Friday, August 29, 2014

A Reel Review: THE ZERO THEOREM


 
The films of director Terry Gilliam often tend to be a tough nut to crack. From 12 MONKEYS (1995) to THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009), a person’s enjoyment of Gilliam’s work depends upon just how much work one is willing to put into it. Gilliam’s newest work, THE ZERO THEOREM, is no different.
In the future, Qohen (Christoph Waltz) is a genius computer programmer who is searching for his life’s meaning while working for a large corporate tech company, led by Management (Matt Damon). After a chance meeting with Management, Qohen is assigned a new project; to solve The Zero Theorem, a computer formula which holds the meaning of life. Qohen is assisted by his supervisor (David Thewlis), a prostitute (Melanie Thierry), and Bob (Lucas Hedges), the son of Management.

THE ZERO THEOREM is a film full of big ideas, mostly focused on finding the meaning of life. The entire film, from start to finish, is all a big metaphor for existence and technology. Figuring that out takes some effort, because the world that this story takes place in is a very bizarre one. People act and dress funny for no apparent reason, and the film often feels like a parody or Saturday-morning cartoon.
Once you cut through all of the wild set-dressing and try to focus on the story and whatever messaging director Terry Gilliam is supposedly trying to get across, there’s just flat-out disappointment to be found as the message, as clear as it is, doesn’t mean very much. It’s not a question of finding out the end and saying “that’s it?” as much as saying “so what?”.

While Gilliam is creating a narrative which goes nowhere, he’s creating a visual masterpiece with his sets and characters. The futuristic world is full of color and is an assault on the eyeballs. Characters are explored fairly well enough, with Qohen getting the most attention. The technology they use is greatly realized, and feels like the next step in our operating-system evolution.
Acting is very good despite everything and everybody being so weird. Christoph Waltz, with his shaved head, funny clothing, and social-awkwardness, feels like he’s channeling Christopher Lloyd’s Uncle Fester (and often looks just like him), but in this wacked-out world it works. Waltz goes through every range of emotion and is simply outstanding. Melanie Thierry is fantastic to watch, and the show is nearly stolen by young-teen Lucas Hedges. David Thewlis is also great, and the rest of the cast; Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare, Ben Whishaw…are treated like unfortunate cameos.

As off-the-wall as the film is, it goes for an ending that’s even more out-there and requires a fair amount of heavy-lifting to figure out exactly where things wrap up. There is a lot to admire in THE ZERO THEOREM in ideas, acting, and visual mastery, but even if you’re willing to put in the work to figure things out, the payoff is puny. Approach this one with extreme caution.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it
 
 
 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Reel 25: THE ABYSS


“There is something down there! Something not us.”
 
 

This month marks the 25th anniversary of James Cameron’s THE ABYSS.

Even before he became the undisputed king of the box office, James Cameron was making a name for himself as an innovative and visionary director, thanks to his landmark sic-fi films THE TERMINATOR (1984) and ALIENS (1986). His newest film, a story about a team of underwater oil-workers who encounter a mysterious species, would be his most ambitious yet.
 
Inspired by a story which he wrote when he was just 17 years told, Cameron’s THE ABYSS would require over 40% of the film to be shot underwater. The ambitious vision required the entire cast to become certified divers, and for one of the most massive and elaborate practical sets in history to be built. The set which would serve as the Deep Core mining rig was built in an abandoned nuclear power plant in two specially constructed tanks which took five days to fill with water. It would take half a year to plan and build.

Filming pushed the limits of technology. Specially designed camera-housings had to be designed and built, and custom underwater diving helmets also had to be created so the actors’ faces could be seen. These techniques not only paid off for the high quality of production that THE ABYSS would have, but would also be utilized in future films; from Cameron’s own TITANIC in 1997 to Wes Anderson’s THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU in 2004.

Filming, which consisted of six months of six-day, 70-hour work-weeks on an isolated set, also pushed the limits of the crew and actors. Stars Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio suffered emotional breakdowns, and divers suffered skin burns from the heavy amounts of chlorine in the tanks. Cast and crew would nickname the production “The Son of The Abyss”, while Cameron himself stated that the film was the most difficult he had ever worked on. The famed visual-effects house Industrial Light and Magic spent six months creating 75 seconds of computer graphics to create a sea creature composed of water, with the result opening up the door for a new generation of CGI wizardry.

THE ABYSS opened with moderate success at the box office and even better success with the critics. It would win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and would earn nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. It would also win awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, and the American Society of Cinematographers.

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Aside from inventing new tech that the industry would embrace, THE ABYSS deserves credit as a cinematic adventure. It is essentially a science fiction film using the oldest of stories of human-meets-alien and makes it work in a setting that we had never seen before; it would be an approach that Cameron would use again in AVATAR (2009). What he learned on THE ABYSS he would carry over into his TERMINATOR sequel (1991), and what he learned there he took on board his historic TITANIC (1997). His time on the high-seas would inspire his second-career as a deep sea diver and documentarian, and that would in turn bring him and the industry where it is today. Great films move the industry forward, and perhaps the modern era began by plunging into THE ABYSS.

“Luck is not a factor.”
 
 
 
 

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Reel Review: FRANK


 
In the early 1980’s, an English musician and comedian by the name of Christopher Sievey created a comic persona called Frank Sidebottom, which consisted of Sievey wearing a large paper-mache head with a 1950’s-style suit on stage while fronting a band. This so-bizarre-it-has-to-be-true story is the inspiration for director Lenny Abrahamson’s FRANK.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), is a struggling musician who falls into a bizarre band led by the eccentric Frank (Michael Fassbender), a talented musician who constantly wears a giant head/mask, and the manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Finding inspiration, Jon tries to take the band to new places despite the misgivings of band-member Clara (Maggie Gyllenhall).

Simply put, FRANK is a weird movie. It is filled with eccentric and bizarre characters who live in their own world making music with very little structure and as far away from conventional as Mars; topped off by a guy who wears a giant goofy head all the time and behaves in a way that matches it. To make all this work on film, director Lenny Abrahamson puts into play the age-old plot device of bringing a newcomer into this wacked-out world (Jon), so the audience can experience it through his eyes. With that in place, the movie becomes more about Jon’s journey than Frank, and it works well because Frank is just too much off-the-wall to be a character anyone can relate to. Jon becomes the heart and soul of the film while Frank acts as divine inspiration; in the early goings he is a struggling musician used to structure and order, and by meeting Frank and his free-minded band of musicians, he finds his inner voice and it makes for a great cinematic journey.

Director Lenny Abrahamson makes significant changes to the real-life story; so many that it’s fair to say FRANK is only loosely based on Sievey’s comic character. For starters, Abrahamson takes the storyline out of the 1970’s and into the modern era. This works very well as it allows him to explore Jon’s thoughts through his blogging and usage of social media. It’s an exploration of a man’s thought-process when he struggles with creativity, and also makes a statement of social media’s impact, power, and faults. Abrahamson also makes excellent use out of his star’s face being covered by the big dumb-looking head. It makes for some great comic moments, especially when Frank announces out loud what expression his face is carrying.

Acting is a gem all the way through. Michael Fassbender obviously does the most, and best work. His accent is buried, and his body language is perfect in selling the character…and who knew he could sing and be so funny? Maggie Gyllenhaal is the fire-breathing dragon of the film who constantly confronts Jon on everything he does, and she has never been this ferocious in a film before. Domhnall Gleeson (son of acclaimed actor Brendan Gleeson) is superb and never gets lost in a film with such power from Fassbender and Gyllenhall. Scoot McNairy is a little underused but make the most of his time.

The reasons why Frank wears the stupid head-thing are a tight secret until the very end, which makes for a decent “ah-ha!” moment once things are revealed and understood…and it’s clear that FRANK is all about the bastard which is creativity and how it can be overcome. Some people may walk away from FRANK scratching their heads, but anyone who has ever struggled to create or to find their true inner-selves will be rewarded greatly.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 
 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Richard Attenborough 1923-2014




Actor and director Richard Attenborough has passed away at the age of 90. 

Before he became known to modern cinema for his role as John Hammond in Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK (1993), Richard Attenborough was an accomplished actor, director, and producer worthy of an un-official title of Hollywood Royalty. Born in Cambridge, England, Attenborough spent time in the Royal Air Force during WWII before pursuing an acting career. He was successful on stage and in 1949 exhibitors voted him the sixth most popular British actor at the box office. 

He would then move over into the British film industry where he would spend the next 30 years. After some successful comedies such as PRIVATE’S PROGRESS (1956) and I’M ALL RIGHT JACK (1959), he would appear in the ensemble cast of THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) with American darling Steve McQueen and would then be exposed to U.S. audiences. He would improve his range and appear in GUNS AT BATASI (1964), for which he would win the BAFTA Award for Best Actor. He would then play opposite James Stewart in FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1967), for which he would win a Golden Globe. He would take a break from acting to pursue directing and producing, and took no roles after THE HUMAN FACTOR (1979) until his appearance in JURASSIC PARK and its sequel. He starred in a remake of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1994), the historical drama ELIZABETH (1998), and Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET (1996). 

His directing years were just as successful, if not more than his acting time. His feature film debut was the musical OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR (1969), and later YOUNG WINSTON (1972), which focused on the early life of Winston Churchill. He would strike Oscar gold in 1982 with his historical character-piece GANDHI, which would win him Best Picture and Best Director, and would introduce Ben Kingsley and Daniel Day-Lewis to the world. Other films he directed and produced were CHAPLIN (1992) with Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Hopkins, and SHADOWLANDS (1993). 

He was the President of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). He would win four total BAFTA Awards, four Golden Globes, and two Oscars. He held the title of Lord, and Pinewood Studios paid tribute to him by naming a film and television stage after him in 2012.  

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Like most modern movie fans, this Blogger was introduced to Richard Attenborough by way of JURASSIC PARK, where his kind and gentleman-like nature made him a perfect fit for the loving grandfather character whose heart was bigger than his head. Over the years a great appreciation for his earlier acting roles and great body of directing work was grown. He had a great eye for historical pieces; focusing mostly on the human stories that exist during war-time…evidently drawing from his own WWII experiences to feed his storytelling. His crown achievement is obviously GANDHI, where he would take home the gold, and more importantly…bring two of the greatest actors of our time into the light. Richard Attenborough was truly a gentleman and a scholar, an honest-to-goodness student of cinema…whose impact will be felt long after the curtain falls. 





Friday, August 22, 2014

A Reel Review: SIN CITY - A DAME TO KILL FOR


 
In 2005, director Robert Rodriguez and comic writer/artist Frank Miller joined forces to bring Miller’s own series of graphic novels, called SIN CITY, to the bring screen. The result was an unconventional, film-noir style of storytelling which was a visual stunner. Nine years later the two have teamed up again to bring us the follow-up; A DAME TO KILL FOR, which is much of the same of the first film, minus a few important ingredients.
When Dwight (Josh Brolin) gets mixed up in the deadly dealings of his ex-lover Ava (Eva Green), he enlists the help of his brawling friend Marv (Mickey Rourke). Meanwhile, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets involved in a high-stakes poker game with the crooked Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe), who is also the target of a revenge seeking stripper (Jessica Alba), who wants payback for the death of her old lover and protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis).

Much like its predecessor, this second voyage into SIN CITY is composed of four different stories in the same setting where characters cross over into each other’s narratives. The film fully embraces the exploitation approach; heads and body parts are chopped off, lopped off, and blown off. Faces are smashed in and eyeballs are ripped out. Clothes are stripped and breasts are laid bare...and guns, knives, daggers, and vehicles are whipped around like laundry. All of this good and gory and sexy fun is mere window dressing, as A DAME TO KILL FOR is ultimately put together by four dull and boring stories. The stakes aren’t very high, and worse, there is a noticeable lack of energy through the entire film. Pacing is a slog, and by the time the fourth storyline rolls around, you are more than ready for things to wrap up. It’s only fun once in a while, and the running-time of 102 minutes feels more like 972.
While the substance of A DAME TO KILL FOR may be weak, the style is fantastic. Director Robert Rodriguez and co-director/comic-artist Frank Miller have put together another visual stunner. With all of the actors shot against green-screen with artificial backgrounds inserted in, the opportunity for some amazing set pieces are there, and Rodriquez takes full advantage in glorious black-and-white with a few clever uses of color. There isn’t a wasted frame in the film as there is always something neat to look at. Rodriquez fully embraces the old film-noir style with distinct lighting and characters narrating everything that they do, and you often have to remind yourself that you’re not watching a film from 1940.

The cast is very committed to their work and everyone is very good. Mickey Rourke and Josh Brolin get the most screen-time and have the most fun, while Bruce Willis amounts to an extended cameo. Jessica Alba actually shows some growth by having to show a dark side, and Christopher Lloyd nearly steals the show as a (ahem) Doc who is not all there. Eva Green spends most of her time naked, but her acting chops are perfect as the seductive and deadly dame…making for a great on-screen villain. Powers Boothe is equally effective as a Big Bad, and the rest of the large cast is excellent; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Jeremy Piven, Dennis Haysbert, Rosario Dawson, and Christopher Meloni.
With its non-conventional style in appearance and storytelling and copious amounts of nudity and violence, A DAME TO KILL FOR will not win over any new viewers, and fans of the first film will certainly wonder where all the fun went to. With its events taking place before and after the first film, this DAME isn’t worth killing for, but as a decent capper to a trip started nine years ago. But if you skip it, you wouldn’t be missing much.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it
 
 
 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: Everything You Need To Know About SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR



 
In 2005, director Robert Rodriguez teamed up with comic-artist and writer Frank Miller to bring Miller’s own SIN CITY comic to the big screen. Fast-forward nine years later and the follow-up is finally here. Here is everything you need to know about SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR.
What is this about? – A DAME TO KILL FOR serves as a prequel and a sequel with interlinking stories taking place before and after the first film.

Who’s behind this? – Robert Rodriquez (FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, MACHETE), returns to direct. Frank Miller, who wrote the SIN CITY comics and is mostly known for his popular Batman story THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, gets credit as a co-director and wrote the screenplay.
Who’s in this? -  Like SIN CITY, the sequel is packed tight with stars. The returning cast includes Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Jaime King, Jude Ciccolella, Powers Booth, Mickey Rourke, and Bruce Willis. Newcomers include Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, Jamie Chung, Dennis Haysbert, Marton Csokas, Christopher Lloyd, Juno Temple, Ray Liotta, Stacy Keach, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Eva Green, and Lady Gaga.

Any interesting facts? – A DAME TO KILL FOR is based on four original Frank Miller stories, two of which were written exclusively for the film and have not seen the comic pages. * Devon Aoki could not reprise her role due to pregnancy, and was replaced by Jamie Chung. * Dennis Haysbert (the Allstate guy, and Pedro from MAJOR LEAGUE), replaced Michael Clarke Duncan, who was set to reprise his role but died before filming. * Josh Brolin plays the role of Dwight, which was held down by Clive Owen in the first film. In that first film, a reference is made about Dwight having a “new face”. * Jeremy Piven, who is best known for his role in the TV series ENTOURAGE, replaces Michael Madsen. * Two original cast members have died since SIN CITY; Michael Clarke-Duncan and Brittany Murphy,
What to expect? – The first film was saturated in the old noir-style, and was certainly a visual stunner. That, and its episodic nature can be expected again. With A DAME TO KILL FOR looping back to events before the first movie (and maybe even during), it would probably be a good idea to screen SIN CITY again before seeing this or else confusion may enter the experience. The ensemble cast is a big selling point, as everyone would have at least one favorite actor or actress in there. One interesting fact here is that A DAME TO KILL FOR is short; only 102 minutes (that’s one hour and forty-two minutes). The first SIN CITY was 124 minutes (you do the goddamn math). This may be a good thing, as the first film was lightly criticized for having a little too much fat. Perhaps Rodriquez and Miller have learned their lessons, and are ready to give us a movie to kill for.

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SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR opens August 22nd.




Monday, August 18, 2014

A Reel 75: THE WIZARD OF OZ

“Somewhere over the rainbow…”


This month marks the 75th anniversary of Victor Fleming’s THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Based on the 1900 novel THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ by L. Frank Baum in which a young Kansas girl gets whisked away to a fantastical land, this version of OZ was the fourth big-screen version since 1910. It was a major production for its time; costing just over $2 million to make with its elaborate sets, costumes, makeup, visual effects, and a relatively new technology at the time…Technicolor(!).

Development of the film began thanks to the success of Walt Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937), which proved that there was a market for children’s stories in big-screen productions. MGM would go through several re-writes and would flirt with idea of casting Shirley Temple in the lead over Judy Garland, and production itself would have its ups and downs even after the cast was set. The heavy use of makeup caused skin irritations with much of the cast, and shooting would go through several directors before settling on Victor Fleming.

Upon release, the film was not considered a financial success despite receiving critical acclaim; it did not make its production budget back until subsequent re-releases over the years. And over those years, THE WIZARD OF OZ became a major part of the world’s culture. In 1956 when the film was re-introduced to the world on television, it became the most viewed motion picture in TV history and became an annual event. But prior to its television years, OZ was nominated for six Oscars in 1939, including Best Picture but lost to GONE WITH THE WIND. It did win for Best Original Song for Over the Rainbow. OZ would go onto become a family favorite for generations of families and critics; it was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress in 1989, and is often included in any Top Film of All-time list. It became the source for thousands, if not millions of quotes and references in pop-culture and film, and its music is often ranked in the top songs of the century. OZ would to on to inspire countless versions on stage, film, TV, and in literature.

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As a wee-lad, this Blogger fondly remembers watching THE WIZARD OF OZ in the family room on TV; getting dazzled by the visuals, bored with Dorothy singing, and fascinated by the witch and her flying monkeys. Years later as the critical mind takes over, OZ still holds a high place. In filmmaking and in storytelling, there is an axiom which says that the higher the concept, the simpler the story must be. OZ is about one thing; getting Dorothy home. It is the simplest and oldest of stories which appears new and fresh thanks to its fantastical surroundings of talking trees, animals, scarecrows, and tin men. OZ is also the perfect template for characters. Movies succeed on drama, and drama comes from contrast. OZ has a band of contrasting creatures who could not be more different in appearance and in character, and that is the heart and soul of the film which has made it everlasting. THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1939 laid down the groundwork for the next 75 years of filmmaking. Its influence can be seen in the films of today, and will continue to inspire far over the rainbows.

“There’s no place like home!”
 
 
 
 

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Reel Review: THE EXPENDABLES 3


 
As most of us mortals know, a good sequel should accomplish two major goals. The first and foremost mission is to advance your storyline and characters, with the second being a willingness to correct any flaws the previous film or films may have had. A failure to reach those two goals can be forgivable, as long as a good movie is made. Enter Sylvester Stallone’s third installment of aging action stars in THE EXPENDABLES 3.

Barney (Stallone) and his team of free-lance commandos (Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, and Arnold Schwarzenegger), comes into a bloody feud with Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who years ago co-founded Barney’s Expendables team.

The main draw of this franchise of action-flicks has always been the novelty of seeing classic action stars from what could be considered the Golden Age of Action Movies (1980-1995, ish) sharing the screen. Once you get past that big-wow factor, it all comes back to the movie…and THE EXPENDABLES 3 struggles to get anything right. Similar to the previous entries, the plot is paper-thin and the threat is nothing more than a clich├ęd bad guy with an axe to grind, who also seems to magically have thousands of men at his command. The good guys, and there are many of them, are testosterone-fueled muscle-headed one-note lugnuts who haven’t seem to have advanced at all from their earlier adventures and are as boring as they are unlikeable. Once the bullets start to fly and the explosions go boom, even that falls flat as they have little to no consequence and do not move the plot forward at all; they feel perfunctory…as if they were put in there just because of the reputation of the cast.

On top of everything else, THE EXPENDABLES 3 sabotages its own self by constantly taking the camera away from the favorited action stars in favor of the younger cast members, who are no-name twits and twats that no one would want to see in their own films. Those younger cast members add nothing to the story, and much like the action sequences, are there just to fill time and space. Director Patrick Hughes has a lot to learn about cutting a film together. Many scenes drag on for way too long, and for as thin as the plot actually is, the movie has no business being longer than two hours (which it is). The PG-13 rating puts the handcuffs on the editing, as the filmmakers are forced to cut away before any blood is shown…making for some very choppy action. The CG is terrible (did they really have to CG the helicopters?), but some of the hand-to-hand combat fights are done well.

Acting is a big ball of blah. The older guys just grumble and mumble their way through, with Harrison Ford being the biggest embarrassment. The few highlights belong to a re-energized Antonio Banderas and Wesley Snipes…and to Mel Gibson; who as the big bad wolf is outstanding despite being drastically underwritten. Jet Li, as the lone martial-arts expert of the cast, is wasted as he is not allowed to throw one goddamn punch, chop, or kick.

As a sequel furthering its story and characters, THE EXPENDABLES 3 fails hard, just as it does as an action movie. It does have its fun moments with the cast, and yes, it’s neat to see the guys who once played Rocky, Terminator, Indy, Zorro, and Mad Max share the screen…it’s just an outright travesty that they have to do so in such lousy surroundings.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Reel Review: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES


 
The latest cinematic version of the 1980’s comic, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, is very much a product of our current times; it is heavily inspired by the current wave of superhero films and by the  Christopher Nolan technique of practical realism in fantasy. On top of those two factors, it is also a product of directing-by-committee; a technique which does not always bring in the best results.
In modern day New York City, ambitious reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is hot on the trail of the mysterious organized crime group called the Foot Clan, when she stumbles upon four mutated turtles living in the sewers who are battling the same evil.

This version of the TURTLES sets itself up as a standard superhero origin-tale in the real world. The template in place is sound, and the practical-reasons-for-everything also go a long way in keeping what is a silly concept of karate-chopping turtles close to the ground and realistic. But the approach in telling this story is troubled right out of the manhole courtesy of a clumsy and lazy script the filmmakers decided to run with. Most of the film is spent in boring exposition; scene after scene of setting up one thing which leads to another…and although there is some payoff, the film often slogs itself into the ground. Worse, the characters themselves suffer from the laziness in the screenplay; everyone seems to have some sort of convenient connection to each other, the origin of the turtles, and the nefarious plot at work…and it does not take long to figure out where the plot is going or what characters are meant to do.
Jonathan Liebesman is the credited director, but it’s clear that he was merely the hired gun to keep things moving on the set during shooting. The film very much feels like it was put together by committee; an approach with a board-room full of stiffs throwing in their different wants and needs. It would explain the cobbled-together feel as the film as many elements and plotpoints which just don’t work together, and the overall experience has no real heart or soul.

Long-time fans of the now 30 year-old franchise do have a lot to latch onto. Every element of the TURTLES mythos is present, and the effort to bring them to life is also impressive. The CG is very good, and each one of the turtles has a distinct personality which helps carry things forward. Those personalities are little one-note and they don’t really move past their standard archetype, but they do provide some very fun moments and plenty to laugh-out-loud at. The action sequences are fun despite some over-use of the goddamn shaky-cam technique, and a third-act chase down a mountain slope is a fantastic thrill-ride. From a visual angle, the film is great to look at and often stunning.

Acting is a mixed bag. Megan Fox is the weakest link and she often feels like she showed up just to collect a check. She’s never been the greatest in the biz, but she has turned in better work than this. William Fichtner turns in a great role as the head of a corporation (again, conveniently) linked to everyone and everything, and the leader of the Foot Clan, Master Shredder, (played by Tohoru Masamune), is fine as a standard big baddie who growls a lot. Will Arnett and Whoopi Goldberg are passable although the film could have done just fine without them. The voice-work behind the CG creatures is excellent, with Johnny Knoxville’s work behind the turtles’ leader Leonardo and Tony Shalhoub’s talent behind their mutated-rat teacher being the standouts.
After a very predictable finale, it’s hard to figure out exactly why this movie had to be made other than a big studio looking for a new money-maker to hang their hats on as it only occasionally justifies itself in storytelling. It has its fun moments, and has enough for old fans to be liked, but is just too flawed to be loved. Even for a story about talking turtles.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it
 
 
 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams 1951-2014





Robin Williams has passed away at the age of 63. 

Born in Chicago, Williams was a versatile actor who made the transition from stand-up comedy to the big and small screen with ease. He rocketed to fame in 1978 as the alien Mork in the TV series MORK & MINDY, which was based on a character he played on TV’s HAPPY DAYS. Throughout the 1970’s and 1980s, he would reach a wider audience on TV with several stand-up specials, including eight telethons in the form of COMIC RELIEF with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg…an effort which has raised over $50 million to aid the homeless. 

On the big screen, he proved to be just as effective. He was nominated for Oscars in GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (1987), DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989), THE FISHER KING (1991), and finally won Best Supporting Actor for his work in GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997). 

His long list of notable films include dramas, comedies, and voicework; Robert Altman’s POPEYE (1980), THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (1982), THE BEST OF TIMES (1986), AWAKENINGS (1990), Steven Spielberg’s HOOK (1991), TOYS (1992), ALADDIN (1992), MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993), JUMANJI (1995), JACK (1996), THE BIRDCAGE (1996), PATCH ADAMS (1998), WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998), BICENTENNIAL MAN (1999), A.I. ARTIFICAL INTELLIGENCE (2001), INSOMNIA (2002), ONE HOUR PHOTO (2002), ROBOTS (2005), NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006),  and appeared as President Dwight D. Eisenhower in last year’s LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER. 

He had a successful run on Broadway beginning in 2002, and was re-united with his MORK & MINDY co-star Pam Dawber in the short-lived TV sitcom THE CRAZY ONES (2013). 

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Robin Williams leaves us with many fond memories of laughter and lovable characters. As a wee-lad, some of this Blogger’s fondest memories comes from watching those early episodes of MORK & MINDY, where Williams’ off-the-wall approach to acting generated echoes of laughter off the family room walls. Years later, Williams would prove to be one of the most diverse actors ever; seamlessly going from comedy to drama in the blink of an eye. He was a joy to watch, and sometimes just seeing his face on the movie poster was enough to generate a smile. The man seemed to have touched every medium in his long career, a touch that will probably never be seen again. Robin Williams was a treasure for all-time, and the joy he brought us should last forever. 





Thursday, August 7, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Importance of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY


 
This past weekend, Marvel Studios’ GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY proved to be a box-office monster; its $94 million opening tally is the largest in history for an August release. This adaptation of one of Marvel’s more obscure comics is not only a victory for comic book fans, but for cinema in general. Here are the Top Five reasons why:
An Obscure Comic Property is now a Household Name: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was originally published in 1969, and had a re-invented run in 2008. It never made it to the upper-echelon level of notable superhero characters like its cousins Captain America or The Hulk, which is why the idea of turning it into a big-screen venture was certainly a gamble. Comic book movies, believe it or not, are not made exclusively for the comic-book crowd; you have to get the general public through the gate because that’s where the big money is. If you don’t do that, the genre would have died at the box office a long time ago.

Faith in your Characters: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY has some weird looking dudes and ladies walking around; a green-skinned warrior woman, a wise-cracking raccoon and a walking/talking tree are just the tip of the asteroid. Marvel knew they had an uphill climb in selling these obscure and bizarre characters to the public, and the solution was simple; you take those high-concept characters and make them as human as possible. Everyone can relate to a common human emotion of sorrow, joy, rage…and when those emotions are seen on the big screen, it doesn’t matter what kind of creature it is coming from. This is important because Marvel has proven that even the weirdest looking thing can be a true character. Other studios will take notice.
No Fear of Color: Many films these days go for a darker or even de-saturated palette. GUARDIANS embraces its comic roots by throwing just about every color of the rainbow at us on the screen. Green skins, pink skins, yellow outfits, deep purples of the cosmos…it makes for an eye-popping visual experience and stays true to its colorful comic origins.

Cosmic Diversity: In the 1960’s, Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK TV series subtly promoted diversity in space, with people of all races, color, and alien origins working together and living in harmony. This was a concept taken further in STAR WARS (1977), as human characters interacted and didn’t think twice about living and working with robots and aliens. It’s a concept that seems to have been lost in the recent decade, and a concept that GUARDIANS embraces fully and runs with. Drama in movies comes from contrast; contrasting characters and their personalities clashing and learning from each other is what storytelling is all about.
No Fear of Fun: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is a blast with surprises and laughs coming at us at light speed. Having fun at the movies should always be a priority for studios, and GUARDIANS puts that up front and center and isn’t afraid to bring the house down while maintaining an important story and common threat for the characters to bond against. Even when things go dark in GUARDIANS, there is a great sense of whimsy and adventure which is very reminiscent of STAR WARS; giving it a classic and familiar feel that anyone can enjoy. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is not about superheroes and sci-fi adventure, it’s about good cinema, and is a major step forward for the industry.

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Reel Speak's Review HERE

 

 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Reel Review: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY




 Throughout Marvel Studio’s ongoing journey through their expansive connected series of films, the scale has been relatively small with occasional peeks into the larger universe waiting above. With GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, the curtain has finally been pulled back on the cosmos…and fully embraces the notion that in space, anything is possible.
Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) is a scavenger-for-hire who is contracted to steal a mysterious orb with deadly properties, which is also sought after by the rebellious Ronan (Lee Pace). When Quill learns of the orb’s destructive potential, he falls into an uneasy alliance with Ronan’s former assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a revenge-bent hulk named Drax (David Bautista), and the bounty hunter team of the genetically-modified raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and tree-creature Groot (Vin Diesel).

The plot of GUARDIANS is simple; keep the super-weapon away from the bad guy who wants to wipe out everybody. It works, not only because the backdrop of settings and characters are extremely high-concept and way-out-of-this-world, but because Gunn makes his characters the priority. The film spends most of its time with the five of them finding common ground to bond together; establishing backstories and motivations and giving everyone a darn good reason to save the galaxy. Throughout this planet-hopping journey, everyone can easily have a favorite character or two, and it’s a natural thing to find someone to root for.
And James Gunn keeps those characters working as the biggest barrel of fun in the universe. Everyone has their heroic and laugh-out-loud moments. The pacing in the film is quick and brisk with a tremendous sense of energy and momentum, but not fast enough where things are lost. Gunn moves his characters from setting to setting and builds a fascinating universe to behold; fantastic planets and waystations are populated by wild-looking creatures and humanoids with skin colors from every shade of the rainbow. There are very few rules to be followed in this colorful and vibrant galaxy, and it makes for a lot of anticipation for what lies next from scene-to-scene.

But for as fantastic as everything looks, Gunn never lets go of the heart and soul in the film. A surprising emotional prologue establishes some serious empathy with Quill, and it carries over through the other characters and the movie overall. Gunn has composed an intimate character piece in a grand space opera; striking that perfect balance between the human element and the high-concept.
Acting is superb. Chris Pratt shoulders the burden of the leading man with ease, and has great chemistry with Zoe Saldana…who acts her way past the heavy makeup to produce a likeable character. Dave Bautista is the real surprise of the film and also creates a fun character that you can’t get enough of. The show is just about stolen by Bradley Cooper’s smart-ass raccoon Rocket and Vin Diesel’s Groot. Groot gets some of the best moments in the film, and the work put into Rocket elevates him as one of the best realized CGI creatures in cinema history. The large supporting cast all turn in fine work; Glenn Close, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Benicio Del Toro, Djimon Hounsou, and John C. Reily are all excellent.

GUARDIANS goes for a satisfying ending in wrapping up things nice and tight, but also establishes several ongoing threads which will evidently go on for further GUARDIANS films, and in the ever-expanding Marvel universe. But GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY also operates just fine as a stand-alone film, and doesn’t overly pander to comic-fans or any other followers of genre entertainment. Anyone can have fun in this universe in which the surprises and laughs are never-ending. GUARDIANS is a genre-bender, and you will never find a more wonderful hive of fun and brilliancy.
BOTTOM LINE: See it