Tuesday, January 6, 2015

'Transformers: Age of Extinction' REVIEW

I have always said that action scenes are only as good as the rest of the movie.  As well-filmed and clever as they may be, you only care about them if the rest of the movie is good and you care about the characters and why they are fighting/escaping/chasing etc.  I would not care about the toys in 'Toy Story 3' escaping from Sunnyside Daycare if I didn't like the characters.  That being said, Transformers 2 and 3 are examples of how cool-looking action scenes can be crazy boring if the movie is stupid and the hero is whiny and his mother tries to be funny by eating hash brownies and talking about sex.

Now we have 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' (TF4), a semi-reboot where Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LeBeouf has been replaced with Mark Wahlberg's character.  Marky Mark is an inventor who is a bit over-protective of his 17-year-old daughter who is secretly dating a 20-year-old race car driver.  The events of TF3 are referenced breifly as a reason why the government is hunting down Autobots, as the battle at the end of the last movie destroyed Chicago (5 years ago in movie time).  Marky Mark finds a rusty old truck that is really Autobot leader Optimus Prime in hiding.  The government, led by a very entertaining Kelsey Grammar as a villianous CIA agent, finds Prime on the farm.  So, Mark, his daughter and the boyfriend that Marky Mark doesn't like are on the run from Evil Fraiser with the few remaining Autobots hiding on the planet.  His new Funky Bunch.

Meanwhile, Stanley Tucci plays a much richer inventor who has his own tech company.  His company has been reverse engineering the remains of the Decepticons that were destroyed at the end of TF3, creating robots that he believes will protect mankind.  Iconic TF villian Megatron has been influencing the construction of these new robots, tricking this businessman into rebuilding his Decepticon army.  Megatron is reborn in a new body and renamed Galvatron.  Yes, just like in the 1986 cartoon film.  Only cooler, because these new Decpticons transform by breaking up into a million pieces and coming back together.

Yes, the special effects are great and being a Michael Bay movie, the cool ideas do make way for some really loooooong, loud action scenes where a bunch of stuff gets destroyed, but it is far more entertaining this time around simply because both the characters and the cool ideas are better developed.  Yes, this still a pointless 'rock 'em, sock 'em' action movie with a paper-thin plot, but by the time this movie deteriorates into the loud action scenes, you ar least care enough about whose fighting to be invested in who is in danger.  And that makes this movie better than TF 2 and 3.  The first one is still the best.  That might be because I related more to a young boy who wants a car and Megan Fox than a father protecting his daughter.  There are a few characters here who flirt with each other without their relationship being developed (which is annoying), but I liked most of the characters.  And the humor is better/darker too.  Nothing as ridiculous as the Twins or Sam's parents in this film.

I remember thinking, when TF2 came out, that the seven pieces of construction equipment that came together to form one enormous robot (like that TF toy I wanted as a kid...I think it was called a Constructicon)...would have been a cool way to end a better film.  Well,at the end of this movie, we get the Dinobots, the origins of which are explained believably well (for a TF film).  They are very cool and the rest of the movie is good enough so that they are enjoyable instead of causing you to look at your watch and groan the way I did with the Constructicons in part 2.

Silly, but non-confusing plot.  Likeable human characters with some decent acting and tender moments.  Better humor.  Cool parts with robot dinosaurs.  Ridiculous ending where Optimus Prime just flies off the planet when doing so earlier would have solved a bunch of problems.  2.5 Dinobots out of 5.

'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' REVIEW

It's been thirty years since two freelance artists who were living in Dover, NH at the time (Eastman and Laird) collected their last few thousand bucks to self-publish a comic book that satirized what was popular in comic books at the time (the ninjas in Daredevil, the teenage mutants of X-Men...um, turtles are slow and you wouldn't expect them to be ninjas).  The more popular it got, the more it became its own "thing".  A series of toys spawned a very popular TV series (which is backwards and part of the problem, but typical of the 80's) that was quite campy and had completely different side characters from the comics.  A 1990 movie successfully combined what was cool about the comics and the cartoon, but kept the "brothers who bicker but still love each other" and "step-parent raising four boys" aspect that was always the "heart" of the better TMNT stories in any medium.  Since then, TMNT versions have ranged from a nice combination of the cartoon and comics to even more campy and "let's sell toys to younger kids because our original fans are growing out of this crap" kind of thing...like the "Coming Out of Our Shells" music stage tour that I will try to forget about again and hope it goes away.

Now, we have a live-action Michael Bay-produced TMNT movie.  The man who ruined Transformers is tackling something I had MORE of an emotional attachment to as a kid.  (Saw it a week ago, haven't killed myself.)  First, the good.  No one changed their origin story to aliens instead of mutants, a concern started two years ago when Michael Bay "misspoke" (or changed his mind later when turtles fans got mad and lit the Internet on fire).  Second, complaints about the look of the computer generated turtles are overblown.  They were trying to make them look like real turtles, but still make them able to emote like the characters we grew up with...and turtles have beaks.  So, they look different, but it grows on you as you are watching the film and realize (third) they they got the four turtles' personalities exactly right.  The big brother.  The hothead.  The nerd.  The funny one.  (Michelangelo is as funny as he should be)  The characters are well-done visually, a nice mix of familair and more realistic.  Fourth, this movie has great action scenes and is better than Transformers 2 amd 3, which is not saying much, but this film helped me realize what a difference it makes when watching big, dumb, pointless action scenes where you care a little about the characters...as opposed to when you don't.  You care a little more about what's blowing up and who is catching who instead of being bored.  Megan Fox was better than I expected as the turtles' human friend/reporter April, who wants to be a serious journalist instead of interviewing fitness gurus.  They gave the character more to do and more of a connection to the turtles' origin, which was from the (great) current IDW comic book series.  Will Arnett is funny as her quippy cameraman Vernon Fenwick.

Now, the bad.  The main villian is not Shredder (the iconic villian from every other version)...but a scientist/new character named Eric Sachs (played by a great actor named William Fichtner) who had a hand in creating the chemicals that mutated the turtles (and their rat/father figure Splinter).  People unfamiliar who are dragged to this movie with their kids won't know the difference, but (spoiler alert) his "end" at the end of the film is so anti-climatic where he gets knocked out and he's gone for the rest of the movie that you will just be there with your mouth hanging open, going "whaaaat?".  The same is true of fan-favorite/Shredder's daughter Karai, who has one scene and very little point in this pointless movie.  The turtles fight Shredder at the end like they do in every version, but because he had been reduced to secondary villian and (more offensively), they cut out his backstory/connection to the turtles' rat/father figure/teacher Splinter, you care about him as a villian even less.  And then, the real villian gets knocked out and you're like...eh.  There are alot of plot holes in this movie, a weak story and bad dialogue that detracted from the decent parts and none of the above-mentioned "heart" that characterized better TMNT stories.  The TMNT taught me that it was okay to cry when I was 11, as both Raphael and Mikey do it in the 1990 version.  All this movie will teach kids to do is that its okay to pointlessly wreck trucks if you're big enough and have a shell.

Got the turtles' personalities right.  Side human characters were funny.  Villians, some of the dialogue and plot ruined the rest of it.

2 shells out of 5.
Better (current) versions of TMNT that show what these characters can be.
The new TMNT cartoon on Nick.
The new IDW comic book series.  I think you can still download volume 8: Northhampton for free on the Google Play Store.  Lots of emotionin that story.

'Guardians of the Galaxy' REVIEW

A young boy watches his mother die of cancer in front of him when he is about eleven.  Then, he gets pulled into a hovering spaceship and the rest of the movie is a fun, humorous, imaginative (Star Wars/new Star Trek) ride through deep space.  If this sounds like two different movies, that is because one of the movie's strengths is that it combines emotion and the "out there" space elements flawlessly.  Too much humor and the movie about the kid from the 80's who grows up in space and hangs out with the talking raccoon and his "houseplant/muscle" will seem silly.  Too much seriousness and it would also seem silly because of the talking raccoon and humanoid tree person.  This well-written movie balances all that really well.  Yes, you don't have to know anything about these characters before you go.  I have seen all the Marvel/Avengers movies, but I never read GOTG comic books, so I went into this movie blind myself, despite being a Marvel fan.  AND...I am also a fan of "old-school" science fiction from the 50's and 60's, which this movie nods to considerably.

You have have Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt), the adult version of the above-mentioned kid who got pulled into a spaceship after his mother dies.  He is a Han Solo type, a criminal with more quippy, contemporary references (well, 80's...kids still know some of that stuff, right?) than Han Solo because he comes from Earth.  Yes, he is in a galaxy far, far away, but his cassette tape walkman and the 70's-80's music that fills the soundtrack (that his mother gave him) will remind you that homeboy is one of us.  He is a smuggler-type with a high-tech mask and a blaster who calls himself Star-Lord (because this is a "superhero" movie, kinda...and someone can't be just Peter Quill).  When his latest score (an orb that he wants to sell to a Collector), puts him in hot water with some baddies, including the Kree Empire, a villian named Ronan and Thanos (the purple dude from the closing credits of 'The Avengers'), he ends up in a space station/jail where he meets the green-skinned, kick-butt female Gamora (Thanos' estranged daughter) and Rocket (played by Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified raccoon who is basically Dirty Harry in a raccoon's body (in space).  Rocket and Peter are hilarious together, as is Rocket's tree creature friend Groot (Vin Diesel's surprisingly LEAST wooden performance), who can only say "I am Groot" in varying pitches, depending on his mood/sentiment.  They also meet Drax an alien musclehead, who has a grudge against Ronan.  Between wanting money for the mysterious orb and revenge against Ronan, the five form a team and escape from prison (in a brilliant scene) to have space adventures.  Gamora is a great character, played by a great actress (Zoe Saldana) and she and Peter get close.  Rocket and Groot (who could be "just" the comic relief) make you feel for them and laugh with them (and care about them when they fight at the end).  Every character is well-fleshed out, even if their backstories are only quickly explained (kind of like the Avengers, but those characters had their own movies).  Still, very well-done.

Marvel comic book fans will be happy to learn that this orb contains the second "Infinity stone" that we have seen in a Marvel movie.  Marvel hipsters already know that the round thing in Loki's staff in 'The Avengers' is the first one and there are five and Thanos wants them.  Speaking of Marvel hipsters, stay for the after-credits scene at the end.  The most "Marvel hipster" reference I have ever seen in one of these things...and funny if you get it.
4 Infinity Stones out of 5.

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' REVIEW

In 2011, 20th Century Fox rebooted the 'Planet of the Apes' franchise, pretending the Tim Burton/Marky Mark one didn't happen and giving us a surprisingly heartfely movie about the evils of animal testing.  'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' succeeded as a sci-fi movie partially because of the realism of the computer generated apes, but also because of the good story, the heart and the fact that it focused appropriately on the non-human characters.  Yes, now that non-human characters can be THAT realistic-looking, we can focus the story on them.  E.T. was more about Elliot, but that was because it was 1982 and E.T. was a pupper.  As was Yoda, in a movie that was appropriately about Luke.  But in a world where the Transformers can be that realistic, those movies should not be the Shia LeBuff (sp?) or Marky Mark show.  'Rise' succeeded by picking up speed when the story shifted over to Caesar about the time he got trapped in that ape sanctuary.  And that's how it should have been.  It succeeded by doing a more realistic version of everyone's favorite part of the 4th Ape movie of the old series, the ape slave riot (oh, yeah!) from 1972's 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes'.  And, it succeeded in taking a franchise that began with Charlton Heston landing on a planet full of apes who spoke with British accents and grounding it in a heartfelt reality where a scientist was trying to cure his father's Alzheimers.  The old Apes movies never explained why the Apes from the future could talk.  'Rise' did.

Now we have 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes', taking place in a world where the virus at the end of the last movie has wiped out a lot of the human race and the survivors in San Francisco really don't know if there are any other survivors out there.  They concoct a plan to reroute power from a nearby dam so that they can communicate with the outside world and see who else is out there.  True to what was cool about 'Rise', 'Dawn' starts out by showing us what is going on with the apes, who have their own civilization in the woods that they ran into at the end of the last film.  This wooded area is where the dam is and when the humans trespass on ape territory, a shaky human shoots one of the apes.  This escalates into a conflict that Caesar is eager to avoid, but Koba, the scarred ape from the lab in the last film, wants.  He is embittered about the animal testing that he suffered (and was the theme of the last film) and he wants revenge.  When Caesar, whose compassion comes from the fact that he was raised by a human, reluctantly allows the humans to work on the dam, Koba plots to overthrow Caesar to push the humans and the apes into a war.  Basically, the movie is about Caesar and one of the less-interesting human characters trying to protect their respective families.  They grow to respect each other as a result, only to have mistrust be sown by Koba.

Koba ended up being my favorite character in the film.  The way he cleverly manipulates the other characters makes for some great drama and some plot twists as well.  He's basically the ape Joker, complete with twisted grin.  The 'apocalyptic' premise may seem a little cliche, but it was well done and the story was not predictable.  I like sequels that are quite a bit different from the previous and this one certainly qualifies in that 'Empire Strikes Back' kind of way.

Great CGI creatures, a story that does take a few unexpected twists and a subtle nod to the music from the 1968 original makes 'Dawn' a darker, quite different and more dramatic film than 'Rise'.  'Cloverfield' director Matt Reeves really thought outside the box by making this one so much different, focusing the story equally on the apes and having a good chunk of the dialogue be subtitles from the apes doing sign language.  There is more of that than the last film and it is interesting.  Yes, the apes do their grunting talk ("Caesar...is...home!"), but they mostly do it while around humans (and they don't speak in British accents). Amongst themselves, they sign.  Again, quite grounded.

I give this movie 3 Statue of Libertys out of 5.