Thursday, June 30, 2016

'Independence Day: Resurgence' review

Whether you love it or hate it, I think that most people would have to concede that Independence Day is not a good movie. Bloated, poorly scripted, occasionally dull, and filled with excess, the 1996 sci-fi flick is a deeply flawed film. And yet, it's a classic. Independence Day paved the way for many blockbusters to come and became one of the most flashy and unique examples of Hollywood filmmaking of all time. Because of that, it will forever be viewed by many people as a shlocky masterpiece. It's also probably director Roland Emmerich's finest achievement. Despite bigger, more expensive blockbusters in recent years (see- The Day After Tomorrow, 2012), the master of disaster never had a movie strike a chord with audiences quite like the Will Smith-starred classic. With that in mind, along with the success of recent "legacy-quels" like Creed, Jurassic World, and The Force Awakens, it's easy to understand why Emmerich is returning to the Independence Day universe.

After a two decade-long wait, Emmerich has finally returned with Resurgence, a futuristic sequel that brings back most of the main players with the notable exception of Will Smith. Trailers for the film promised everything that fans of Independence Day could possibly want- massive-scale destruction, sly one-liners, rampant patriotism. On paper, Resurgence seemed like a gleefully entertaining time at the movies for audiences to just shove popcorn in their mouths and have fun. So how in the hell did things go so terribly, horrifically wrong? Independence Day: Resurgence barely feels like a movie. It's so profoundly empty, constantly searching for a character to latch onto, or a story that is even worth telling. The script is pure garbage, the film is as anti-climatic as humanly possible, and there's no sense of pacing or flow. It may come as a shock, but Resurgence is the worst film of the summer so far. 

Set 20 years after the cataclysmic events of Independence Day, Resurgence reunites us with some of our favorite old friends, while also introducing us to a new generation of characters. After saving the entire world, Dr. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) used the remaining alien technology to create a safer Earth, one that would be adequately prepared in the event of another alien attack. And for those two decades, things were pretty quiet. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) retreated back to his home, Dr. Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner) was stuck in a coma (he somehow survived the first movie, I guess), and President Lanford (Sela Ward) takes over. Oh yeah, and we catch up with Vivica A. Fox and Judd Hirsch too. They're in this for some reason.

But as our film begins, the characters who survived the War of 1996 begin to have premonitions of the aliens returning to Earth, and this time, we probably won't be so lucky. It'll be up to a new generation of fighters, led by the fighter pilot trio of Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe), Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), and Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher). They used to be close, but after a near-death incident between Jake and Dylan, a great deal of animosity comes into play. Jake (now working on the moon) and Patricia (a White House aide) are now engaged, and are preparing for their life together when suddenly, an alien mothership the size of the Atlantic ocean returns to wreak havoc on Earth. Once again, everyone will have to band together to save humanity and destroy the alien threat.

Warcraft and Independence Day: Resurgence are two movies that have been greeted by critics in a very similar manner. Both are hovering around the 30% mark on Rotten Tomatoes and they have the exact same Metacritic score of 32. And they're movies with similar problems. Pacing, tone, dialogue, characters, etc. Except there's a fundamental difference between how Duncan Jones treats the material and how Emmerich does it. Despite how messy Warcraft is, there's always a propulsive sense of importance to the proceedings. The audience may not always be keenly aware of what exactly is happening, but Jones tells his story with energy and creativity. Resurgence is almost the opposite of that. Everything feels mundane, it moves at a sluggishly erratic pace, and the whole thing just seems to be fighting the basic rules of movies. It's almost like the filmmakers didn't care.

That sense of "Who cares?" runs through every single frame of the film, all the way from the tedious, mind-numbing action scenes to even the most basic of conversations. If aliens invaded Earth, I have a feeling that people would panic just a little bit. You know, even if we'd gone through it before, it would still be a harrowing, frightening event. Resurgence has none of that urgency. The characters greet the return of the aliens with a "Oh? They're back? Okay then," mentality that almost feels inhuman. There's a strange normalcy to the behavior of the characters in Independence Day: Resurgence. They don't feel like people. In fact, they barely even feel like movie characters. Everything is so by-the-numbers, done with such little energy that this movie becomes a slog real quickly.

It'd be easy to blame the actors, who seem to have absolutely zero interest in being in this movie at all, but that would be totally and completely unfair. They don't have characters to work with, and if there's even a sliver of possible development, it's rote and cliched at best. The new characters are given the thinnest of backstories, while working within the most basic archetypal boundaries. Jake Morrison, Patricia Whitmore, and Dylan Hiller are empty shells of characters. Nothing defines them beyond what we're told. We know there's a history between the trio, but we get so little of it. Hemsworth, Monroe, and Usher don't help matters. I won't blame them, but it would be hard to deliver performances that are any more devoid of charisma and charm than the ones that they give in Resurgence.

The other new characters are pointless as well, especially Charlotte Gainsbourg's Catherine, Sela Ward's President Lanford, and William Fichtner's General Adams. Emmerich and the other four screenwriters decided it would be best if we knew absolutely nothing about these new players, which continues to increase the disconnect between the audience and the film. And as for the old characters? The screenplay just ends up being the gift that keeps on giving. Despite the 20 year gap, this film decides that either everything changed or absolutely nothing changed at all for our old friends. And unfortunately, all that does is raise questions in the minds of the viewers. How did Dr. Okun survive the alien attack? Wait, is it actually possible to be in a coma for two decades? What exactly happened to President Whitmore? Hold on, why hasn't David Levinson changed at all?

Ultimately, the most important question is- why do none of these people feel like characters? This question suffocates the film, only to be overshadowed by an ever bigger question- why does this not feel like a movie? For the first question, I'll point to the beyond lackluster screenplay. The second one is a tad bit harder to answer, but I think it goes back to the fact that I still have a very hard time understanding why they made this movie. They had no story to tell, which is demonstrated by the absolutely atrocious pacing, alternating between gigantic scenes of destruction, random alien fights, and tedious dialogue with clunky difficulty. Was this merely a horrendous, two-hour long trailer for the movie that Roland Emmerich really wanted to make? That's a theory that has been floated around in the last few days. Resurgence leaves on a cliff-hanger, promising an intergalactic war. But when you've made a movie so nonsensical, so aggressively stupid, and so profoundly uninteresting, I can't see anyone wanting to return for another adventure.

Independence Day: Resurgence should have been poppy, all-American blockbuster fun. The kind of movie that you desperately crave around this time of year. How they screwed up so monumentally is a question that moviegoers will be asking for a while. It's not a confounding movie, or a misguided attempt- it's just flat-out awful. The story alternates between boring and incomprehensible, the actors are free of any charisma, the characters are robots, and the action is quite possibly some of the worst large-scale destruction in recent cinematic history. Nothing of intrigue happens in this movie. Nothing. I could have watched a blank screen for two hours, and the effect would not have been any different. Watching Independence Day: Resurgence is like staring into the soul of the worst of modern blockbuster filmmaking. And it is a truly terrifying experience.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D-                                               (3/10)

Image Credits: Guardian, Forbes, Coming Soon, Variety Latino, Joblo

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

'American Honey' trailer teases Andrea Arnold's Cannes favorite

In the past, the Cannes Film Festival has produced some of the best movies of the year with major awards season potential. Last year, films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Amy, and Son of Saul made their debut on the Croisette before going on to take home the gold in February at the Dolby Theatre. Other beloved films like Foxcatcher, No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, and Pulp Fiction have made their debut at the iconic festival, and every year, there seems to be at least a handful of films with breakout potential. Unfortunately, it seems like 2016 might just be a little different. Despite a solid amount of anticipated titles, most of the films ended up disappointing the notoriously picky Cannes crowd. The Nice Guys was well-received, but movies like Steven Spielberg's The BFG and Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon proved to be divisive. Overall, the awards buzz coming from the South of France this May was muted to say the least. One of the titles that emerged with the most acclaim was Andrea Arnold's American Honey, an epic, lengthy road trip movie through, you guessed it, America. The film was picked up at the fest by A24, and now, the studio has released the first trailer. Check it out below!

I didn't really know too much about this movie beyond some of the buzz from Cannes, but after one of the most impressive trailers in recent months, American Honey is definitely on my watchlist. This film looks like a pure slice of Americana, the kind of grounded teen movie that could really connect with my generation. The cast, filled with mostly unknowns, looks to give this film a sense of authenticity that is hard to come by these days. But I must say, it's great to see Shia Labeouf doing big things again after his strange hiatus over the past few years. I'm not familiar with Andrea Arnold's work, but if this film connects with the right branch of the Academy, I wouldn't be surprised if we kept hearing about this one throughout Oscar season.

With a cast that includes Sasha Lane, Shia Labeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal Ice, Will Patton, and Veronica Ezell, Andrea Arnold's American Honey will hit theaters in limited release on September 30.

Image Credits: Red Carpet Refs

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

'Finding Dory' review

Telling someone what I think of Finding Nemo is almost a surefire way to ensure that I never talk to that person again. As a kid, I grew up on Pixar movies like Toy Story (I watched it so much that I wore down the VHS tape), Monsters Inc. (my first movie in theaters), The Incredibles, and even A Bug's Life. By that measure, Nemo should have been right up my alley. And yet, I never really enjoyed the film that much. Even as a kid, I thought it was kinda boring, and now, I firmly believe that it is one of the most overrated animated movies ever made. It's splashy and entertaining, but deliberately paced and overlong, featuring some of Pixar's darkest and most obvious emotional pulls. By all accounts, it is a good film with some strong sequences, but I would still rank it near the bottom of the Pixar canon. I'm definitely in the minority (especially with people around my age who grew up with the film), and yet, I've always stood by that opinion.

So when Disney/Pixar and director Andrew Stanton announced that they were moving forward with a sequel to Finding Nemo surrounding the adventures of forgetful sidekick Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), I wasn't excited at all. Finding Dory wasn't on any of my most anticipated lists, nor did I even muster up any interest when the initial reviews came back positive. I was skeptical until the moment that I sat down in the theater to watch it. Much to my welcome surprise, Finding Dory ended up being a truly great film. It may even be better than its predecessor, which I know would be considered blasphemy by many people in my generation. Faster and funnier, but filled with the same sweet emotional core, Finding Dory overcomes Pixar's spotty sequel record to become a glorious animated journey.

Set one year after the events of Finding Nemo (although it has been just over 13 years in the real world), Finding Dory centers around the titular character's adventure to find her family. She suffers from short-term memory loss, but as the film begins, things start to pop back into Dory's head. A series of clues leads Dory to recall the Marine Life Institute in California, which is where she believes that her parents are staying. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) go along for the ride with a little help from Crush (director Andrew Stanton), helping Dory after her assistance in their last journey. Once they reach the Marine Life Institute, the search becomes a frenzied, wacky journey through the massive aquarium. With help from a cynical octopus (Ed O'Neill), a near-sighted shark (Kaitlin Olson), and a beluga whale (Ty Burrell), the trio of friends will embark on a wild ride to reunite Dory with her long-lost family.

One of the main problems with Finding Nemo is its pacing. It runs 100 minutes long, but whenever I mention that to someone, they're shocked. It's a slow-moving film, with very few action scenes and an excess of pitch-black emotional trauma. The opening scene of Finding Nemo is still one of the most horrific setpieces that Pixar has ever done, and the adult tone of that film hangs over it like a cloud, suffocating the pacing and the characters at times. Along with Wall-E, Ratatouille, and the opening minutes of Up, it's one of the few Pixar films geared specifically for grown-ups, and I suspect that this is one of the main reasons why it never connected with me as a kid (although that certainly doesn't explain why I still can't find much to love in it now).

Finding Dory has a decidedly lighter tone, and that often works towards the film's benefit. It maintains the studio's singular focus on character development and emotion, but it also has plenty of fun in the process. There's an urgency and a kookiness to the action that is unparalleled by most Pixar films. Finding Dory jumps from location to location, focusing on colorful chase sequences, great character moments, and high-energy action. It has a great flow, one that has more in common with The Incredibles or Cars than it does with its predecessor. For a film that I was expecting to work as a flat cash grab, Dory is loaded with energy and purpose, and each scene made me feel invested in the action and the characters. That's not an easy thing to do, but this film accomplishes that task with ease.

The film pairs its energetic action beats with another pathos-filled story that feels like essential Pixar. The emotion doesn't come as naturally as it does in, say, Inside Out or Toy Story 3 (both hard films to be compared to), but there's no doubt that many audience members will shed a tear at some point or another during this film. In fact, I've seen friends say that they cried multiple times throughout Finding Dory, which isn't altogether shocking. But I didn't. I didn't shed a tear at all, and as some of you may know, I'm a sucker for Pixar movies. The connection between Dory and her two families is deeply felt, but it never pushes you over the edge. It's extremely satisfying, and I love the way that Stanton balances humor and sadness in the script. It just never pushes hard enough, which was a somewhat welcome change of pace from the studio that almost seems to relish in wrecking the emotions of full-grown men and women.

Finding Dory's greatest asset may be its memorable and hilarious new characters, who often emerge as a step up from the supporting cast in the original. The standout is Ed O'Neil's Hank, a shape-shifting, chameleon-like octopus who puts on a cynical appearance, but is really a sweet and sympathetic character. Hank is both one of Pixar's most impressive visual creations, and one of their funniest characters, stealing pretty much every scene that he's in. Fellow Modern Family cast member Ty Burrell is brilliant as Bailey, the somewhat neurotic beluga whale who becomes critical to Dory's success. Burrell works well with Kaitlin Olson, who is equally terrific as the powerful, but physically impaired whale shark. Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy make brief appearances as Dory's parents, while Idris Elba and Dominic West are hysterical as Fluke and Rudder, two sea lions. Becky and Gerald, two characters without many lines, are also scene-stealers.

I thought that Pixar's animation quality may have reached its peak last year with the sumptuous and exceptionally detailed The Good Dinosaur, but they somehow continue to get better and better. Finding Dory is bright, bubbly, and gorgeous, capturing the beauty of the ocean in even more detail than Finding Nemo, while also displaying a zaniness that is infectious. Each character is beautifully designed and the settings are a sight to behold, which gives Dory even more upside that I didn't expect. The story feels recycled in some ways, but I love the fact that the filmmakers took this opportunity to explore different locations and characters instead of going even deeper into retread territory. The visual look, led by Stanton, is a huge part of what makes this film feel fresh.

Pixar knocked the Toy Story sequels out of the park, but floundered with Cars 2 and Monsters University. I figured that Finding Dory, a much-delayed sequel that Stanton seemed to push off forever, would fall into the latter category. Instead, it's giving me hope for the seemingly endless line of Pixar sequels that are coming down the pipeline in the next few years. Filled with heart, energy, and a great sense of fun, Finding Dory is a journey worth taking that might just surpass the original. The new characters are great, the animation is stunning, and for many, the tears will come often. It's flat-out terrific. Many people came into this film with sky-high expectations, and so far, many people seem to be welcoming Dory with open arms, saying that it lived up to the hype. In my view, it's simply the summer's biggest surprise.

Note: The short that plays before this movie, entitled Piper, is a blast. Probably one of Pixar's best shorts in years.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.4/10)

Image Credits: Telegraph, Guardian, Coming Soon, Joblo

Monday, June 27, 2016

'Central Intelligence' review

Kevin Hart is one of the funniest people in Hollywood. He just hasn't managed to succeed on the big screen. In the last few years, Hart has emerged as one of the breakout comedy stars of this new generation. He's been popping up in movies everywhere, making millions of dollars and conquering the stand-up business as well. The unfortunate problem is that none of Hart's starring vehicles have been well received. Despite plenty of promise and decent box office numbers, The Wedding Ringer and Get Hard fell flat last year, and I can tell you from personal experience that the Ride Along series is truly awful. Hart has had funny bit parts in movies like This is the End and Top Five, but his potential is still mostly untapped.

Central Intelligence is Hart's most impressive star vehicle yet, although that's not necessarily saying much considering that the comedian's record has been so spotty. Pairing Hart with megastar Dwayne Johnson and Dodgeball director Rawson Marshall Thurber, Central Intelligence is a fast-paced, relatively unoffensive summer comedy that works as an enjoyable time at the movies. It's just unfortunate that the film itself feels so haphazardly made, feeding off the charisma of its stars for what often amounts to a big mess. Confused, cluttered, and almost incomprehensible at times, the movie itself is riddled with a story that is truly atrocious. Nonetheless, I can't see too many people walking away from this one upset- Hart and Johnson are hilarious, and after all, that's exactly what the marketing promised.

Calvin Joyner (Hart) was the most popular kid at his high school back in 1996. He was prom king, class president, a star athlete, and just a beloved guy all-around. Meanwhile, Robbie Wierdicht (Johnson, in heavily digitized form) was the butt of many jokes, including a particularly vicious one carried out at a senior pep rally. Cut to two decades later, and things have changed a little bit. Joyner, who at one time was voted most likely to succeed by his class, is now an accountant. It's a fine job and a respectable one, but Joyner isn't happy and he certainly isn't the superstar that everyone expected him to be. On the flip side of things, Wierdicht, who now goes by the name of Bob Stone, is a ripped CIA agent, a macho man who is able to destroy anyone in his path.

Bob wasn't necessarily friends with Calvin in high school, but the campus superstar was one of the few people who was ever kind to him. Just before their high school reunion, Bob pokes Calvin on Facebook, which seems like a bizarre move. The two arrange to meet and they have a good time, with Bob appearing to be a sort of weird loner. He ends up sleeping on Calvin's couch that night, and the next morning, the CIA comes knocking on the door. Bob is a wanted fugitive and the agency is prepared to do anything to stop him. Without even knowing it, Calvin is sucked into a global conspiracy involving the CIA, arms deals, Bob's former partner (Aaron Paul), and a mysterious terrorist named the Black Badger.

Central Intelligence's success hinges on three people- Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, and Rawson Marshall Thurber. In fact, the supporting cast is almost nonexistent. Amy Ryan is there to spit orders at people, Danielle Nicolet is playing the prototypical wife character, Aaron Paul's role amounts to a cameo, and Jason Bateman is in one scene of the movie. Whatever these actors add to the movie, it's minimal at best, with Hart and Johnson responsible for the heavy lifting. Hart has always managed to be incredibly grating in his previous cinematic endeavors, but here, he tones things down a bit. Hart is simultaneously manic and controlled, working with both the mild-mannered traits of Calvin and the insanity of the situation.

On the other hand, Johnson shows his star charisma once again, delivering a performance that is almost impossible to dislike. There's a tad too much forced character development with Bob Stone, but The Rock overcomes that with ease. Whether he's knocking out bad guys or cracking jokes, Johnson is just dynamite. In some ways, Bob Stone just might be the character that we've been waiting for The Rock to play for years. He's both lovable and badass, sympathetic and fearsome. It's nearly perfect for Johnson. His deadpan delivery is spot-on, and should Central Intelligence continue as a franchise, I'd be back just for more adventures with this character. He's the magnetic center of the film and he simply dominates.

And finally, the third man responsible for the film's success is director Rawson Marshall Thurber. With other hit comedies under his belt like We're the Millers and Dodgeball (both far superior movies in my mind), Thurber knows what makes a comedy work and he injects this film with a breeziness that allows it to feel like quintessential summer entertainment. Thurber is exceptional at pacing the film, staging each act with enough intrigue and promise before elevating the stakes as the film goes on. He's hindered in this film by the awful script, but his directorial flair still manages to shine through. There was rarely a moment in Central Intelligence where I wasn't enjoying myself and a good portion of that credit should go to him.

Unfortunately, Central Intelligence just emerges as a prime example of how you can only get so far without a good story behind you. Truth be told, I really had no clue what was going on during a good portion of this movie. The story ranges from vague to incoherent, eventually dissolving into a pile of nothingness. It relies on so many contrivances and coincidences, so many twists and turns that feel completely unwarranted considering what the film has previously set up. Screenwriters Thurber, Ike Barinholtz (a comedian I like a lot), and David Stassen had a great concept and two very talented actors to work with, but they get caught up in a Mission: Impossible plot gone horribly wrong and it's practically disastrous to watch at times.

I know, if you're seeing this movie, you're there to watch Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson do funny things and play likable characters. And you get plenty of that. This film practically rides on the chemistry between these two hilarious actors. It just doesn't get much right beyond that. Thurber does his best and the film always works as passable entertainment, but Central Intelligence simply fails to tell an interesting story. It's stuck in a web of total nonsense, and it's something that the film is never quite able to recover from. It's not a knockout blow, but with a lackluster plot and a cliche-ridden screenplay, Central Intelligence falls short of its potential.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.2/10)

Image Credits:Screen Rant, YouTube, Variety, Coming Soon

Sunday, June 26, 2016

'The Shallows' review

In 1975, Steven Spielberg changed the modern blockbuster forever with Jaws, his oceanic horror thriller that made people afraid to ever go in the water again. The film was a massive success at the box office (if it came out today, Jaws would have grossed $1.1 billion in America alone) and is regarded by critics as one of the finest films ever made. When you have a movie that defines a genre, it becomes quite difficult for other directors to play in that sandbox again. Shark thrillers (with the exception of the numerous Jaws sequels) have been few and far between over the years, but Jaws finally has some competition as Non-Stop director Jaume Collet-Serra is taking a stab at the genre with The Shallows. The film, which pits Gossip Girl star Blake Lively against a great white shark, pales in comparison to Spielberg's iconic thriller, but thanks to the concise, efficient filmmaking of Collet-Serra and the performance of Lively, The Shallows shines in its own unique way.

The plot of The Shallows is so simple that it doesn't even warrant a full summary. Blake Lively plays Nancy, a surfer and med student who is searching for a beach that her late mother had praised for so long. Stuck a crossroads in her life, finding the spot brings her peace and she has a great time surfing the waves. But eventually, she realizes that there's also a giant shark in the water. Injured and stuck on a rock away from shore, Nancy must use her wit and survival skills to fight the giant monster and live to see another day. That's it. The story could basically be summarized as Blake Lively vs. Giant Shark.

Sure, there's a little added character development and a few other things to spice the movie up a bit, but at its core, this is a very simple film. In the hands of a much less capable director, this straightforward tale would have become endlessly convoluted and intricate, ruining the beautiful simplicity of it. Thankfully, under the steady hand of Jaume Collet-Serra, who has done wonders for schlocky B-movies like Run All Night and Non-Stop in the past, The Shallows hits all the right notes. Collet-Serra keeps the tension high at all times. It runs through each frame of the film and gives it an uneasiness that is palpable and hard to shake. The action never manages to feel exploitative or overly goofy, instead working with a gritty poise.

In its essence, The Shallows feels like a call-back to the summer movies of old, where the season was dominated by B-movie fare instead of giant CGI destruction (the contrast between this film and this weekend's Independence Day: Resurgence is staggering). The film runs only 87 minutes long, and it moves shockingly fast. Despite about 20 minutes of initial exposition to set up Nancy's basic character motivations, this thing is always moving, and there's barely a moment where the audience can stop to catch their breath. When the film had reached its climax, I was stunned that things were wrapping up already. But this is far from a bad thing. Collet-Serra's pacing is excellent and I loved the fact that the movie was quick, concise, and to-the-point.

Ultimately, Blake Lively's performance is the glue holding The Shallows together. There are other actors in the movie- Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, and of course, Steven Seagull (the injured bird who becomes the film's heart and soul), all make brief appearances- but this is basically a one-woman show. Lively is up to the challenge, giving a hard-nosed performance that is both emotional and satisfying. Her character arc takes a few turns that are just a tad bit too forced for their own good, but screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski sets up some great parallels for Lively to work with. She emerges as sweet and daring, sensitive and courageous, creating a strong female character who is both beautiful and brilliant. Believe it or not, Lively just might give one of the best performances of the year so far.

The Shallows isn't groundbreaking or innovative, nor is it likely to be remembered by many critics at the end of the year. With the short runtime and plain structure, it's a film that instantly feels slight and disposable. For many films, that kind of setup would present an insurmountable challenge that would be a struggle to overcome. And yet, thanks to a phenomenal turn by Lively and the measured directorial eye of Collet-Serra, The Shallows surfaces as a film that I think a lot of people are going to adore. Oh, and of course, we can't give Steven Seagull enough credit either. That bird pretty much steals the show. Best Supporting Actor glory is coming his way in the near future.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.3/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Joblo

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Warner Bros. pushes 'LEGO Movie 2' to 2019, shifts 'Live by Night' for possible Oscar date

The LEGO Movie initially seemed like a cheap and cynical cash grab, so it was a pleasant surprise when the 2014 animated comedy turned out to be one of the most original, inventive movies to hit the big screen in a long time. Immediately after the film opened with a massive $69 million, Warner Bros. commissioned a series of sequels and spin-offs, including a Ninjago film, The LEGO Batman Movie, and of course, the inevitable LEGO Movie 2, which was set to hit theaters on May 18, 2018. Well, it looks like we'll just have to wait a little bit longer to see it. Last week, Warner Bros. moved The LEGO Movie 2 to February 8, 2019, which is just over 5 years after the original came out. No reason was given for the move by the studio. As a result of Warner Bros.' decision, Dreamworks shifted How to Train Your Dragon 3 to May 18, giving it a prime summer release date. While the longer wait is certainly disappointing, in the meantime, fans of the series can enjoy The LEGO Batman Movie, out February 10, 2017, and The LEGO Ninjago Movie, set to debut on September 22, 2017.

Warner Bros. also shuffled the release date for Ben Affleck's Live by Night, one of my most anticipated movies of the next several years. Originally set to hit theaters on October 20, 2017, the film will now be released on January 13 of the same year. I know what you're probably thinking- a January release date for one of the most prestigious projects of the year? Well, if I had to place money on it, Live by Night will certainly get a qualifying run in December, enabling it to compete in Oscar season. This move has been successfully executed in past years by films like The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, American Sniper, and Lone Survivor, which puts Live by Night in a prime Oscar spot. Like Warner's LEGO shift, no reason was given for this move, but many seem to think that Affleck's duties in the DC Universe are pushing him to get this film in the can as soon as possible. Live by Night stars Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Anthony Michael Hall, Titus Welliver, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper, and Chris Messina, and is based off the Dennis Lehane novel.

In other Warner Bros. news, the studio shifted the release of Gerard Butler's Geostorm from January 13, 2017 to Live by Night's former October 20 date. That seems like a prime spot for the shlocky disaster film. And finally, prestige comedy Bastards was moved from its November 4 date, where it was set to face off against Trolls and Doctor Strange, to January 27, 2017, the doldrums of the movie calendar. Seems like the studio doesn't see too much potential in that one.

Image Credits: FandangoGood Reads 

'Warcraft' review

It may not be the best movie to hit theaters this year, but Duncan Jones' Warcraft has certainly been one of the most interesting on so many levels. To start, the film is doing extraordinarily well in China, grossing $204.4 million to date and breaking several records in the process. Despite a sky-high budget, Warcraft could truly end up being one of the first global hits that outright flops in the US. But in my view, the most interesting thing about this movie is how it has become one of the prime examples of the growing divide between fans and the film community. In a year dominated by some of the ugliest fandom debates we've ever seen, the adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft game series has ignited a firestorm of "debate" between critics and hardcore fans. Journalists have been lambasted for not having enough knowledge of the intricate WoW universe, which has prompted detractors to cite the borderline incomprehensible story, poor character work, and the general lack of energy and fun in the film.

The noise around Warcraft was deafening for a few weeks back at the start of June. Critics of the film were relentless and it was a little jarring to see "F" reviews for what seemed like one of the most promising original blockbusters of the year. And on the other side of things, hysterical fan comments, breaking down every obscure detail of the universe, were nearly ubiquitous. As for myself, I had been a doubter of this film for a very long time. I hated nearly every trailer that Universal and Legendary had released and I could not manage to muster up any excitement. So with expectations in the toilet, atrocious reviews, and crazy fan comments, I was sorta dreading this film. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was surprised by how much fun I had with Warcraft. Every problem that critics have listed off against it is valid to some extent. But thanks to the directorial eye of Duncan Jones, the fast-paced (albeit, a little insane) story, and the bone-crunching action, Warcraft ends up being a decently entertaining ride.

One of the biggest complaints waged against Warcraft is the idea that it's too hard to understand if you're not coming in with a heavy knowledge of the universe- essentially a version of insider baseball for fantasy nerds. I found the story decently easy to understand, although it certainly feels like the filmmakers left a lot unexplained. The basic plot goes something like this. The world of the orcs is dying. Their land is desolate, barren, and unable to sustain life. But thanks to the magic of the powerful Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), the orcs are able to take a portal to another planet, which just so happens to be the land of Azeroth. Led by Gul'dan and the powerful chieftan Durotan (Toby Kebbell), the orcs set up camp on Azeroth and prepare to overtake the human's planet.

This immediately alarms King Llane (Dominic Cooper), who summons his most powerful warrior, Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), to investigate the arrival of the orcs. Meanwhile, a young magician named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) arrives in the kingdom to warn the king that the orcs are using an ancient magic known as the Fel, which has not been seen for a very long time. Llane and Lothar decide that the only option is to summon the Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), who is the most powerful man in the kingdom. Despite their best efforts, war breaks out in Azeroth and the power of the Fel becomes too much to control. With the help of half-orc, half-human Garona (Paula Patton) and the assistance of Durotan, Llane and Lothar will fight to maintain peace in the kingdom.

I've probably missed some aspect of the mythology in that synopsis, but the basic gist of Warcraft is rather simple. Humans. Orcs. Magicians. War. The End. That's pretty much how it goes. Despite a multi-layered universe, the story in this film isn't all that complex. However, it's very easy to understand why so many people are utterly perplexed. As I walked out, I heard a man exclaim, "That was just all fighting and I never had any idea who was on what side." And this is an incredibly true statement. Warcraft squanders its simple, universal story by turning it into a twisting, turning saga with different groups coming together to fight for unknown reasons. There were plenty of times during the film where I asked myself- why is this happening?

Part of the blame can be placed on the screenplay's treatment of the characters. Because while their respective motivations are all decently set up, we simply don't know much about them. I'm gonna point towards Red Letter Media's Plinkett reviews again here because in this case, it's very applicable to a core problem in Warcraft. In their review of Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace, the lack of an outsider protagonist is pointed to as a fatal flaw in the film. While watching Warcraft, this soundbite came ringing back into my head. In this wacky universe, all of the characters almost speak their own language. They all seem to know what they're talking about, but I guarantee that most general audiences members will be totally lost. As the number of characters increase and the stories seem to add up, it becomes overbearing to a certain extent.

The actors don't necessarily do the film many favors. The performances range from serviceable to hammy, failing to create any characters that emerge as especially memorable. Travis Fimmel has a smarmy roguishness as Lothar, but I can't say that I actually believed his performance in any way shape or form, especially when the drama with his son became prominent in the plot. Toby Kebbell brings an emotional gravitas to Durotan, with an exceptional performance in the early goings. Unfortunately, Durotan slowly fades to the background and the pathos disappears. Ben Schnetzer's Khadgar emerges as one of the more likable people in the film, but Dominic Cooper is practically invisible as Llane. And finally, I still have yet to discover the purpose of Paula Patton's Garona in this film. She has nothing to do, and the performance is a strange blend of goofy and self-serious.

Nonetheless, what Warcraft lacks in narrative cohesion and characterization, it makes up for in utter strangeness. I don't think I've ever seen a summer blockbuster that is this extreme in its absurd weirdness. Magicians that evolve into giant green demons, gigantic clay monsters, violent orc smackdowns, crazy portals, insane battle sequences- Warcraft has it all and then some. There were quite a few times where I sat back amazed, wondering how Duncan Jones ever fit all of this nerdiness into one massive, epic movie. The film's rampant weirdness filled me with a sense of glee and I fully embraced every aspect of this vision. I went in expecting the high fantasy tone to turn me off, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself having a good time.

But Warcraft isn't good because it's weird. In fact, despite my enjoyment of it, I still wouldn't say that it's an objectively good film at all. The plot is simple, yet somehow convoluted, the characters are thin, and Jones ultimately isn't able to put all of the wacky elements together into a successful film. And yet, the filmmakers still put on a hell of a show. The action scenes are big, intense, and epic, delivering exactly what you're looking for in this type of movie. The effects are gorgeous and immersive, enhanced by the use of IMAX 3D. And overall, the entertainment value of Warcraft is very high. A trip into the world of Azeroth delivers the kind of strange escapism that we don't see too much of these days.

So yeah, Warcraft is a bit of a mess. Even the film's strongest supporters would have to acknowledge that. Duncan Jones isn't quite able to juggle all of the ingredients that were needed to bring Azeroth to the big screen, and the result is a film that is rushed and sometimes highly convoluted. But despite those flaws, Warcraft feels like the work of a singular visionary, a director devoted to delivering something bold, unique, and unlike anything we've seen in the summer movie season so far. It's a far cry from Lord of the Rings, but it's highly entertaining nonetheless. I'm a sucker for wacky fantasy and sci-fi stories, and Warcraft hit me right in that sweet spot.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.9/10)

Image Credits: VarietyForbesTelegraphJoblo, Joblo

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Abraham Attah, Hannibal Buress, Donald Glover, Bokeem Woodbine and more join 'Spider-Man: Homecoming'

Tom Holland made his fantastic debut as Spider-Man in a limited capacity in Marvel's Captain America: Civil War, but it won't be long now until the web-slinger gets his own solo feature from the studio. Set for release on July 7, 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming is one of the most hotly anticipated upcoming Marvel films. Directed by Jon Watts with a script from John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, Homecoming has the unique opportunity of rebooting the iconic character and taking him back to his high school days. With filming underway, Marvel is making a series of final adjustments to a phenomenal cast that already included Holland, Marisa Tomei, Kenneth Choi, Zendaya, Michael Keaton, and Tony Revolori. If that stellar lineup wasn't enough for you, these next few additions will surely please a wide range of film fans.

The Homecoming news train started early last week, as Deadline reported on June 14 that Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) has joined the cast of the film in an unspecified role. Glover was an early fan favorite to play Miles Morales in Marvel's rebooted Spidey, but those rumors never panned out. Or did they? Could we see Peter Parker and Miles exist in the same universe? It would be slightly surprising to me, but I wouldn't put it out of the question. Nonetheless, Glover is one of the most charismatic figures in modern pop culture, a multi-talented artist who brings a lot to the MCU. I was pretty pumped when I saw that he was joining the cast. But even with that exciting addition, the Spidey news was just getting started.

Two days later, The Wrap reported that Logan Marshall-Green and Martin Starr are both in negotiations to join the cast of Homecoming, once again for unspecified roles (although The Wrap does note that Marshall-Green would be playing a villain). Starr is featured on HBO's Silicon Valley as well as a variety of Seth Rogen flicks, while Marshall-Green's credits include Prometheus. It's important to note that he's also widely known as the long-lost twin brother of Tom Hardy. That's critical information. Marshall-Green is good in Prometheus and Starr has always been funny in Rogen's wacky comedic world. Both seem like a good fit for this film.

On Monday, The Hollywood Reporter added to the avalanche of Homecoming casting news, revealing that newcomers Isabella Amara, Jorge Landenborg Jr., and J.J. Totah have joined the film. All three of these kids have had bit parts elsewhere, but my familiarity with them is incredibly minimal. So I didn't have much of a reaction to this news. Later in the day, Variety joined in too, exclusively reporting that Hannibal Buress has joined the cast as well. Buress, the talented star of Neighbors and Daddy's Home, is one of the fastest rising comic stars in the country, and was actually instrumental in bringing down Bill Cosby. He deserves to be a superstar.

A Tuesday set photo revealed that Selenis Leyva, star of TV's Orange is the New Black, will also be in the film, but the bigger news came later in the day. Deadline popped up again, exclusively reporting that Beasts of No Nation's Abraham Attah will be starring in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Attah was brilliant in Cary Fukunaga's grueling war film and I'm so happy that he's successfully making the transition into the mainstream. I have a feeling that he's going to be a huge breakout star. This is truly a great addition for the Homecoming cast.

The Hollywood Reporter added tonight that Better Call Saul's Michael Mando has joined the cast, but the more interesting report came from a slightly less conventional source. Nothing official has come out of any of the trades thus far, but according to a fan who ran into him, Fargo's Bokeem Woodbine has joined the cast. Woodbine is phenomenal as the cold-blooded enforcer Mike Milligan in season 2 of the hit FX show, and having just binge-watched that, I'm very pumped to hear that he's joining the MCU.

Overall, this sounds like an incredible ensemble that is coming together and with all these great additions, it's almost too much to process. It looks like Jon Watts is doing this right and I can't wait to see what he puts together.

Image Credits: Joblo

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

'The Conjuring 2' review

In 2013, James Wan's The Conjuring was a breath of fresh air. After years of found footage horror movies and low budget schlock, somebody had finally made a great studio horror flick. With careful focus on tension, creepiness, and old-fashioned scares (the film instantly became notorious for the fact that the MPAA gave it an R rating just for being too scary), The Conjuring became an instant classic and is commonly regarded as one of the best horror films of the 21st century so far. A perfect storm of buzz translated into a box office hit and a new franchise for Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. The first spin-off, Annabelle, was released in 2014, and with the recently announced plans for The Nun, it's clear that a simple horror film has become a much bigger enterprise. Scott Mendelson at Forbes even wrote an article about how The Conjuring has become the most successful post-Marvel cinematic universe. It started with a small film, but thanks to a wide array of sequels and spin-offs, this thing is only getting bigger.

But with The Conjuring 2, I wasn't reminded of a growing web of films about the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Instead, I just saw another brilliant movie from a director who creates some of the scariest films around. Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the scariest film of the year so far. The Conjuring 2 is a masterclass in carefully crafted horror filmmaking, a scare machine that will have you gripping your armrest for nearly 135 minutes. Filled with a great sense of atmosphere, brilliant performances, and some iconic nightmarish imagery, this is another mesmerizing ride into the world of the Warrens. It's the rare horror sequel that might just be as good as the original. Yes, it's the real deal.

The original Conjuring was set in 1971, years before the Amityville Horror, which is known as Ed and Lorraine Warren's most famous case. This sequel picks up in 1977, a year after Amityville. In fact, the film opens with a re-enactment of the Amityville murders, and much of the first act centers around the Warren's newfound fame and their reluctance to take another case. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Hodgson family is dealing with one of the scariest hauntings in recent memory. The family is in bad financial shape and they're living in a small house in Enfield, a northern suburb of London. Things are rough, but when the ghosts start showing up, things somehow get even worse.

At night, Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) begins to experience strange things. Her sleepwalking becomes worse than ever, her bed shakes, and she hears the menacing voice of Bill Wilkins (Bob Adrian), who says that he's coming to take back his home. Janet's brother, Johnny (Patrick McAuley), also sees bizarre things, and within a short amount of time, the situation gets out of hand and it's clear that something demonic is occurring. Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) inadvertently turns the house into a media circus, but with unhelpful assistance from a variety of experts (Simon McBurney, Franka Potente), the family turns to the two people who they know can be trusted- Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Conjuring thrived on atmosphere. The jump scares were intense and the action escalated in intensity as the film progressed, but that wasn't what made it so frightening. It was the vibe that James Wan consistently created throughout the course of the film. From the period costumes to every facet of the old house to the music, Wan's direction and precision made you uneasy. The filmmaker ramps that up for the sequel, creating an atmosphere so rich, so vivid, and so downright terrifying that you'll practically feel the chill coming off the screen (ironically, the theater where I saw the film is usually a sauna- this time, it was frigid). Wan could have easily turned this into a retread, but instead, he proves to be continually inventive. The Conjuring 2 almost has the feeling of a noir horror film, while still retaining the vibe that was so perfect the first time around.

This terrific sense of atmosphere is what creates the truly terrifying nature of the film, and the two elements complement each other so well. The Conjuring 2 is exceptionally scary, filled with nearly unbearable tension and some moments that made me jump right out of my seat. There's barely a moment in these films where you can actually breathe (and believe me, this is a compliment). There's always the sense that something is lingering right around the corner, the belief that nobody is ever safe. Wan is excellent at staging intense setpieces, moments that start with a noise or a brief movement that elevate into something that will make you shriek with terror. The Conjuring was one of the scariest film in recent memory. Believe it or not, The Conjuring 2 takes the scare factor to an entirely new level. I had chills running down my spine.

It would certainly be satisfying enough for The Conjuring 2 to succeed as just a very scary horror movie, but Wan takes it even further than that. This franchise has always been based firmly in its characters and this is the most emotional entry yet. Plenty of horror films have done great things in the past with disposable characters, but what makes this series so special is the way that it creates genuine characters and allows the audience to understand their struggle. You feel the love between Ed and Lorraine Warren. You see her fear of losing him. Wan spends time showing how tough things are for the Hodgsons and how close they are, which raises the emotional stakes when the demons show up. This level of emotional involvement is rare for a horror film. And I don't think that Wan's achievement here should be understated in any way.

Much of the film's emotional work hinges on the actors, and once again, the stars at the forefront are terrific. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have excellent chemistry and they make for a formidable duo as the Warrens. Wilson is slowly becoming one of my favorite actors (his role in Fargo is tremendous), and his performance in The Conjuring 2 highlights so much of why I think he's a great performer. Wilson is able to display a stern focus and intensity that is matched by his tenderness and general amiability, creating a character that is lovable all-around. Farmiga's quiet, understanding reserve is matched by her ability to convey the demons that hang over Lorraine's head. The two are mesmerizing to watch and I would absolutely love it if they kept playing these characters forever. They've created something really special here.

The supporting cast is phenomenal as well, led by a great performance from Madison Wolfe. The young actress, who has previously appeared in Joy, Trumbo, Keanu, and The Campaign, shows a terrific range. She can be both endearing and horrifying and I think that she ultimately did a very good job of showing how scared Janet Hodgson was during this incident. The other Hodgson kids, played by Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, and Patrick McAuley, are brilliant as well, creating a sense of the connection of the family unit. Frances O'Connor is strong as Peggy Hodgson, who has to deal with a lot of insanity as the single mother in the family. Maria Doyle Kennedy and Simon Delaney provide kind moral support as the Nottingham family, while Simon McBurney and Franka Potente round out the ensemble well.

As if the skill of the direction and performances wasn't enough, The Conjuring 2 is also one of the sharpest-looking films of the year. One of the defining aspects of this series has always been its period style, and this time out, the filmmakers throw in a Christmas setting to make things even better. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if The Conjuring 2 became a part of my yearly Christmas rotation. It's about as Christmas-y as Die Hard, but I'm gonna count it anyways. The look is simultaneously gritty and slick, equipped with a studio sheen, but feeling distinctly like a movie out of the 1970s. The London fog is so chilling, the night cinematography so mesmerizing, the camera work so fluid and beautiful- this movie is just excellent on a variety of levels.

If there's a flaw to be found, it would be the repetitiveness of the film at some points. Running long at 133 minutes, I think Wan could have easily shaved it down to two hours in order to create a tighter, more laser focused package. The film gets caught up with just a few too many scenes of strange happenings at the Hodgson house. By the fifth time that something had gone bump in the night, I started to grow a little weary and I wasn't sure if Wan had lost a little bit of direction. Sure enough, he pulls things together eventually, but the repetition still sticks out as the only glaring flaw in an otherwise impeccably made film.

Frightening, emotional, and gorgeously made in equal measure, The Conjuring 2 is one of the greatest horror sequels ever created. Minor quibbles aside, this is pretty much a perfect chiller and a representation of everything that can happen when a horror movie is made right. Wan is undoubtedly one of the most skillful directors to arrive in Hollywood in years, and although he's headed over the DC Films to direct Aquaman next, I hope that he never loses sight of this franchise and the genre that he has dominated for years. Ambitious in scope and richly textured, this just might be Wan's greatest achievement thus far. The Conjuring 2 is a classic horror blast.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                                 (9/10)

Image Credits: Indiewire, Guardian, Telegraph, Screen Rant, Joblo

Monday, June 20, 2016

'Star Trek' and 'Green Room' star Anton Yelchin has died at age 27

2016 has been a really rough year. The year has been marred by a myriad of tragedies and every time I turn on the news, I'm fully expecting to see something awful. The Orlando shooting that killed 49 people was absolutely devastating, and watching the Happiest Place on Earth undergo a series of horrific events was heartbreaking. In addition to the violence and horror that has been unleashed on our world, we've seen a stunning number of celebrity deaths this year. Musical icons like Prince and David Bowie have passed away, comedian Garry Shandling died from a heart attack, sports legend Muhammed Ali left us at age 74, and of course, actor Alan Rickman's death hit me the hardest. Yesterday came news of another celebrity passing, one that was shocking, horrifying, and just downright sad. Late on Sunday afternoon, the news broke that Anton Yelchin, the young star of Star Trek and Green Room, had died at the age of 27 in a freak car accident. Yelchin was killed by his own car and while the details of the accident are still scarce, it sounds truly awful.

Yelchin, born in the Soviet Union in 1989, moved to the US when he was young and began a film career. His first credit on IMDb comes at age 11, and in the years since, he became one of the most promising young actors in Hollywood. Yelchin broke out in the mid 2000s with roles in Alpha Dog and Charlie Bartlett, but his big break came in the summer of 2009. He appeared in Terminator: Salvation as the young Kyle Reese while also starring as Pavel Chekov in J.J. Abrams' reboot of Star Trek. Yelchin continued to grow his career in the following years, starring in Fright Night, The Beaver, Only Lovers Left Alive, and the acclaimed indie Like Crazy. Yelchin's latest star performance came in Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room, one of the best films of the year so far. The actor had completed production on Rememory, We Don't Belong Here, Porto, Thoroughbred, and Star Trek Beyond, and all of those films are expected to hit theaters soon. No other upcoming projects are listed on Yelchin's IMDb page.

Yelchin's death really, really stunned me. I almost refused to believe the news at first. Seeing such a talented, promising, and charismatic young actor lose his life in such a random, almost surreal way hit me in a strange spot and I couldn't stop thinking about his passing for the rest of the day. It's just an awful reminder of how precious every minute of life is. But most of all, it's a terrible loss for the world of film and for the family of this brilliant young actor who, by all accounts from anyone who had ever met him, was also a great man. Yelchin was phenomenal as Chekov in Abrams' new Star Trek films, bringing a youthful energy that complemented the smarmy charisma of Kirk and the robotic iciness of Spock. But for me, Yelchin's finest hour came this year in Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room. His performance was the glue that held Saulnier's film together and watching Pat's transformation from being a scared kid to the reluctant, determined leader of this punk group was mesmerizing. I loved him and I loved that film so much. Yelchin has so much potential going forward. His passing is something that nearly cannot be put into words.

Rest in peace.

Image Credits: Screen Rant

'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows' review

I don't know if anyone asked for a sequel to 2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I really don't. The film was #2 on my worst movies list of that year, and most people seemed to share that sentiment. Despite strong box office grosses, the Michael Bay-produced reboot of the 80s franchise was joyless, tedious, and poorly conceived. But as with anything else in Hollywood, if it makes enough money, the sequel is coming. Less than two years later, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows has arrived. Reviews have been a bit stronger this time out (37% on Rotten Tomatoes compared to 22%- significant improvement!), but don't believe the supposed hype- Out of the Shadows is still a bad film in almost every way. Injecting a sense of "fun," but forgetting to add the very important ingredients of story, character, pacing, and motivation, Out of the Shadows is both a juvenile and exhausting ride.

The Turtles are back, and they're doing turtle-y things again. Like eating pizza, beating up ninjas, and watching Knicks games from the balcony. Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), and leader Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) may have saved New York City from the infamous Shredder (Brian Tee), but due to the fact that they're giant talking turtles, they stay in the shadows, allowing for cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) to take the spotlight and the responsibility for Shredder's capture. All seems well, until a nefarious plot to break Shredder out of prison is unveiled. Intrepid reporter April O'Neil goes undercover and finds that acclaimed scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) is working with the notorious criminal on a new plot that could put New York City in danger.

With Shredder set to be transferred to a new prison under the supervision of the NYPD and guard Casey Jones (Stephen Amell), it's a prime opportunity for Stockman and the Foot Clan to unleash Shredder, along with convicted felons Bebop and Rocksteady (Gary Anthony Williams and Stephen Farrelly). The Turtles successfully pursue Shredder, but the evil mastermind escapes through a strange space teleport which takes him to Krang (Brad Garrett), a brain thing-y. Krang has an epic plot to take over New York City and Shredder quickly jumps on board. To save the city that they love from an epic line-up of villainy, the Turtles will need to embrace their image and become the heroes that New York deserves.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is being praised for its lighthearted spirit and sense of fun, which many see as a stark departure from the grittier tone of the 2014 reboot. However, fun does not necessarily equate to good, and the latter word definitely does not apply to Out of the Shadows. Something about this franchise just does not work for me, although I can't imagine that I'm alone on this one. Moments pop out as fun, bright, colorful, and weird, but it never gels together into anything worth watching. The characters are thin and annoying, the plot is plodding, the climax is just as tedious as the last time, the acting is....wait, there's acting in this movie? Maybe Out of the Shadows gives fans what they've been looking for the whole time, but for me, it was just another ugly ride into a universe I don't care about.

And man, this really feels like a movie occupied by a great sense of nothingness. I almost fell asleep nearly a half hour in, and if I had been at the local AMC theater where they have the reclining leather seats, it's a guarantee that I would have been out. I love going to the movies and I'm almost always excited to see the possibilities of what could happen on screen. So while an argument could be made that I was incredibly tired going in, I truly believe that my sudden exhaustion was a result of quickly realizing that I was about to take another trip into the void. TMNT 2 wasn't going to give me anything other than loud action and shrill, annoying characters and that just straight-up deflated me right out of the gate. And after my impromptu fatigue had set in, it didn't get any better- Out of the Shadows gave me absolutely nothing. Things happen, but there's no impact, no emotional reaction, no consequences. It's the definition of a cinematic vacuum.

The two most glaring issues in this film are the action climax and the villains. Both are awful in their own ways and they bring down the movie. The Turtles are easy to describe and their characters are rather well-defined. They can be incredibly grating, but at least there's some energy and consistency. However, this series has never managed to have any villains with credible motivation or intrigue, settling for.....well, I don't even know what it settles for. Can anyone tell me what the motives of Shredder and the Foot Clan are? Because I'm really not sure there are any. And who the hell is Krang? His character is never explained. He pops up out of nowhere and reappears only when the plot needs him. I guess these characters are out to create chaos (speaking of which there's a great article on this over at Collider), but even that's weakly explained.

After the Turtles have successfully fought off the giant farting rhino and warthog, our irritating heroes and lackluster villains meet in New York City for a big battle. In the previous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, one of the biggest problems was the film's ending. The 2014 film had a few action scenes building up to the critical fight against Shredder, but once the Turtles actually got on the skyscraper to fight their mortal enemy, the battle (and practically the movie) was over in no time. That ending was quite jarring, and if anything, I figured that director Dave Green and the filmmakers behind Out of the Shadows would fix that for this outing. I guess nobody got the message. While there is a little bit of buildup in the streets of New York, once the four brothers reach the rooftop of a skyscraper (again) to fight Krang, the duel is over rather quickly. It's so monumentally disappointing, but ultimately, it just reflects the rest of the film.

Dave Green should get some credit for slightly improving on the original. This film isn't as dull as its predecessor. It has a little bit more flavor, more color, more character. But you just can't escape the fact that it isn't a good movie. Poorly structured, lackadaisically paced, and mostly pointless, Out of the Shadows is another tiresome venture into a strange cinematic universe that I don't understand or care about. Look, I'm all for popcorn cinema that isn't necessarily good in the traditional sense of the word. After all, I consider myself a fan of Michael Bay's Transformers movies. But at least those movies offer me some basic surface-level pleasures, some shamelessly over-the-top action scenes, and that glossy, trashy Bay shine. Ultimately, for all of their goofy, outlandish convictions, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies are just dull. And after two movies, the results have shown to be continually disastrous.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.7/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Yahoo, Nerdist, Joblo

Sunday, June 19, 2016

'The Lobster' review

It's rare for me to leave a movie totally dumbfounded. Movies don't often have me at a loss for words, searching for something that conveys how I felt about it. The Lobster did just that, and nearly a week later, I still don't know what to make of this thing. My feelings have fluctuated up and down, alternating between intense anger and deep respect. With The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a movie that is disturbing, viciously provocative, and incredibly cold. It defies conventional wisdom, it defies normal critical habits of mine, and ultimately, I think it defies basic human emotion. It's a dystopian love story that is Kubrickian in form, told with the kind of precision and calculation that can only come from directors with incredible skill. And yet, despite its intellectual tendencies and impeccable filmmaking craft, The Lobster is totally empty. It feels nothing. It shows only a pitch-black vision of humanity that audiences will struggle to embrace. It's an unforgettable experience- but it's one that I certainly wanted to forget.

Set in a near-ish future (the time period is never made explicitly clear), The Lobster tells the story of David (Colin Farrell), a man who is recently separated from his wife. In the world of the film, single people have to go from The City to The Hotel, where they have 45 days to fall in love and find a mate or they will be turned into an animal. At The Hotel, David meets a few good friends (Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly) and tries to fall in love with a woman (Angeliki Papoulia), but he is simply not able to fit into this new society. Eventually, David joins the Loner Clan, a group of people who live in the wilderness having chose to never fall in love. But of course, things don't quite go as planned there either. David meets a woman (Rachel Weisz), and the two fall desperately in love. It's only a question of how their love will work in a system that forbids it.

I was definitely mixed on my feelings about The Lobster, but there's no question that this was one of the best and most humorous experiences I've had at a theater in a while, simply because the audience I saw the film with was so thoroughly baffled by it. One woman jumped ship pretty early, leaving before it had even reached the one hour mark. Others were more patient, sticking around to see where the film took them. Around the 90 minute period, another couple got up and left. But this was all just an appetizer for the main course, which was the mass exodus that occurred right at the film's ending. I won't spoil the film's rather stunning conclusion here, but it's obvious that the audience wasn't all too pleased by it. There were widespread groans and a group of people practically ran out of the theater. As I walked out in shock, one woman proclaimed that this was one of the worst films she'd ever seen.

So it's safe to say that The Lobster is a rather polarizing film and will be for the foreseeable future. It's provocative, outrageous, shocking, and almost downright unlikable at times. It discusses graphic sex and horrific violence in a matter-of-fact tone that often comes off as tasteless and disgusting. All of the characters speak like robots, and none of them have a whole lot of personality. The Lobster feels almost alien. There's something so chilling and off-putting about the way that this movie is told and in that way, I believe that Yorgos Lanthimos succeeded. Sure, I didn't necessarily enjoy this aspect of the film- it became very uncomfortable to watch. But film isn't meant to make the audience comfortable. Great films can be divisive and challenging, and Lanthimos nails the tone that he strives for in this dystopian journey.

The Lobster left me angry and slightly horrified. And in the context of this film, that's probably what the filmmakers were going for. Unfortunately, Lanthimos fails in crafting a compelling film beyond the icy cold atmosphere. It starts out very strongly and ends with a bang, but the stuff in the middle is what doesn't really work. Lots of things happen, but over time, the dramatic energy is sucked out of the film. As the action moves to the loner clan, Lanthimos seems to lose the trajectory. Scenes happen, people bounce around, and the focus is almost completely lost. The wild intensity and hilarity of the first half is lost in favor of a dry, pseudo-arthouse emptiness that feels disingenuous. The love story doesn't work because you don't really understand the characters and because of that, The Lobster loses its way.

But even during the more tedious parts of the film, the alien feeling is deeply felt. The acting is stilted and robotic all-around, and while it can be kind of fun to watch a cast of esteemed actors play chilly, emotionless sociopaths, I began to search for something more under the surface that I never found. Although I imagine that these actors were doing pretty much what Lanthimos asked, I still never felt anything for these characters. Colin Farrell's David is the center of the movie and I truly think that was a major mistake. With Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly's characters, there are more opportunities for Lanthimos to explore the themes that run through this film. Instead, we're stuck with David, someone who has nearly no personality whatsoever. He's a black hole of nothing, and when he falls in love with Rachel Weisz's character, it was nearly impossible to understand why.

Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou's script isn't interested in character. Instead, it's interested in human nature, specifically in terms of our relationship with love. This is The Lobster's greatest strength. When Lanthimos uses the chilly environment to convey his "love is bullsh*t" themes, it's incredibly effective. There are some great moments with Ben Whishaw's character that stick out in my mind as particularly strong. Human awkwardness runs throughout every scene in the film, and sometimes, it can be quite humorous to watch. The Lobster is actually a very funny black comedy at times, as funny as dog murder and suggested eye gouging can be. Lanthimos' film is at its best when combining this unique brand of satire with his very precise control of the cinematic elements. At those moments, this film shines.

For those reasons, I have deep respect for what Lanthimos has created with The Lobster. It is truly a film unlike any other I have seen, and there are so many great moments packed into a rare creation. I would say something that Lanthimos could have done better or areas for improvement, but in this case, I don't know if there really are many that apply. I believe that Lanthimos made the film that he set out to make, even if I believe that the film has major flaws. Ultimately, I just didn't care for it that much, despite its filmmaking strength. And that's okay. Even though The Lobster didn't work for me, it announces Lanthimos as a divisive, skillful talent who will be making crazy, controversial films for years to come.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Forbes, Variety, Joblo