play with a negative review before she's even seen it. And in the process, Riggan's own ego and self-doubt manifest themselves as an inner monologue that speaks in his old Birdman voice, egging him on while slowly pushing his sanity to its breaking point.

Birdman is a deceptively deep movie. On the surface, it comes across as a movie about some washed-up actor trying to reclaim some semblance of fame and the misadventures that come from such an endeavor. That's how the trailers and TV commercials appear to be selling it, anyway. But there's so much more going on underneath the surface waiting to be discovered if one just takes the time to look for it. It's a tale of how popularity and love aren't always the same thing, that fame is fleeting and that reclaiming it doesn't guarantee happiness.

There are enough things contributing to how good the movie is that I don't know if I can give credit to just one person. But I will say that a good portion of that credit should go to director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. His efforts here are absolutely masterful, constructing each scene in such a way that you can't take your eyes away from the screen. Iñárritu's choice to have cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot the movie with handheld cameras and construct the footage such a way that it feels like the movie was done in one long take (akin to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope or La Casa Muda/Silent House) makes the movie visually riveting. When you combine this with the intimate feeling created by it being predominantly set in the cramped dressing rooms and back hallways of a Broadway theater, it really sucks you into the world Iñárritu wants to create and into the mindsets of the characters.

Iñárritu builds his own little world here, one populated not just by the characters but by Riggan's hopes, fears, and inadequacies. He constructs Riggan's world around him, everything ebbing out from each decision he makes and every stumbling block he encounters. Iñárritu takes us right into the heart of it, lets us be privy to the existence of a man whose vanity project risks harming him just as much as it could help him prosper.

The same can be said for the script, penned by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo. They've crafted a story full of rich, engaging characters that are so fascinating to watch that you're pleased every time they appear and miss when they're gone. The characters feel like real people, each with their own motives, desires, and lives beyond what we're shown on screen. We can connect with them because we know people like them.

But like with Iñárritu's direction, the story centers around Riggan Thomson. Riggan is a man lost in his own indignities, staring irrelevancy in the face thanks to a daughter that resents him, a career that's been stalled for too long, and an industry that's moved on without him. We spend much of the movie peeking inside his mind, seeing things as he sees them, led by the sound of Birdman's voice into fits of anger and depression, along with the occasional flight of fantasy. It is these moments of fantasy ― where Riggan exhibits superpowers like flight and telekinesis ― that gives one the feeling that these are extensions of the character's desire to regain the fame and glory he had when he was a top draw in Hollywood. Riggan has put so much faith in himself that he fails to realize that he's making himself into a modern-day Icarus, continuing to build his wings of wax even as he gets closer and closer to the sun. It's a story that is humorous, heartbreaking, and compelling all at the same time.

But as fascinating as the story is, the telling of it would have been all for naught had the actors not been on their A-game. And personally, I thought Birdman's cast was amazing. Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Andrea Riseborough are all solid (with Galifinakis flubbing a few lines but doing so in such a way that it looks natural), but the supporting cast is held up by Emma Stone and Edward Norton. Stone's character tries hiding her heartache and anguish beneath a shield of jaded sarcasm, but the shield is cracked her inner turmoil shows through. Sam is a troubled young woman filled with pain, frustration, and resentment, wanting and needing a little love but struggling to find it. Stone plays this effortlessly, using it to portray Sam as having a glimmer of light at the end of the rocky path she's been traveling but being unsure of how to get to it.

It's a great performance from Stone, but with Birdman, the acting gets better as we go, as is the case with Norton. The irony of Norton ― an actor notorious for butting heads with directors when their artistic vision doesn't quite correlate with his own ― playing an actor who keeps undermining a director every chance he gets isn't lost on me. I can't say whether or not that factored into Norton's performance, but I will say that he's fantastic here. It's arguably his best performance since American History X. While he may be playing an insufferable prick and glory hog, Norton still brings a certain likeability to the role. You want to strangle and laugh with Mike Shiner at the same time. But Norton adds a depth to it as well. One gets the feeling that acting is all the character has, that it's his whole world. You never really know how much of his caustic personality is just an act to draw a reaction out of people, or if he's trying to cover up for some sort of inadequacy. Does Norton's character lose himself in his roles because being someone else is preferable to being himself? Norton accomplishes a lot here, and all the praise for him I've seen in various other reviews and critiques are on the money.

The entirety of Birdman, though, belongs to Michael Keaton. The movie has drawn a lot of attention because many see it as an allegory for Keaton's career following his departure from the Batman franchise, a viewpoint that is not without merit. Of the movies Keaton has appeared in since the release of Batman Returns in 1992, only a handful of them have been memorable and even fewer have been any good. Birdman has been hailed as something of a comeback for him, and whether or not that's true, Keaton still delivers the performance of a lifetime here. You can't take your eyes off of him. Keaton doesn't just play Riggan Thomson, he becomes him. He makes you feel every bit of emotional turmoil he's going through, all of his suffering, conflict, anger, and disappointment. All one can do is sympathize with Riggan as he teeters on the brink of a total breakdown, and Keaton makes it completely believable. It's a performance that, when it's all said and done, will be one of the true highlights of his career.

I've said a lot about Birdman. And while a thing may not be what is said of that thing, I feel confident in saying that Birdman is definitely one of the best movies I've seen in a very long time. Some might argue that it comes off as a wee bit pretentious at times, an argument that I'm not going to dispute. But I walked out of that darkened theater once the credits rolled feeling refreshed, because it was fun seeing something so far different from the fare I usually see. It's a beautiful piece of artwork that works on a multitude of different levels, and I couldn't enjoy it more. Birdman is most certainly a movie worth seeing, and any lover of movies in general is missing out if they don't give it a shot.

Final Rating: ****½

Friday, September 19, 2014

Tusk (2014)

I've seen a ton of movies that have drawn their inspiration from novels, TV shows, comic books, video games, and even old toy lines. But for the first time, I've stumbled across a movie that came about thanks to a conversation two people had on a podcast. Specifically, it comes from episode #259 of SModcast, the podcast Kevin Smith co-hosts with longtime friend Scott Mosier. In that episode, Smith and Mosier craft a wild story around a hoax advertisement on the British website Gumtree, eventually turning their story into a pitch for a movie. I couldn't tell if their pitch was serious, but here we are, just over a year after SModcast #259 was posted online, and the release of the movie Tusk is upon us. I wasn't for sure if it was even a real movie until I sat down to actually watch a midnight screening the other night. And I'll say now what I told my friends when I stepped out into the parking lot after the movie ended: it is legitimately one of the strangest flicks I've seen theatrically.

Meet Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), who, along with best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), hosts a podcast called The Not-See Party. When they're not making fun of viral videos and the minutia of pop culture, the primary focus of the show sees Wallace travel across the globe, collecting crazy, off-the-wall stories before returning home to share these stories with Teddy. (The podcast's groan-worthy title comes from the fact that, as he stays home while Wallace travels, Teddy did not see anything Wallace tells him about.) And despite the utter silliness of the whole endeavor, The Not-See Party is a widely popular show, allowing Walter and Teddy to live comfortably off their ad revenue and merchandise sales. But the success is also going to Walter's head, much to the chagrin of his doting girlfriend Ally (Génesis Rodriguez).

As the movie begins, Wallace has lined up a trip to the suburbs of Winnipeg to interview "The Kill Bill Kid," the star of a viral video who accidentally chopped off one of his legs while goofing around with a samurai sword. But when he arrives at the kid's house, Wallace is dismayed to learn that the boy killed himself a few days earlier rather than deal with the embarrassment the video's popularity brought him.

Frustrated with the fact that he will seemingly return to America empty-handed, Wallace stumbles into a local bar and notices an odd handbill posted on a bulletin board advertising free room and board in exchange for listening to an old sailor's stories of life on the high seas. Wallace is intrigued and excited, as this could make perfect material for the show. He travels to a remote part of Manitoba, to the isolated mansion of disabled raconteur Howard Howe (Michael Parks).

Howard wows him with wild, almost unbelievable tales of high adventure, including one in which he had a run-in with Ernest Hemmingway while storming the beaches of Normandy. His most compelling story, however, is of the time he was shipwrecked and lost at sea. Near death, he was rescued and befriended by a walrus he named "Mr. Tusk." In the many decades since he last saw Mr. Tusk, Howard has endlessly longed to be reunited with his beloved companion. And reunited he hopes he will soon be, as he drugs Wallace and begins surgically altering him into as close an approximation of a walrus as he can get.

After seeing and being less that thoroughly impressed by Red State, I was initially hesitant to give Smith's second attempt at a horror movie a chance. But the concept sounded silly and the commercials looked ridiculous, something that spoke to the fan of goofy B-movies in me, so I figured what the hell, I'll check it out anyway. And while Tusk is a flawed, imperfect movie, the sheer lunacy of the movie was enough to win me over. It feels like a Troma movie with a bigger budget and less sex and gore, the kind of movie one would have seen on a video store shelf in 1989 next to worn-out VHS copies of The Toxic Avenger Part II and Night of the Creeps. And even if the movie's not as great as I'd have hoped it would have been, Tusk is still a fun time if you're in the right mood for it.

While Tusk represents some of Smith's most unique work as both a writer and as a director, the biggest problem with the movie is that Smith has a hard time blending the horrific aspects of the story with the comedy. Some movies can effectively combine scares and humor, but it is a delicate balance and not every movie succeeds at it. Tusk has a hard way to go about it because both elements work individually, but Smith doesn't really make them work together seamlessly. The mood whiplash really makes it hard for Tusk to find and sustain any real groove. I will say, though, that Smith does get a few bits and pieces right, like creating a really creepy villain and an intriguing story that shows some real promise. But the uneven shifts in tone don't really help to make Tusk anything more than a curiosity on Smith's résumé.

To his credit, though, Smith succeeds in drawing some fantastic performances out of his cast. Génesis Rodriguez is sweet and charming, while Haley Joel Osment doesn't have much to do but is still likable nonetheless. The uncredited Johnny Depp also very nearly steals the show, however, in his role as a very eccentric private detective from Quebec who assists Ally and Teddy's search for Wallace. Depp plays the character like something Eugene Levy would have done on SCTV. Depp is funny, but it's almost too much, almost too goofy for the movie. It makes it hard to take him seriously. I almost think that it could have worked out better if Depp had played the character like Robert Shaw's Quint from Jaws, or even how Donald Pleasence approached his Dr. Loomis role from Halloween. Instead, we get a funny performance from Depp, but one that nearly derails the whole movie.

But at the end of the day, Tusk belongs to Justin Long and Michael Parks. Long's character is a tremendous douchebag, a condescending prick who's let whatever miniscule fame he's gotten from his podcast go straight to his head. You just want to leap into the movie and slap the taste out of his mouth. But Long plays him in such a way that it makes him enjoyable, and when things really start going to Hell, sympathetic as well. One might want to see him get brought down a peg or two, but not at this extreme. Long makes Wallace both irritating and oddly likable at the same time, and it works.

And much like his role as the cult leader in Red State, Parks is the best villain Smith could have asked for. He never goes over-the-top with his mad scientist schtick like Dieter Lazer in The Human Centipede, instead giving his character a cool edge. His portrayal of Howard Howe is one of a man who has long since parted ways with his sanity, and enjoys the horrible indignities he forces his victim to endure, but does so in a way that gives off a vibe like Howard believes Wallace is doing him a great favor. It's creepy and off-putting, and Parks is wholly fascinating to watch.

I've read another review online that called Tusk a bizarre amalgam of The Human Centipede and Misery. I actually kind of agree with that analogy because it isn't really too far off from the truth. The only drawback is that Kevin Smith hasn't quite gotten the hang of the whole horror thing yet. He's too much of a natural comedian. Don't get me wrong, Tusk is vastly superior to Red State, so Smith is definitely improving. But it's like I said before, Tusk is just too damn goofy to take seriously. Smith has said he plans on making this the first chapter in an informal, loosely-connected trilogy similar to his "View Askewniverse," following it with Yoga Hosers (an action-adventure movie) and Moose Jaws ("Jaws with a moose," says Smith) so I'm curious to see where Smith goes from here. And as for Tusk, I did like it, but it's simply "okay" at best. After his last few movies, I'm really starting to miss Jay and Silent Bob.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Captivity (2007)

Not long after the turn of the new millennium, the horror genre embraced a fad that's come to be known as "torture porn." Bolstered by the success of the Saw franchise and Eli Roth's Hostel, these ultra-gory, ultra-sadistic movies that evolved from the splatter movies from the '70s and '80s seemingly dominated the genre during the middle part of the last decade. Their heyday has essentially come and gone, more current takes on the style usually being relegated to international productions that go direct-to-video and fly under the radar in the United States. And even now, Saw and Hostel are the only ones from that time that anyone remembers, the majority of them having been almost completely forgotten.

Take, for example, the movie Captivity. As its release in the summer of 2007 approached, its advertising campaign was met with controversy after a billboard promoting the movie was viewed as being overtly misogynistic. Joss Whedon himself was so offended by the billboard that he spearheaded an effort to have the MPAA refuse to give the movie a rating and thus stifle its theatrical release. But the controversy and the hype came and went, and seven years after it bombed at the box office, Captivity isn't even a footnote in the horror genre's history. There's a very good reason for that, too: the movie sucks.

Jennifer Tree (Elisha Cuthbert) is one of the most successful fashion models on the planet, with billboards and advertisements featuring her face having become practically ubiquitous. But, if I may paraphrase the lyrics of an old Iggy Pop song, her pretty face is about to go to Hell. Someone spikes her drink while she's out partying one night and she awakens in an elaborate cell, trapped by an unknown captor. As Jennifer's anonymous kidnapper repeatedly brutalizes her both physically and emotionally, she discovers that she's not the only one trapped. In the cell next door is a man named Gary (Daniel Gillies), a drifter who has befallen the same fate as Jennifer. They try to formulate a plan for escape, but their captor has far worse things in store for them.

I'm normally okay with bad movies as long as they're fun. As long as they still manage to be entertaining in some form or fashion, I can honestly forgive a movie for not being very good. And Captivity most certainly is a bad movie. Everything about it is terrible from top to bottom, and the absolute lack of any kind of scares or tension just makes things worse. But the catch is that it's the kind of bad movie that is just a chore to get through. Had the movie been a funny kind of bad, where one could laugh at all of its cheesy faults, it would have been at least tolerable. But instead we're left with a movie that has absolutely no purpose whatsoever other than to try and make a quick buck off the hot horror trend at the time.

Helming this disaster is Roland Joffé, a two-time Oscar nominee in the ‘80s whose career pretty much tapered off in the '90s. And if you were to compare his previous work to this movie, you'd swear they were made by two different people with the same name. Captivity is dull, plodding, lifeless. It's like Joffé realized the movie was probably going to be awful no matter what he did, so he didn't bother to even try. There's no spark to anything, nothing that would make it even remotely interesting. It is, in a word, boring.

Even the scenes that are intended to gross out the audiences are more hokey than anything else. I referenced Hostel and Saw as the torchbearers of the "torture porn" movement, and even at their worst, they succeeded in eliciting a visceral reaction from their audiences. Whether you were frightened or nauseated by the blood and guts, you still had a reaction that befitted what you were seeing. But when Elisha Cuthbert's character is force-fed a glass of pureed body parts straight out of a nearby blender, all you can do is just chuckle at how ridiculous the whole thing is. You can't take it seriously because it's just too stupid to react with anything other than either laughter leading to apathy.

The story I heard is that, believe it or not, Joffé didn't get to do the final edit of the movie. Instead, it was supposedly taken away and reshot by producer Courtney Solomon. The story goes that Solomon wasn't satisfied with Captivity being a simple thriller about a young woman being imprisoned, and decided he wanted to cash in on the whole "torture porn" thing while he still could. The guy who made the Dungeons and Dragons movie (a movie so awful that it killed Thora Birch's career and nearly took Jeremy Irons with it) and the lousy ghost story An American Haunting reshot a movie made by an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker so he could add some gore. All Solomon ended up doing was turning Joffé's mediocre movie into a tragically stupid one.

And the direction isn't the only bad part of Captivity either. There's also the script, written by Larry Cohen and Joseph Tura. Cohen's name will be familiar to fans of low-budget schlock, thanks to the number of classic B-movies ― with titles like Maniac Cop, The Stuff, It's Alive, and Q: The Winged Serpent ― on his résumé. But while Cohen's written some memorable movies of both the mainstream and cult varieties, Captivity isn't really one of them and for good reason. There's no story or plot to speak of; it's one of those movies where things just happen for no real rhyme or reason. It doesn't even go from Point A to Point B because there no sort of narrative path for them to follow. The movie plays along like Cohen and Tura had no endgame in mind when they wrote it. It's like they came up with a bunch of scenes yet didn't think to make them connect in any coherent way.

And on a related note, there's absolutely nothing resembling any sort of character development. The characters are so thin that calling them one-dimensional would be a disservice to other one-dimensional characters. They're so flimsy and underdeveloped that you have no reason to care about them or feel sympathy for them. They're empty shells, devoid of personality or any sort of memorable traits. One feels like Cohen and Tura didn't even try, because it comes across like they're the stand-ins for characters, the blank spaces where characters would had the writers put forth some sort of effort. But all one can do is sit back and watch in disbelief because it's hard to wrap one's head around just how vacant they are. It's like watching department store mannequins being played by flesh-and-blood people.

That leads me to the acting, the awful, awful, awful acting. I'm legitimately amazed at just how bad the acting is. It's not over-the-top, "get a load of this mess" acting like one would see in classic bad movies like Troll 2 or The Room, but a dull, phoned-in, boring kind of acting that makes that department store mannequin joke I made a few sentences ago seem all the more true to life. Elisha Cuthbert was a rising star at the time thanks to her role as Jack Bauer's daughter on the hit show 24 and movies like The Girl Next Door and House of Wax, but Captivity pretty much put a stop to all that. And even if the movie had been a runaway box office success, that wouldn't have changed the fact that Cuthbert is absolutely dreadful here. She never makes one feel any sort of sympathy for her, never makes you want to see her character escape or even care for her wellbeing. You just want the villain to hurry up and kill her in the hopes that the movie will move on to something or someone more interesting.

Daniel Gillies is just as bad, his performance being equally as laughable as Cuthbert's. He's bad enough in the role of "cheesy token romantic interest," but when a third act twist leads to him becoming more predatory, Gillies becomes more silly than intimidating. All I could do is just shrug my shoulders and ask, "Really? That's how you're approaching this?" The fact that all the scenes that follow this twist are way too stupid for me to wrap my head around doesn't help, but Gillies's awful acting just makes it worse. And when you combine that with Cuthbert's poor efforts, all one has is a great big, groan-worthy mess.

Looking back, the temporary controversy that surrounded Captivity seven years ago is actually pretty funny. People got so worked up over that one billboard, but nobody ever really said anything about the movie itself. And having seen the movie nearly a decade after the fact, it's easy to see why. Captivity is a giant pile of crap, a piss-poor attempt at cashing in on a subgenre that had been already started fading out of popularity before being summarily killed by the box office failure of Hostel: Part II just a month before Captivity hit theaters. So fast and swift was its failure that it was shuffled into the land of obscurity almost immediately. I myself had even forgotten it had existed at all until last week, when I noticed it mentioned in the Wikipedia article about the Razzie Awards. And the movie should be forgotten. Captivity is simply not worth watching or even remembering.

Final Rating: *

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

When Robert Rodriguez adapted a handful of Frank Miller's Sin City comic book stories into a movie in 2005, the movie was met with critical acclaim and box office success. Enough success, in fact, that one would have thought that a sequel would have been planned not long afterwards. But nine years have passed since then. Nearly a decade has gone by, plenty of time for Sin City to have become something of a footnote in the history of movies based on comics. That's why I was legitimately surprised when I saw trailers and commercials proclaiming that Rodriguez and Miller were finally doing a sequel. Maybe it was Warner Bros. making 300: Rise of an Empire, released back in March seven years after Zack Snyder first adapted Miller's 300 comic, that got them into gear, I don't know. But what I can tell you is this: much that 300 sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a sequel that came far too long to matter and was far too mediocre to justify its own existence.

We begin with the short piece "Just Another Saturday Night," which sees the burly Marv (Mickey Rourke) awaken from unconsciousness to find himself surrounded by dead bodies and a wrecked police car. Having no idea how he ended up in such a situation, Marv starts retracing his steps and finds a trail of clues that leads him to a gang of particularly rowdy, violent frat boys.

From there we move along to "The Long Bad Night," an original story crafted specifically for the movie. It introduces us to Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hotshot gambler on the luckiest streak of his life. He arrives in Sin City and immediately hits jackpots on every slot machine in town. Johnny's arrogance gets the best of him, though, when he hears that the powerful Senator Roark (Powers Booth) hosts a nightly private poker game with the city's elite. He waltzes in like he owns the place, buys his way into the game, and immediately cleans Roark out. But the game's stakes are far higher than Johnny could have ever imagined, as the last thing you want to do in Sin City is humiliate a member of the Roark family.

Our third story is another one from the comics, the titular "A Dame to Kill For." It focuses on Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin), a private investigator struggling to put his dark past behind him. But that past comes roaring back in the form of Ava Lord (Eva Green), a former lover who broke Dwight's heart years earlier. She begs him for help, to save her from her abusive marriage to wealthy tycoon Damien Lord (Marton Csokas). Though his better judgment tells him to ignore her and move on with his life, he finds that Ava has a tighter grip on him than he thought and agrees to help her. Dwight makes a move to kill Damien, but in the process, he begins to realize that perhaps Ava has been manipulating him to serve another purpose.

Concluding the movie is "Nancy's Last Dance," the second of the movie's two original stories. Four years have passed since the events of "That Yellow Bastard," and Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) still struggles to cope with the death of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis). Seeing Hartigan's ghostly presence everywhere she turns, Nancy plans revenge as her hatred for Senator Roark threatens to consume her. And with Marv's help, she will indeed have that revenge.

The first Sin City movie was mindblowing. It was a unique experience because there was nothing quite like it at the time. But nearly a decade after its release, some of the glitz has worn off and Sin City is more of a footnote in the history of comic book movies than anything else nowadays. A Dame to Kill For is a movie that should have been made five or six years earlier, because now people have moved on. And when you throw in the fact that A Dame to Kill For is a mediocre movie anyway, and you have a disappointing time at the theater.

Returning to direct are Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, who seem like they just can't catch a break lately. Miller's only other attempt at filmmaking (his 2008 effort The Spirit) was a box office bomb, while Rodriguez had similar results with Machete Kills and his half of Grindhouse. (To his credit, though, he did have two modest successes in the intervening time as well.) Their direction is technically solid, still looking as cool as ever. It looks especially awesome in 3D, to the point that I really want to see what the original movie would look like if converted into three dimensions. The catch, however, is that it lacks a lot of the impact the first movie had. It's missing the passion and intensity that made the first movie such a blast to watch. And with that gone, it just feels like Rodriguez and Miller are going through the motions. Some parts are actually pretty great, I won't lie, but overall, I walked away from the movie with a "blah" feeling.

Miller's script, meanwhile, is kinda shaky. It's neither good nor bad, but simply okay at best. I did think that "Just Another Saturday Night" and "The Long Bad Night" are strong, while "A Dame to Kill For" is hampered by being a bit too long, and "Nancy's Last Dance" is just plain dull. But for the most part it's just falling in line with the direction. The gritty charm of the first movie is gone, having faded away after a decade of waiting and more than one movie trying to copy Sin City's style. Had the movie been made in 2007 or 2008 when the idea was still fresh, maybe my opinion of Miller's script would be different, I don't quite know for sure, though.

But the movie does have some great acting going for it, I'll give it that. While I miss Clive Owen in the role, I thought Josh Brolin did a really good job as Dwight. Mickey Rourke is a lot of fun and genuinely likable, while Powers Boothe is wonderfully sleazy as Senator Roarke. (All Boothe needed was an old-timey mustache to twirl and he'd have been perfect!)

The acting isn't all good, unfortunately. I'm referring specifically to Jessica Alba, who's a truly awful actress. She is just so unbelievable in the role that it feels like Rodriguez and Miller got Mattel to create a "Little Miss Badass" Barbie doll and trotted it out in front of the camera.

At least Alba is countered by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eva Green, though. Gordon-Levitt is the absolute polar opposite of Alba, a damn good actor that's practically showing off here. He's cocky and self-assured, everything the character needed. You can't help but enjoy his swaggering performance. Green, meanwhile, is fantastic. Much like her appearance in the 300 sequel earlier this year, Green is one of the movie's true highlights. She's such a vile, conniving bitch here, and she really makes the movie better for her efforts. And what were the odds that out of two mediocre movie adaptations of Frank Miller comics, the same actress would be one of the best elements of both?

Rodriguez and Miller captured lightning in a bottle in 2005. The first Sin City movie was an amazing movie that still manages to hold up nine years later. But it's ultimately something that couldn't be duplicated. I do wonder how it would have turned out had they struck while the iron was hot and made the movie after two or three years as opposed to nearly a decade. But in 2014, that lightning can't be caught again. The time has passed, the opportunity long gone. And as sad as it is to say, A Dame to Kill For is ultimately a movie to skip.

Final Rating: **

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Expendables 3 (2014)

You wouldn't believe how excited I got when The Expendables hit theaters in 2010. A movie that brought so many of my favorite action movie stars being brought together was something that I absolutely had to see. I can say the same for the sequel, and in both instances, I was pleasantly surprised with both movies. But now that a third Expendables movie is upon us, that excitement is lessened. The feeling of nostalgia has worn off, and I can't say I was really looking forward to seeing this new adventure. And unlike the first two, the third movie isn't quite as good as I'd hoped either.

As the movie begins, we're quickly reintroduced to Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and the Expendables as they extract former teammate Doc (Wesley Snipes) from a prison transport train. Having successfully staged their daring jailbreak, the Expendables make a stop in Somalia, where they've been tasked with breaking up a black market arms trade. Their mission goes awry, however, when they realize the broker behind the trade is Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former Expendable who went rogue and became a ruthless international gunrunner. Stonebanks goes on the attack, effortlessly defeating the Expendables and leaving one of them critically wounded.

Word of the incident gets back to CIA operative Max Drummer (Harrison Ford), who approaches an angry Barney and tasks him with bringing in Stonebanks alive so that he can be tried at the Hauge for numerous war crimes. Unwilling to put his friends in harm's way again, Barney disbands the Expendables and hires a new team of young mercenaries to accomplish his mission. After calling in a few favors from old rival Trench Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Barney and his new team are able to track down Stonebanks. But their foe is anticipating them, once again getting the upper hand. Faced with no other options, Barney must get the old gang back together if he is to save his new team and bring Stonebanks to justice.

I can't say I didn't enjoy The Expendables 3. But there's just something about it that held it back from being as good as the previous ones. Maybe it's the nostalgia wearing off, like I said earlier. The novelty of seeing all these stars in the same movie can only last for so long. (Why do you think they stopped making sequels to Ocean's Eleven?) There's something missing here, but I still enjoyed the movie. So at least it's got that going for it, right?

Director Patrick Hughes does a decent enough job helming the movie. But that's the thing, though: his efforts are just decent. He's not a bad director, but his work here doesn't really do much to make the movie any better than "okay." I really did enjoy the climactic shootout at the end of the movie, but outside of that, Hughes manages to bring only just enough energy to make the rest of the movie watchable. The ultra-fast editing and frenetic camerawork don't help at all, and it feels like the movie was seriously trimmed (and clumsily so at times) in order to achieve a PG-13 rating instead of the R the previous two got. And then there's the obvious, fake-looking CG effects that, while not quite enough to take a viewer out of the movie, still feel like they were rushed in at the last minute. It honestly comes across like there's parts of the movie where people just couldn't bother to give it 100% effort.

I could actually say the same for the script. Credited to Sylvester Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger, and Katrin Benedikt, the script doesn't really give us anything more than what we already expected from it going in. I could forgive the generic, run-of-the-mill story had something interesting been done with it. But the catch is that it's generic to the point of serious predictability. It's the kind of script that puts the movie in a "if you've seen it once, you've seen it a million times" type of situation. You know as soon as Barney sends the old Expendables on their way that he'll have to bring them back once his new team gets in over their heads, and that the new and old teams won't see eye to eye thanks to the generation gap but find common ground and become friends by the end of the movie. Add in the fact that the movie runs out of steam early on and doesn't pick up again until the climax, and you're left with something that is sadly duller than it should have been.

To the writers' credit, I did like the cute references to the cast's lives and past work. Wesley Snipes's character claims to have been sent to prison for tax evasion, Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes his famed "get to the chopper!" line from Predator, and so on. They even work in a reference to the fact that Harrison Ford was hired at the very last minute to replace Bruce Willis. But after a while, these go from funny to just enough to make you crack a smile to making you wish they'd come up with some new jokes. Maybe it's me, but self-referential humor only really works in small doses unless you're a goofball comedy (see: 22 Jump Street earlier this summer) or a full-blown parody.

But at least the cast is up for a little "wink wink, nudge nudge" humor. Sadly, they otherwise come off as if they're simply going through the motions. One gets the feeling that they're just there to collect a paycheck and burn off a little spare time by making a movie. Only a handful of actors really stand out, whether they be good or bad, since the majority of the cast are sailing a big boat of mediocrity down this cinematic river. Antonio Banderas is really funny as a talkative, over-enthusiastic mercenary who keeps pestering Barney for a spot on the Expendables team, while Mel Gibson makes his character as vicious as he can. Gibson doesn't get a whole lot of room to stretch his legs acting-wise, but he still does a great job.

Wesley Snipes, meanwhile, provides a fun moment or two, but he feels wasted here. I really enjoy Snipes when he's allowed to run wild (his performance in Demolition Man made for one of my favorite action movie villains), but he is lost in the shuffle of the huge cast. And among the new Expendables, none of them make any sort of impact beyond Ronda Rousey. Rousey, the current UFC women's bantamweight champion, was hired because she's a notoriously tough MMA fighter. But she's not an actress, and her enthusiasm and the effort she puts forth aren't enough to hide her inexperience. At least she's trying, so at least I'll give Rousey props for that.

I wasn't really that excited for The Expendables 3 when I sat down to watch it. I didn't know why, but once the credits rolled, I realized what the problem was. The problem was that the movie just wasn't as good as it could have been.

Final Rating: **½

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

It's weird thinking that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been around in some form or fashion for thirty years. Even with the recent surge of 1980s nostalgia, I still can't quite wrap my head around seeing kids playing with toys and watching cartoons from a franchise that I was enjoying when I was a kid. I will admit, though, that when I'd heard Warner Bros. Pictures and Nickelodeon would be teaming up to create a brand new live-action Ninja Turtles movie to commemorate the franchise's thirtieth anniversary, I was very, very excited. And then I heard that Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes would be producing it, and all that excitement went away. But I just had to see it anyway, just to see how it would turn out. And this might sound like a copout answer, but ultimately, the movie is what it is.

For some time now, New York City has been terrorized by a criminal organization known as the Foot Clan. Local news reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) has spent quite a bit of that time trying to find something on the gang, hoping to break away from the lame puff pieces she's been stuck doing for months. While chasing a lead, she witnesses a shadowy figure interrupting a Foot Clan raid on the docks and knocking out everyone there. Her story about a mysterious vigilante is laughed out of the newsroom, only making April more determined to get to the bottom of what happened.

The Foot Clan, meanwhile, swears revenge on the vigilante that embarrassed them. To accomplish this, they take a number of hostages, with April coincidentally among them, at a subway station in an attempt to lure the vigilante out. The situation is broken up by not one, but four assailants, whom April follows out to some nearby rooftops. But she is shocked to discover that the four crimefighters are not human, but giant bipedal turtles.

Introducing themselves as Leonardo (Pete Ploszek, with the voice of Johnny Knoxville), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and Raphael (Alan Ritchson), the four karate-trained turtles bring her to their lair in the sewers beneath the city. April is immediately recognized by their sensei, a mutated rat named Splinter (Danny Woodburn, with the voice of Tony Shaloub). Her late father, a scientist, was instrumental in creating the mutagen that led to Splinter and the turtles arriving at their current anthropomorphic state, and Splinter remembers April as the little girl who saved the five animals from the lab fire that killed her father fifteen years earlier.

But little do they know that they're similarly tied to wealthy pharmaceutical manufacturer Eric Sachs (William Fichtner). A past associate of April's father, Sachs presents himself to the public as a charitable, philanthropic businessman. However, he's been secretly bankrolling the Foot Clan, and has a financial stake in their master plan to destroy New York City. And of course, it's up to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to save the day.

I desperately wanted to love this movie. I'd hoped that it would make me proud to be a Ninja Turtles fan. I wanted something that I could watch with new fans and share in the fun and excitement with them. But that's not what this movie is. It's a depressing movie because it has very little of the heart or charm that made me fall in love with the Ninja Turtles so long ago. It has its fun moments, but I honestly cannot call this new interpretation of the franchise a good movie.

The movie was directed by Jonathan Liebesman, whose body of work thus far hasn't been very impressive. In watching the movie, I came to think that Liebesman perhaps took some inspiration from Michael Bay's work on the Transformers movies. It feels constructed the same way, with similar cinematography, editing, and visual style. (This movie is thankfully an hour shorter than Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction.) Liebesman here is almost a game of cinematic connect-the-dots, going from Point A to Point B to Point C without doing much to make the movie feel lively. There are some truly cool moments (the fight between Splinter and Shredder halfway through the movie stands out as one of the true highlights, in my opinion), but for the most part, Liebesman doesn't do much to make the movie anything other than dull.

But then again, the screenplay doesn't provide him with much of a blueprint to go from. While there are some cute gags and subtle references to the franchise's history for long-time fans to catch, the script fails to really provide much of anything worthwhile. Writers Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty have practically stumbled right of the gate with this one. The story is convoluted and just plain stupid, the villains aren't intimidating, April O'Neil is a hollow placeholder for a character (and feels like a female version of Shia LaBeouf's character from the first three Transformers movies at times to boot), and the Ninja Turtles themselves rarely rise above the basest concepts of their characters. They don't have any personalities, just clichés sitting in where their personalities would be. It's the kind of script that comes across like Applebaum, Nemec, and Daugherty slapped it together at the last minute with as little effort as possible. Three different people worked on writing this movie and this is the best they could do?

Even the movie's post=production conversion into 3D is mediocre. There are some moments that look fantastic, especially the climactic rooftop battle between the Ninja Turtles and Shredder, but the 3D effects are mostly hit or miss. I've seen a few movies this summer that were converted into 3D and still looked really good, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not one of them. It's another typical example of a 3D conversion that could have stood having a lot more effort put into it if it even had to be done at all.

And then there's the cast, who aren't bad but still not particularly impressive. Nobody will ever accuse Megan Fox of being a good actress, but she gives what I'd call on eof her best performances here. She's committed to the role and proves herself likable even if her talents are limited and the character is poorly written. And if Fox's character is similar to the lead character from the Transformers movies, then Will Arnett is playing one similar to the comic relief from the Transformers movies. Arnett starts out kinda funny, but the joke gets old fast and he's really annoying by the end of the movie.

While their characters are unfortunately flat, the actors playing Splinter and the Ninja Turtles are really good. They try their damnedest to infuse a little personality into their roles, and actually make them enjoyable. It just hurts to see that they're given almost nothing to work with. And they're also outshined by William Fichtner. I haven't seen Fichtner in many movies, but I've enjoyed his work every time I have and this time proves no exception. It's not his best work, and the character is poorly written as well, but Fichtner was still able to leave a positive impression, and I can't complain about that.

I must confess that I entered the movie a little biased. I fully expected it to suck, and that the Ninja Turtles I grew up with would outshine the ones from this movie any day. And while I cannot say that I completely hated the movie, I can't say I completely liked it either. It's the kind of movie that only really works if you have absolutely zero expectations whatsoever, and even then I'd say that would be pushing it. Watching it actually gave me flashbacks to the year 1993 and the last time someone made a live-action Ninja Turtles movie. And in those twenty years, Hollywood apparently failed to learn the lessons taught by that movie. So here's hoping that in the event that they do indeed make a sequel to this reboot, they'll actually make a good movie. Because honestly, I'm going to be really upset if the Ninja Turtles break my heart again.

Final Rating: **

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

No one could have possibly foreseen just how big the Marvel Cinematic Universe would get when it began with Iron Man in 2008. After six years and nine movies, it's second only to the Harry Potter movies as one of the biggest movie franchises of all time. And when your movies make billions of dollars at the box office, with one of them making one and a half billion alone, you can get away with having a little bravery in future installments. So for their tenth movie, Marvel Studios chose to step away from the Avengers characters audiences have come to know and love so much and give us something different. Based on a team of characters that could be accurately described as obscure D-listers from outer space, Guardians of the Galaxy is a gamble that paid off in spades because it's one of the most entertaining movies I've seen in a while.

We're quickly introduced to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who was abducted by aliens as a child in 1988. Raised by a band of intergalactic pirates known as the Ravagers, the adult Quill has become a scavenger, fancying himself an outlaw with the self-bestowed moniker of "Star-Lord." When we meet him, Quill has arrived on a desolate planet to retrieve a mysterious orb he's heard will fetch him a hefty chunk of money. His attempt to abscond with it is interrupted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a subordinate of the notorious terrorist Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), but he manages to escape with both the orb and his life. He also comes away with a bounty for his capture thanks to Ravager leader Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), who was angered by the knowledge that Quill would dare disrespect him by stealing and selling the orb without cutting him in on the deal.

But before he can fence his new possession, however, he is ambushed by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin sent by Ronan to acquire the orb after Korath's failure. Quill's attempt to fight back draws the attention of two bounty hunters ― the genetically modified anthropomorphic raccoon Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper) and tree-like Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel) ― looking to cash in on Yondu's ransom. The resulting brawl ends with all four being arrested and sent to a massive mega-prison called the Kyln.

Gamora is given a particularly hostile welcome upon their arrival by the brutish warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Ronan years earlier. But his attempt at having a modicum of revenge by killing her is halted when she reveals that she had planned to betray Ronan and prevent him from getting the orb. Upon mentioning that she had lined up a buyer offering a fortune for it, Quill, Rocket, and Groot immediately volunteer to help stage a jailbreak.

With Drax tagging along in the hopes that he will eventually encounter and duel with Ronan, the group heads to the buyer's outpost on the edge of the universe. However, not only are Yondu and the Ravagers following closely behind them, but so are Ronan and his armada. While the Ravagers merely wish to steal the orb for their own financial gain, Ronan has much more sinister plans for it and the immeasurable power it contains.

Making Guardians of the Galaxy was a brave experiment on Marvel's part. The characters don't have a built-in audience like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America do, their lack of mainstream notoriety potentially serving as a stumbling block for some audience members. And the fact that it's not a typical superhero movie, instead being more of a space opera akin to Star Wars or Flash Gordon. This is not the kind of movie one would expect Marvel Studios to make. But they've defied all expectations with Guardians of the Galaxy. They've gone above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to showing the audience a good time, making a movie that is more fun and more entertaining than I ever imagined it could have been.

Part of what makes the movie so good is the direction courtesy of James Gunn. Hiring Gunn was another gamble by Marvel, as his prior work is comprised solely of low-budget, low-tech indie affairs that all failed to strike gold at the box office. Handing the guy that made Slither the reigns of a multimillion-dollar summer blockbuster seems kinda off at first, doesn't it? But Gunn's off-beat, mischievous, and ultimately irreverent sense of humor is perfect for this movie. It allows Gunn to build something that is lively and never takes itself too seriously. He's crafted a deep, rich world that effortlessly balances excitement, drama, and a feeling of wide-eyed awe. It never ceases to feel like an adventure, and when the credits roll, you'll wish it could have kept going.

And for all his low-budget work in the past, Gunn shows he can definitely handle the huge studio movies as well. I was impressed by how cool the visuals, represented mostly via CGI and motion capture work with practical effects mixed in, looked. They're seamlessly integrated into the movie, with Rocket and Groot looking especially awesome. It honestly looks and feels like they're really there. And I'll also give a big thumbs-up to the movie's 3D efforts. It was shot flat, but you'd never know it from how good the post-production conversion looks. Gunn supposedly filmed the movie in such a way that would benefit the added depth, and personally oversaw the conversion himself. His effort shows, and while I'm sure the movie looks just as good in 2D, seeing the movie in 3D just adds to the on-screen spectacle.

I also really liked the script, written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman. They must have worried about the obscurity of the property as well, because they've developed it in such a way that it is surprisingly accessible even for those who've never so much as touched a comic book. The story never gets muddled or over-complicated, the characters all have their own distinct personalities and motivations, and every scene and every line of dialogue (even the snappy comedic banter) builds toward something. Everything matters here. It's either moving the plot forward, developing the characters, or bringing us deeper into the movie's universe. There are a few hiccups along the way, mostly in the form of dangling plot threads that will surely be resolved in the inevitable sequel (which is currently set for release in 2017). But Gunn and Perlman have still put together something great.

The same can be said for the cast, all of whom are all great in their own ways. Among the supporting cast, I really liked Benicio del Toro, Michael Rooker, and John C. Reilly in their minor roles, while Lee Pace isn't bad as Ronan the Accuser. I wasn't totally impressed with Pace at first, since I honestly wanted to see more of Josh Brolin as Thanos (especially since we probably won't be seeing much of Thanos for a few years). But after seeing the movie a second time, I thought Pace did a fine job.

The primary cast, meanwhile, is the movie's main drawing point, and they're all strong and likable. Chris Pratt plays Star-Lord as if Luke Skywalker were desperately trying to be Han Solo; he's a cocky, swaggering wannabe outlaw with a blossoming sense of heroism. Pratt is very fun to watch in the role, putting forth a fantastic performance. Zoe Saldana, similarly, brings a confidence to Gamora, along with a certain vulnerability as well. She is more subdued than the rest of her castmates, something I felt worked in her favor. It makes her more intriguing to watch, because she's not as wacky or over-the-top as the others.

And I must admit that I was surprised by former WWE star Dave Bautista. Most pro wrestlers aren't very successful in translating from the ring to the big screen, with the only real exception I can think of being Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But Bautista is excellent here. He's hilarious, complex and nuanced, and actually really impressive.

But as funny as Bautista's Drax is, the movie is almost completely stolen by the characters of Rocket and Groot, thanks in part to the voice work from Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. Cooper's Rocket is braggadocios yet secretly neurotic about his lot in life, and he makes it work. I've heard he based it on Joe Pesci's performance in GoodFellas, and I believe it. It really shows, and it makes Rocket more memorable.

Diesel approaches his role, on the other hand, as if it were similar to his role in The Iron Giant. His only dialogue is the oft-repeated phrase "I am Groot," a phrase that means so many different things depending on the tone and inflection, and Diesel makes it oddly believable. Watch the movie intently enough, and you'll start to see what I mean. The fact that Diesel was able to communicate so much through just saying three words over and over is a real testament to how impressive he can be when he really wants to be. (And the fact that he apparently recorded the line a thousand times in multiple languages for the movie's international releases gets him a ton of respect from me.)

Long story short, Guardians of the Galaxy is an all-around awesome movie. It's everything one could hope for from a movie like this. Blending an unbridled sense of adventure with silly humor, enjoyable characters, and an awesome soundtrack of '60s and '70s hits, the movie is some of the most fun I've had in a theater in a long time. And it's a shame I'll have to wait until 2017 to see the characters again, because the Guardians of the Galaxy are a great change of pace from the Avengers.

Final Rating: ****

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

I've seen a lot of movies that had really cool concepts with tons of potential, but never reached any higher than mediocrity. One of them actually came fairly recently, in the form of last year's The Purge. The core idea behind the movie ― that for one night a year, all crime (up to and including murder) is legal ― sounds very promising. But The Purge ultimately proved to be just John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 reimagined as a home invasion thriller.

The movie was a big hit at the box office though, and Universal Pictures quickly approved a sequel that was rushed into production and arrived in theaters just a few days ago. With the trailers promising that we'd get to see more of the Purge, I'll admit that I was drawn into seeing it. Alas, The Purge: Anarchy ended up following in its predecessor's footsteps by being just okay at best.

The sequel takes us to Los Angeles circa 2023, mere hours before the annual Purge is scheduled to begin. And as this period of carnage and lawlessness commences, the lives of five strangers will be drastically altered forever...

First, we're introduced to Eve Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter Cali (Zoë Soul). While they believe they'll be safe in their fortified yet meager apartment in the projects, a heavily armed squad of mercenaries arrives in they neighborhood and starts attacking. They open fire on some of the residents, rounding up others into a paddy wagon for reasons unknown. And in all the chaos, Eva and Cali find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Meanwhile, a squabbling couple named Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are driving across town to a safehouse to wait out the Purge. When they briefly stop at a supermarket to pick up some supplies, Shane is accosted by a gang in the parking lot. They leave without incident, and Shane and Liz think nothing of it. But then disaster strikes when their car breaks down just as the Purge begins. The couple realizes that the gang has tampered with their car, and they're now being stalked by that same group of punks. Shane and Liz are forced to flee and try lying low if they're going to survive the night.

While the people we've met so far have been victims of circumstance, there's one who specifically intends to participate in the Purge. Police sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) has armed himself to the teeth and ventured out into the urban war zone, seeking revenge against the drunk driver that killed his son a year earlier. He coincidentally passes Eva and Cali on the way, and impressed by their attempts to fight, steps in to rescue them. But when they return to Leo's car, they find Shane and Liz hiding in the back seat. The five are forced to band together and fight for their lives, hoping that they can survive when a violent death awaits them at every turn.

I went into The Purge: Anarchy hoping for the best. They were going to take us into the streets during the Purge and see all the madness it brings. That idea got me really excited. But I walked out of the theater thinking that the movie still failed to live up to its potential. There were some really cool moments and a few decent elements, but when the credits rolled, all we were really given was just another ho-hum action thriller.

Like its predecessor, the movie was written and directed by James DeMonaco, whose work here just feels kinda generic at best. I mentioned that there are some cool moments and that's true, but there's nowhere near the amount of tension or excitement there could (or probably should) have been. Far too often, DeMonaco gets close to something often only to trip over his own feet and stumble along instead.

I will say that to his credit, I liked DeMonaco's attempts at making the Purge feel broader in scope than it did in the first movie. We get to see more of the bedlam, experience it on a grittier urban level. But it doesn't help that the movie's story is dull, full of flat, one-dimensional characters that never inspire one to care about them. It's basically what would happen if you replaced the titular gang from The Warriors and replaced them with The Punisher and four idiots. DeMonaco's attempt at working some sort of political subplot, incorporating corrupt oligarchs and an anti-Purge resistance faction, is just too much. The climax (which borrows from The Most Dangerous Game) is a neat idea, but the anti-Purge faction is just there for a lame deus ex machina during the climax. The whole "rich vs. poor" thing in movies is getting kinda played out too. The Occupy movement is over, so can we move on? Or at the very least, could you try something that doesn't come off like you're cribbing bits and pieces from Catching Fire?

And bringing up the rear is the cast, the majority of whom are just as bland as the rest of the movie. Zoë Soul is definitely trying, but the true standout is Frank Grillo. As I said earlier, his character is all too reminiscent of The Punisher, and I've heard that his best scenes were edited from the movie due to pacing and time constraints, but Grillo actually makes a pretty cool badass. I honestly wish DeMonaco had done away with the other four characters and made Grillo the movie's sole focus. That's a movie that could have been pretty cool.

Unfortunately, the movie that's playing in the theaters right now is the one that we got. It's watchable, and it's not as offensively bad as some other movies I've seen in the past, but The Purge: Anarchy is just another movie I left wishing had turned out better. I still think there's a lot of potential and promise left in the Purge franchise, though I'm just waiting for something or someone to really bring it out.

Final Rating: **½

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Resident Evil: Damnation (2012)

I've been a fan of Capcom's Resident Evil video games since the franchise began, before I even owned a console on which to play them. I remember many a weekend in 1996 and 1997 where I'd go down the street to hang out with a friend who owned a PlayStation and playing the first game until the wee hours of the morning. The franchise is even one of the big reasons why I bought a Nintendo GameCube. And then Sony Pictures had to go and break my heart by letting Paul W.S. Anderson make his live-action movies inspired by the games.

I've spoken about my disappointment with Anderson's movies numerous times in the past, so I won't go into that again. But I will confess to being excited to see the animated Resident Evil: Degeneration when it was released straight to DVD in 2008. It was flawed, sure, but it was fun and I ultimately walked away moderately pleased. And because of that, when a sequel was similarly released to home video in 2012 (coincidentally between the fifth live-action movie and Capcom's Resident Evil 6 game), I was excited to see it. It might have taken me two years, but I've finally gotten around to seeing the sequel. So let's jump into Resident Evil: Damnation and see how well it turned out.

The movie takes us to the Eastern Slav Republic, one of many countries that came into being after the fall of the Soviet Union. But the country's transition to independence and a surge of unchecked capitalism led to a widening gap between the rich and the poor, allowing an oligarchy to gain control of the government. A militia of freedom fighters arose to turn class warfare into actual warfare, sending Eastern Slav into a bitter civil war.

As our story proper begins, we're once again introduced to U.S. federal agent Leon Kennedy (the voice of Matthew Mercer), who has secretly entered Eastern Slav to investigate rumors indicating that the rebels have acquired biological weaponry on the black market in an attempt to turn the tide of the war in their favor. But shortly after he arrives, his superiors order him out after a breakdown in peace talks prompt Russia and the United States to get involved with the war. Convinced that something suspicious is going on, Leon defies his orders and begins searching for the source of the rumors.

This might come as a shock, but his fears prove to be well-grounded. Leon discovers that not only do the rebels have some lab-created monsters at their disposal, but the rebels are controlling them via the Plaga parasites seen in Resident Evil 4 and 5. However, as is tradition with this franchise, things have gotten out of control. The parasites have also been unleashed upon Eastern Slav's capitol city, its victims becoming violent zombie-like lunatics.

In order to survive, Leon is forced into a shaky camaraderie with Sasha Kozachenko (the voice of Dave Wittenberg), a rebel fighter whose personal stake in the war has pushed him to make some increasingly desperate choices. But things get even more complicated when Leon learns that the Plaga outbreak is part of conspiracy that runs far deeper than a mere civil war, a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of Eastern Slav's political food chain and the country's president, Svetlana Belikova (the voice of Wendee Lee).

I honestly don't know why it's taken me two years to see this movie. I guess I was afraid of having another "it's okay, nothing special" experience like with Degeneration. But now that I've actually seen it, I can't figure out why I waited so long because Damnation is a fun flick. Again, I didn't think it was perfect, but the movie is still an entertaining ride.

One of my big complaints about Degeneration was the animation. It was serviceable enough, but it looked like it belonged in a video game instead of a movie. The CGI here, however, is fantastic. It feels like an actual movie this time around. Thanks to the combination of the gorgeous look of the CGI and the use of motion capture, the animation is a lot more fluid and looks surprisingly realistic in a number of scenes. The fistfight between Svetlana and super-spy Ada Wong particularly stands out in this regard, and serves as one of the movie's highlights due in part to the quality of the animation. I also felt the movie also felt more exciting than its predecessor as well. The movie's fight scenes, action sequences, and especially the protracted climax (one that pits Leon, Sasha, and a number of Lickers against two humongous "Tyrant" monsters) are actually more intense than I originally thought they might be.

The catch, though, is that the movie was obviously supposed to have been in 3D. From the way certain shots are composed to things getting thrown or pointed at the audience, it's obvious that they were aiming for a 3D release for the movie. I've heard it even got one in some Japanese theaters, but here in the United States, we're forced to do without. The added depth would have made the visuals that much cooler to see, so needless to say, I'm disappointed that I've been left out in the cold.

Another problem I had with the movie, one less superficial than the movie being in 2D, is the screenplay (which, much like Degeneration, is written by Shotaro Suga). My beef with it is that the plot feels murky and convoluted. With the games, you're constantly finding clues and other material that fill in the gaps in the story and provide some extra exposition that straightens out any questions one may have and makes the world of the games richer and more rounded. But you can't do something like that here without grinding the movie to a complete halt. Because of that, it makes the story feel weak. Maybe it's me just not noticing every little detail or something going over my head that would have straightened things out for me, but I felt like the movie's government conspiracy storyline was more complicated than it should have been.

To Suga's credit, however, he has improved on some things. One of Degeneration's flaws was that splitting the narrative between the separate paths the two main characters were taking caused it to be less focused. He fixes that with Damnation, spending the bulk of the story following the Leon character. We do cut away to Ada and her sneaky attempts at infiltrating Svetlana's office but for the most part, this is Leon's movie. This singular focus allows the movie room to stretch its legs without getting bogged down by having to bounce back and forth between protagonists.

The movie also benefits from some decent voice acting as well. The cast, comprised of veteran anime voice performers and actors reprising the roles they play in the Resident Evil games, all put forth respectable work. Granted, they're once again stuck with the occasional bit of clunky dialogue, but they're still good. I enjoyed Val Tasso, who plays a goofy rebel that takes a liking to Leon, and especially liked Matthew Mercer and Courtenay Taylor as Leon and Ada, reprising the roles they've played multiple times in the games. The two know exactly what to do and where to go with their characters, making both of them intriguing and likable in their own ways.

Resident Evil: Damnation isn't a perfect movie, and it might not appeal to those who aren't devoted fans of the games. But it's still a very fun, entertaining movie that, as a fan, I thought was a really satisfying effort. If Sony Pictures were to ever get rid of Paul W.S. Anderson and reboot the live-action movies, they'd do well to follow in the footsteps of Capcom's animated movies. It might just be a tie-in created just to promote a video game, but Damnation is totally worth your time if you're even remotely a Resident Evil fan.

Final Rating: ***

Monday, June 23, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in...

When Transformers: Dark of the Moon came out in 2011, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had somehow convinced myself that it was the conclusion of the series, that I'd never have to see another Transformers movie directed by Michael Bay. But it's never that easy, is it? Because now, three years after I'd let myself believe in a little sliver of cinematic hope, it's been dashed away by the return of the franchise under Bay's watch. I haven't been looking forward to seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction in the slightest, to the point that I've actually been dreading it. But I might as well bite the bullet and see if all my fears are justified, because I'll never really know otherwise.

Five years have passed since what's come to be known as "the Battle of Chicago." Almost all of the surviving Transformers ― both Autobot and Decepticon ― have been systematically hunted down and eliminated by an elite CIA black ops team captained by paranoid, anti-alien government official Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) and assisted by the amoral Transformer bounty hunter Lockdown (the voice of Mark Ryan).

But that's not of any concern to Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a Texas junk dealer and wannabe inventor who is struggling to make ends meet. He brings home an old, wrecked big rig intending to strip it for parts, but discovers that the truck is in truth a comatose Optimus Prime (the voice of Peter Weller). Cade revives Optimus and tries repairing him, but his efforts are cut short when Attinger's squad arrives at the Yeager farm after being alerted to Optimus's location.

Cade and the injured Optimus just barely manage to escape, with Cade's teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) in tow. As Optimus gathers the few remaining Autobots, they discover that Attinger has ties to technology tycoon Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci). Joyce has successfully reverse engineered the shapeshifting metal that Transformers are comprised of, and has been drafted by Attinger into creating his own breed of programmable Transformers. Of them all, his prized creation is one named Galvatron (the voice of Frank Welker), built from the remnants of the defeated and dismantled villain Megatron. But as trace elements of Megatron's personality begins to take over and override Joyce's programming, the Autobots contend with Lockdown and his Cybertronian weapon of mass destruction known as "the Seed."

I must admit that I thought Age of Extinction was most definitely an improvement, certainly nowhere near the worst entry into this godforsaken franchise, and at the very least, a real step up from Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon. The problem with it, however, is that its mediocrity is so overbearing that by the end of its three-hour runtime, you'll feel like one of the trucks from the movie has run you over. Had the movie been shorter, it might not have been quite so bad, but it grows so unbearably monotonous that you'll be glad it's over once the credits finally roll.

And the person you have to thank for the large part of that is Michael Bay. It's another stereotypical Bay action movie, with dumb characters doing dumb things and so much soulless, empty action that you feel stupider for having watched it. The movie is like watching a child play with his toys, slamming action figures against each other to pantomime fighting while coming up with scenarios that increasingly become so ridiculous that there's absolutely no way you can take it seriously. At this point, I fully expect Bay to finish the Transformers franchise by stealing from St. Elsewhere's last episode, the last few minutes of the final movie featuring him staring at a snow globe with Optimus Prime inside it.

And just why did this movie need to be three hours long? One could easily trim thirty to forty-five minutes of footage and nothing would have been missed. Much like with Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, I got the feeling that Bay was so in love with his own movie that he couldn't possibly bear to edit anything out. And when you realize that the movie is basically repeating itself, with pretty much the same scenes and dialogue over and over but with different backdrops every time, that just makes it even more frustrating to watch. I mean, the only really good thing I can say about Bay's direction is that the special effects are really good and look fantastic in 3D. And when the best compliments I can come up with is "the CGI is pretty and I liked the 3D," you're really struggling.

At least the movie had a slightly better script this time around, but that isn't really saying much. Writer Ehren Kruger has seemingly made an attempt to fix some of the complaints people had with the first three movies, primarily by doing away with the Witwicky family altogether and killing off the annoying comic relief in the first act. But when all is said and done, the script is still kinda weak, only really there to give the actors something to do between action sequences. There isn't enough story to sustain a three-hour movie, and the attempts at character development, specifically the scenes where it's evident that Cade does not initially approve of Tessa and Shane's relationship but grows to like him, are clichéd and trite. You know as soon as Cade and Shane meet that Cade won't like him, but Shane will prove himself to be a decent guy and earns his trust. It's one of those things that's appeared in a ton of movies and is predictable almost every time.

I also felt that the introduction of the Dinobots felt tacked on and almost unnecessary. Their appearance in the climax isn't quite as fun as it could or should have been, and one suspects that they were only in the movie at all because 1.) the fans had been demanding it, and 2.) Hasbro wanted to add them to the toy line. They don't add much to the movie, outside of the very awesome shot of Optimus Prime riding Grimlock like he was a cowboy trying to control a bucking bronco.

But at least the acting has gotten better now that Shia LaBeouf and the rest are gone. Hell, things improved immensely simply by keeping Kevin Dunn and Julie White away from the movie. The Age of Extinction cast may not be any great shakes either, but I'll take this movie's cast over the same old crap we were given in the first three. Jack Reynor is serviceable but forgettable, while Nicola Peltz might not be much (her character is pretty much worthless, and it shows), but she's still a damn sight better than Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Mark Wahlberg does whatever he's asked and performs with the suitable amount of emotion, but he's likable and charismatic enough that he can get away with a bare-bones performance in a movie like this. But the real stars of the movie are Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci. Grammer plays his role with a certain sinister edge, a far better villain than these movies have given us in the past, while Tucci is great as always. Tucci is appropriately sleazy in his role, even as he starts to sway towards the side of the heroes. If somebody could edit the movie down to be just Grammer and Tucci's scenes, that's really all you'd need to see.

There are those who'd tell you that Age of Extinction is the worst of these movies, like it's some kind of horrible travesty that somehow leaves the art of cinema worse than it had been before. But those people are over-exaggerating. It's not as bad as they're making it out to be. It's a dull, plodding, often boring movie, but there are a few positives there that keep it from being a total waste. Maybe one of these days we'll have a live-action Transformers movie that's actually good, but until then, we're stuck with these. Hopefully, Michael Bay will get the hint when it comes time to make Transformers 5 and cut it down to a more reasonable running time. Oh, and try rising above mediocrity while he's at it. That'd be nice.

Final Rating: **½