Kicking the Tweets

Maleficent (2014)

Hell Hath No Faerie

Summer's almost over, and I've finally gotten around to seeing one of its biggest blockbusters. Maleficent may not have the smash-bang pedigree of Trasformers, Godzilla, or Guardians of the Galaxy, but it has been a steady box-office juggernaut for months. Now I understand why. 

Like Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficent is Disney's live-action re-telling of one of its classic animated films--with an "Untold Origins" twist to make it worthwhile. Angelina Jolie stars as Maleficent, the winged faerie ruler of a magical kingdom that exists next to the realm of humankind. Fans of Sleeping Beauty know her as the Christening-crashing witch who places a curse on the king's daughter, damning her to permanent unconsciousness upon her sixteenth birthday. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton complicates things with a scorned-lover back story that makes Maleficent's actions relatable, if not entirely excusable.

There's real magic in Maleficent, and I can't recommend it highly enough to children of the 80s who've longed for the days of The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal. Special effects artist Robert Stromberg's directorial debut is a nostalgia filmmaking in the best sense: rather than copying aspects of classic films, he's captured a genuine, hard-to-define mood with his storybook fantasy. Older moviegoers may scoff at some of Maleficent's CGI subjects, but this wonkiness is in keeping with the good-for-their-time puppets of our youth.*

The main reason I waited so long to see the film was because of its ad campaign's similarity to other live-action, empowered-princess movies that've popped up in the last few years. Though I enjoyed Snow White, I couldn't stand Alice in Wonderland (also written, strangely enough, by Woolverton)--and the fighting, demon-faced trees reminded me of The Lord of the Rings (not that that's a bad thing; just more unwelcome familiarity in an alleged realm of imagination). Maleficent looked like more plodding, pixel-based whimsy, leading to an inconsequential showdown between knights and monsters.

One of this movie's many fun surprises is that Stromberg gets his big battle out of the way early. The climax is a more intimate showdown involving Maleficent, the twisted King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and a dragon--who's also sometimes a bird, and occasionally a man (Sam Riley). A revived Sleeping Beauty (the radiant Elle Fanning) is also involved, but she's mostly just a catalyst in the antihero's journey. Sure, I saw some of the story beats from several steps ahead, but the filmmakers crafted such an immersive experience that I didn't notice some very clear "tells" until after leaving the theatre.

Despite my unexpected enthusiasm for the film, I'd be remiss in not point out my crushing disappointment with its final ten minutes. I'll let slide the climactic story beat that recalls Frozen's surprise resolution (each movie was obviously developed along different timelines), and focus on one of the most rushed endings I've ever seen. Not to spoil things too much, but from the moment Maleficent bursts out of the castle with Stefan dangling precariously from a chain, it's all downhill. From a more-choppy-than-necessary bit of editing (meant to, I guess, soften a key character's demise) to the Sesame Street finale in which absolutely everyone shows up in the exact location for their goofy-smile closeup, Maleficent ends with a hurried and generically commercial air that belies most of what had come before.

But that's all adult-perspective nonsense. Any little kid that picks up on these problems is doomed to life as a film critic (and we all know there's no saving them). I'd expected Maleficent to be a disposable cash-in, starring a slumming-it Angelina Jolie. This is a real movie, though, and one I'm sure to revisit on home video--which is more than I can say for most of the tentpoles that've taken up time and space at the multiplex this summer.

*It's a moot point either way, as I'm sure the target audience in both eras accepted these dodgy monsters as completely real.


The Expendables 3 (2014)

Wan in 3

As a theatrical experience, The Expendables 3 is a two-hour commercial for its own home video release. Not content to make truckloads of money, Lionsgate aims for an ocean liner this time out--watering down their hard-R action franchise to a more, I guess, family-friendly PG-13 rampage. That's a problem on several levels, not the least of which is watchability.

The opening sequence (in which Sylvester Stallone and his gang of mercenaries bust Wesley Snipes out of prison) cuts around the violence so drastically as to play like a Scholastic Game of Thrones flipbook. I love well-staged action, and can follow along with the most out-there execution and editing, but the over-the-top violence in this thing has been outright sanitized--coherence be damned. Faceless characters are shot, stabbed, and blown up in moments so quick that sound effects seem to occur before the visuals.

What's worse, there's no refuge for the audience during the non-exploding moments, which comprise much of the run-time. Writers Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger, and Katrin Benedikt mistakenly assume that we care about these characters enough to watch them alternate between banter and sulking for fifteen minutes at a stretch. Three movies in, and none of these characters are funny, interesting, or insightful, beyond meta musings about 80s action stars all appearing on screen together. 

I don't remember the other Expendables movies being this bad. In fact, I barely remember the first two at all. In double-fact, I had to re-read my own review from 2010 to recall that I'd not only liked part one, but apparently enjoyed the hell out of it. The sequel--which was even more outrageous than the first, thanks to Jean-Claude Van Damme's career-best performance--helped me realized what that first movie should have been. Perspective is key, you see, and sometimes ugly.

Speaking of which, once the inevitable "Uncut and Unleashed" version hits Blu-ray, I suspect this Mickey Mouse theatrical cut will be instantly forgotten--assuming people bother with Part Three at all. There's just nothing memorable here. The gag, I suppose, is that everything follows the template of bad 80s action movies. That's not a strong enough premise to sustain two hours of muscle-bound, monosyllabic machismo shooting up God-knows-whom and bitching about growing old.

The writers throw us a small bone by introducing a team of young recruits, but neither the actors nor director Patrick Hughes can make them compelling. What to do when we're presented not with characters, but a real-life boxer, the ninth vampire from the left in Twilight, and a UFC fighter whose primary emoting tool is stink-face? The answer is: look at your watch or leave.

If there's a reason to see The Expendables 3, it's for Mel Gibson's turn as the villain. A cross between Heath Ledger's Joker and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Owen Davian from Mission: Impossible 3, the actor reminds us of why he was once a mega-star. The filmmakers get one thing right in letting Gibson breathe and play (stopping just short of merely having him reprise his character from Machete Kills). Despite whatever personal problems he may face off-screen, Gibson shows everyone else in the movie how it's done--including, I must say, the venerable-but-clearly-memorizing-lines-for-Star Wars Harrison Ford.

But you may ask, "What about Antonio Banderas?" He plays an outcast, blabbermouth gun-for-hire that could have been (and should have been) digitally overlaid with his Puss in Boots avatar from the Shrek series. One might consider his character semi-dimensional because his back story involves the Benghazi attack--which kinda makes this movie a political thriller, too.

At its core, The Expendables 3 suffers from a split personality. On one hand, Stallone and his action-star cohorts want to present a rip-roaring throwback to their glory days. On the other, they want us to feel for these characters, to understand them as men. Thanks to the softer rating, the film doesn't even come close to the graphic-yet-cartoonish violence of the action classics it wants to copy (or even its brand-name predecessors). And, as I said before, the Expendables aren't actually characters at this point. Maybe if one or two or all of them died throughout the course of this bombastic slog, it would be easier to become invested--or at least surprised.

Yes, after three movies about allegedly disposable warriors, it's disheartening and maddening to see all the marquee players raise a toast at the end of what was supposed to be their "last" outing. How great would it have been to see a bloody, teary-eyed Arnold Schwarzenegger drop Stallone's fragmented corpse in front of the Li'l Expendables before heading off on a world-saving suicide mission with a firm, "I won't be back!" But that would require stakes--as well as a taming of ego that none of these hulking, putty-faced supermen could muster.*

If you're looking for a bloody good time this weekend, skip the box office and check out Sabotage instead. It's a bit of a mess, too, but a damned interesting one. It's The Expendables meets Se7en meets The Wild Bunch, starring a Schwarzenegger who's actually dialed in. Yeah, it's macho, occasionally incomprehensible, and full of skin-crawling sexism, but it's also the kind of harsh yet entertaining commentary this fossil of a genre needs. The Expendables 3, by contrast, is barely worth commenting on.**

*I don't mean to be crass, but Stallone ditches the trademark Van Dyke he wore in the first two pictures--drawing even more attention to his face's epic, losing battle against aging.

**Lofty words from someone who just used nine hundred of them to talk about a movie. What can I say? It's my job.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Pizza, Love, and Understanding

First things first: Michael Bay neither wrote nor directed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Since the project was announced, man-children everywhere have decried the filmmaker's ongoing crusade to collect and destroy all their beloved childhood franchises. But Bay merely serves as executive producer here. Any gripes with characterization and narrative incoherence must be laid squarely at the feet of director Jonathan Liebesman and writers Josh Applebaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty. By extension, this warped fan logic suggests we blame Steven Spielberg for how the Transformers series turned out.

Having said all that, I don't think the new Ninja Turtles is a disaster. I'll go so far as to call it a good movie--within certain parameters. Is it a grim-'n-gritty, art-house/action homage to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's groundbreaking 80s indie comic? Hell, no. It's a competent kids' movie, and there's nothing wrong with that.

The film stars Megan Fox as April O'Neil, a young New York reporter struggling to leap from puff pieces to investigative journalism. She gets her chance when a ruthless criminal outfit called The Foot Clan gets into a skirmish with the titular Turtles one night at the docks. Of course, her colleagues don't believe in hulking, six-foot-tall creatures with mad ninja skills (not even the dorky cameraman-with-a-crush, played by Will Arnett).

April continues snooping and gets caught up in a literal underground world of mutant martial artists. Raised and trained by an old, talking rat named Splinter (Tony Shalhoub) the turtles were actually the subject of an experiment by April's dead father and his partner in bio research, Eric Sachs (William Fichtner). For years, Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) have waited for their chance to become full-fledged heroes, and the emergence of the Foot has presented them a worthy foe.

Unless you're five years old, there won't be any prizes for guessing that Sachs (now head of the city's leading security systems firm) is deeply involved with the bad guys. It's also no shocker that the Turtles must save New York from a giant spire that's armed with a deadly airborne toxin. This is, after all, a comic-book franchise origin film, and Ninja Turtles follows X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man's template to a "T".

So, how can I recommend this movie when I spend so much time railing against unoriginal blockbusters? The answer boils down to intent. Who is Ninja Turtles aimed at? Had Liebesman and company delivered an ultra-violent black-and-white bruise-fest in the vein of Sin City, I would assume it's the aforementioned angry 'net nerds--who would be justifiably pissed with these results. But from the opening animated sequence and voice over, it's clear that Paramount is after children here. This is the kind of light-weight action fantasy meant to get eight-year-olds excited and occasionally weepy, and make thirteen-year-olds say "Whoa" when Sachs reveals his master plan (it's a lovely and sinister twist that trumps the "Make Everyone Monsters!" motivation commonplace in this tier of the genre).

Adults enjoying this movie is a pleasant side effect. I grew up watching the Ninja Turtles cartoon and reading various incarnations of the characters in comics. Sure, it would be cool to see the weirder elements of this universe explored on film, such as Krang, the talking brain from Dimension X, or the robot-mouse-making evil scientist Baxter Stockman. But this is a foundation picture. The original and even secondary audience for the Turtles is two generations removed from the kids this version is aimed at--meaning a fresh introduction makes sense. Much in the same way Batman Begins was a comparatively bland picture to The Dark Knight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a serviceable first chapter in what could prove to be a wild adventure series.

And please don't take "serviceable" to mean paint-by-numbers. While there's a lot to be improved upon here (some flat jokes, a more original climax, and Fox's engaged-but-not-good-enough performance), Liebesman and his effects team pull off some really terrific set pieces--which I dare say even the most ardent cynic would be hard-pressed to pout through (assuming, of course, they'd ever deign to watch a "Michael Bay" movie). From the Turtles' rocket-skateboard-powered fight antics to a twisty surfing scene through New York's sewer system and a cliff-hanging upstate truck chase, the movie's formulaic stretches are punctuated by a zippy spirit of fun executed by people who at least pretend they're breaking new ground.

I don't know that I'll ever watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles again, but I can say the same thing about Guardians of the Galaxy, too, which opened last week. Both suffer from a lack of originality; both feature state-of-the-art special effects; and both are about oddball "found families" fighting to protect the innocent. Both films also target different demographics. Yet people root for Guardians to triumph over Turtles, box-office-wise--as if that sends some kind of a message to Michael Bay. Do they not realize they're betting on a cockfight between a rooster and a McNugget? Adults take kids to Guardians of the Galaxy; kids take adults to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Michael Bay takes his money to a bank--located, I'd imagine, not far from the set where he didn't direct Ninja Turtles.


The Congress (2014)

Looney TRONs

I saw The Congress last week, under conditions that were less than ideal. Delirious from several twenty-hour days and battling my ulcers' ulcers, I sat down with Ari Folman's head-trip of a social commentary while already halfway into the dream state. Looking back, I wonder if this was the only way to watch this movie, absent hallucinogenics.

Robin Wright stars as an actress named Robin Wright. You might recognize her from such classic films as The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump--and there she is, passing a beautifully painted poster of herself as Princess Buttercup in the long hallway of Miramount Pictures. Accompanied by long-time agent Al (Harvey Keitel), Wright is on her way to meet with Jeff (Danny Huston), a studio head with a proposition at once insulting, terrifying, and irresistible: new technological breakthroughs have allowed Hollywood to scan actors and house their looks, movements, and emotions on hard drives.

The process results in a near-perfect digital identity. This, along with other fabricated characters and environments, will allow directors to make live-action films wholly in the virtual space. Andy Serkis, for example, could be wheelchair-bound or dead in 2035, and still get raves for his tree-swinging turn in Mid-Afternoon of the Planet of the Apes.

The catch is in the contract: all actors agree to never perform anywhere, in any capacity, for the rest of their natural lives. Facing few other career options, and dealing with her pre-teen son's (Kodi Smit-McPhee) costly degenerative disease, Wright signs on, and undergoes a day-long scanning session. A former editor named Christopher (Christopher B. Duncan) gives direction to the actress, as she stands in a light-lined sphere wearing a white unitard. The imaging system gets to work, copying the nuances of her laughter and the darker emotions Al draws out in a pinch. In effect, Miramount buys not only Wright's craft but also her soul.*

From here, the film jumps forward twenty years, and I'm hard pressed to even describe what happens in its second half. America's elite have gone scan-crazy, it seems, with two distinct and parallel realities vying for dominance. One is a funhouse-mirror 'Toon Town, packed with avatars of Hollywood royalty (and those wanting to look like Hollywood royalty). Realistic human bodies appear to be several evolutionary steps back: the vogue for scanned people is a cross between Al Hirschfeld caricatures and 1930's cartoons. The other world is a desolate, resource-starved realm of flash and blood, where millions pay the price for the upper class' escapism and vanity.

The cartoons are determined to keep evolving. Not content with merely allowing people to become other people, the Futurological Congress develops a way for scanned identities to be productized--consumable, reproducible goods for those with the means to pay for them. Wright takes offense to this, and winds up silenced by Jeff's jackbooted avatar. There's more time-jumping, more revolution; an almost love-interest voiced by Jon Hamm; and a trip back to the real world for a pensive, gray shuffle across the finish line.

Folman (adapting Stanislaw Lem's novel) offers up a heady, free-will version of The Matrix, complete with ideas that'll stick in your teeth and a wondrous style unlike anything you're likely to see. The problem with The Congress is that it is more philosophical exercise than plot-driven film. The premise is interesting and, dare I say, not as far-fetched as one might imagine. But the flawed and fascinating version of herself that Wright creates is undermined by the story's need for her to become a superhero.

As the Wachowski brothers proved, mind-expanding blockbusters are possible, but only if brains and brawn are equally important to the production. Upon entering this film's animated world, weirdness trumps story, and that's a big problem. Maybe Folman's thematic aim was to suspend forward motion as his characters indulged in their aimless, selfish, non-tangible universe. Though awesome in concept and animated flair, it's not very cinematic.

The film's great irony is that despite wonderful performances,** rich visuals, and a score that somehow manages to keep pace with the story's rollercoaster tonal shifts, The Congress feels too flat to recommend. Had Folman stuck with the relatable human drama of Wright's giving up her identity and reconnecting with her family and herself...well, that would've been an entirely different movie--and one I might enjoy watching.

*Similar to the big payday offered to futuristic hitmen in Looper

**Huston, in particular, makes a compelling and slimy cartoon devil.


Get On Up (2014)

Blech Power

I knew very little about James Brown before seeing Tate Taylor's Get On Up. Sadly, that's still the case. This is one of the most irritating and frustrating films I've seen all year: irritating because Taylor and editor Michael McCusker seem so hell-bent on avoiding familiar biopic territory that they've taken a perfectly serviceable film and played 52 Card Pickup with the narrative. It's frustrating because there's so much brilliant talent and energy buried under the pretentiousness that one can almost see Get On Up's stifled potential weeping at the edges of every frame.

We jump from the latter days of Brown's career to the middle to the beginning to the kind-of middle to the end to the beginning--all with dates and cute chapter headings that become absolutely meaningless very early on.* In one scene, Brown is on the cusp of both stardom and fatherhood. Ten minutes later, he's wrangling four school-aged kids and two wives (one current, one ex) on the tarmac of his private jet. Characters and motivations come and go, appearing to change on a whim, simply by virtue of our having been fast-forwarded or rewound too much to latch onto anyone but Brown. Maybe that's the point, considering Tate's movie is about one of the most narcissistic and unlikable artists ever captured on film.

I should clarify: the character of James Brown, as written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (who we last encountered playing around with time in the far more coherent and enjoyable Edge of Tomorrow) is a monster of ego, libido, misogyny, and violence, who may or may not resemble the real-life Godfather of Soul. If even half of what's portrayed here is accurate, it's puzzling to me why anyone would have put up with this jerk--historically significant musical genius or not.

The film opens with a mid-sixties Brown bringing a shotgun into one of his businesses (what, exactly, that business is never gets explained) and terrorizing a seminar because someone dared to use the bathroom. The film ends with Brown strutting confidently onto a stage, imagining everyone we've met in the movie chanting his name. In the middle, we're treated to spousal abuse; drug abuse, berating of friends and family; blanket racism against white people; and even more of Brown's name--uttered by himself, in the third person.

I've heard about Brown's influence on music, and have enjoyed many of his songs, but Get On Up leaves out key bits of information that would have perhaps made me a fan of the artist and not just the art. Tate and company gloss over, for example, the process by which Brown found his voice and invented his game-changing funk. His struggles breaking into the white mainstream seemed less about skin color and more about his toxic personality--again, it's difficult to tell because the timeline is a giant bowl of spaghetti.

Every white person in the movie is presented as an untrustworthy square, which seems like an easy out to me. Considering how many terrible black influences Brown encountered in his life, it's unclear how he could so easily condemn one race over the other. As an audience member of mixed heritage, I felt familiar pangs of racism while watching Get On Up as I did with Tate's previous hit, The Help. Both films asked me to accept a bizarre line of inherent racial nobility versus ignobility, which I feel are detriments to the very conversations each piece was meant to inspire.

There is a single scene that transcends the filmmakers' skewed perspective: following Martin Luther King's assassination, Brown plays a show at Boston Garden and quells a riot by asking his brothers and sisters to rise above the Angry Black stereotype. It's a beautiful, complex moment that makes little sense in a film whose protagonist is presented as alternately simple and savvy, soulful and reprehensible--depending on the needs of the scene and not, as I've said, the greater story.

The only reason to see Get On Up is for Chadwick Boseman's turn as James Brown. As turned off as I was by the character, I dialled in on the actor's awe-inspiring commitment to nailing Brown's distinctive speech, attitude, and dance moves. When he takes the mic, electricity blushes. Boseman is surrounded by a notable supporting cast that includes the likes of Help alum Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as well as Nelsan Ellis (terrific) and Dan Aykroyd (embarrassing), but their work is ultimately undone by the editing.

Get On Up succeeds in being an unconventional biographical drama, but fails at being a good one. By invoking, I guess, the spirit of James Brown and playing by their own rules, Taylor and the Butterworths prove that they're no James Brown. It takes talent, passion, and an instinctive understanding of what the audience wants and needs in order to pull off such a daring feat. This movie's funk isn't so much something you feel as something you smell.

*Surely someone on this production could've gotten Tarantino's number.

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