Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Catch-Up: Summer/Fall 2014

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: films straddling the blockbuster/prestige picture divide.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Dir. Jonathan Liebesman

2 out of 5

When you're making a film about giant talking reptiles using martial arts to protect New York City from a flamboyantly evil metal-suited samurai warlord, you're automatically given a lot of leeway.  So it's disappointing to see the latest stewards of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise - including producer Michael Bay and Battle: Los Angeles director Jonathan Liebesman - churn out a film that's a completely jumbled tonal and visual mess.

TMNT's problems start with a lazy script that lavishes attention on reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) while ripping off several story beats from, of all things, The Amazing Spider-Man.  April's investigation into the turtles' origin is both excruciatingly dull and frustratingly convenient: her father once worked with the film's villain, industrialist Eric Sacks (a bored William Fitchner), on the mutagen that eventually turned four box turtles into hulking karate masters.

Given the odd limitations on the heroes' screentime, the action sequences should be an ideal time to showcase their personalities.  Unfortunately, Liebesman has an established reputation for visual incoherence with films like Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles won't do much to improve.  Any flourishes that might make the film momentarily fun and buoyant are quickly overwhelmed by noisy, interminable chases or beatdowns that serve mostly to pad the runtime.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems in a hurry to get nowhere and is happy to meet a minimum standard of entertainment: a hyper-slick, colorful bit of nonsense that will distract its target demographic for 90 minutes while struggling to please anyone else.

The November Man

Dir. Roger Donaldson

3 out of 5

Pierce Brosnan's run as James Bond could be characterized as a stellar performance frequently in search of good material.  It's no surprise that immediately after shedding the Bond mantle, Brosnan moved (admittedly slowly, but that's the Hollywood machinery for you) to develop something that might play more to his strengths: Bill Granger's down-to-earth series of spy novels, the seventh installment of which serves as the inspiration for The November Man.  It's a staunchly old-school revenge film masquerading as an espionage thriller; Brosnan's character, retired CIA operative Peter Devereaux, is given agency to do more than just run and shoot stuff as he tries to outrace the younger agent (Luke Bracey) he used to mentor in a bid to capture a Russian war criminal.

The November Man has plenty of meat on its bones, layering an institutional conspiracy and the complicated backstory of a social worker (Olga Kurylenko) who may hold the key to nailing Devereaux's man.  In fact, there's a little too much going on if the film's truly aiming to reveal more of it's protagonist's psyche than the typical spy movie.  The November Man has keep several balls in the air as it races from target to target, offering Brosnan fewer chances to unwind and ultimately falling back on a single-minded pursuit of justice, always surging ahead with guns drawn.  It's got far more in common with a Liam Neeson beat-em-up than a Le Carre adaptation - an off-brand cloak-and-dagger thriller that could've been more with the right focus.

Gone Girl
Dir. David Fincher

4 out of 5

The emotional hysteria of our modern spoiler-averse culture is a great hindrance for film critics who have to tiptoe around PR embargoes and an ultra-sensitive public.  That being said, the less foreknowledge you bring to Gone Girl, the better, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the story from Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel.  Working from a script by Flynn, director David Fincher puts his own clinically cynical spin on marriage of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike).  When his wife - the inspiration for a series of fictional children's books written by her patrician New Yorker parents - disappears from their suburban Missouri home, Nick struggles to navigate the media firestorm developing around the story, searching for his missing spouse while trying to keep the secrets of their relationship away from the public.

Gone Girl unravels with the seductive sensationalism of a Dateline mystery combined with the icy confidence of a master cinematic string-puller.  As the twists pile up, the film pivots from zeitgeist-y crime drama to unabashedly nasty, sexy, pulpy farce.  Any questions about how Fincher is interpreting the material - including the stilted scenes of Nick and Amy's early romance to the Way We Live Now monologues - should be answered by the time Tyler Perry shows up as a high-powered lawyer/image consultant tossing gummi bears at Affleck's face.  Gone Girl is wickedly fun and a great yarn, but it's merely good Fincher: terrific, but not transcendent.  As in so many of his films, Fincher holds up a mirror to the more monstrous aspects of the human condition - it just happens that this time his looking glass is more suited to a carnival funhouse.

Dir. Alexandre Aja

1.5 out of 5

The late Roger Ebert loved pointing out whenever a movie employed the Idiot Plot: a story kept in motion by characters withholding or not recognizing some basic information that would otherwise resolve the conflict.  Or, in other words, a story where everyone must necessarily be an idiot for the movie to exist.  What might he have thought of Horns, in which a young man named Ignatius "Ig" Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) begins growing satyr-like horns that lend him supernatural powers of persuasion?  Here is a plot device that could create a truly omniscient protagonist - people literally cannot lie if Ig compels them - yet it still takes an interminable two hours to arrive at its wholly dumb conclusion.

Horns is essentially a paranormal twist on a basic crime procedural conceit.  After being falsely accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend (Juno Temple), Ig becomes a pariah, descending into a spiritual malaise that lifts only when his horns begin to grow.  There's definitely potential to be found in this premise: veteran horror director Alexandre Aja adds a sardonically playful edge to the obvious Satanic metaphors, and it's fun to see Radcliffe get to cut loose and indulge his inner devil.  Unfortunately, Horns has issues with its softer side.  The tangled web of teenage relationships that drives the film is nowhere near as convincing as its (far too infrequent) moments of dark comedy.  Its understanding of love is oblivious to the point of callousness, and fatally undermines the weight and relevance of Ig's quest.  Really, a nice honest chat between a few of the characters could have ended the movie much earlier, providing a great benefit to these fictional people - and an even greater benefit to the audience.

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