Friday, September 26, 2014

Sinfully Obtuse

Stunning visual effects and a fat marketing budget can’t save Frank Miller’s Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for.


ARTH VADER (AV): Following in the footsteps of the critically acclaimed Sin City, Frank Miller’s next installment in his ‘night in hell’ story arc was both highly anticipated and some would say, long overdue. Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for is a crowning achievement of storytelling and technology and is the debut of Frank Miller the Director and Executive Producer (EP). Miller’s script also features new content developed exclusively for the big screen which many fans, including yours truly, were ecstatic to see. The Sin City series of books and graphic novels are considered some of very best in print, and rightly so. P-Man?

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): The story of Basin City continues in this next installment of criminals and anti-heroes colliding in meaningless violence accented by over-the-top effects. I haven’t read any of Frank Miller’s “Sin City” books, but if the film is any indication of what I missed…then I’ll be alright.

AV: You know Ponty, you would think with names like Robert “From dual tip Dawn” Rodriguez, Bruce “Die Hard” Willis and Jessica “Invisible Woman” Alba (along with a list of others to long to review here) a movie with this kind of big production budget and hype would be able to at least stand in the shadow of the first Sin City. Sadly, this was NOT the case. While this film is load with star power in front of and behind the lens, the co-directorial debit of Frank “Dark Knight” Miller was at best, a flop. Miller’s touches diluted Rodruigez’ normally stellar visuals and violent screenplay. New content to story that didn’t really need it and story pacing that would do any child with ADD proud, this film was a hot mess of mumbling dialogue, listless plot, meandering characters and pointless action scenes. 

TP: I’m surprised I don’t have more to say about the all-star cast of this film other than they probably did the best they could, given the script they were handed. Mickey Rourke returned as Marvin, and of course the violence the character ensues is expected. Other than that, the only other role that piqued my interest was that of Joseph Gordon-Leavitt. I blame the script. It has to be the script. The direction followed the same formula as the first film (which I liked) so it can only be the script.

AV: Once again we are treated in our beloved Sci-fi/fantasy genre Ponty with a movie that looks mind-bendingly delicious, but is wrapped in huge listless turd of a screenplay. Sin City 2 expands on the breathtaking black and white visuals from the 2005 original. Landscape and characters and lighting are all a thrill to behold. Though I must say, I did catch quite a few off kilter effects shots, green screen flub ups and poor choices of camera shots. All in all, this film was a visual spectacular, too bad that is the only context I can use that word in when describing this film. 

TP: Sin City 2 unleashes its own brand of special effects and although it might be an acquired taste for some Vader, I liked it. The “comic-to-life” feel and look of the film worked the first time around, and was just as interesting this time, although due to other factors (script), just didn’t pack the same punch. There was nothing groundbreaking, just a continuance of what was delivered the first time around. 


AV: C’mon Hollywood,what are we doing here? You spent well over $100 million making, distributing and advertising this film (and trust me old friend, THAT is a very conservative estimate). And what did we get? A worse movie, terrible box office performance (it’s made just $11 million in 3 weeks) and we get nothing. A forgettable waste of two hours. Can’t we expect… no, demand better films for that kind of price tag? If Franky spent more time developing the script and screenplay and less time trying to be Co-director, writer, storyboard artist, chief gaffer, make-up artist, lumber and electrician, we might have a film that matters. Just because you draw comics using film making terminology (an’s eye-view, dutch tilt, extreme close-up, etc.) doesn’t mean you can direct films. There is a reason people go to film school and dedicate their lives to telling stories through film. Maybe you should have just left that to them. 

TP: Is it possible for a film to have too many gritty one-liners and take-a-ways from the classic mysterious feel of the 1920’s novels? Yup. Every character felt one dimensional and didn’t interest me in the least, with the exception of the gratuitous violence I expected from Marvin, and the luck of Johnny (Gordon-Leavitt). It was disturbing that the only other character I even remotely had an interest in had nothing more to offer from his story than to be killed for beating his own father at a card game (talk about anti-climactic). It really doesn’t matter how many great actors you pump into the grinder, without substantial material for them to use, the end result will likely be less than anticipated. Enter “Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for.” 


AV: One might think I am done with this franchise but actually I believe a third film could be great. Look, the premise is mind-bending and the story–fundamentally–is good. Style points… 10 out of 10. The rise and fall and rise again of Frank Miller’s career would likely play out well onscreen for this franchise. A third Sin City might make for a really stellar film? What do you say Frank? Can you focus on what you’re good at let the professionals do their job without trying to it for them? Might work out for you. Just saying.  

TP: I think Frank Miller should call it a day on the Sin City story and take the first win, and this loss… and call it even. 


ARTH VADER Rates Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for: While far from the worst film ever, this movie was a hot heaping mess of woulda, coulda shoulda. I’ve ranted enough but in all fairness, minus a fantastic moderate role and story arc played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, we get no acting worth a damn and a story that… well you know. I can’t in good conscious recommend more than two (2) Busted Blocks for this film as there is so much else worth seeing. Swing and a miss, gang. 

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for: Although the talent in this film runs deep, the script was much too shallow to properly utilize it. When the highlights of the film are the moments of gratuitous violence, something is really wrong. It’s no wonder this film could only kill four (4) busted blocks and leave the other six lost in the script. 

Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill for  3 / 10 Busted Blocks

Monday, September 22, 2014

Giving Audiences a Heaping Spoonful of “Meh”

Mediocrity abounds in the latest fantasy sci-fi ‘super kid’ flick, The Giver.


ARTH VADER (AV): Based on the wildly popular 1993 children’s book of the same name by Lois Lowry, "The Giver" presents us with a distorted utopian society that quickly repulses us and becomes increasingly dystopian. This society has eliminated pain and suffering by converting to "sameness," a societal brainwashing program that eliminates pain suffering, greed, music, dancing, art and even color from eyesight. The novel (and film) chronicle the life of a young man named Jonas, whose ‘come of age’ allotment to his society is to become a ‘Receiver of memory.’  This is the chosen citizen who stores all the past memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed to aid in decisions that others lack the experience to make. Jonas learns the truth about his dystopian society and struggles with suppressing his new-found knowledge and ultimately must chose between a life he’s always known and the true nature of humanity. Thoughts, pontificator? 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): The story sticks well enough to the events in the book. Written by Lois Lowry and having taken nearly twenty years to come to the big screen, it is reminiscent of other dystopian societies we have seen before…but more on that later.


AV: While we were treated to Jeff "Obadiah StaneBridges as the veteran Receiver of memories, Katie “Rachel Dawes” Holmes plays Jonas’ Mom while Alexander “True Blood” Skarsgard is cast as Jonas’ Dad. the film features a cornucopia of budding young stars, too many to account for here. While the acting overall is decent, it is a bit stuffy, almost formulaic. Director Phillip "Salt" Noyce brings some particularly difficult and inspirational visuals together onscreen quite handsomely. Some of the most stunning cinema-graphic moments in this film include the (visual) transition of Jonas’ budding realization of the true nature of the world around him  as color is slowly introduced into his world. An awesome story-telling tool I have not seen before. 

TP: The two big names attached to this film are Jeff Bridges, who is the Giver, and Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder. Both play their roles superbly but I expected nothing less given their experience and talent. The rest of the cast did well, but with a society largely devoid of emotional expression, I think it takes some of the pressure off in terms of performance delivery. The film moved at a pretty good pace and never stalled which surprised me since a stale society can quickly become boring.

AV: As you well know old friend, my favorite kind of special effects are the kind the eye doesn’t know are effects. Seamless, clean, polished. That epitomizes the special effects of The Giver for me. From the hi-tech drone scenes to the transitional effects from B&W to full color to the expansive landscapes. This was some of the best SFX work I’ve seen this summer. 

TP: The special effects were not ground breaking, but they also were not shoddy Dark One. Most of the effects came in the form of the set and props (I was especially interested in the design of the bikes). The little bit of CGI that was used was used very effectively to advance the story and the use of old historical footage was also an excellent “effect” to push the point of the film. 


AV: How many story lines about the ‘kid who’s going to save us all’ do we have to endure? I don’ t have an issue with formula, not when it works it works. Take a proven storytelling technique, wrap a new skin on that bad boy (so to speak) and I'm good to go. But pick the flick and I will show you the kid who is going to save us all from destruction, an alien invasion or catastrophe. Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter. Percy Jackson. Catniss Everdeen. Ender (from Ender’s game). Tris from Divergent. The list is endless. So, apparently, are the prospects for future films and stories with this trope.

Look,we’re both Dads here, P–Man. In all fairness, I can’t even get my kids to clean their room… and now I’m supposed to buy that they’ve got the secret powers/knowledge/lineage to stop our impending doom? C’mon Hollywood, check the cliff notes. Sure, sure. Young people are capable of incredible feats of accomplishment. But, let’s not call that out as the norm. The story of Jonas here, is no different. A super clean-cut white kid–who has only ever followed the rules his entire life–now knows more than people who have been around for six or seven decades? Nope, not buying it. I guess that’s the fiction in ‘Science Fiction.’

TP: There were so many elements of this film that I have seen “elsewhere” I almost felt that it was nothing more than a hodgepodge of earlier films. The ceremony to decide your place in society was seen in “Divergent.” The “releasing” of people to Elsewhere was similar to the ceremony of Carousel in “Logan’s Run” in that nobody realizes what is really happening is death. They further expand on the similarity by having Jonas “run” with Gabriel, who is slated to be put to death. Even the injections of the daily drug were also seen in “Equilibrium”…perhaps it was even the same drugs as both had the effect of suppressing emotions. It takes just a little bit away from the story when I’m thinking to myself that I’ve seen that in (insert movie here) throughout the film. The script could have been a bit tighter as well. Earlier in the film it is stressed that society has adopted “sameness” to suppress envy, greed, jealousy…and Jonas, upon seeing the past, remarks that he saw people of different skin hues (suggesting that for sameness there are no more people of color in society) but later they actually show people of color in that society, debunking “sameness” and Jonas’ reaction to seeing them in the past. I think this was a case of political correctness trumping science fiction.

AV: This film is going to rear it’s unoriginal premise again I am sure. Companion books to The Giver from Lois Lowry include Gathering Blue (2000), The Messenger (2004) and Son (2012). The book’s reviews have been mixed at best. This quote from Wikipedia sums it up best; “Some critics find the work lacks originality or real literary merit, while others argue that books appealing to a young-adult audience are critical for building a developing reader's appetite for reading.” I can’t comment on the book themselves but my kids have all read The Giver so it is a property they are familiar with. For Hollywood these days, that’s about all they need to finance a movie. 

TP: The Giver is the first of a four part book series. Whether or not more films get made to continue the telling of this expanded story remains to be seen and is probably largely dependent on the box office performance of this film. 


ARTH VADER rates The Giver: Look folks, this is far from the worst flick of the summer or even in  the genre. There are truly entertaining moments that are engaging and even emotional. I just think that for the tens of millions of dollars each of these film cost, we can expect a little bit more than formula. Every year we get astounding examples of fresh new perspectives on sci-fi and fantasy. I wish the Giver tried harder and had a higher calibre personality. Still, if you can shut off the monotony of the ‘kid saves the world’ formula, you’d be a better person than me, and might even give this film better than four (4) busted blocks. 

THE PONTIFICATOR rates The Giver: Although I felt this story has already been told in other films, it was still an interesting film to watch. I enjoyed the performances of Bridges and Streep although I felt the ending fell a bit flat. Considering all the elements of this film that have been played out before, it was still able to “give” six (6) busted blocks of entertainment.

The Giver: 5 / 10 Busted Blocks

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Turtles Slow To Impress

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brings out the kid in you…by making you want to throw a tantrum!


ARTH VADER (AV): How many, Ponitificator? How many times must we live through the re-telling of a non-sensical origin story? Every time a Batman, Superman, Fantastic Four or Spider-Man franchise gets a re-boot, we (the audience) has to suffer through the bumbling retelling of a hero’s origin. Aren’t we past this? Every kid in America knows the Turtles were the bi-product of a chemically-induced mutation. Why am I sitting in reboot after reboot of this stories? They’re not necessary. Sure this one told it with a new kind of flair but in the end, we’re watching something we already know. And the argument over new kids, new audience is bunk. Yeah, thats right i said it! Hey I don’t need the ‘from-the-beginning’ back story on every movie, TV show and web series I watch and forcing me to sit through this one was a bad way to start, What were your thoughts, P-Man? Did you just love seeing yet another retold origin? 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been around since 1984 and have spawned everything from cartoons, toys, films and all kinds of merchandising. This film is part of a very long phenomenon known as Turtle Power and can’t very much stray from continuity since there is hardly an angle that hasn’t been covered with these teenaged ninja reptiles. It didn’t really bother me to see the origin again Vader, although wouldn’t it be cool if just once they do the origin in the second or third film (although I’m not saying there should be more Turtles films)?


AV: I’m not pulling any punches here, Ponty (no not even Karate kicks). Every facet of this movie was a train wreck. Casting? Megan Fox had no business being in this film. Her flat, tired delivery was dull at best. Whoopi Goldberg, what are you doing? Stop it! You’re better than this! Will Arnett? Dude, you voiced Batman in the Lego Movie. My how the aspiring have fallen. Bill Fitchner? This was a new low for you, buddy. Director Jonathan “Battle LA” Liebesman; there were moments of brilliance, drowned out by the rest of this film’s mediocrity. Lastly, I found the acting as plastic as the over-priced action figures I’m not going to buy. Pontificator, did you have anything nice to say about the direction of this flick?

TP: Megan Fox takes the lead here (did I just say that?) as April O’Neil and while her performance is passable, there is nothing noteworthy in her delivery. Backed up by William Fitchner (the only other name I recognize), there isn’t much for him to do besides be a bad guy playing at being a good guy (but we knew from the start that he was going to be bad). The Turtles themselves are brought to life with motion-capture and CGI with the only name I recognize there being Johnny Knoxville (as the voice of Leonardo) meaning…anyone could have been cast as the Turtles (no acting skills required…see Megan Fox). The pace of the film reminded me of the old cartoon with things seeming to happen, just to happen, but on the upside, I didn’t fall asleep (was that nice enough Vader?).


AV: When you spend $125 million on the production of a movie, I expect a better end product than this. Sure, sure the visual effects  were good. But name a good movie, just one, where the effects were so good you forgot how bad the screenplay was? Can’t think of one? That’s because it doesn’t exist. Look, I’m the first one to state how much I love this stuff but for Christmas sake, Hollywood, for $125 million you’re telling me you can’t spend a few bucks on writers that could try and make sense of it all? C’mon, Hollywood, what are we doing here? Saying a movie looks good is like saying a person looks good. The next comment is usually, “yeah, and…?” Looks good but so do a lot of things that aren’t good for me. 

TP: The special effects were pretty good, but I really expected better seeing as how the original 1990 film’s animatronics and costuming still hold up pretty well today. The Turtles certainly looked more real than they did all those years ago, but they just didn’t seem to have come far enough considering some of the incredible stuff being seen in films these days. The occasional use of 3D was nice (those knives really came at me), but was too sparse to justify even using it. Sometimes the effects bordered on the ridiculous (the whole truck down the mountain scene) but when the subject is mutated ninja turtles…it’s all good…I guess.


AV: When co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird first created the Teenage Mutant Turtles in western Massachusetts in the mid 1980’s, they were poking fun at comic book hero archetypes that were big at the time. The New Mutants (a junior team of X-Men who were teens), Wolverine and Daredevil constantly seemed to be at war with Ninjas–even the X-Man Psylock was trained as a ninja. Who the heck knows what the turtle reference was, but the point is the book was dark, gritty, gruesome and just slightly disturbing. It was a hit and for all these reasons. they were true anti-heroes and somewhere between all the kid’s TV shows and action figures and pizza endorsements they have lost their way. What we have instead is blatant money grab properties that are pun per at us every few years to remind us–and our kids–just how gullible we are and how easily we can be suckered into the bad purchase. 

TP: Lordy… where do I begin here? Let’s start with April O’Neil redecorating her office with a ton of “evidence” that the Turtles exist, to show her boss…but never shows her boss the film and video evidence she has (and subsequently gets fired for having no evidence). Then, after that, she goes and shows Sacks (the bad guy unbeknownst to only her since I called that from the beginning) who immediately believes her (showing the actual strength of the evidence that she didn’t show her boss). Umm…. what? Later, the bad guys need to recover the mutagen from the blood of the Turtles for their master plan (more on that later) but take three of the Turtles leaving Splinter for dead. Umm… doesn’t Splinter also have the mutagen in his blood? Why not take him also if the goal is to get as much mutagen as possible? When April O’Neil finally catches up to where the Turtles are being held captive, instead of just going about freeing them quietly, she decides to scream Raphael’s name as he fights Shredder, thus alerting the ultimate bad guy that they are there. Great stealth tactic. After Shredder beats the bejesus out of Raphael he simply leaves the area… instead of say, killing O’Neil and her companion so they can’t release the other Turtles. Yeah… that made sense. I suppose it was more important to make sure the master plan, taking over New York City, went off without a hitch (while leaving four hitches behind). Yes, you read that right, taking over New York City is the master plan. Later still, when O’Neil and her companion confront Sack in New York (to stop this great master plan), armed with a gun, Sacks keeps his distance and shoots uselessly at the shelves they are hiding behind… instead of just walking up to them and finishing them off. Yes, I know it’s a PG-13 film, but that is still no excuse for all the ridiculous plot holes. 


AV: (Sigh) Looks likely we’ll see at least two more of these films. Hey maybe we can get all the main pizza chains to sponsor the next installment. Don’t think so? If you go to Pizza, you can click on the homepage,and see “Donatello’s favorites” or “Raphael’s choice”. No, TMNT, No! 

TP: Well, they can always make more Turtles films, and with them ending the film hinting that Shredder may have introduced the mutagen into his system as he lay there giving his best road kill impression, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the Turtles again. As it is with most films, the box office results will speak truth to power.

ARTH VADER rates Teenage Mutant Turtles: This movie, with its hideous, grotesque FX renderings of the turtle teens, is a film no one asked for.Yes, it has done more than $280 million in worldwide box-office that almost puts it in the black as product but this movie is such an obvious money grab, with gratuitous dialogue and an uninspired screenplay, I couldn’t enjoy this film even for a moment. While I’m aware it is not for me, I would be hard-pressed to know of anyone that got anything meaningful out of this thing. I give this travesty two (2) measly, radioactive Busted Blocks and hope to God this film crawls back down onto the sewer it crawled out of.

THE PONTIFICATOR rates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: This was a fun film and I can certainly see the appeal of it to younger audiences or even adults that just want to suspend themselves in an ocean of “happenings,” but for me the gaping plot holes made it hard to digest. While it looked good, it could have looked better and could have been written better, thus only mutating five (5) busted blocks while leaving the rest in the sewer. 

Teenage Mutant Turtles: 3.5 / 10 Busted Blocks