Sunday, August 17, 2014

Future Past: THE GIVER

The recent spate of films adapted from young adult dystopian fiction created the economic conditions necessary for a movie based on Lois Lowry’s beloved 1993 book The Giver. That book, with its special teen receiving wisdom about the oppression underpinning the pristine homogonous future world in which he lives, laid the groundwork for future YA tentpoles like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But as is often the case, tracing the fad back to the source reveals a starker, stranger, and more ambivalent and ambiguous work than its imitators. And so, superficial similarities to those recent YA films aside, this film has more in common with small scale 70’s sci-fi or an extended Twilight Zone episode with its earnestly metaphorical nature and careful tone.

In this future, the entire known world is only a town full of modular buildings and imagineered flora. The people, dressed in the same drab pajama-like clothes, never leave because they have no reason to. They have no concept of geography or history or memory. They don’t perceive emotion and can’t see color. Their daily injections keep them anesthetized and compliant. Ignorance really is bliss. Even the leader (a frosty Meryl Streep) blindly follows their institutional memories of How Things Are Done. The rules allow one person access to memories of life before, understandings of human nature – love, hate, peace, war – and creation – art, music, philosophy – for which the general public simply has no need. Living alone on the edge of town in a small book-lined house, he (Jeff Bridges, looking like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders) is only called upon when the leader needs advice.

It’s a clearly metaphorical place, a cautionary tale about smoothing over humanity’s rough patches in the pursuit of a blind form of conflict-free sameness. It’s not Orwellian as much as it is right out of Huxley, who feared in his novel Brave New World that the future would find knowledge devalued and the populace passive through nothing more than a regular dose of happy ignorance. No one would question the system because no one would think to. You don’t need thought police once the people have forgotten how to have thoughts. Putting The Giver’s world on screen, director Phillip Noyce, finding a balance between his character-driven dramas like The Quiet American and rip-roaring actioners like Salt, shoots in black and white, representing the cognitive state of the people. It’s a grey world, seductively crisp and eerily blank.

When 18-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is handpicked to be the new Receiver of Memory, he begins to get access to the history of human thought and experience. It’s dangerous. The former Receiver (Taylor Swift) mysteriously disappeared rather than keep receiving enlightenment. Bridges warns the boy about the dangers, and then grabs his forearms and beams psychic transmissions into his protégé’s brain. Rushes of knowledge are represented by colorful blasts of high-def nature photography, pixilated home video snippets, and grainy archival footage. As his understanding grows, Jonas sees color slowly seep into the frame. He stares at his best friend (Odeya Rush). Her hair is a soft red in an otherwise black and white frame (a la Pleasantville). Soon pale green grass and soft blue sky appear in the film’s imagery. Then, eventually, the film is in full color. It’s a nice visual representation of one of the book’s most interior concepts.

Jonas goes off his meds and discovers stirrings of romantic interest that set him apart even further. His parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård) look at him confused and worried. He’s moved beyond their unknowingly small perceptions of life. It’s a clever metaphor not only for oppression, but for growing up, moving out, and becoming your own person distinct and yet still a part of your family unit. Eventually, Jonas must decide what to do with all this newfound knowledge, and that’s where the movie begins to dumb itself down to get into the category the marketplace needs it to fit.

Screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide ramp up some of the movie’s more contemporary YA adjacent ideas, creating a pro forma romantic triangle that’s admirably restrained given the characters’ flat affects, but distracting nonetheless. Then the climax gussies the small, allegorical plot up with a few chase scenes and a nonsense race-against-the-clock climactic save-the-future goal that runs counter to the material’s tantalizingly philosophical ambiguities. I could feel the movie straining against its commercial impulses as it tries to find a happy ending in what is a muted and ambiguous vision. It ends up feeling cheaper and more familiar than the intriguing opening suggests. But it retains enough of a glimmer of its source material’s introspective personality and distinctive mood to wish it was willing to be less derivative, instead of chasing the past success of the book’s successors. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Exhaustible: THE EXPENDABLES 3

A reunion of box office has-beens, the first two Expendables movies worked on some dumb level through nothing more than the novelty of seeing Sylvester Stallone and fellow veteran action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme stomping through scenarios reminiscent of their greatest hits. But by the time we arrive at The Expendables 3, the novelty has worn off. There should be something poignant about the idea of an aging team of mercenaries confronting their mortality and finding new ways to push old bodies through a young-man’s sport. Instead, it’s a mechanical and joyless contraption that grinds out what they think we want to see them doing. So here’s Stallone, squinting through displays of physicality no 68-year-old could ever pull off. To his credit, he sometimes does pull it off. But by the time he’s outrunning a collapsing building and leaping towards a waiting helicopter, it’s clear this is mere wish fulfillment.

The story in this outing is stupidly simple. After a failed mission, Stallone retires his team of old buddies (Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews). He contacts a black market talent scout (Kelsey Grammer) to find a younger team to help set things right for his C.I.A. contact (Harrison Ford). The mission fails again. This time, the villain (Mel Gibson) captures the muscled twentysomethings (Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell). Now it’s up to the old team to save the new team. Built around three action sequences – a train rescue that segues into a firefight with Somali pirates, an infiltration of a skyscraper, and a siege of an abandoned warehouse or something – the script, by Stallone and Olympus Has Fallen writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, continually maneuvers the cast into place, half-heartedly giving them lame wisecracks and rote motivations until the shooting can start again.

It’s overburdened with too many characters. I didn’t even mention Antonio Banderas as an endearingly talkative out-of-work mercenary desperate to get back in the fight and a brief appearance of Jet Li, who gets a surprisingly tender moment with Schwarzenegger, or as tender a moment as a meat-grinder macho movie can supply. With all these people standing around, the action scenes don’t have time for complicated choreography or suspenseful crosscutting. You can almost see contract negotiations and scheduling difficulties on screen with sequences seemingly slapped together with whatever shots were most convenient to everyone’s calendars. I doubt the whole Expendables team ever shared a single frame together. A character is left dangling in an elevator shaft for nearly the entire final melee. Every time we cut back to him straining for the next ledge, I thought, “Oh, yeah. He’s here, too.”

The hectic but flatlining action is mind-numbingly violent, but bloodless since it’s PG-13 this time. Thousands, maybe millions, of rounds of ammunition are expended in the course of this movie, leaving hundreds of unidentified, usually ethnic-coded, figures blown apart. It’s tiresome, repetitive, a little offensive, and cartoonish in its lack of weight or resonance. “How hard is it to kill 10 men?” Gibson yells at his flunkies after an entire third-world army fails to even injure an Expendable. It just goes on and on, gunfire, helicopters, and punches shot in a flat, unremarkable chaotic style. There’s no variety here. They couldn’t even throw in a car chase or a plane crash to mix things up a bit?

I like some of the personalities involved. The new recruits don’t make much of an impression, aside from Ronda Rousey, the first female Expendable. She’s also the only woman to appear in more than one shot in this testosterone overdose. It’s the caramelized veterans who are of some interest, bringing to their roles their histories as screen presences and public figures. When Ford says to Stallone, “good to finally meet you,” there’s a microscopic twinge of action movies past as Indiana Jones shakes Rambo’s hand. It’s the little things, like Snipes (Stallone’s Demolition Man foe) having his character joke he’s been in prison for “tax evasion.” Ha. Ha. Worse is Gibson’s winking at his checkered recent history, snapping that the heroes would be scared if they saw him angry. That’s a tad too close for comfort. At least the script gives him one good goofy villainous threat: “I’ll cut your meat shirt open and show you your heart!” That’s the kind of line B-movies are made of!

Alas, this movie’s too flavorless for those pleasures to save. It’s a largely anonymous work coasting off the personalities on screen while director Patrick Hughes does what he can with the material he’s been given. Not much can be done. This series has exhausted what little inspiration it once had, having never quite lived up to its fullest potential. There’s something almost sweet about a movie full of AARP action figures passing the torch to Jason Statham and now on to even younger potential action stars. But it’s buried under the grinding routine of so much mindless carnage and nothing story. I just didn’t care. It thinks it’s funny, exciting, and maybe even a little melancholy, what with it’s closing Neil Young sing-a-long and all. But it’s mostly sad and tired.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Life. Time. BOYHOOD

The magic of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is that he breathes new life into the coming-of-age story, a form that can easily feel overfamiliar, by supplying an epic sweep through nothing more and nothing less than a life lived before our very eyes. It’s not an isolated moment in a boy’s life that forever changes the character’s path and personhood. It’s a boy’s life, earnestly and compassionately allowed the time and space to grow on screen. A linear progression of naturalistic scenes follows the boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from age 6 to 18. He’s inquisitive, artsy, loveable. He’s growing, learning, evolving, in a constant state of discovering more about the world and about himself.

Filmed over the course of 12 years with the same cast, the final product has the visual effect and emotional connection of watching all of the Harry Potters – explicitly referenced here, read as bedtime stories and featured in a scene at a midnight release party – or Apted’s Up series or Truffaut’s Doinel films – implicit inspirations – in one go. Over the course of nearly three hours, the film sees Mason age, his face, posture, hair, and physicality a guide to the passage of time in this loosely played but rigorously plotted experience. The story of its filming would be a gimmick if it wasn’t so effective. It’s quiet and thoughtful, moving in its breadth of observation. This isn’t a film concerned only with this boy, or boyhood, but about being alive, about now.

For the first stretch of the film, we watch Mason, his single mother (Patricia Arquette), and his slightly older sister (Lorelei Linklater), observing their working-class suburban Texas life, school, work, play. On rare visits, their dad (Ethan Hawke) takes them places – bowling alleys, fast food joints, baseball games. He talks to them, inadvertently revealing strains of conflict in the estranged parental relationships as he advertantly speaks candidly with fatherly advice and about his politics and philosophical worldview. Though side characters come and go, these four remain constant, a portrait of a modern family living and loving through good times and difficulties. Mason’s boyhood is just one part of their story.

Mason is an observer of his family’s dramas, best represented by early scenes in which the little boy stares at a dead bird in the yard, giggles at the lingerie section of a catalog, watches cartoons, listens to the muffled sounds of his mother’s voice in the other room, and spies his parents arguing in the driveway. He’s soaking up the story unfolding around him, a narrative he was born into. The boy is buffeted by the dramas of the adults in his life until he’s old enough to generate some drama of his own. By his teen years, he’s become a more active participant, clashing with his mother’s new romances, finding puppy love, navigating drugs, alcohol, sex, part-time jobs, and artistic impulses. Friends come and go. Years pass; schools change; conflicts bubble up and retreat. Life is lived.

It’s absorbing, built from 12 years worth of filming on and off and yet able to maintain a consistent mood and tone. Linklater and his team – cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly, editor Sandra Adair, production designers Rodney Becker and Gay Studebaker, costume designer Kari Perkins – create a consistent, believable space. The homes feel lived in. The clothes fit like the actors wore them from home. It’s a convincingly real place and time, filled with apt signifiers of the time. Linklater surrounds his characters with current events and pop culture, everything from the obvious hit songs on the soundtrack (Coldplay, Britney Spears, Sheryl Crow, Gnarls Barkely, Soulja Boy, and more) to the evolving technology – from flip phones to iPhones, from Oregon Trail to Wii – to the Iraq War, the recession, and the election of Barack Obama. These time-capsule moments flavor the background and the atmosphere while the focus remains tightly on the experience of moving through time with this family.

Generously portioned, Linklater removes the typical catalysts for coming-of-age change, no wild misery or traumatic death or disease. Instead he supplies a variety of situations that acknowledge the way people and problems drift through life, characters and conflicts important for a time and then gone, perhaps returning later, perhaps not. The film unfolds patiently and pleasantly at its own unhurried pace. Typical home movie and family melodrama landmarks both big – weddings, divorces, births, moves, graduations – and smaller – birthdays, holidays – play out off screen, time moving forwards through suggestion and implication. What we do see are slice-of-life situations that play out with a powerful empathy deeply felt and tenderly portrayed. That’s not to say the movie is devoid of conflict or dramatic turns. It has break-ups, alcoholism, big decisions, and emotional discoveries. But it’s situated between movie-ish construction and realist document in a thrillingly relaxed way.

Linklater uses long takes and smooth cuts, trusting us to fill in the story between the passing years with context clues. He’s a great screenwriter with a fine ear for dialogue and a director with a fine guiding hand with performers of all kinds, veteran actors, children, and non-professionals alike. Here conversations play out shaggily, laughter and melancholy mingle as scenes becoming story, small details build to a big picture. There’s an ease to the performances and scenarios that feels just right, key moments crystallized as memories, fleeting remembrances. It’s not Tree of Life stream-of-consciousness, but instead a present-tense waking life, potent and evocative in its gentle immediacy, living in the moment each moment. The small revelation: “It’s always now.”

In movies as diverse (and yet so clearly from the same artist) as Dazed and Confused, the Before Sunrise trilogy, Waking LifeSchool of Rock, and Bernie, Linklater’s intelligent and empathetic approach to moments and lived experiences creates films with modest, appealing surfaces and deep wells of emotion and truth. His visual clarity and sympathetic understanding of nuances in his characters behaviors and environs is so confident and unselfconscious it’s easy to take for granted. But its effect is overwhelming, and his style cannot be dismissed. In Boyhood, Linklater covers a lot of ground, but the project hangs together, incident and character alike, because it converts the small and intimate everyday moments into an epic that uses time as its landscapes, and ordinary life as its grandest adventure.

It’s a movie about how slow the process of growing up and maturing can be, how the cumulative effects don’t guarantee you’ll figure everything out. It emphasizes the importance of timing to both setbacks and serendipitous moments of beauty, clarity, and transcendence. It’s about change. We watch it quite literally, written across the actors ages, and as scenes add up to a portrait of a family as well as a childhood, dynamics changing, relationships evolving. But it’s also in the way people change, places change, situations change. People move. People reconsider decisions. People grow apart. Throughout his boyhood, Mason is confronted with people who represent different paths, different ideas, different outcomes. By the end, Boyhood movingly looks upon all this change and possibility and says it’s okay. It’s natural. It’s a part of life. You'll grow, change, move on.

Smartly constructed, the movie starts from its irresistible gimmick and gets deeper, more complicated and moving until it feels full to the bursting with heart and compassion. There’s the weight of a real life in this film, in its making, its structure, its story. It’s a movie of deep truths about the way we live, balanced and beautiful in its humane approach that finds compassion for everyone on screen, recognizing their individuality, their struggle, and their personhood. The actors, from the kids on up to Arquette and Hawke’s astonishingly nuanced work, give extraordinarily consistent performances so fully inhabited and pitched so warmly and effectively on a lively naturalistic level that they appear simply, movingly, as ordinary people in ordinary lives. There’s a genuine emotional intelligence at work here.

It’s present in every scene. I saw it in the mischievous punch a brother sends a sister in the backseat. I saw it in the smile of a little girl passing a note to a little boy in class. I saw it in the fear of kids left behind with an alcoholic. I saw it in the eyes of an elderly couple proudly gifting a Bible and a rifle to a step-grandson who fakes enthusiasm, a delicate empathetic moment, tender, beautifully sad, full of love. (The next scene the boy is taught to shoot and likes it, a warm complication.) I saw it in the tears of a mother sending a child off to college. Life moved too fast. “I thought there’d be more,” she says. A lesser filmmaker might have viewed these scenes and more like them as moments for jokes or judgments, but Linklater balances perspective through mirrored moments, reflections of characters in others, simple gestures with complicated meaning, actions that resonate and return.

For a film so long and rich, it’s deftly shaped, arriving with great power at simple truths. Linklater found in Ellar Coltrane a boy whose open face and intelligent eyes communicate great curiosity and thoughtfulness in a performance that adeptly grows with the young actor. Its no wonder Mason becomes interested in photography. The movie he’s in exhibits a fine eye for casual visual resonance. The opening shot is of the sky, bright blue with perfect clouds rolling by. A six-year-old boy is on the grass, looking up as far as he can see. In the last shot he’s 18, and the vast expanse he’s looking over is the future. Coming of age isn’t an event; it’s a process, a work in progress. We’ve lived this far with his family. Now is now. It’s always now.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

They're So Dancy, You Already Know: STEP UP ALL IN

I hadn’t realized how essential the Step Up movies’ simple plotting was until now. Step Up All In, the fifth in the series of loosely connected stories about exceptionally skilled dancers trying to find a way to do what they love, gets rid of even a simple plot, preferring instead a jumble of thin motivations and bad dialogue to get us from dance sequence to dance sequence. Its predecessors had sturdy structures, following competitions, protests, self-actualization, and/or romances to create throughlines on which to hang dancing. Here, screenwriter John Swetnam simply gathers up some characters from Step Up 2 the Streets, Step Up 3D, and Step Up Revolution, leaning heavily on the charm that comes with seeing familiar faces. I was happy to see them, especially since their unspoken histories bring the only actual characterization to All In.

The excuses for dancing involves the leader of the dance crew from Revolution (Ryan Guzman) left behind after his pals go back to Miami, leaving him in L.A. chasing an increasingly distant dream of making his passion his career. I liked how quickly the movie undoes the previous happy ending. "We won $50,000!" "Yeah, split 12 ways." He sees an ad for a Las Vegas dance contest and asks his friend and series regular Moose (Adam G. Sevani) to help him put together a new team. The winning crew gets a three-year residency at a fancy hotel’s theater. Victory could bring, at long last, a stable paycheck for staging the elaborately choreographed numbers that are these movies’ bread and butter. It’s the Fast Five franchise all-star team-up approach, although the Step Ups won’t go full Fast & Furious without wooing the Tatums back for another spin. Like that car-racing series, Step Up has won much affection for knowing the simple pleasures it must deliver. There must be an attractive, talented ensemble of dancers stuck in a situation that can only be danced its way out of.

The Vegas competition is a half-clever reality show parody (the screen fills with Twitter handles, producers do a smidge of meddling, and the game’s not as straightforward as it appears) hosted by a flamboyant pop star named Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko). She dresses like a knockoff Lady Gaga and acts like a wilier Effie Trinket. The part is small, but Miko’s performance is big. She’s full of crazy energy, hilarious chewing away at the scenery as she plays ringmaster to the contest. Meanwhile, the real focus is on dancers pursuing love and self-validation between practice sessions and dance battles, but none of their speaking performances stand out.

They’re just there to fill in the connective tissue the script needs to get us to another production number. And what production numbers! They have fun props and interesting sets: a stage, a boxing ring, a laboratory, and some kind of futurist gladiator pit. So what if you spend the time characters stand around talking exposition working through lame strained melodramatics and obvious plot turns wishing they’d just shut up and dance? When they finally do, it’s glorious. The plot fades into the background and the movie is simply amazing. Their rivalries and romances are only interesting when communicated through body language and dance moves alone.

Like the other 3D efforts in the series (especially my beloved Step Up 3D, which is a perfect movie, the best possible version of what it wants to be) All In films the high-energy moves in shots that capture the dancers’ bodies head to toe, the better to admire their wide expressive range of movement within the space. They’re athletic, blasting through thrilling, effervescent hip-hop choreography set to booming club beats. Staged with wit and flare, the precision with which the actor-dancers (like Briana Evigan, Twitch, Mari Koda, Alyson Stoner, and twins Facundo and Martín Lombard) pop off the screen in low angle shots, takes full advantage of the crystal-clear depth of vision the shooting technology provides.

The director this time around is Trish Sie, a music video veteran making her feature debut. Most famous for the OK Go video “Here It Goes Again,” which featured the band dancing on a chain of treadmills in a one-take shot, Sie gets dutifully through the pained and strained story then brings creativity and energy to the only scenes that really matter. There’s no imaginative equivalent to the treadmill concept in the choreography, but there is a sweet dance to “Every Little Step” set on a carnival tilt-a-whirl after hours. Nice of the security guard to turn on the music instead of turning them in, a sign that even the extras want the characters to dance as often as possible. At best, the way those bodies move is jaw-dropping.

In the fantastic finale staged in a circular set with an ecstatic audience in the far background and dancers up, down, and all around the set, the energy in the performances is contagious. That’s where the characters are at their most appealing and impressive. None of the actors may be as effortlessly charming a screen presence as Fred and Ginger or Gene, but the material’s certainly not doing them any favors this time around, either. It’s a nothing plot filled with just enough dance and style to keep the good times rolling. Even with a lesser entry in the series, I still had to resist dancing my way out of the theater.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Cloudy with a Chance: INTO THE STORM

Junky but compelling, Into the Storm provides a chance to marvel at nature’s power from the comfort of a dopey B-movie perspective. It’s a cheap disaster movie that delivers exactly what it promises and not a bit more. The characters are flat, the story is thin, the dialogue is perfunctory, and the cinematography is clean, clear, and unremarkable. But this half found-footage disaster movie from the director of one of the better Final Destination sequels is exactly what you’d expect that to be. It’s full of howling winds and shattering debris in a loud sound mix as the tiny humans scramble for safety. Buildings break apart, vehicles go flying, and people hold on for dear life as the tornadoes roar by.

The plot is as simple as they come, with generic characters situated in shallow subplots about to converge with the impending intense depictions of very bad weather. Storm chaser documentarians (Matt Walsh, Sarah Wayne Callies, Arlen Escarpeta, and Jeremy Sumpter) want a great shot from inside the eye of a tornado and have the heavy-duty vehicles to prove they mean business. A teenage boy (Max Deacon) wants to impress his hot classmate (Alycia Debnam Carey) by helping with her video project homework. A high school vice principal (Richard Armitage) decides to continue with an outdoor graduation despite the forecast and asks his son (Nathan Kress) to help record the ceremony. A couple of drunken backwoods amateur daredevils (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep) want to catch viral video fame.

So thinly characterized they make the folks in Twister seem Shakespearean, these people will soon be caught up in what is to be the Biggest Tornado of All Time. Luckily, they’re all holding cameras. Director Steven Quale cuts their suspiciously professional amateur footage into the usual wide shots of destruction as he marshals CGI storm resources. We watch as the sky builds ominous dark clouds that let loose thunder and lightening, hailstones the size of golf balls, and gusts of wind. Then come the funnel clouds. Lip service to climate change and shifting weather patterns appears once or twice, but really this is all about staging whirling storm clouds and staring in gaping wonder at their destructive dominance. It’s impressive. A pickup slams through a building, grounded planes tumble, a bus bends in two, a school’s roof gets ripped off, and power lines go flying. It’s scary stuff pulpily portrayed.

As the storm escalates, more and more tornadoes descend upon this small town in anonymous anywhere America. The exact location is suspiciously vague, as even weather maps and CNN reports fail to mention where we are, although viewers from southeastern Michigan will surely recognize metro Detroit weatherman Chuck Gaidica talking Doppler Radar on TV in the background of a couple scenes. Anyway, it’s a worst-case scenario weather parable, so the precise place doesn’t matter. It’s all about collapsing an abandoned factory, or creating a towering cloud of fire in a swirl of wind, or letting several funnels merge to create the aforementioned harrowing climactic Biggest Tornado of All Time. It worked on my soft spot for disaster movies pretty well.

It’s barely 89 minutes long with credits, and runs through its scenarios quickly and efficiently. The found-footage gimmick is haphazardly deployed and never really works, but the effects and sound design are good enough to overpower. The characters may be bland and overfamiliar, but screenwriter John Swetnam supplies a dose of manipulation – two sets of separated parents and children, a race-against-the-clock buried-in-rubble scenario, an old man and a dog who are briefly missing – to maintain something of a human interest. It’s transparent. When one side character is told to think of getting back home to his (never seen or heard) girlfriend, you know he’s a goner.

I can’t quite recommend the movie, but if the idea of watching storms swallow up pretty stock characters while smashing apart small town America in scary ways sounds like a good time, well, some of us think it is. Weather goes wild and people shout laughable lines and run into exaggerated situations that are nonetheless gripping in the way the cheesiest disaster movies can still manage real scares through the unimaginable horror and beauty of distant devastation growing ever closer. One moment late in the film typifies the B-movie charms it supplies. A man in a car is sucked up, up, and away into the tornado. For one brief shot, he sits above the clouds, staring in surprise and wonder at the sight before him before plummeting to his death. It’s dumb, but effective.

Friday, August 8, 2014


I must admit the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have never really worked for me. There’s something about their characters that holds me at a distance. Maybe it’s because they’re so similar in look – big humanoid turtle things differentiated only by the color headbands their wear – and personality. They have the names of Italian Renaissance artists: Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Donatello. They all love pizza, do martial arts, shout “cowabunga,” and live with their adopted mutant rat father in the sewers below New York City. It’s a collection of silly details that never quite grabbed me in any form be it comics, animated series, video games, or feature films.

I still felt that distance in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a reboot of the live action big screen turtle movies. But somehow this transparently silly goof of an adventure movie kept me distracted, if not quite entertained. It’s not a good movie, but it’s competent as it runs through a standard superhero plot with a big bad threatening a city and the heroes who save the day. That its climax only puts about 10 city blocks in immediate danger is a nice change of pace. Is it progress that this summer spectacle is a retread of blockbuster beats from a decade or two ago instead of staking a claim in the apocalyptic stakes race we’ve been living through the last few years?

The movie follows an intrepid reporter (Megan Fox), the sort of ambitious young newsperson who is sick and tired of fluff pieces and wants to do serious journalism. One night she spots a group of mysterious vigilantes breaking up the evil Foot Clan’s nefarious deeds on the docks and comes face to face with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Some fun is had with their improbable details as Fox tries to explain to her newsroom colleagues (Will Arnett and Whoopi Goldberg) what she has discovered. She sounds crazy. Meanwhile, desperate to keep their existence secret, the turtles and their rat father set out to find and befriend her.

The human characters are stock flat types that don’t make much of an impact beyond whatever charms the actors bring. But there’s a CGI realism to the textures of the turtles’ and rat’s skin that makes them marginally more convincing as living beings. It also makes them far creepier than the phony rubbery costumes of their previous early-90’s live action appearances. Now they’re uncannily real and utterly fake in the same instance. We’re not talking the apes from Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes here. The Ninja Turtles speak with energetic voices (provided by Johnny Knoxville, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, and Jeremy Howard) as their faces light up with giggly banter and gain flashes of gravitas. Their rat guardian Splinter (Tony Shalhoub) has damp and furry features of uncomfortably verminous countenance as his dojo voice intones ponderously.

Eventually, as a nefarious C.E.O. (William Fichtner) and Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), the head of the Foot Clan, team up to spray poison from the top of a skyscraper and make billions off the cure, the turtles and their new human ally get drawn into saving the day. It’s a small, thin plot. You’ve seen the basic beats before and here they’re replayed dutifully. Even the surprises aren’t surprising, you know?  At least it has a small, thin sense of humor about itself.

Arnett becomes Fox’s sidekick, providing sarcastic asides, while Goldberg gets the most charm out of far too little screen time. (I could’ve used at the very least one more scene with her wisecracking editor.) The screenplay by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty is peppered with corny wisecracks and laughs that may not be entirely intentional, but still fit the silly mood. It's not much of a plot, and I certainly couldn’t tell you which turtle was which at any given time, but at least there’s room for a villain preparing to get inside a robotic samurai suit to say, “Tonight, I shall dine on turtle soup.” That’s the kind of straight-faced laugh line that makes me smile.

Speaking of straight-faced, director Jonathan Liebesman, behind spectacles both bad (Battle: Los Angeles) and okay (Wrath of the Titans), directs with a heavier hand than the material requires. It’s kid’s movie bounciness – the turtles are goofballs – smashed up against PG-13 roughness – a bad guy is dissolved from the inside out in somewhat graphic fashion. Lulu Carvalho’s beams-of-light-soaked cinematography is presented with a glossy seriousness, cut together in a standard amped-up chaos cinema style. I suppose when you’re dealing with material this flimsy, and so half-aware of its own inanity, grounding it in a sense of thriller weight makes the utterly weightless bounding of its inhabitants slightly less likely to float away into nothingness.

The overly familiar plotting is done and over with quickly and not as painfully as the who-is-this-for? tone or the tediously expositional rat would lead you to believe. The movie is completely empty-headed, a bland and mostly undistinguished effort that spends more time acting like it’s fun than actually being fun. It mostly goes through the motions, but at least it’s not a total waste. In the movie’s action centerpiece, a semi slaloms down a snowy mountainside as bad guys give chase and characters fall in, out, and around. It has a zip and novelty that makes it one of this summer’s better spectacle sequences, provided you can forget that there’s no towering mountain a mere 19 minutes out of Manhattan. But by that point you’ve already accepted that there are man-sized mutant turtle teenagers with ninja skills. What’s a little geographic confusion on top of that?

Monday, August 4, 2014


Seeing Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods having never seen Dragon Ball before is like tuning in to a big game for a sport you don’t follow. I should know. That’s what happened to me. This new animated feature film is only the latest extension of the long-running manga and anime series set in a universe of extraterrestrial warriors known as the Saiyans who do battle with fighting creatures of magical destructive properties. The manga Dragon Ball was first released in Japan in 1985, spawning TV series, video games, and feature films in the years since. And I’ve not seen a single one. It was popular enough when I was growing up. By catching a minute here or there on Cartoon Network while I waited for the shows I actually watched, I have a vague familiarity with what the series looked and sounded like.

From that point of view, Battle of the Gods, the first movie in the series to get a theatrical release in 17 years, is indecipherable in the details, making it a fans-only proposition. But the plot is so simple that I could at least understand the broad strokes of the story by Yûsuke Watanabe and original manga author Akira Toriyama. A flying purple cat rabbit person thing named Lord Beerus wakes up after a 39-year-slumber and determines he’s had a vision that he’ll do battle with a Super Saiyan God. Off he flies to Earth where he’ll determine who this God is and beat him up. Once he arrives, he discovers a bunch of Dragon Ball characters having a birthday party. On his way there, he knocked their friend Goku unconscious with only three blows! (And he was on power level Super Saiyan Three! Whatever that means.) Lots of fretting about Beerus happens because he’s a legendary God of Destruction. It’s best not to provoke him, I suppose.

The bulk of the movie involves the gathered Saiyans trying not to insult Lord Beerus so he doesn’t freak out and destroy the planet. It’s a long hangout with characters I don’t know, but I’m sure fans will be happy to see them all again. They play bingo, eat pudding, make fun of each other, make pronouncements, and tiptoe around their powerfully destructive party-crasher’s delicate feelings. Beerus’ assistant – a thin guy carrying a staff and wearing a glowing neon hoop around his neck – takes advantage of the sushi bar. A bunch of scheming homunculi cause trouble. Eventually, though, Beerus flips out and does battle with the heroes for about twenty minutes in hectic, lovingly stylized anime outbursts that run through all the screaming and posing and whirling colors you’d expect.

Director Masahiro Hosoda makes sure it’s all very loud and overworked, characters hollering in even non-action scenes, goofy sound effects pushing the lightly cartoony tone that clashes with the end-of-the-world stakes that never quite feel serious. It’s a small movie for something so apparently epic. Magic swirls, worlds are threatened, a birthday party is ruined. There are some winks, characters making commentary about their own situations. I particularly liked Lord Beerus discussing the length of his trip – “It was about the length of an average anime episode.”

Because it doesn’t take itself too seriously despite being clearly devoted to fan service, I didn’t mind so much that it was largely incomprehensible to a newbie. I liked seeing hand-drawn animation, an unfortunately dying art on the theatrical screen. That was enough to make it not entirely a lost cause for me. But with its thin plot and tangle of character interactions, it plays exactly like an overlong episode of a show I don’t watch. That is what it is. The look of it is appealing, with a variety of creatures and humans drawn in exaggerated anime style – big eyes, broad expressions – racing about getting into petty conflicts that threaten to tick off Beerus before the climactic explosion of combat.

I imagine fans will be pleased. The press notes tell me it’s “one of the most successful anime brands of all time.” I must say the movie makes me a tad curious to explore it further, if only to see what kind of series full of magic, monsters, and mayhem returns to theaters with a story that wakes a God of Destruction for the purpose of having him stand uninvited around a birthday party making the guests vaguely uneasy.
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