Review: The Giver

the giver movie poster one sheetIt’s the future and after some sort of presumed apocalyptic event, society has been rebuilt with all emotion, all differences, all fear and joy removed. The village is neat and symmetric and the family has been replaced by a unit, mother, father, two children of different ages, each in their assigned domicile. Reflecting this is the black and white cinematography: this particular future really is colorless, not just in terms of skin color, but in terms of the entire range of human experience.

Based on a book of the same name, The Giver stars Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, a boy who has had the ability to see and experience more than just the grey of his world. He’s turning sixteen and while his friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) are assigned specific jobs in their Ceremony of Growth, Jonas is left for last and assigned the unusual role of Receiver of Memory. If you’re sensing an echo of the setup of the recent teen sci-fi thriller Divergent, you’d be right. Jonas has all four qualities that the Council seeks in a Receiver; intelligence, courage, integrity, and wisdom. Tris, in Divergent, learns she doesn’t fit in either, but unlike Jonas, it’s up to her to escape the bonds of the society and find her own role.

The Giver of Memories is played by Jeff Bridges, in a role quite reminiscent of his role as “cultural village elder” Flynn in Tron: Legacy. It’s his task to act as a human storehouse of all the memories of humanity, all the emotions, experiences that have been banned from the community. Leading the Council of Elders is The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) who masks her own sense of the loss of their collective humanity in a passion for order, logic and what’s best for everyone.

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Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

tmnt teenage mutant ninja turtles 2014 one sheet posterMichael Bay hired director Jonathan Liebesman and brought back the somewhat radioactive Megan Fox as the human lead in yet another remake of the amusing children’s tale Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What’s Liebesman done before? Battle: Los Angeles (an incoherent mess) and Wrath of the Titans (a me-too Greek mythology flick). His lack of experience creating a polished film shows, and while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is true to the comic book origins of the tiny box turtles who grow up in the NY sewers to become smart-aleck ninjas, but it’s a dry exercise in how to string action sequences together into a tired, trope-ridden story.

There’s no story art, no Oscar-worthy cinematography, no acting that really…

Oh, I can’t go on. It’s a live-action movie with a ton of motion capture about four 7-foot turtles who have human facial expressions, adore pizza and have been taught by their genetically tweaked rat sensei to be wicked good ninja warriors defending the streets of New York from bad guys. What the heck did I expect?

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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

guardians of the galaxy one sheet posterI really liked The Avengers, but there’s something inherently a bit dry about a group of self-important goody-goody characters. It’s the problem of Superman and Captain America (and yes, I know that Superman isn’t one of the Avengers. And never shall DC and Marvel overlap at the cineplex, alas). In fact, the only character who was any sort of relief from the tone was Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr), but his was a more abusive wit coming from a place of ego and hubris. Tedious, really, and Stark is my least favorite character in the entire Avengers squad.

Enter the far more goofy, satirical Guardians of the Galaxy. Imagine a cross between The Avengers and, ohhhh, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Then add world-class visual effects and a ton of sly references to other films, cinematic and cultural history and memes, and you’ve got a film that’s a surprisingly good time at the cineplex!

The story focuses on Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who is abducted from Earth as a tween immediately following the death of his mother. The kidnappers are a group of space pirates called Ravagers, led by the slightly crazy Yondu (Michael Rooker). Zoom forward and Quill has snuck onto an alien world to acquire a sphere-shaped alien artifact that contains the Infinity Gem. He steals it in a scene that’s a delightful homage to Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in the blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark, just to find out that everyone wants this thing, including the evil Ronan (Lee Pace) and his loyal servant and violent henchman Korath (Djimon Hounsou).

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Review: Hercules

hercules 2014 dwayne johnson movie poster one sheetI should start by clarifying which version of the oft-told Hercules story we’re talking about, because it’s not the animated feature from Disney and it’s most assuredly not the banal early 2014 The Legend of Hercules with Kellan Lutz in the title role. I’m talking about the summer release with the always popular muscleman Dwayne Johnson in the title role, as released jointly by Paramount and MGM.

First the perhaps surprising news: I quite liked and enjoyed Hercules, finding it an unexpectedly deep story with a good cast and, of course, lots of great visual effects, even if occasionally they were a bit splatter-y for my tastes. And I’m a long time fan of Dwayne Johnson, though I swear the man gets more bulky and muscular in each film he makes, leading me to wonder what he’s going to look like in another 4-5 years.

The film is based on the Steve Moore & Admira Wijaya graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars and is directed by the always competent Brett Ratner with a production team that looks like it came directly from the set of 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire [my review: 300: Rise of an Empire]. Maybe all these mythological Greek movies just share props and costumes, actually.

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Review: Lucy

lucy movie - scarlett johansson - one sheet posterThere’s a certain story arc that just about every Luc Besson film has in common, a theme likely inspired by Hitchcock, of the “everyman” caught up in events far beyond their understanding. Even the earliest Hitch works like The 29 Steps explore this theme to great effect. It works well because we then quickly identify with the protagonist and yearn to see them succeed and overcome the challenges that they encounter on their quest for the mythic happy ending.

Besson, however, is in love with American action stunts and cinema by directors like Michael Bay (Transformers), so all of his films are characterized by that regular guy caught up in events but also by this guy turning out to have astonishing martial arts or fighting skills, skills that would give even James Bond a run for his money.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is the logical next step in this formula, a scroungy, down-on-her-luck American girl living in Taiwan and hustling to make ends meet. As the film progresses, she turns into a proto-human, a woman who evolves beyond all human limitations and, ultimately, in a sequence surely inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, beyond even a corporeal existence.

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Review: Earth to Echo

Earth to Echo movie poster film one sheetThere’s a clear innocence about the family cinema of previous generations that seems to have been lost in the current crop of movies. In older films, families work together, albeit with some struggles, and children are pleasant and get along pretty well with each other. It’s not all peaches and cream, of course, because there’s some dramatic tension needed to propel the story forward (bad parenting in Mary Poppins, a child who has to recognize that her fill-in parents love her in The Wizard of Oz, and the wave of dysfunctional families in the Disney oeuvre) but still, there’s always a happy, wish fulfillment ending.

Then there are the classic 80′s family films that have an entirely different sensibility about them, most notably E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and The Goonies. Both classics, and while this critic must admit he’s never liked E.T., there’s something about the sarcastic vibe of The Goonies that makes it one of the very best films about childhood from the perspective of the child. The dialog in particular is brilliant at capturing that deep, awkward love children have for their friends, even as they razz each other.

Earth to Echo is a clear descendant of these two 80′s films, with a bit of the enjoyable, but flawed, 2011 film Super 8 added to the mix [read my review of Super 8]. And it’s great fun, even if there’s a bit too much found footage for some tastes.

The biggest problem with Earth to Echo is that I felt it was too intense for the pre-tween set (I wouldn’t take my 10yo daughter to see it, for example, though I know my 14yo would love it), though, to be fair, I only recently let her see The Goonies and she was alarmed by some of the chase and fight scenes.

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Review: Snowpiercer

Through a happy coincidence, a friend invited me over to watch the English-language Korean release of the sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer. The US distribution rights have been purchased by The Weinstein Company and it’s scheduled for a US release on June 27, so this review is of what’s possibly a slightly different version (though industry buzz is that the changes that TWC asked director Bong Joon Ho to make were all rejected).

snowpiercer one sheet posterI’m a sucker for apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies, as I have written about before, whether the plague is zombies, alien invasions, pandemics or just vague nuclear warfare. There’s something about prying open the veneer of civilization to see what’s inside that I find quite fascinating.

Snowpiercer, however, can’t decide whether it is a socially aware post-apocalyptic movie or a horror film and instead tries to meld the two with only limited success. Based on the acclaimed 1982 French graphic novel La Transperceneige, the film begins with a series of radio broadcasts that explain that the nations of the world got together to combat global warming by seeding the clouds with a chemical called CW-7. It backfires and the entire world is plummeted into an ice age.

Everyone dies, everything is a frozen wasteland, except the lucky people who were on Snowpiercer, a self-contained 1001-car long train that continually circumnavigates the globe.

The majority of the film takes place 17 years after the disaster and the train’s first, second and third class accommodations have devolved into a very strange universe where the wealthy enjoy the luxuries of the front cars while the rabble, the great unwashed are trapped by force into the last grouping of cars, dirty, angry, kept at bay by armed guards, and fed gelatinous bars of protein (you don’t want to know how they’re made but you’ll find out anyway).

The leaders of the downtrodden are the young, headstrong Curtis (Chris Evans) and the wise old Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis and his buddy Edgar (Jamie Bell) are fed up with their terrible treatment and are determined to storm the front cars of the train and take over, regardless of the cost. When the weird Mason (Tilda Swinton) shows up with a retinue of guards to take a couple of under-5 children, the class war erupts, and when Gilliam is killed, Curtis wreaks his revenge by murdering Mason in cold blood. Class warfare is rough stuff.

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Review: Night Moves

night moves movie poster one sheetEco-terrorists. Are they really terrorists, or are they passionate individuals fighting The System and The Man to make the world a better place? And if they’re not terrorists in the sense of Al Qaeda fundamentalists are, then is the difference their motives, their background, or their targets?

That’s what Night Moves explores with its indie sensibility and superb – if underutilized – cast. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is an ex-Marine who is listlessly traveling through his uneventful life on an organic co-op farm in rural Oregon. His friend Dena (Dakota Fanning) is the daughter of a wealthy family but is unhappy with her middle class existence and seeks to do more to protest the gradual destruction of the environment. Her knowledge is based on textbooks, lectures and political movies, however, and she’s never done much of anything in protest.

Josh is friends with doomsday prepper and loner Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and when the two men hatch a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam at the Lake of the Woods outside Portland, Oregon, it’s Dena they turn to both for her access to cash and as a naive accomplice.

She and Josh purchase a used speedboat that they then strip and fill with fertilizer-based explosives, the base fertilizer for which Dena has purchased in town. Except purchasing hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate is tricky because it’s a controlled substance, so she plays the sexist trump card: “If I were a man, you’d sell it to me in a minute”.

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Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow one sheet posterGroundhog Day is the first film I can recall seeing that mined the humor in a temporal glitch. Phil (Bill Murray) lives through the same day time and again, gradually learning how to maneuver through the inevitable obstacles to achieve the requisite happy ending. Amusing as that film is, however, there’s a depth to the premise that’s ignored. Enter the amazing film Inception. Now, to be fair, Inception isn’t about a temporal glitch as much as it is about dreams within dreams, but there’s still a fascinating and compelling temporal interplay in each of the story’s many layers.

Edge of Tomorrow mines the same temporal rift, set in a near term future where a meteor has crashed into southeastern Europe just to produce a swarm of nasty, violent aliens who quickly overcome our best attempts to defend our planet. The aliens have taken over Europe and as a last ditch attempt, United Defense Force troops are amassed for deployment to storm the French beaches and drive them back from the Channel.

US Army PR flack Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) shows up on the eve of the assault and is startled to find that combined forces leader General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) has assigned him to be on the front lines of the assault. In an amusing play on Cruise’s usual brash, egotistical American character, in Edge of Tomorrow the prospect terrifies Cage and he argues with the General, which ends badly. Next thing he knows, he’s waking up in the middle of the military base at Heathrow Airport, demoted to a private and with Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) yelling at him to get the $#@$# up and prepare for the assault!

The hero of the UDF is Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a one woman alien destruction machine with her machete and rugged ninja moves. Posters adorn walls to inspire the grunts, and she’s tough and forbidding, leaving even the cliché tough guys agape at her prowess during training sessions. Cage sees the posters and admires her, but doesn’t interact with her at all, getting fitted with an ExoSuit where he doesn’t even know how to disable the safety mechanism so he can actually fire at the enemy. Reluctantly he climbs aboard a four-prop transport helicopter and is promptly killed by an alien “Alpha” seconds after he hits the beach in France.

Just to wake up again to Master Sergeant Farell kicking him and yelling at him to get the $#@$@% up and prepared for the assault.

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Review: Maleficent

maleficent one sheet posterThere are no bad guys in movies any more, just good guys who are misunderstood or had terrible childhoods. Whether it’s the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the band of car thieves in Gone in Sixty Seconds, or the terribly misunderstood, abused-as-a-child Norman Bates from Bates Motel (and thence Psycho) our society seems obsessed with trying to understand what causes people to be bad.

And those Disney films we loved as children? Same thing. Ursula wasn’t bad in The Little Mermaid, just misunderstood. The hunter who killed Bambi’s Mom? Some day we’ll learn it was just a guy whose wife had tragically died and was trying to feed his children so they could grow up and become PETA activists.

Into that same apologist zeitgeist comes Maleficent with a retelling of the 1959 Disney hit Sleeping Beauty. In that groundbreaking animated feature, you might recall that Maleficent was the evil witch who cursed the beautiful Princess Aurora at the baby’s christening. Before Aurora reaches her 16th birthday, Maleficent proclaimed, she will fall into a sleep unto death by pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning-wheel. Yikes. The King destroys every spinning wheel in the kingdom and hides Aurora in the forest, to be raised by three good-natured but rather dim fairies. But prick her finger she does and it’s only the kiss of her true love that will awaken her from her slumber.

Maleficent sticks surprisingly well to the original story, but weaves a far more complex tale where Maleficent (played by Angelina Jolie) and the future King Stefan (played by Sharlto Copley) meet as young children, then become friends and eventually fall in love as teenagers (as teens, Maleficent is played by Ella Purnell, and Stefan by Jackson Bews). A promised kiss of true love isn’t that at all, however, and when King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) is mortally wounded during a failed assault on Maleficent’s fairy kingdom, he offers his throne to whomever can kill Maleficent. Stefan grasps the opportunity and though he falters when poised to kill his former teen crush (shades of Snow White), he severs her wings and ascends to the throne.

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