Thursday, September 4, 2014

"One ticket for Statutory Rape, please."

Even at 50 years old, actor Errol Flynn was known as a ruthless playboy with a ravishing appetite for pretty young things. So when the Captain Blood star makes a phone call to 15-year-old's house, the mother has every right to slam the receiver down and march upstairs to rain holy hell onto her daughter. But this mother is smitten. 

And that's how quick a teenager is allowed to date and sleep with an aging Hollywood star in The Last of Robin Hood. Fame, it seems, goes a long way in smoothing out the wrinkles of social norms, and creased faces. 

Not that this dilemma is all Flynn’s fault. Beverly Aandland (Dakota Fanning) did show up to a Hollywood movie set with a fake birth certificate saying she was 18. And she never mentioned her age, even though Flynn had his suspicions she was young — too young. Later when he finds out how old she is, he doesn't recoil or jump out of the dating pool like a responsible adult, but instead he manipulates Beverly's mother, a rotten piece of work named Florence (Susan Sarandon), who justifies the pimping out of her daughter in the name of her career. "This is how all the young starlets get roles," she says convincing no one but herself.

The Last of Robin Hood is a true story told from the point of view of Beverly, who wasn't raped on her first date with Errol Flynn, though it came very close. When Flynn turns up the next day, he's head over heels for her and charms her into a relationship that lasts until his death two years later from, likely, alcohol and drug abuse. As Beverly begins to learn about Errol, she's just as smitten as her mother, who accompanies the couple everywhere they go to divert unseemly rumors and gossip magazines. Beverly reminds Errol of a "little sprite … a wood nymph," so he calls her Woodsy, which is not a flattering nickname when yelled across rooms at parties. 

Flynn is played by Kevin Kline, an actor who also dated (and married) a much-younger starlet — though Phoebe Cates was very much a legal adult when they began dating. Comparison images reveal physical similarities, although Kline’s version of Flynn is not as dashing as Jude Law’s swashbuckling lothario from The Aviator. Kline does a commendable job, except he’s just not given much to work around. Flynn could command a room and seduce women with ease, but the script writes him as a hollow shell of want and need. The frustration that Flynn was experiencing as his career faded was likely immense, but the The Last of Robin Hood seems more concerned with tacky spectacle — wooden canes to illustrate his deteriorating health, hidden flasks to show his alcohol dependence, and crushing jealousy for men Beverly's own age (including one played by Flynn's real grandson). 

While the film underhandedly acknowledges his last romance, it barely dents the complicated essence of the actor, and botches attempts to ignite curiosity about his career. At one point The Sea Hawk is brought up, but only in passing and as a joke about how awful it was. (I rather liked his pirate movies.) Only perceptive viewers will learn, if they didn't know already, that the title comes from Flynn's starring role in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood. The only other film references include a set visit to Africa for the The Roots of Heaven, a bungled three sentences on the communist flop Cuban Rebel Girls (starring Beverly), and a tiny scene with Max Casella as a young Stanley Kubrick casting Lolita. Predator of teens or not, the movie doesn't establish Flynn as a Hollywood star other than to have people gawk at him when he walks by.

Fanning, like Kline, seems to struggle with the script, which is as knotty and floatable as her nickname. Dialogue is terribly written, and occasionally terribly acted, and much of the lightweight staging and tempo give the impression of a Lifetime TV movie. I wasn't surprised to see Lifetime Films produced it — it just looks cheap. I will say this for Fanning, she does convey the innocence of and frailty of a 15 year old. Her whisper-thin frame and her childlike voice give credibility to her character's age, even as Fanning pushes closer to 21 years old.

Sarandon, though, is a mess. Her performance is all over the place, except where it needs to be. And her mother character’s motivations too complicated. By the end of the film I wasn’t sure if she really wanted Beverly to succeed, wanted a free ride or was herself in love with Errol Flynn. When Florence tells Beverly's father about Flynn's advances, the dad flips. "Errol Flynn is a walking penis," he shouts. I liked this guy, and I wanted other characters that smart in the film to balance out the stupid ones. 

So, who was Errol Flynn? This movie has no clue other than he dated a teenager, loved her and then died, and that was a sensational story back in 1959. And still is today.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Hey, November Man, it's August!

The November Man is about as clumsy as spy movies get.

The dopiness starts almost immediately, when the lead spy puts on the suit of America's top diplomat and no one knows the difference. There’s even a parade for the diplomat because apparently that's what people in other countries do for American ambassadors — they host wildly attended events with huge receiving lines and lots of waving flags. And then, during the little parade, no one notices that the diplomat is not the diplomat, but in fact a CIA agent with noticeably different physical characteristics. Ok, so let's assume the random folks at the event don't notice, but what's the assassin's excuse? 

Yeesh, this movie goes on like this, every worthless piece of it. The CIA agent's home computer boots to the CIA login page with a massive spinning logo, because that's completely subtle for a spy working in another country. When a call is being traced a nerdy tech guy stands next to the phone prancing, presumably with a full bladder, and doing the "keep him on the line as long as you can" motion and holding, I kid you not, a wi-fi router up to the phone. In the same scene, spy agents arrive to an operation in a caravan of noisy dirtbikes, and then the lead spy makes a V with his fingers, points at his eyes and says, "I want eyes on him." How did the other agents not chuckle at him a little? "Boss, we can hear you fine. Hand signals not necessary."

The film stars Pierce Brosnan, a former James Bond, so really there is no excuse for this behavior. Yes, Brosnan's Bond films had some flagrant spy stupidity — the invisible spy car, outrunning glacier tsunamis with parasails, and bagpipe guns — but the movies were always meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek and silly. But never idiotic. Not like this heap. 

Brosnan plays Devereaux, a retired CIA operative who is re-activated by his former chief, a man who is so secretive that he never bothers to tell anyone that he has brought an old spy into the case he’s working. This causes mayhem later when Devereaux turns up to rescue a female agent and everyone at the CIA is like, "Who’s this guy?" One agent, a young Jon Bon Jovi lookalike, can only manage to say, "Whose car is that she got into?" but his acting is so limited that it sounds more like, "Whose car. Is that she. Got. Into?" Siri has better diction.

Eventually it's obvious that Devereaux is being framed, but I'm not sure that was the villain's plan all along. It’s an accidental framing. In any case, Devereaux tracks down Alice (Olga Kurylenko, a former Bond girl), who has information on a Russian general in line to become president. The general did some bad things in Serbia, where much of the movie takes place and where a flexible hitwoman is sent to dispose of everyone. We know she's flexible because she checks into her hotel room and promptly does the splits on the floor. Because why not? Her splits move is made more hilarious later when she's delayed by a dying man's final grasp for her foot. All that flexibility and she's held up by the weakest trip move on the planet. (It should also be noted that the dying man is a reporter who works for the New York Times, yet he calls his voice recorder a dictaphone just like your grandpa.)

Anyway, The November Man is just cruising along with Devereaux murdering everyone and stumbling into action scenes, until eventually he has to settle an old score with Jon Bon Jovi (Luke Bracey). This is done by Devereaux getting drunk, slipping into Bon Jovi's apartment and holding a gun to his civilian girlfriend's head and then severing her femoral artery to prove a point that agents shouldn't date while on duty. Bon Jovi bandages the wound and, I think, saves her, but I'm not really sure because we never see her again. This poor girl, did she know what she was getting into when her agent sent her November Man.

Women aren't treated well here. They're all held hostage at one point, or appear naked in strip clubs. Late in the movie, Kurylenko has to disguise herself as a hooker (in the shortest miniskirt ever filmed) to get what she wants from the evil general. But the low point of female objectification comes during an interrogation scene involving a creepy old man being questioned by a young female agent. The first thing out of his mouth: "Show me your tits." The audience laughed at this line, not because it was funny, but because it was comically awful. And sorta embarrassing to witness.

I want to like Brosnan, but his performance is all over the place — at times he's a cool spy guy, but it never lasts as he descends into drunken rampages. He's trying to move past his James Bond years, and I don't blame him, but I think he accomplished that already with 2005's wonderful hitman dark-comedy The Matador. And not only is November Man redundant to his anti-Bond plans, but it’s all kinds of bad. 

It's directed by Roger Donaldson, who's made some noteworthy spy movies before, including the Pentagon thriller No Way Out. He's also worked with Brosnan before, in Dante's Peak, a movie that, when mentioning Donaldson-Brosnan pairings, can now be called "the good one."

All vacations must come to an end

The Trip to Italy is a travelogue with Michael Caine, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, but without all the aggravation of, you know, Michael Caine, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Actors, yes; travel guides, no.

In their place are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, best friends playing themselves in what can only loosely be described as a film. It's more food channel globe-trotting. Think of an Anthony Bourdain reality show, but with Batman impersonations. Yes, Coogan and Brydon are prone to impersonations, including several from the Batman franchise, from which they do muffled Tom Hardys and half a dozen varieties of Michael Caine. The two actors share conversations in other men's voices, and to them it's just natural and fluid. In the middle of their impersonations they dine on glorious Italian feasts, peer out over gorgeous vistas and cozy up in hotel rooms that are likely more expensive for one night than most people’s homes for a month. 

Fine food, impersonations and fancy locations. This is generally the ebb and flow The Trip to Italy, which is a sequel to 2010's The Trip, both of which are culled from episodes of the BBC show, also called The Trip. There is not much plot, other than what is established in the dialogue: Steve misses his son and communicates frequently with him, and Rob has a family back at home that would be dismayed at his vacation activities. Food is eaten, scenes are taken in, hotel beds are crashed into, and then it all starts again the next day as the two men bop through Italy for a newspaper article about food and travel. They are tracing a similar route taken by Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and poet Lord Byron, who are afterthoughts to the pop-culture references.

The scenes of the men chatting are intercut with B-roll of locals walking through their city squares, little European cars rumbling up cobbled
streets, and of line cooks tossing sizzling vegetables and sous chefs plating elaborate appetizers. This could all be very pretentious and boring if not for Steve and Rob's contradictory interests: there they are in the pinnacle of luxury talking about Bane's facemask from the The Dark Knight Rises. Had they gone to an opera one of them would have brought a whoopie cushion along. 

The impersonations, it must be said, are very good. Their Michael Caine voices have been heard before, but they never get old. Not only can they do Caine, but they can do him from a variety of eras — from the Italians Jobs' shouting to the Dark Knight's weepiness. They also do convincing versions of Anthony Hopkins, Woody Allen, Hugh Grant, Roger Moore and Sean Connery, and yes, Pacino and De Niro. Much of the dialogue is disposable banter, though several lines are worth keeping. In one scene, Steve comments about a women, "She has a lovely gait." Rob adds: "It's probably padlocked." At one point they put in Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette so they can croon nostalgia through the Italian countryside. 

If you saw the first Trip, or enjoy the TV series, then you know what you’re walking into. If not, then The Trip to Italy might be a hard sale. Too little happens, and what does happen is repeated from scene to scene. The locations are amazing, and the food will tie your stomach into a big hungry knot, but the film doesn't have much to offer other than Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both of whom are likable guys, chatting away mindlessly. 

But here's the thing about vacations: no matter how much you like your travel companions — be it Steve Coogan or your own brother or sister — you eventually get sick of looking at them. That's the case with your every family vacation ever, and also with The Trip to Italy.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Murder is cheap in wicked Sin City sequel

"I was born at night, but I wasn't born last night," Josh Brolin's hard-boiled avenger says to the Dame to Kill For, who coos and saunters over to him, her hips swiveling in see-through négligée, her eyes white orbs blinking seductively in the shadows. The noir drips from the screen in puddles. Bring waders. 

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is less a sequel to 2005’s Sin City than it is an appendix of new characters and alternative viewpoints. I spent much of the movie trying to figure out why Marv, Mickey Rourke's bruiser from the first movie, was alive and well and still picking fights in that dive bar where all the strippers leave their clothes on. The answer is, of course, that this is a prequel, though even that's questionable as Bruce Willis, another dead guy from the first movie, turns up as a ghost. 

So really, don't worry about the details, because what you're going into this for is the pulpy crime drama, the stylized violence and the oozing sexuality. It also helps that the movie looks completely bonkers — panels from the graphic novel are snipped from the page and pasted hastily onto the screen using a mixture of rubber cement, grit and blood. Scenes are shot in silhouette, with accents of vivid color, using unrealistic cell-shaded backgrounds, and with dramatically noirish compositions with eviscerating shadows. The visuals are no better than the first movie, but that's OK because the first movie has yet to be topped, even as The Spirit and 300 — both children of Sin City author Frank Miller — have notably tried. 

Like the first Sin City, this one tells several intertwining stories at once. The main character, or the most main character, is Dwight played by Josh Brolin. He's one of James M. Cain's loser-heroes, a Walter Neff with a trenchcoat and a bad attitude. Dwight is skulking through the night when Ava (Eva Green) turns up and baits him, hooks hims and then, gyrating her constantly exposed breasts, reels him in. She inspires all kinds of noir monologue from him, including this gem: "She's late like always and like always she's worth the wait." Green, who slithers across the screen in fleshy curls, chews up the scenery and dialogue like she hasn't eaten since June. 

As Dwight gets wrapped up in Ava's (and Ava's Boob's) dilemma, elsewhere we meet up with Marv (Rourke), who's the protector of Nancy (Jessica Alba), a stripper who never strips, though she does a routine late in the movie that is terrifyingly aggressive even for a shady biker bar. Nancy was in the original film, and she returns here with little to do, even as she attempts to murder Senator Roark (the joyfully vile Powers Boothe), whose reach into Sin City's criminal underworld is vast. Roark also figures prominently in a plotline involving Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young gun with a sixth sense for gambling. Like Brolin's character, Gordon-Levitt is given lots of Raymond Chandler-inspired dialogue. "Dammit, Johnny, hate yourself when you got the time," says Johnny. 

Film noir is a Hollywood staple, and easy to mock, and Sin City lampoons it more than it honors it. But that’s not a complaint, because noir is limitless, from the high school drama Brick to the outwardly spiraling Memento. The genre has transcended Chinatown and Double Indemnity to include Sin City and all its high-contrast, black-and-white ultra-stylization. That being said, the franchise can feel very gimmicky and there are times when the plots are victims to the film's over-simplification of noir themes. Christopher Meloni has a brief chapter where he's required to play a smitten detective to Ava's femme fatale. At no fault of Meloni or Green, the sequences feel hammy and overplayed, and they reveal limitations to Sin City’s hyper-noir. 

All in all, though, this is a taut sequel with some notable performances — mostly Rourke, Brolin and Green — as well as some memorable minor performances, including ones by Juno Temple, Lady Gaga, Ray Liotta and a hilarious turn by Christopher Lloyd as a skeevy doctor-for-hire. The film is directed again by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, who must have had fun bringing Miller's violent pages to the screen. Rodriguez might just be the king of exploitation, schlock, cult and other varieties of novelty B-movies, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is further proof he has no interest in directing a "normal" movie. That's fine by me. 

Lastly, I don't normally mention this, but if you can see Sin City in 3D do it. The graphical nature of the film, and the way it jumps out of comic panels, creates an interesting three-dimensional effect that is unique to this film. And it features the first pair of characters that are entirely designed for 3D — Ava's Boobs. Decide for yourself if that's a good or a bad thing.



Beth is DOA in this zombie stinker

I've heard of dark comedies, but here's a dim one. 

It begins as a weepy death drama about a boy coping with the sudden demise of his girlfriend, then turns into zombie romance and eventually ends as a post-apocalyptic nightmarish comedy. And at no point does it elevate above dismal. 

Life After Beth is a collection of wasted talent, vapid gags and awful dialogue. It doesn't pass the Siskel Test, which asks if the film is more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch. Not only would a movie of John C. Reilly picking through a Cobb salad be more interesting, it would qualify as humanitarian relief in the wake of this turd of a movie.

We begin with Zach (Dane DeHaan) in the grocery store arguing with a clerk because the store doesn't sell black napkins for funerals. The punchline of this scene is told flatly from the clerk: "Um, try a party store." It’s all downhill from here. Zach is going to his girlfriend's funeral, where it takes half a dozen scenes to establish that the girlfriend is Beth (Aubrey Plaza) and she died from a snakebite while walking through the woods. We don't see this scene because it was presumably too much money to bring a rubber snake onto the set.

This is a hopeless lump of a movie, but for about three minutes it had potential when Zach starts hanging out with Beth's parents, played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon. Reilly, playing the awkward doofus, sits down with Zach to play chess and smoke pot, and they commiserate life without Beth. It'll be OK, they tell each other. "I love you, man." "I love you, too. Hang in there." I would have much rather watched a movie with just these two. And then the scene ends and the movie implodes shortly thereafter.

Beth, it turns out, is still alive and she's basically a zombie, though not a typical zombie. She doesn't shamble or lunge, and her bites don’t create new zombies. She's just alive and growing increasingly more unhinged. After first she's just hyperactive and aggressively sexual, which catches Zach off-guard. But then she goes homicidal, tearing apart a lifeguard shack, building a mud hut in her attic, and letting a car roll over her chest. Anna Kendrick turns up for no other reason than to spare Plaza for more embarrassment. 

The wheels essentially come off Life After Beth at this point. Plaza and DeHaan, so good in everything else they've ever been in, are paralyzed by a plot that makes no sense and dialogue that was randomly generated from third-grade book reports. Much of Plaza's lines involve her blurting out incoherently and then pouncing on props on the set. There is no comedy here. Not a single chord. Not a whisper of a note. 

As the horror continues, Zach and Beth bop around town and civilization crumbles as more of the dead rise from the grave. Eventually, Beth goes so crazy that Zach ties her to an oven that she promptly tears from the wall so she can walk through the woods until Zach does something that a producer should have done to this movie — he puts her out of her misery.

The movie is written and directed by Jeff Baena, who last worked on I Heart Huckabees, which explains a lot. He has directed an ugly movie, and a terrible one. But his movie has a great title — Life After Beth. It’s looking into the future, hopeful and optimistic. It reminds me of that moment right after I saw it, when everything felt new and pure, when Life After Beth was already far, far, far behind me. 

Choose wisely when considering Giver

Here's the funny thing about freedom of choice: the characters in The Giver might not have it, but we as audience members do. And I recommend you choose something different to watch this weekend. 

It's not that The Giver is an awful movie — it's rather splendid to look at, and the two key performances are noteworthy — it's just that The Giver is woefully broken from its premise on up. Take for example, the deus ex machina from the third act: a translucent "memory bubble." What does the bubble have to do with the plot? Nothing. What does the bubble solve? Everything. But problems begin long before bubbles blow up Phillip Noyce's incomprehensible movie based on the popular Lois Lowry pre-young-adult young adult book.

It takes place in one of those dystopian utopias where people all look like walking-talking Apple products, their uniforms stitched together by a design team in Cupertino, speech patterns that are robotic and vaguely clinical, and their bicycles are props from a 1964 World's Fair movie about "the Future." The movie has a nice look, but an empty heart. We begin with Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who feels like he’s different than other teens, a fact corroborated during his graduation ceremony when he’s paired with the Giver (Jeff Bridges), the community's keeper of memories and a knowledge. 

This sci-fi civilization has largely forgotten its history, from dancing and love to war and famine, because everyone is required to take drugs that blur memories, suppress dreams, stifle moods, inhibit feelings and take away the ability to choose. This, we're told by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), is because when people choose they often choose wrong. By taking away memory, choice, history, pain and even color — the movie is shot in black and white at the beginning — the people are promised a peaceful society, but also a hollow one. And this is where the Giver comes in. He's supposed to retain all the memories from the more tumultuous days in case they're ever needed (they aren't) or in case he's summoned to provide political advice (he isn't) to the high elders. It seems like the Giver and his vault of memories are kept around because the elders are dystopian hoarders. 

The Giver, all gruff and snappy underneath Bridges' grumpy performance, begins teaching Jonas what's rattling around up in his head. They do this by holding hands so the Giver can transfer what can only be described as first-person GoPro and YouTube videos directly into Jonas' brain. Each new memory opens up Jonas' world more and more until he begins questioning the whole structure of his society. And then off he sleds to the "memory bubble" to reboot the population. 

We've seen movies, and book-turned-movies, like this before, including 1984, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Fahrenheit 451, Gattaca and even The Hunger Games movies, but The Giver seems to most closely identify with Kurt Wimmer’s cult gun-fu action bonanza Equilibrium and, strangely enough, Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, which saw modern-day characters enter into a Leave It To Beaver-style TV show. Yes, Pleasantville, like The Giver, has long segments in black and white and then slowly introduces color during its characters' awakenings, but it also nailed many of these same plot devices that The Giver fumbles. 

Pleasantville, through its inventive writing, managed to have an open dialogue about choice and emotion and passion and pain without sacrificing the moral dilemma of the film's universe. But here, no dialogue of that magnitude exists because it's all been boiled down to a memory bubble that solves everything and nothing at the same time. In the film's most awful moment, Jonas' dad euthanizes a baby in a scene that's meant to show how detached from reality the society has become. But with no moral reckoning for this behavior, the film essentially kills a baby for nothing. It's an agonizing scene that proves that not only is the character detached from reality, but so is the movie. 

Ignoring it's broken center, The Giver does look rather snazzy. The effects pop and the designs are appropriately modern. Thwaites and Bridges share some scenes that are effective at establishing their complicated roles as teacher and student, or giver and receiver (stop snickering). Katie Holmes plays an unfeeling mother in what could easily be considered a skewering of Scientology. Alexander Skarsgård, so great in everything he's in, has to kill a baby, an act from which his character never recuperates. Much of the dialogue is angular and awkward, a result of the society's strict use of "precision of language."

Really, though, there's not much to love in this movie. It's astonishingly deaf with its plot and themes, and the memory bubble finale is insulting. 

And speaking of memory bubbles, maybe there’s one this movie can be stuffed into.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Where's Vanilla Ice when you need him?

Late in the rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, the knife-bedazzled villain Shredder says, "Tonight I dine I turtle soup." Funny, because that's exactly what I was thinking. 

In one of the most blockheaded reboots to come out of Hollywood's trendy Reboot-a-Thon, the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles further perpetuates the principle of diminishing returns when it comes to re-imagining every design that was on your bedsheets when you were 7 years old. Recall how the original movies were silly fun and, yes, heaps full of stupid. Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle Los Angeles) vacuum all the color, visual gags and life from the franchise and supplant it with grit, haze and shadows. 

No one is going to try and convince you the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise was quality cinema. It was early '90s counterculture ("Cowabunga, dudes") wrapped up in a blank check to the pizza industry. It was kitsch and camp, rubber-faced costumes and pre-X-Games skateboard stunts. It was the kind of movie that pre-teen You loved, but if you were to watch it today be kinda embarrassed about. But the movie had pluck, and the plot and characters made sense. (Look at what the remake has done to me — I'm defending movies that are mostly indefensible.)

In the reboot, the plot is about as subtle as stomping through rain puddles in a minefield. It opens on Megan Fox as a journalist — the movie's first big joke. Fox is April O'Neil, a reporter at a New York City television station who says during a live broadcast, in Times Square no less, "Hey guys, I'm here in New York City …" Because all the viewers thought she was in Sheboygan, and she cleared that right up. The journalism stuff is all unintentionally hilarious, including a clueless editor played by Whoopi Goldberg, April's fact-free brand of reporting, and poor Will Arnett who keeps using the phrase "put it to bed" totally unaware that's an actual news term that means the opposite of what he's talking about.

April, the daughter of a dead scientist who experimented on turtles, gets a hunch about masked vigilantes trolling the Foot Clan, the city’s pesky paramilitary gang that operates in the shadows. She follows her make-believe leads until she finds the actual Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, hulking human-turtle hybrids with large prehistoric shells and color-coordinated masks. There is sword-swinging Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), the leader; Raphael, the rebellious outcast; Michelangelo, the jokester and pizza fiend; and Donatello, the IT turtle who wears nerd glasses and a large headset array on his face.

The turtle’s are designed beefier and sturdier than the earlier movies. They're given lots of sewer-scavenged accessories — a bamboo chestplate, recycled sunglasses, do-rags, shell necklaces and, because whatever, a rocket skateboard — that allow them a grittier fashion sense, albeit a homeless one. The four reptiles are also entirely motion-captured CGI, giving them a creepy animated vibe. Making matters worse: none of the voice acting is convincing, or even memorable. They may be teens, but the turtles are voiced by gravel-voiced middle-aged men whose mothers couldn't pick their voices out in a vocal lineup.

Anyway, April and the turtles — and their rat leader, Splinter — team up to disassemble the Foot Clan and it's shadowy leader, who you will never in a million years guess. (It's William Fichtner and that was sarcasm.) Fichtner plays Eric Sacks, the Foot's financier who only speaks in exposition-filled diatribes. He hatches a plot to gas all of Manhattan so he can sell everyone a poison antidote. Sacks, a name that is funnier the more I read it, is willing to kill a whole bunch of people so he can be "stupidly rich," but he lives in a Bruce Wayne-sized mansion with a helicopter pad, owns numerous multinational corporations and has the mayor on speed dial — his priorities are a little screwy. 

Being that this is a Michael Bay movie, at some point a Transformer had to show up. This Transformer's name is Shredder. He's a human ninja wrapped in a metal knife-suit that could easily be mistaken for one of Hasbro's transforming robots. And like Bay's Transformers, Shredder doesn’t really have a form or shape, but rather metal tips and wings and appendages. Imagine taking a human shape and welding a junkyard to it … Shredder looks like that. 

The film’s mush of gunfights and ninjutsu is appropriately idiotic — the only thing it inherited from the original series — and takes place in the turtle's subterranean sewer plaza, high atop a skyscraper and skidding down the world's longest mountain snow slide. There are hints of zaniness, though much of it feels like a rehash of the Transformers movies, now with more reptiles. Ninja Turtles might also have the worst photography of the year: much of the movie is foggy and dark, and the 3D doesn't brighten the mud. It also doesn't help that every camera gimmick is used, from shaky cam and its stepchild spinny cam to lens flares and haze filters. It's as if Liebesman (let me repeat his credential here: Battle Los Angeles!!!) didn't want us to see his movie at all, which is actually my recommendation.

Lastly, let me talk about Megan Fox. Critics sometimes joke about bad performances, and we're prone to hyperbole, but I feel confident about this next sentence: acting doesn't get much worse than it does right here with Megan Fox. At one point she's out-performed by a pizza box, and then tube of ooze, and then four CGI turtles who live in a brick-lined tunnel made to funnel human excrement out of a city. We've know Fox was an awful actress for some time, but this confirms that she's also a glutton for punishment. She spends much of the movie being thrown from one dangerous stunt to another, but the film always has time to admire her ass. "You're a complicated chick," Arnett's character says as he drills holes through her jeans with his eyes. Fox had an epic falling-out with Bay during the Transformers movies, and supposedly she made nice to be cast here. If this is what happens when you apologize to Michael Bay, then he may never hear "I'm sorry" ever again.

So, who's ready for that soup?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Marvel kicks it into high gear for Guardians

The best joke of the summer has no punchline, but the setup is priceless: A human, a raccoon, a green woman, a tree and a man incapable of understanding metaphors walk into a bar … If you really need a punchline, then stay tuned to Guardians of the Galaxy, and the sequel, and The Avengers sequel, and the raccoon spin-off, and the TV show, and the reboot 15 years from now, and read the comic book, and then its reboot. But that punchline will come, eventually. 

Ignore my condescension about Marvel’s franchise stretching — I really did enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy and its wackadoo cast of characters, who might not be as mighty as the Avengers, but are infinitely more interesting, funny and present. Even the raccoon, who nature tells us should be picking through the trash and clinging to human faces in Farrelly Brothers comedies, is a breath of fresh air blown over Marvel’s stable of increasingly stale comic characters. If you'll recall, Captain America slept through his last adventure, Iron Man seemed bored, Hulk is a pyrotechnic afterthought, and Thor is a third-rate thespian in an explosion-filled Hamlet. I've grown tired of these emotionally wounded men and their faltering identities, which is probably why James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy feels so invigoratingly unconventional. 

The movie is set in space as salvage captain and bounty hunter Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, cruises through the galaxy looking for space junk to sell. When he finds a metallic sphere containing a piece of soul-sucking rock, he unleashes all kinds of problems that eventually unites him with green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), alien muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), pint-sized Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Rocket’s tree friend Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who only says 'I am Groot,' yet Rocket understands him like Timmy with Lassie. Each character has their own personality and quirks, and I found myself cheering on all of them. None of the characters have superpowers, another refreshing tweak for a comic-movie, which means they have to get out of jams using ingenuity and teamwork. 

Their teamwork shines during several high-octane action sequences in a space-prison, which they escape from without the help of a man’s prosthetic leg, and a Mos Eisley-like trading post built inside the decaying brain of a deceased space titan. The locations are something else. In the brain station, Star-Lord, Rocket and Gamora jump into mining pods to engage starfighters on the edge of space. The scene features something I've never seen before in a sci-fi movie: Star-Lord crashes through the hull of a fighter and uses his mining pod’s robot arms to fly the enemy ship. It’s a man piloting a ship piloting another ship, and it's appropriately zany. Later we meet a man who can control a single metal arrow with a whistle — I wonder what the arrow does during a basketball game. 

Our five heroes are fighting back against Gamora's ex-partner, Ronan, who is trying to recover the all-powerful rock, one of five Infinity Gems, for his boss Thanos, a stone-faced villain whose throne is definitely not eco-friendly — even the armrests have little jetpacks on them to provide comfy forearm support. Thanos is the main villain, but he’s only here to tease future films, ones that will feature even more Infinity Gems and eventually the Infinity Gauntlet, which is some kind of no-limit credit card or something. I enjoyed this movie, but this sequel baiting is annoying. Fanboys might adore it all, but it all feels kind of icky and corporate the way Marvel has spread its storylines out across so many different mediums. Somewhere a marketing director is praying to a plaque that reads "synergy." 

All that aside, though, Guardians of the Galaxy is a whopper of a franchise starter. And not since the Hellboy franchise have I been this excited about a comic-movie. Guardians soars mostly because the characters are likable and funny. And because it has a different tempo than the other earth-bound comic movies. But mostly because it’s funny. Pratt, eternally Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation, is the right fit here as the smart-ass space jockey. He’s a big doofus, of course, but he’s also macho enough to carry the action, which is intensely orchestrated into gunfights, space races, laser battles and martial art spectacles. He has a gag about a blacklight in his dirty space cruiser that must have shot soda out of a dozen noses in the theater I saw it in. In another great line, he says he comes from Earth, "a planet of outlaws — Billy the Kid, Bonnie & Clyde, John Stamos."

Television wrestler Dave Bautista's Drax will also be a fan favorite. Drax speaks, hears and thinks in literal terms — metaphor and symbolism are beyond him. When a prison inmate threatens one of our guardians with the old knife-across-the-throat gesture, Drax seems perplexed: "I will not drag my finger across his throat … But I will kill him." Later, it's implied sarcastically that nothing goes over Drax's head. His response: "Of course nothing goes over my head because I will catch it."

Add into all this Bradley Cooper's exasperated snickering, Vin Diesel's octave-busting "I am Groot," and the lovely Zoe Saldana all covered in green skin and you have a wild, free-wheeling sci-fi flick with a stellar cast, some genuine laughs and a damned fine soundtrack of ’70s rock. I can't ask for any more from Marvel. Except maybe fewer movies.

(The press stills are really great, so I'm adding most of them. Sorry if they take forever to load.)