Archive for the Superhero Category

Suicide Squad

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Superhero with tags on August 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo suicide_squad_ver24_zpstam6rkzx.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI love the concept of Suicide Squad. The whole movie is predicated on the idea that bringing together a team of the world’s most dangerous criminals would be a great way to fight crime. Fight fire with fire, right? Their lives are expendable so if they don’t succeed it’s no great loss. The collection of a ragtag team of ne’er-do-wells has formed the basis of great films from The Dirty Dozen to Guardians of the Galaxy. And yet, the notion of assembling crooks to fight their own is inherently ridiculous. So if you can get past the illogical set up, you’re half the way there into buying this hokum.

The key thing is to set up an engaging group of characters that we want to embrace. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or evil. Give them charisma and we’ll follow their adventure. The assortment of convicts here is also known as Task Force X. “The worst of the worst” as Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) calls them. She’s the high ranking government official who oversees them. At her side is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who is responsible for executing her orders. He directs the baddies in the field. But as we find out, deep down they’re really not so bad at heart.  Let’s start with the slightly more interesting people. There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), a dangerous assassin with impeccable aim. He also has an 11 year old daughter for whom he’d do anything in the world. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has pyrokinetic abilities. However he is reluctant to use them after accidentally killing his wife and daughter from setting a building on fire.

The best character is Harley Quinn in a star making turn by Margot Robbie. If this superhero movie has any hope for longevity in these seemingly endless comic book adaptations, it will be because of her. Honestly they should’ve called Suicide Squad, The Harley Quinn Show. She is the reason to see this picture and easily the most compelling outcast. She’s the psychiatrist that became a psychopath. Face smeared with pale makeup, she wears her hair in colorful pigtails, wields a baseball bat as a weapon and giggles incessantly. She knows more than her male cohorts but downplays her smarts with a flirtatious wink. She certainly outshines her boyfriend, none other than the Joker (Jared Leto), a former patient now turned paramour.  Ah yes she’s motivated by her love for him.  Given all the advance studio promotion of Leto’s appearance, you’d think he was the star of this joint. He’s nothing more than an expanded cameo here – neither the main villain nor a member of the squad – only Harley Quinn’s boyfriend that pops up briefly to rescue her in a scene. After months of online hype, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated.

Let’s not forget the section I call “and the rest” on the team: Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Slipknot (Adam Beach). Rick Flag’s bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara) joins the gang too I think. It  wasn’t clear to me whether she’s an official addition or just sort of tags along.  Regardless none of the remaining constituents are able to register a definable personality in this loud cacophonous mess. In an adventure where everyone is a lunatic, the main evildoer should be pretty boffo. Instead we get the Enchantress, an archaeologist who becomes a powerful sorceress when possessed . She’s played by Cara Delevingne. The model turned actress simply doesn’t have the gravitas to play the arch villain that should anchor a production such as this. It’s not apparent at first, but suppressing her ultimately becomes Task Force X’s main objective.

The plot is confusing. We get so many incidental asides that give backstory as to how these felons came to be. A chemical baptism flashback between the Joker and Harley Quinn has some promise, but with so many tangents, it’s easy to lose track of all the random individuals. The film descends into tired action picture clichés with overstuffed commotion. The rapid fire cut and paste edit aesthetic does nothing to uplift this feature. The characters disappear under the weight of discordant madness and haphazard editing. The movie poster promises a colorful psychedelic mushroom cloud extravaganza. Yet in reality the production is actually a dark, dimly lit slog with a surprising lack of color.

I’d fault Suicide Squad for not having a story, but that’s not really the point. Introducing a bunch of characters is the plot. This is an excuse to create archetypes and parade them around for 123 minutes in a gleefully exuberant devil-may-care spectacle. That might have been acceptable. If every member of this battalion had as much pizzazz as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), I’d be loving this flick.  If I had to name one other MVP, it would be Viola Davis as their governmental superior. She is often the voice of calm in a calamitous haze, reciting exposition to clarify the script’s more ambiguous passages. Three installments into the DC Extended Universe and I can see things are improving. The problem is that the rest of the cast is lacking. Not the actors’ fault. Their parts are simply underwritten. Suicide Squad is better than Batman v Superman. I’ll give it that. It’s just that it still has a ways to go.

08-04-16

Captain America: Civil War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on May 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_america_civil_war_ver15_zps6veouhci.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s amazing how two superhero movies can share nearly identical themes, and yet be so different in what they achieve. It was just six short weeks prior that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was released. Although the movie was a success at the box office, it received a critical drubbing from many viewers (this critic included). Now we have the release of Marvel’s latest opus, a movie built around the ultimate showdown between two warring factions of the Avengers. The motivation of revenge for the central antagonist is the same. Even the way in which to exact revenge is the same. Despite the similarities, the satisfaction derived from each film is a study in contrasts. Captain America: Civil War is the far superior picture. No surprise. By now, everyone knows Marvel has perfected the ongoing storyline across sequels down to a science.

If you’re not up on your Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, this is presented in name as a sequel to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In that adventure, we learned that Captain America’s friend, Bucky Barnes was captured and experimented upon during WWII. He was brainwashed into a trained assassin using mind control. Although Civil War also concerns the much larger picture as to what happed more recently in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The number of civilian deaths as a result of the war in Sokovia has become a global concern. Can the Avengers be partially held accountable? The United Nations is preparing to pass the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement designed to limit and control the Avengers.

The Avengers are torn apart into two factions: one led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and the other by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Captain America’s anti-registration squad is composed of Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Iron Man’s pro accord team is comprised of Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). New VIPs Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) also join up on this side as well. Side note: Thor and the Hulk are conspicuously absent for reasons that seemed a little murky, but honestly this movie already has plenty of speaking parts. While their absence is noticeable, it’s not crucial.

If all this exposition and characters sounds complicated, it is. This is a superhero film that subscribes to the idea that bigger is better. More cast members, more battles, more run time. At almost 2 1/2 hours, this does seem long and a bit overblown. Yet the strengths far exceed the weaknesses. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deserve a lot of credit for making sense of all these events and distilling it into a narrative we can still follow and enjoy. The big fight featuring the whole gang is fashioned as a centerpiece of the drama. The choreography is appropriately spectacular. Surprises await and the showdown is a delight. Although shaky camera work and rapid cuts do detract a little from the mostly rousing action sequences.

With all the personalities, Civil War, truly plays out like a third Avengers movie, besting Age of Ultron (2015) for emotional depth, but lacking the breezy joy of The Avengers (2012). The story is at its best in quieter moments when it focuses on the personality of the individual. The narrative gives clear, understandable reasons as to why each superhero aligns with the side that they do. Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr deserve major kudos for anchoring the production with sincere performances that captivate our attention. That’s not easy to do with a cast of this magnitude. In a film full of many highs, I did not expect Ant-Man & Spider-Man to be at the very top.  Both have amusing vignettes that make the promise of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp something I am now willing to embrace rather than dread. Additionally the heavy emotional burden that Bucky Barnes carries as the Winter Soldier is emphasized. His relationship with Steve Rogers, his buddy since childhood, is affirmed as well. These cast members stand out in a roster that is uniformly excellent. I could cite more characters and the traits that make them interesting but that would spoil the fun of discovery. It’s their complex backstories that help secure our interest in the personal dynamics of these people. They give the heroes depth. That is what makes Captain America: Civil War so gosh darn entertaining.

05-05-16

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero on March 27, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo batman_v_superman_dawn_of_justice_ver8_zpsgpnkvncd.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgSuperhero movie are serious business. Just ask director Zack Snyder who apparently doesn’t have a humorous bone in his entire body given his latest opus.  The awkwardly titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is dark. Like really really really really really really really DARK. This is entry #2 in the DC Extended Universe and it arrives three years after 2013’s Man of Steel, a deplorable waste of time and talent that I hated as much as anything I saw that year. The good news is that Batman v Superman is an improvement, The bad news is that it still isn’t very good.

DC Comics is clearly on a mission to create this grand epic. This is their bid to outdo the franchise empire created by Marvel Studios. And let me tell you, there’s a veritable onslaught of releases planned by the DC machine in the next few years. There’s two movies centered around the Justice League with the individual meta-humans Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Shazam! Cyborg and Green Lantern all getting their own pictures. We’re introduced to some of them via a computer screen in this movie. Bruce Wayne is seen opening their files on a drive from LexCorp by clicking on their icons. It’s the cinematic equivalent of observing someone watch a coming attractions trailer.

We also get a ton of supplementary characters that needlessly complicate matters. Ok so both Lex Luthor and Lois Lane are required. I’ll allow for them, but neither adds much to the proceedings. On the plus side, Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) does make an appearance all dressed up in a muted uniform that doesn’t stray too far from what we associate with that character. Her reveal got applause so that’s good. Girl Power! and all that. But elsewhere the news isn’t so rosy. Central antagonist Lex Luthor (Jr.) is portrayed by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Superman’s arch rival is an iconic villain, a brilliant manipulator, but here he comes across as just a bratty millennial. Lex Luthor is anti-Superman right from the beginning. The superhero has become this controversial figure in the media after all the death and destruction he caused during his battle with Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel.

Luthor’s objective is kind of ambiguous at first.  Initially it appears he wants to make people dislike Superman even more but he develops into this puppeteer of people who aims to pit the two crime fighters against each other. He partners with U.S. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). She is contacted by Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), an employee of Wayne enterprises injured in the previous installment’s Zod vs. Superman combat. Luthor has tapped wanted criminal Anatoli Knyazev (Callum Mulvey) as well to get him some kryptonite. There’s a lot of people involved.  However Luthor’s grand master scheme is ridiculously inefficient when you ultimately realize how it depends on so many arbitrary things potentially falling into place.  When his plan doesn’t work, Luthor has a back-up that involves creating yet another super-villain, sort of a cross between the Thing and the Incredible Hulk. It’s a CGI mess of technology that is about as thoughtful as witnessing two explosions have an argument.

Batman v Superman should have been an engaging character study, but it’s overstuffed – crowded with actors, jammed with plot, packed with mayhem. Look at the title. It promises a one-on-one showdown between two titans of the superhero world. Granted we do get that. If two physical specimens throwing each other around sounds exciting, then you will be pleased. But there’s so much excess fat in this almost three hour film. Too many extraneous plot threads muddle a crowded adventure. Was it really necessary to present the Batman origin story yet another time? I got it, Zack Snyder. Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. Sheesh! That scene has had more performances than Phantom of the Opera. Cameos from Charlie Rose, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anderson Cooper are superfluous padding.

We’re talking about two guys that dress up in tights and run around fighting crime. The very idea is inherently silly, but you’d think we were detailing the most horrific chapters of World War II given this movie’s utterly bleak tone. There’s little room for “fun” when grim, depressing self-importance is the thrust of the DC agenda. The strident inability to “lighten up” must also afflict writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer who penned this ponderous screenplay. Batman v Superman isn’t horrible. It’s intermittently involving as it unfolds, but all these issues weigh it down upon reflection. One of those “I was mildly entertained while I sat in the theater, but days later I couldn’t care less” type films.

03-24-16

Deadpool

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Superhero on February 13, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo deadpool_ver8_zpsxm3xv2hl.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgDeadpool is really funny. As a story, it gets by on a lot of witty one-liners. Hey they charmed this guy — a reviewer that doesn’t care about the comic book origins of a Marvel superhero. The comedy is obscene at times, but that’s not the part that lands. Mostly it’s the meta material that breaks the 4th wall, when it knowingly pokes fun at the idea that everything we’re watching is just fiction. Take the opening credits for example. It’s like the title sequence version of Screen Junkies’ “Honest Trailers”. The camera crawls through a frozen-in-mid-air car crash amid stopped bullets. Dismissive descriptions pop up as stand ins for names. The cast features “Hot Chick,” “Some Idiot,” “Moody Teen” and “British Villain.” I give it numerous points for making fun of itself, but I deduct a few for the fact that it actually succumbs to those stereotypes.

Deadpool was introduced as Wade Wilson in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That entry treated the personality like an afterthought. It even went so far as to sew his mouth shut at one point. That definitely isn’t the approach here, where the wisecracking individual seems like a totally different person. Deadpool makes offhand concessions to the same X-Men universe. A couple mutants even show up. They want to recruit Deadpool for a slot in the X-Men. Neither are the ones you were hoping for though. We get Colossus (an entirely CGI creation this time around) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Wait, what, who? Sorry no clue, but then why only two of them? Well that’s all the budget could afford — or so says the script. That line is priceless so I’m not complaining. The takeaway, you don’t need to have seen any of the X-Men films to enjoy Deadpool. It stands on its own and it’s all the better for it.

You cast Ryan Reynolds for two reasons. His sarcastic, comedic delivery and his pretty boy good looks. The first strength is put to great use. Ryan Reynolds’ winking, snotty attitude is a delight and he delivers the consistently amusing screenplay with wit and aplomb. I admit that Robert Downey Jr. has already done the smart alecky shtick to perfection in Iron Man, but Reynolds takes the concept in a slightly new direction. The approach is not cutting edge, but still interesting. However the second attribute is where the movie gives the ultimate middle finger to the viewer.

The action is violent verging on sadism. At the lab, Wade is mercilessly tortured for months by a criminal named Ajax (Ed Skrein). The purpose ostensibly to unleash his powers of regeneration and cure his cancer. However Ajax definitely takes a perverse pleasure in the whole procedure. The process works but the treatment leaves Deadpool horribly disfigured. A face so bloodied and pulverized he dons a red mask and bodysuit to hide his appearance. It’s really gross to be quite honest. “You look like an avocado had sex with an older avocado” opines Wade’s best friend Weasel (TJ Miller). The unnecessary endurance test serves nothing other than to cater to the cruelest sensibilities of a maladjusted adolescent. The off-putting scene is a regrettable detour from the production’s mostly intelligent satire.

Too often Deadpool seems to rely on its gratuitous gore, nudity and language as if it’s inventing something new. This is business as usual for the most part. Anyone who has ever seen Blade, Kick-Ass or Dredd will be familiar with hard R-rated shenanigans in this usually family friendly genre. Of course there’s the knowing, self-aware aesthetic. It’s the humor that sells the film. Although even that doesn’t feel innovative. Heck even affable blokes like Zack Morris on Saved by the Bell or Ferris Bueller have famously addressed the audience directly. Incidentally, stay tuned for a cute after credits segment that satirizes that. This isn’t truly subversive in a way that redefines the genre, but the picture maintains an environment that is consistently hilarious. Deadpool undermines the business of making superhero movies just enough to be interesting and worthwhile.

02-11-16

Ant-Man

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ant-Man photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s getting hard to summon up the enthusiasm for these superhero movies. There’s just so many of them. Oh and why must each one start with a convoluted origin story? Over the last 10 years we’ve seen as many as 11 comic book adaptations come out in a single year. That was 2011. Since then the sheer number of offerings has declined so perhaps we’re in a bubble that’s about to burst. That’s a shame because a few have ranked among my favorites in a given year. Guardians of the Galaxy is an example that transcends the genre. Unfortunately that’s an exception. For every Avengers there’s an Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which leads me to the latest offering. Ant-Man isn’t terrible but it is far from required viewing.

Even though former systems engineer Scott Lang has been released from prison, he’s a good guy at heart. His crime? Breaking into a shady corporation and transferring money back to workers who deserved it. So he’s like a modern day Robin Hood. Now that he’s a free man, he’s determined to help support his young daughter. She’s an adorable little moppet that gets ample screen time to be cute. Continuing the family angle there also former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his adult daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They have some unresolved issues to work out too.

How about some more great actors cast as random people?  Michael Pena is conspicuous as a member of Scott’s heist team. Pena emphasizes his ethnicity by speaking with an exaggerated Mexican accent. His sidekick character will either be amusing or cringeworthy depending on your tolerance for ethnic stereotypes. My audience giggled. I was quiet. But this is Scott Lang’s story. Apparently stealing things is his sole hope of earning a living. First Scott steals a suit that shrinks him down to microscopic size. Then he uses the technology to steal more things. Yup. Ant-Man is a heist film.

The best moments involve humor. Yet the giggles are pitched at very young viewers, the humor marked by a jejune mentality. “Whoa! I can’t believe things that are usually small now look big!” is that what the audience is supposed to think.  Personally I couldn’t stop thinking this feels like a made for TV movie for the Disney channel. With a few judicious edits for language, this PG-13 could easily be PG. The script has a favorably lighthearted attitude at least. “Isn’t the idea of a tiny masked vigilante kind of stupid?” it winks at us. Part of you laughs with the filmmakers because sometimes they’re in on the joke, and part of you snickers at them because sometimes they aren’t. The action is really generic. No conflict is ever too complicated that it can’t be resolved with another fistfight. There’s several. Each one is uniquely staged I suppose. Call it Honey I Shrunk the Superhero!  But if that’s the only novelty that this picture can offer (and it is) then that’s hardly innovation. Ant-Man is a boilerplate superhero production. It reinforces the (unfair) accusation that, if you’ve seen one costumed crime fighter film, you’ve seen them all.

07-16-15

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 3, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Avengers: Age of Ultron photo starrating-3stars.jpgI consider myself to be reasonably intelligent. I understand that it’s a good idea to settle your credit card bill at the end of the month and not let the balance roll over. I grasp the difference between ‘there’, ‘they’re’ & ‘their’ and use them appropriately. But Avengers: Age of Ultron is confusing. I’ll admit it’s nice seeing the old gang get together and kick butt again. They do a lot of that here in cacophonous spectacles that are the best money can buy. Age of Ultron was made with an estimated budget of $250 million, making it the most expensive Marvel picture to date and I won’t question that figure. This looks like a costly movie. Although the battles feel a bit familiar this time around. More expensive doesn’t always equal better. The recent direction of superhero productions like Man of Steel (2013) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) don’t enchant me. They’re not rooted in dramatic storytelling but rather feats of engineering. There’s a lot going on. Kristopher Tapley over at HitFix defined the practice as “money-shot overload.” The term fits perfectly.

The Avengers was enjoyable because it kept things relatively simple. Let’s bring the superheroes of the Marvel universe together to fight a known enemy: Loki. Age of Ultron is about introducing even more characters to that universe. When I research the cast on the IMDb I see names like Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and The Vision. I could’ve missed it, but I don’t recall ever hearing those actual words in the film. What seemed so fun and effortless the first time has now become a thoroughly labored affair. It begins with a complicated opening set in a fictional eastern European country with a mad scientist named Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Von Strucker’s experiments have created genetically enhanced versions of twins Pietro and Wanda Maximofff. They’re portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen sporting embarrassing pseudo-Russian accents. It is interesting to note the actors went from playing a married couple in Godzilla to a brother & sister duo here.

Avengers: Age of Ultron makes precious little sense. I realize looking for consistency in a sci-fi fantasy is a feeble pursuit but I must start with a random observation. Pietro’s powers are wildly inconsistent. The dude is supposed to move at supersonic speeds. We saw this in 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past when the individual was notably played by Evan Peters. In that film, Quicksilver raced around a room to prevent an onslaught of bullets from hitting his friends. So I take serious exception to what he does here. I must tread lightly to avoid spoilers but his behavior is beyond comprehension. Paul Bettany’s role as J.A.R.V.I.S.. takes on a new dimension in a mystifying story arc which I couldn’t spoil because I didn’t get it either. Somehow the internet made it possible though.

Also lacking clarity is Ultron, the main villain.  He is actually part of Tony Stark’s global defense program. I will say it’s kind of amusing seeing Robert Downey Jr. reunited with his Less Than Zero co-star, or at least his voice anyway. James Spader looks different but hey, that was 28 years ago. Apparently Ultron is Tony Stark’s fault and he’s kind of a jerk about it. The words, “I’m sorry” would’ve helped.  Initially he had the best of intentions.  He wanted to keep the peace. His Ultron program was designed to protect the Earth.  But Ultron becomes a sentient being and naturally decides that the human race must be eliminated because they’re the biggest threat. It’s that darned artificial intelligence gone wrong again. You didn’t see this coming? How many movies are going to use this as a plot point? From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina.  Oh but why have just one Ultron when you can have many. Of course there must be an army of robot drones further cluttering the screen.

A big part of the narrative involves the gang coming to terms with their feelings. Assisting them in this is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Her power is to get inside people’s heads. She disorients them with visions of their fears. There’s several dream sequences that put division amongst the Avengers. In fact much of the tale, in between conventional combat, is centered on Avengers who just wanna go home and walk away from all this.  Ah, that’s what was missing from the last Avengers movie, existentialist mumbo jumbo.  Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets an expanded back-story that seeks to further humanize him. There’s even room for a burgeoning romance between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. I hesitate to use an adjective like boring, especially in a film with so much visual stimuli thrown at the screen, but these arbitrary developments aren’t captivating. How about lame? Is that a better word?

It’s not all bad. There are some genuinely humorous moments that made me smile. The Hulk’s dream (which we unfortunately never see) causes him to fly into a rage and forces Iron Man to don his Hulk-Buster suit of armor to calm him down. The team takes turns trying to pick up Thor’s hammer which has a hilarious payoff later. But then Ultron and the twins go to a shipyard in South Africa and Andy Serkis inexplicably pops up. Cue fanboy giggles. Bewildered looks on everyone else. Enough with the fan service! It shouldn’t come at the expense of a coherent story. As per usual, stay for a mid-credits scene (no post credits one) where we’re reminded of that creature with a purple face that we saw briefly in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. (I’m told it’s Thanos) I only wish Age of Ultron were more focused on giving the audience a lucid plot instead of being a character springboard for future films.

05-01-15

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Posted in Action, Adventure, Martial Arts, Superhero with tags on August 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a really ugly film. Part one of the original trilogy, also with the same exact title, was released back in 1990 and it confounded expectations to be quite good. Its massive popularity ($260.6 million in 2014 dollars) generated two sequels, each of dwindling quality. A computer animated entry entitled TMNT in 2007 built on the success of the 2003–2009 TV series. Now we’re given a new interpretation on the first motion picture and it’s a sloppy, bewildering mess. The scattershot construction would be bad on its own terms, but when compared to previous incarnations, it achieves a new low.

The history of an established franchise is severely corrupted . The mythology of our beloved foursome is devalued in favor of a tale largely focused on Megan Fox’s character. Reporter April O’Neil is trying to get information about a villainous organization called the Foot Clan that is terrorizing New York City. Side note: A fun drinking game might be to take a drink every time there is a close-up shot of her posterior. At one point, the director actually has her bouncing on a trampoline. I’m not kidding. Fox is not believable as the ambitious go-getting journalist she is supposed to be here but it’s too easy to pick on her so let’s simply move on. The Foot Clan is led by Shredder who looks like a samurai Transformer in a suit of armor with Ginsu knives for hands. He’s ridiculous. Yet he is relegated to secondary villain status in deference to the ubiquity of evil industry mogul Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), a villain as generic as they come. At various junctures his malevolent plan is thwarted by 4 shadowy vigilantes. April sees this and reports her findings to her boss (Whoopi Goldberg). Naturally neither she nor anyone else believes her. Just who are these 4 masked defenders? What follows is a lot of indecipherable nonsense.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles manages to be a really ugly piece of entertainment in a myriad of ways. Dreary events are connected by loud lumbering disorganized mayhem punctuated by lots of noise, all strung together. The action set-pieces are so stridently generic that I couldn’t even describe them immediately after this headache was over. The dimly lit “excitement” is so cluttered, your eyes will glaze over from the miasma of the chaos. A large part of the story has nothing to do with ninja turtles, but rather a bunch of human beings that wouldn’t have enough presence to activate an automatic door, let alone occupy the focus of a movie. And the turtles themselves look disgusting, like gooey roided-up hulks impregnated with reptilian features. We never get to know the characters. The four of them were completely interchangeable as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t differentiate their violent militarized personalities apart. They do wear different colored masks at least. I think one wore glasses. Perhaps even more grotesque is Splinter, their rescued lab rat mentor who learned Ninjutsu from a book he found. He sports rat facial hair and the Asian garb out of an old martial arts flick. He’s voiced by Tony Shalhoub (!). The atmosphere is extremely depressing. The only time some 90s magic is shown is when the turtles start beatboxing in an elevator. It’s at that moment the production starts to feel a little fun, but the second that’s over, the feature reverts back to being a dour desecration of the lighthearted source material. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had me shell-shocked.

08-07-14

Guardians of the Galaxy

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on August 3, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Guardians of the Galaxy photo starrating-5stars.jpgAt heart, Guardians of the Galaxy is a simple tale about a group of misfits. A mysterious orb of untold power is stolen by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord on the planet Morag. The valuable artifact is coveted by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a genocidal militarist of the Kree race. Star-Lord attempts to sell the relic on the planet Xandar and pocket the money, but before he can, it is intercepted by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a curvaceous alien warrior. The ensuing commotion also draws in Rocket (Bradley Cooper) a anthropomorphic raccoon and Groot (Vin Diesel) a tree-like biped. They all end up in jail where they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a massive brute out for vengeance. This rag tag aggregation of prisoners become allies who unite against a common threat.

Superhero movies are inherently ridiculous. Beings, often from another planet, dress up in some getup and fight crime with their bizarre superhuman abilities. Silly no? That’s why I like mine served with a big fat helping of comedy. The more winking at the audience, the better. Guardians of the Galaxy may be from a comic book, but it doesn’t feel like a Marvel picture in the traditional sense. It concerns a disparate team that are rather disorganized. This motley collection of mercenaries are pretty selfish too. Fighting corruption is the furthest thing from this sorry gang’s mindset as you can get. Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t yearn to adhere to the superhero template. It wants to kick back and relax to the soft rock stylings of the 70s. The production would prefer to just rest its feet on the archetype like it was an ottoman.

What makes the fabric of this story work, is the charismatic mix of personalities that ordinarily would have no business being friends. There’s no reason why this unorthodox lot would ever associate with one another. The combination of individuals is unlike anything ever seen before and yet they are instantly recognizable. First and foremost is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill or Star-Lord as he prefers to be called. He’s a roguish, opportunist who just exudes swagger. Indiana Jones or Han Solo would consider him one of their own. He’s in good company. Zoe Saldana is the sexy Gamora, an assassin, the last of her Zehoberi race. She is a quick witted match for the womanizing Star-Lord. Great shades of Princess Leia! Of humanoid appearance, she sparks believable chemistry with Star-Lord even though she is a green skinned alien. Drax the Destroyer is a tremendously muscled thing not dissimilar to the Hulk. In spite of his brutish looks and psychopathic personality, he masks a remarkably sensitive backstory of pain. Ronan the Accuser killed his family and now he seeks to avenger their death. Gamora has ties to Ronan that will prove to be quite useful.

Computer animated creations can be a mixed bag. Jar Jar Binks anyone? However here the technology has been used with fascinating vitality. Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper) is a genetically engineered raccoon that has been given sentient intelligence. A completely realistic CGI creation, he is nonetheless one of the most engaging all the characters, his rather chaotic, trigger happy temperament notwithstanding. One cannot acknowledge Rocket without also mentioning Groot, a tree creature voiced by Vin Diesel. The two of them are bounty hunters that work in tandem. The imposing guy speaks only three words: “I am Groot.” Despite his limited vocabulary, Rocket and Groot understand one another perfectly which gives rise to some very humorous conversations. Groot is an innocent that exudes more heart than all of the other entities put together.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the spiritual sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy we dreamed about. Action packed, well written and most of all fun! This is a space epic where the unexpected happens. Gamora and Star-Lord romantically bond over Elvin Bishop‘s easy listening classic “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”. A baby tree boogies down to “ABC” by The Jackson 5. Glenn Close sports a hair-don’t that looks like a triple dollop of cake frosting. Director James Gunn has never helmed a production this huge.  His highest profile box office success heretofore was as the screenwriter for the live-action Scooby-Doo in 2002. He pulls out all the stops here.  Superhero movies never get Oscar consideration for costume design but Alexandra Byrne’s work needs be recognized. I truly hope she will garner a nomination. Even during battles scenes, the frightened citizens in the background had creative wardrobe details that I haven’t seen since the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier’s work in The Fifth Element. The jaw-dropping manifestation of this universe is a marvel of modern technology, fashion, and special effects. The art direction never ceases to amaze in a world where outstanding visually impressive displays have become commonplace. And let’s not forget that soundtrack, a brilliant blend of early 70s light rock classics that actually exist to cement the deep emotional bond the main protagonist had with his mother. It’s a stunning presentation full of pathos, love, joy and humor. Sorry Transformers: Age of Extinction, but in the words of a pop hit on this soundtrack, I’m hooked on a feeling. I’m high on believing that Guardians of the Galaxy is the summer blockbuster we’ve been waiting for.

07-31-14

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

X-Men: Days of Future Past photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgOne wouldn’t think the seventh entry in a series would be cause for excitement, but X-Men: Days of Future Past (DOFP) is a rousing episode in the franchise. For one thing, it is a deft merger of X-Men films. The cast of the original trilogy is united with their younger counterparts of the 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class. It’s a tribute to Simon Kinberg’s script that for all its characters and detailed exposition, DOFP still manages to present an intelligible story. The time-traveling that begins with a dystopian future in the year 2023 then jumps back to 1973 where most of the chronicle takes place. A word of caution: anyone not up on their X-Men history will require a brief primer to bring yourself up to speed with mutant lore. In addition to the ever-shifting allegiances and objectives, there’s a host of new people. The Avengers had a meager 6 superheroes. DOFP has an astounding 20+ mutants. Thankfully most of these (Storm, Iceman, Bishop, Colossus) are merely window dressing in the background. Others get a few lines (Shadowcat, Beast, Quicksilver). Only Wolverine, Mystique (Raven), Professor X and Magneto are truly indispensable mutants. The narrative wisely focuses on them.

The majority of DOFP takes place a decade after the events of First Class in 1973. A smart move, given that it was the previous apex of this anthology. Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) is an important new villain. A dangerous extremist, he advocates robots called Sentinels to protect humans from the mutant threat. We’re presented an alternate storyline of what originally happened. In an effort to put an end to his madness, Mystique assassinated him. Ironically this would ultimately cause more harm than good. As a result, she is captured and her shapeshifting power is harnessed to engineer the unstoppable Sentinel robots. They ultimately lead to the complete annihilation of life as we know it. That’s the grim scene that opens the film. So the mutants decide to send Wolverine back in time to stop Mystique from causing an event that triggers the Sentimental program. Will the mutants be successful? Wolverine will have to enlist the help of their younger mutant selves.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the very best of a decent franchise. It marks the return of director Bryan Singer who helmed the first two respected entries before the collection took a serious nosedive with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and those two Wolverine-centric movies.  He entertainingly combines multiple entries into a coherent tale that conveniently incorporates a lot of fan service. That this doesn’t feel like the climax it should be, but rather another setup to further sequels is a bit regrettable. DOFP doesn’t introduce innovation to the formula. “Humans cannot be trusted” vs. “Can’t we all just get along?” mentalities continue to propel the dramatic discussion with Magneto and Professor X each representing the respective arguments.  But why quibble? There are great moments here that transcend all others in the series. Chief among them is a jailbreak featuring new mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who can move at supersonic speeds. He must free Magneto from a prison cell beneath The Pentagon at one point. How he accomplishes the task is a dazzling sequence in slow motion that displays more inventiveness and wit than anything else in the entire picture. It’s a peak that kind of makes you wish the whole saga had been about him.

05-22-14

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on May 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgI’m exercising restraint when I say that The Amazing Spider Man 2 (TASM2) is a staggeringly disorganized, senseless drudgery of a picture. The production is expensively produced, techno-spastic, headache inducing mess. It’s populated by undeveloped roles that merely exist as a prelude to future chapters. TASM2 is not concerned with telling a coherent tale. The narrative is more focused on cramming multiple threads of various origin stories in preparation of the main event later. Apparently these fragments will have meaning not just in The Amazing Spider-Man 3 (2016) but also in spin-offs Venom (in development) and The Sinister Six. This recipe for disaster is comprised of 3 parts: A) cluttered action B) multiple narratives left unresolved for later sequels and C) too many antagonists.

When you get right down to it, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t really about Spider-Man at all. It’s about the villains, 3 main ones in my estimation. We’ve got Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) who becomes the Rhino, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) who becomes the Green Goblin, and nerdy Max Dillon (a criminally miscast Jamie Foxx) who becomes Electro.  They’ll (presumably) comprise three of the members in the all-villain superteam known as The Sinister Six. Sony is clearly trying to beef up their stake in their Marvel property in a nod that seeks to compete with Disney and their Marvel universe centered around The Avengers. There are numerous other characters too. I have neither the strength nor desire to list them all here but surprisingly few exhibit any originality or nuance. Case in point, actor Marton Csokas weirdly channels Dr. Strangelove to play Dr. Ashley Kafka, the founder of the Ravencroft Institute. A notable exception is Sally Field as Aunt May who is a refreshing ocean of calm in a sea of madness.

Spider-Man is on somewhat more solid ground when he is allowed to be Peter Parker and not some CGI blur zipping across the screen. A technological exhibition doesn‘t engage the emotions like a personality. Scenes invoking humanity are preferable, although it’s really stretching credibility to have a man in his 30s pretending to graduate high school.  Garfield portrays Peter Parker as a smug hipster. He even self-knowingly whistles the Spider-Man TV theme. Unfortunately his supposedly spontaneous witticisms come off as shtick and not as the lighthearted banter I believe was written to endear us to the superhero. His interactions with girlfriend Gwen Stacy feel like manufactured affectations that cause the couple to conventionally fall in love, break up, get back together at various intervals for the sole purpose of romantic conflict. Their ersatz charm is sheer torture to anyone who values sincerity. A heinous screenplay derails even quiet moments that should be making us give a care in between explosions.

The whole production is a labor intensive chore to watch. We are presented with a visual and aural assault on the senses. The over-abundance of special effects are so chaotic at times that the brain cannot even reconcile what is happening. The battles are computer generated imagery where people are irrelevant. Take the fight sequences between combatants. Spider-Man is wearing a mask. Electro is a glowing blue humanoid. They’re thrust into a cacophonous light display of sound and fury that is an animated nightmare. A significant portion of the movie holds literally nothing organic on screen. There are bolts of lightning, crashes and pyrotechnics. The destruction of Times Square should be an awe inspiring experience but the event barely incites any concern from the audience. It gets lost in the annihilation of all the public property – the financial repercussions of which are never addressed. Of course you’re not meant to think about such things. This is just a bunch of random stuff that happens, a holding pattern if you will, that connects parts 1 and 3. The film is a glorified advertisement for upcoming installments. TASM2 is not a movie, it’s a 142 minute trailer, and very unsatisfying one at that.