“Whitney” (2015) Review

Lifetime just cannot wait for the chance to slap together these post-mortem retrospectives on female celebrities. Like a greedy consumer on Black Friday, they eagerly wait at the door for their demise and hop on the rights like a speedy vulture. Whereas other studios would wade and sort through the best route to take, Lifetime Productions will just jump right into these biographies with their made for TV movies. I suppose that’s the best thing you can say about these Lifetime films is that they are certainly timely on alluring subject, but, then again, so are tabloids and gossip rags.

But let’s touch on the one aspect of the Whitney Houston story that this film nails just right: the music. Naturally, you’d expect a few performances out of both Yaya DaCosta as Whitney Houston and Arlen Escarpeta as Bobby Brown. This TV movie does not disappoint in that department. Despite a separate voice providing Whitney’s vocals (Deborah Cox), you buy into their characters pouring out their heart and soul. Artificial? You bet, but it’s worth the Frankenstein approach to make Whitney’s concerts work. Their presence on stage and their powerful delivery of the lyrics is probably the best tribute to both Whitney and Bobby the film could hope to aspire towards.

And then the scenes of real dialogue begin as the movie slowly falls apart. As with all Lifetime productions, the TV movie merely touches on the media bullet points of Whitney’s relationship with Bobby Brown. We see the twinkle in her eye when she catches his performances, the flirty words they exchange for their love and the feuding dilemma of their shifting careers. Not much else is harped upon. Whitney’s cocaine addiction? Merely a glaze of mention between scenes and never really an issue. Their rocky marriage? Addressed, but mostly left hanging in dramatic clichés.

It’s rather amazing how the film tries to skirt around some of the juicier elements of Whitney Houston’s life. All the ingredients are there for a fully realized biopic, but all director Angela Bassett does is breeze through them for a mostly celebratory piece. It seems like such a waste given that Bassett starred alongside Houston in Waiting to Exhale. You’d think she’d provide some unique perspective having known Whitney during the height of her success. She mostly keeps the examination to a minimum, not even touching that familiar era of her life as Bassett restricts the story from 1989 to 1994. It’s a waste of personal perspective and a waste of real drama that is never tapped – most likely out of respect for the dead. But the film was criticized by the Houston family so it seems like a bust in that regard as well.

The performances in Whitney have all the love of a tribute while the drama has all the interest of a short high school essay on the famous singer. I’d say it’s worth viewing for the well-assembled concert footage, but if you’re fast-forwarding through the majority of the film to get to these sequences, you’re better off just watching actual concert footage of Whitney Houston. It’s a much more fitting way to remember the star than filling in the blanks of her early-90’s life with a Lifetime glaze.

“Nightcrawler” Review

Jake Gyllenhaal’s character of Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler is an intelligent man of frightening morals. He has enough determination to slick talk and inch his way into money, but has issues building trust. With a blank slate for his future, he is inspired one night by a nosy cameraman shoving his lens into the scene of a car accident. The cameraman is constantly moving and hustling to make a few dollars off some shocking footage he can sell to the local TV news. It’s a fast-paced and flashy career that he becomes infatuated with for all its thrill. Maybe it’s the hours, but he wants this job so badly he is willing to do absolutely anything and everything to be the best at such a seedy job.

If you’re following this setup by traditional movie lore, it appears as though this is another rise-and-fall story of one man seeking to make his mark. But this is a movie about a character who is so sharp that it’s all about the rise. It seems like a given that one day he will end up the victim in his own line of work, but not with this movie. I’ve seen that movie a dozen times in the form of Scarface, Wall Street and a hefty handful of Martin Scorsese pictures. Rather than give us the inevitable finale, Nightcrawler simply skims over the beginning and gives us the juicy middle to this scummy businessman.

Lou, drawn to the glamorous life of a twilight crime paparazzi, quickly steals a bike and sells it for a camera and laptop. He hits the streets and cruises around until he finds a car crash. One night he is lucky and pokes his lens directly into the bloody aftermath. The cops push and shove him back, but he butts in long enough to get what he needs. When he enters one of the local LA news stations, he appears sheepish but committed. The news anchor pays him a modest amount and sends him on his way hoping to never see him again.

But Lou never stops. Even when challenged and threatened by a competing cameraman played by Bill Paxton, Lou continues to push becoming more crafty, vicious and slimy with his methods for making the most of his footage. He hires an intern and pays him peanuts. He breaks into crime scenes to get exclusive footage. He conceals vital crime evidence and information to arrive at a murder before it happens to be the first on the scene. When questioned about his content, he hides the juicy bits from the demanding feds.

What’s most frightening about Lou is his calculated mind and cool attitude for approaching every social situation. When Lou is intimidated by Paxton’s character to join his video crew, Lou simply replies with a calm smile stating how he has such an urge to beat the man in front of him. Lou later finds himself attracted to a female news producer, but his attempt at wooing is more a business deal than a friendly chat. He knows what he wants and thinks an awful lot about how he wants to get it.

Now how could a movie about such a psychopath be so appealing? The character of Lou takes a dark and illegal path, but it’s one that gets results in the messed up world of broadcasting. The local news organization could have turned down Lou’s disturbingly graphic footage the broke the law, but they did not. The down-on-his-luck intern could have turned tail and ran from such a dangerous place, but he did not.

The media world is portrayed as a deceptive game of skirting the law with no regard for human life. Lou just happens to be the best player and we let it happen. If there was more morality in the profession, Lou would be either a bum or arrested for his behavior. He is, instead, crowned for his efforts as the king of news videos. The methods of a madman are treated as someone just doing his job.

There is no downfall of the crazy cameraman. He doesn’t get shot in the line of duty, arrested by the police or spiral down a hole of drugs and alcohol. Lou gets away with everything and comes out on top. To kill him off or kick him down the mountain he built would be a cheat that implies some justice in this microcosm of crime and broadcast news. The good guys do not win in this industry. It’s the smart people who ascend to the top and the most intelligent one in this picture just happen be completely insane and immoral. For being both a commentary on scummy media and an intense character study of quietly evil men, Nightcrawler is an endlessly infatuating movie for how dark it presents its world that becomes frighteningly reflective of current media and a loss of morality.

 

“Lalaloopsy: Festival of Sugary Sweets” Review

Years ago I ripped apart the merchandising vehicle that was Monster High, hoping it would die out within a few years for a new fad. Not only did it spur forth with many more films, but now it has expanded into live-action music videos. I later saw grown women donning the garb of the monster dolls for a costume contest. For as much as I loathed the pun-heavy writing and bland character development of those films, I now find myself pining for the eye-rolling of Monster High. After watching another one of these Lalaloopsy videos, I’d be grateful if my eyes could do something besides droop in boredom.

There really is nothing to this story and I’m struggling to find something to latch onto with Festival of Sugary Sweets. The doll world of the Lalaloopsy girls is currently obsessed with their festival of assembling mountains of pastries and cakes. I guess cavities are never an issue when everyone in your society is made of yarn, cloth and buttons. But, oh no, they’ve run out of sugar! What will they do for the festival? They learn to experiment with natural sweeteners and use more fruits and vegetables for assembling treats. And that’s about all there is in a script that’s padded out to fill 45 minutes. There is no major crisis that affects the festival and no character hangups that force anybody to learn anything.

But the way the film just quickly glazes over the aspects of the Lalaloopsy society did leave me with a few questions about their mechanics. The girls of this doll world seem to have organic means of consumption the way they are constantly gobbling down pastries and cakes. I originally thought that sweets were their sole means of nutrition given how it’s all I ever see them eat. Then the film introduces natural sweets and healthier options which may suggest that Lalaloopsy’s agriculture has similar formation to humans. But it appears that two of the littlest girls can make mud pies and actually eat them. This tears down most of my theory in that it’s possible the Lalaloopsy girls don’t actually have any taste buds or proper organs to process food. Is the act of eating just for pretend, echoing previous lifeforms that had taste and digestion?

This brings about the evolutionary questioning of Lalaloopsy’s conception. Just who made these girls and how are they created? I’m assuming they have some grand creator as there are no mothers or fathers present for these girls who seem to live on their own. Maybe they are all orphans of a horrible genetic experiment in combining brains with yarn, exiling the subjects to a secluded island where they run out their remaining days in harmless splendor. They all certainly appear to be built for specific purposes in mind the way their one-track habits rob them of any true personality. The cheerleader girl only cheers people in every aspect of life. Not cheering people on must result in termination of her functions since this character does nothing else in this movie. There are younger girls in the group so perhaps they have also mastered the art of procreation in their yarn-assembled race.

And I just now realized I’ve wrote an examination of Lalaloopsy longer and deeper than anyone will ever care to write. I’ve also probably written the word Lalaloopsy more times than any normal human being should have to write.

Festival of Sugary Sweets is another addition to the Lalaloopsy universe with more artificial sweetener than Splenda. There’s no engaging story or character development to hold your attention even on the most base level of children’s entertainment. The dolls are probably a great product and are a better use of time for kids to develop their creativity. Leave them alone with some of these toys for 45 minutes and I guarantee they’ll weave a better tale than this bland excuse for tie-in marketing.

“The Interview” (2014) Review

After all the controversy over the Sony hacks and North Korea threatening America if they released The Interview into theaters, is this comedy any good? While it’s certainly nowhere near the level of controversial buzz it generated, yes, it was a funny picture. It will not be fondly remembered as the satire that stabbed violently at the ordeal of North Korea with telling wit, but did manage to be humorous for what it wanted to be. Given Seth Rogen’s previous comedic projects (This is the End), it wasn’t exactly aiming for the furthest heights of satire.

That being said, there is some cleverness given to its semi-meta premise. James Franco plays Dave Skylark, a talk show host that thrives on the most scandal-worthy conversations with celebrities. Eminem comes on the program to reveal that he’s homosexual and his lyrics were acting as clues for these years. But all these interviews to little satiate his producer/friend Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) and his thirst to produce better television. Seeking to be more professional, the two end up landing the most exclusive of interviews with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un (Randall Park) in his native country. Of course, acquiring such exclusivity attracts the CIA that want Dave and Aaron to act as secret agents and take out the dictator.

The humor for this let’s-kill-a-dictator plot is on par with Rogen’s line of comedy. There are no shortage of weed and penis jokes in stock to please the most bro-worthy of college boys. Foreign objects are placed inside rears and limbs are severed in the name of shock. But when the script can pull itself away from a-typical low-brow, there are a few nuggets of insightful satire on North Korea. The Korean children bred and conditioned for entertainment play guitars for their guests with disgustingly perfected smiles. The grocery store Kim stages for his visitors is a fake which makes for a great reveal once James Franco finds himself wronged. Throughout their stay, Franco believes all of Kim’s words while Rogen politely nods along being aware of all his tricks. It’s a predictable, but playful enough dynamic for the dolt and the straight man.

The comedy is somewhat grounded by an arc for Dave and Kim. The two find themselves developing a friendship in their manchild lifestyles of too much play and a want to be taken seriously. I was rather surprised at how much the movie held back in transforming Kim into a goof – thanks to both the script and Randall Park’s performance. He’s certainly silly the way he favors Katey Perry as his music-to-drive-tanks-to, but rarely over the top with emotions and secrets. If the real Kim Jong-un favors the presence of Dennis Rodman, being in possession of a Katey Perry song seems very plausible.

There’s a romance between Seth Rogen and a female NK soldier, but it’s mostly background dressing for Rogen to get in a few laughs as the nervous spy. As Franco is laid back and easy-going as he grows to love Park’s Kim, Rogen gets to do most of the spy work with his mishandling of secret weapons. He even wedges in a few fight scenes since I swear it must be a requirement in his contract that he does some slapstick.

Perhaps it’s just all the controversy surrounding the movie’s release, but it felt as though the satire should have gone a bit further. Seth Rogen and his co-director Evan Goldberg spent a large amount of time doing research on this subject from as far back as when Kim Jong-ill was still alive. It’s a little disappointing that after all that work and a desire to make something a little more relevant of the times, the end result is one that fills in most of its blanks with toilet humor. Rather than have more fun with focusing on the culture of North Korea, Franco and Rogen spend most of their time bickering in a guest room about (what else?) weed and penises. Maybe they secretly knew they were treading in hot territory and wanted to play it a tad safe.

While The Interview doesn’t redefine Rogen and Franco’s comedy careers, it’s good for a few laughs both insightful and dumb. Most of its base humor is deserving of a chuckle and the few digs at North Korea are well-thought. For not having as much bite, there is enough satirical bark at media and dictators to offer more than I expected. To think that a nuclear war could’ve broken out over such a comedy is more laughable for how there was such a big stir over such a low-brow farce. There’s also of bit of reflection in the character considering North Korea has made a multitude of propaganda films, but one suggestive piece of satire on our end causes outrage. Art reflects life – not that I’d considered The Interview a piece of art. It does rhyme with fart though.

“Birdman” Review

In the very first shot of Birdman, we see a fireball descend from the sky. The movie then cuts to Michael Keaton’s character Riggan Thompson levitating in his dressing room in nothing but his underwear. His grisly voice can be heard and although his back is to the camera we can tell it is not his natural voice. The voice remarks “How did we end up here? This place is horrible; smells like balls.” As we soon learn, Riggan is in a terrible place: a theater filled with people just as egotistical as himself. But this is his own grave that he dug so deep he can’t help but laugh to the bottom when the dirt entombs him. And we the audience are taken along on this rollercoaster of a maddening ride through his messed up mind and the destructive personalities surrounding him.

Riggan Thompson is a washed up actor who used to be well known in the 1990’s as the star of the Birdman superhero movies. The poster of him in the Birdman costume looms over his dressing room as a painful reminder of what he used to be. On his TV, an entertainment report focuses on Robert Downey Junior’s Iron Man franchise being a billion dollar success. It’s another life Riggan loathes, regrets and envies. Birdman now haunts his mind as another character, beating down his own ego as he tries to force Riggan back onto the easy street of doing superhero movies.

Birdman is the little voice of Riggan’s doubt that he is not a stage actor, writer or director. He constantly questions why he bothers trying to create a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Riggan is constantly at battle with this aspect of his psyche that has made him so far gone he starts hallucinating superpowers. In private, we see him fling objects around his dressing room with his mind. On the streets of New York City, he soars above the masses like a graceful bird. The next thing he knows, his dressing room is in shambles or he’s standing on top of a building ready to plunge. He doesn’t relay his personal demons to anyone he works with and the few he does brushes it off as jitters.

Having once been admired in the spotlight, Riggan’s respect has diminished in his inner circle. His daughter turned assistant (Emma Stone) has a bitter disrespect for being ignored by her dad as a child and into adulthood. His new lead actor (Edward Norton) looks down on Riggan being a man of the stage directed by a man of the silver screen. His lead actress and love interest Laura is bitter and torn about them not being able to have kids. His lawyer Jake is so angrily concerned with the bottom line that he is more than willing to lie his ass off to Riggan just to get the show off the ground. And even the local critic Tabitha despises the man so much she flat-out tells him she’ll write a scathing review of his play before she witnesses one scene.

Why does Riggan surround himself with such detrimental characters to his psyche and bank account? He needs them. Without them, he would have no reason to climb, no reason to bleed and no play to create. They are the challenge that reminds him of how alive he needs to be for the greatness he hopes to achieve.

The cast of the movie is perfectly playing to their personal strengths. One has to wonder how much of Keaton’s performance is based off his personal experience playing Batman in the Tim Burton movies. While arguing with his Birdman persona about how he cannot return to the superhero movie game, he shouts “it’s not 1992 anymore” referring to the last time Keaton portrayed Batman in Batman Returns (1992). He then lifts up his shirt in the mirror to display everything that he’s become from his scalp to his belly comparing himself to a “turkey with Leukemia.” He even mentions to interviewers in the film his reasoning for passing on Birdman 4, possibly referring to Keaton’s true reasoning for not going along on with the other two Batman films of the 1990’s.

Edward Norton also plays a bit of a meta character in the way he nearly destroys the production with his backstage and onstage tempers. He challenges Riggan in rehearsals, throws a drunken tirade during a preview showing, wrestles Riggan to the floor in the break room and even goes so far as to nearly rape one of the female actors on stage in a bedroom scene. And yet he seems to merely be playing the role of the diva until he retreats to the roof for a cigarette where he unloads his honesty on Riggan’s daughter. He laments how he’s never himself until he’s on stage. It’s possible he’s never himself similar to the way Peter Sellers joked that he had his true personality surgically removed.

Birdman was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, best known for his “trilogy of death” that included Amores perros (2001), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). All three of those films were told in a non-linear, anthology format of connecting stories. While those were emotional journeys of trying to find life after death, Birdman attempts to find some life before death. Or maybe life during death as there are many who theorize Riggan officially kills himself at several points in the picture and that the final act is his own purgatory vision. Whatever your theory, Birdman is an infatuating and dizzying character drama that I will absolutely love examining and dissecting for years to come.

“Dear White People” Review

Dear White People is one of the best films of 2014 because it tackles a new form of racism. The safe Ivy League campus of which the story takes place breeds the type of racism that is more subtle and creeps into your skin where it festers into an almost invisible hate. It’s easy to spot racism when it presents itself in the form of the Klu Klux Klan, Nazis, blackface, old-world stereotypes, slavery and “the big N.” Those are big targets easy enough for any reasonable person to nail with a palpable hit. It’s quite another thing to find a way to deal with racism in the form of media, elections, tribalism and romance. These are not so easy to spot and even harder to resolve. Perhaps they can never be resolved.

This becomes painfully apparent when one of the school chairs remarks that there is no more racism in America anymore (“except for Mexicans”). From his perspective, racism is dead especially for these privileged kids. He doesn’t spot any lynching, fragrant uses of the N word, banning others for their skin color or a vulgar play of stereotypes in sight. But racism doesn’t come in such simple packages and cannot be dismissed simply because the biggest issues have been quelled.

The film takes a look at the subject from a micro level, following four very different black students on campus. The centerpiece is Samantha White, the loud and proud racially-motivated radio host and filmmaking student. She writes a book of black people observations on what makes a positive African American role model and what constitutes a walking stereotype. Her initial film project is The Rebirth of a Nation, a modern role-reversal of D.W. Griffith’s blatantly racist film The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Sam’s tactics on the subject are strictly eye-for-an-eye. But her path is built on a shaky foundation. When she applies to be the head of a local fraternity, she only does so to rile the masses. She does not expect to win and when she actually does so there is panic in her mind just as prominent as her opponent’s. The added burden coupled with her school work, radio show, secret white boyfriend and medical issues at home start to make her pillars crack. When she’s on the radio, ranting and classifying the racist world she perceives, Sam is calmly and casually in control. When she receives news about her dad’s illness or is challengingly questioned by her caucasian partner, she’s a mess and the us-versus-them mentality begins to display its ugliness of separation.

Other characters we focus on go to the other end of the spectrum not so much by choice, but by design. Colandrea Conners, or Coco as she would prefer to be known virally, is obsessed with becoming a celebrity achieving reality show status. But Coco is not exactly what a hunting producer is seeking. Namely, the black producer wants somebody more in-your-face with the culture and Coco tries too hard to shun her ghetto roots. He finds himself more interested by Sam’s speeches than Coco’s talking head videos on YouTube. Jealous and willing to do anything for the attention, she rants against Sam White and immediately generates a favoring with both the producer and white college students. We can see this is not entirely what Coco wants to say or do, but she carries on believing it’s the only way to get anywhere in the lime light.

The most interesting character to examine in the movie is Lionel, a gay black student with a large curly afro (which curious white girls can’t help but play with). Lionel does not choose a side in the racial debate and is just not sure of his place in the world yet. Fraternities lock him out of the house and treat him as both the outcast nerd and the gay mascot, both titles he sighs at with disappointment.

An enigmatic editor takes notice of Lionel’s writing and hires him for the local paper. But is the editor interested in him more as a writer or just the color of his skin? This question is raised even further when the two of them enter into a relationship. Does he see Lionel as a boyfriend or his black boyfriend that he can tout as a point for the qualifications of racially tolerant white people? In one of the most hurtful moments for him, one of the editors earnestly refers to Lionel as being black, but “not really black.”

Dear White People tackles modern racism in a way that is intoxicatingly honest, smart and uncompromising. It shares an undeniable similarity to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) not for its subject matter, but for its characters. There are no good or bad characters in this film; just ignorant ones. The ignorance goes all the way around displaying characters who would seem politically correct discovering the big kinks in their armor when the bullets of racism fly.

Director Justin Simien makes his debut with this feature and he proves that he not only has a lot to say, but a knack for placing all those thoughts and commentaries up on the screen. The college life is perfectly portrayed in the awkward quiet moments in addition to the hustling and bustling of campus activities. Sam argues with her white boyfriend all the way back to her dorm room and even continue the conversation when they’re alone, kissing and undressing. There plenty of beautiful shots in the bedroom that capitalize on the young intimate experience. Brief shots of the clothes on the floor or a ripped open condom wrapper stick out as we witness the characters basking the afterglow letting their inner thoughts leak out.

This is not an easy comedy, a simple examination of racism or a one-note societal commentary. For being so daring and off-beat, it strikes a genuine chord as an awkward picture that may make you squirm, but also make you more thoughtful and vocal about race. The film ends with real photos of “black themed” parties at college campuses featuring white college students in rapper garb, donning gold chains and even covering themselves in black face. These are present to remind us that this is not just an isolated incident within an Ivy League microcosm that racism is still alive. The racism that plagues these upper-class colleges may be lesser than that of the inner city or ghettos, but it still exists and is just as ugly in the way it eats away at individuals.

“Green Street Hooligans: Underground” Review

While there are many movies out there that attempt to satirize the cheese of macho sports flicks from the 1980s, Green Street Hooligans: Underground seems to be one of the most earnest attempts at recapturing that goofy charm. It whips out all the old clichés of the sports training picture from the driving jog through the streets to the slow passionate scene of lovemaking to the quintessential giant of a nemesis. The soundtrack even echoes that familiar sense of 1980’s synth. Since it’s all kept rather subtle, you never really get that feeling of it being a-typical of the 80’s sports genre until about midway through the picture. There’s something rather admirable about a film that can keep up such a tone without added camp. It almost makes its spotty storytelling worth viewing.

What helps keep its 80’s sports roots well hidden is its premise of focusing on the world of street fighting football fans. Danny Harvey (Scott Adkins) returns to his old stomping grounds of West Ham when his little brother is murdered. Determined to find his brother’s killer, he decides to delve back into the world he left. He sticks around the pub to hook up with the lady bartender and acquaint himself with the Green Street Elite of fighting football fans. Out of shape and overweight, they’re far from being the best when it comes to street rumbles with opposing football team fans. Danny decides to whip them into shape for the main goal of tracking down his brother’s murderer (I think). There’s also an undercover cop in all the fighting seeking to find the murderer as well (I suppose).

Most of the film is dominated by montages with music. The violent drinkers hit the gym for some much-needed exercises before the big fights. They lift some weights, punch some bags and do plenty of push-ups. The fights themselves are treated almost like tournaments in the way the film tracks each street match. They take place everywhere from steel cages in fields to abandoned buildings with flares for lighting. They go at it like dogs, kicking and punching wherever they can land a blow, in some brutally bloody sequences. And, of course, there’s the sex scene montage which isn’t all that erotic in the least.

The fights themselves are very frequent and quite graphic. Heads smash through car windows, faces are stomped on by multiple fighters and groins are smashed. There’s not much craft to any of these scenes though. All the training they do for these matches eventually boils down to who can hit harder and gang-up on the most people. I also found it rather amusing how they keep track of these fights as if it were some sort of fantasy football league. This makes me question why the film couldn’t just be a comedy. The montages are laughable, the fights are over the top and the dialogue is just a comical mess of cuss words. I just couldn’t take such a film seriously for how straight it probably wanted to play up the world of organized underground football fan fighting. Then again, I was never much of a fan of organized underground football fan fighting. Maybe I’ll try to catch a few games on ESPN and see if it’s my thing.

Green Street Hooligans: Underground truly does feel like one of those forgettable and silly B-movies from the 1980s you’d put on for a laugh. But since I’m not so sure the director was in on this angle, I’m afraid I have to call it like I see it. This is a worthy rental as a party film to mock with your best buddies over a few beers. As a legitimate action picture about underground fighters, however, you’re better off finding something a little more grounded.

“Kite” (2014) Review

Of all the Japanese animated movies to adapt for a live-action presentation, Kite confuses me. The original source material was a one-hour, over-the-top action romp with ridiculously violent fights and overly graphic sex scenes. So disturbingly pedophelic were these sexual encounters that the general release had to be edited down severely with the “director’s cut” being released under a pornography affiliate. Tracing its inspiration, an obvious suspect would be Luc Besson’s Leon The Professional, a sub-par American remake of Besson’s superior action picture La Femme Nakita. Perhaps the producers of the Kite remake somehow thought that the talent would come full circle.

In reality, it’s a bland mess of an action picture drowned in cliché and confusion. The setting seems to have shifted from Japan to South Africa (never stated, but that’s where it was filmed). The world has just suffered an economic collapse and society has crumbled to a world of flesh cartels and vicious gangs. It seems like a more likely future free of robots and holograms, but most of the setting sounds like the present even without the economic crash. I guess that backdrop makes the abundance of mobsters and nightclubs more acceptable.

Our protagonist is the young vigilante Sawa (India Eisley), fighting her one-woman war against the flesh dealers to avenge her dead parents. She poses as a prostitute in her boldly colored wig and lures the men in with her sexual offerings. But, surprise, she murders them with skill just before they do the deed.

Her weapon of choice is a bulky pistol that fires bullets with a timed explosive charge upon impact. This sounds like it would make for some neat kills, but we never see any of them since she aims directly for the head killing the gangsters instantly.

In the opening scene, Sawa puts a bullet in the brain of her lasted perverted catch of the day in an elevator. The bullet is apparently strong enough to put a baseball-sized hole through the victim’s blocking hand, but not enough to blow away his skull. The music swells as the beeping of the bullet lodged in the corpse grows faster until there is a bloody explosions. This director is actually seeking tension in if a dead body can get deader. The movie never gives us that satisfactory moment where a gangster is wounded by one of these bullets, corners Sawa with a deadly assurance of her demise and loses a limb from the explosion.

But the a-typical mafia men in tacky suits are not the only opponents she has to deal with. There is apparently a roaming gang of feral humans that seem to be lost on their way to the set of Mad Max. They leap and bound from city structures like parkour artists on adrenaline. They travel in packs giving the standard whistle for more of their kind to join in the hunt for money, guns and whatever they can loot off their victims as they brutally beat them to bloody pulps.

Where are the cops in all this? They’re just as corrupted by the crippled economic state. Karl Aker (Samuel L. Jackson) is one such detective working semi-outside the law to give Sawa with plenty of guns and drugs. Her narcotic of choice is known as Amp which is apparently supposed to make you an efficient killer, but also degrade your memory severely. Of course, this clouds her true purpose for avenging her parents which will eventually surface.

Everything about this movie is sloppy from its laughable twists to its poorly edited action sequences to even the sound design. In order to make this vision seem just a tad futuristic, the movie adds these strange synth sounds to the cop car sirens. This sound clashes heavily with the techno soundtrack where you’re not sure if the music is building or if the cops are approaching from the distance. Supposedly, Rob Cohen (Shark Night) was attached to direct, but died before production began and David R Ellis stepped in to direct. Given Rob’s resume, it’s possible he could have delivered a movie that was just as campy as its anime counterpart. What we got instead is a dreary picture that attempts to be dark and bombastic without ever hitting either target.

Lacking in bite, blood and pulp, Kite is a remake doomed to obscurity if not for its bland production than its overuse of clichés. Honestly, how many more cherry-colored bob wigs do I have to see a movie prostitute/assassin wear before this trope is retired. I’ve already seen it used twice in 2014. Somebody please put a bullet in this tired device to put it out of its misery.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Review

The sequel to How to Train Your Dragon succeeds where many continuing animated features falter. Having established this fantasy world, the next step is to naturally expand on the characters and exploring new wonders. Some films are not strong enough to keep these elements going and usually display how there was only enough material for one film. Thankfully, How to Train Your Dragon 2 proves that it has plenty of character, lore and fun to keep the film series going. At least for one sequel anyway.

The Viking island of Berk has grown very accustomed to the presence of dragons. They’re not just pets or fulfilling Flintstones-style jobs, but companions they befriend for flight and games. While the village enjoys the dragons for all these benefits, Hiccup and his dragon Toothless explore the many islands to map out undiscovered regions. It’s not just something fun to do with his dragon pal as he tests out his new flight suit, but helps him clear his mind of his father pressuring him to take over the clan.

While exploring the regions, they run into a band of dragon capturers who work for the warlord Drago. Hiccup and Toothless stumble upon this group and their bitter feud with a mysterious figure known as the Dragon Rider. Curious about the special powers of this Dragon Rider, Hiccup seeks out the individual which turns out to be a long lost family member. While Hiccup attempts to reunite his family and spend some time discovering more secrets of dragons, Drago has set his sights on both the Dragon Rider’s home for dragons in the mountains and Hiccup’s hometown of Berk. With a massive army at Drago’s disposal that continues to grow, Hiccup is going to need all the help he can get to save his people and his newfound family.

Returning director Dean DeBlois succeeds at bringing back the wonder and amazement for this world of dragons. In the first film, a select group of dragons were classified and explained. The sequel brings so many new and colorful kinds of dragons into the mix and let’s the audience get lost in the splendor of it all. From the little baby dragons with their erratic behaviour to the glacier-sized elder alpha, there are so many interesting creatures on screen that leaves you scrambling for the pause button to catch everything.

What helps keep the film moving is that it never slows down for anything. There is no elaborate narration given for the rules of the dragon sports game they play in Berk; it plops you right into the scene and trusts your eyes to convey how it works. There’s no detailed examination of how Hiccups fire-sword works; just a quick explanation of combining gas with a trigger. And one of my favorite moments is the reveal of Hiccup’s missing family member that’s unloaded gently and with grace as opposed to dumping it all into the script at once. This film is a perfect example of how an animated film can show instead of tell when there is so much to show.

Everything about the production is A-grade. From the various vast landscapes to smallest amounts of details on the character’s faces are top notch. I love the little defining features of the human characters from the aged whiskers of Stoick to Hiccup’s tiny scar on his chin. But, of course, the diverse mix of so many dragons that fill the screen are just as strong a sight to behold. From the triumphant score to the intricate sound design, I could down the list all day of just how many elements are knocked out of the park with this production.

The biggest flaw that many of these animated sequels fall into is becoming so obsessed with developing and playing with the already established elements that they forget to write an impressive story. DeBlois proves that he still has a story to tell and isn’t just rehashing. The family aspect to the story packs some real emotion that really does give the film its own tone providing a much more personal story than the first film. You really get a sense of family with the passing of the torch and taking care of your own. It’s a simple theme that plays so nicely you don’t mind how uneven the first act appears.

Whereas most sequels to stellar animated films seem just barely enjoyable, How to Train Your Dragon 2 manages to rise above the already spectacular predecessor. It’s a well-written machine with genuine emotion, fantastic flying sequences and still manages to be whole lot of fun. As far as Dreamworks sequels go, this is by far one of their best and certainly one I’d treasure for more than a few viewings.

“Maleficent” Review

Be it the popularity of Game of Thrones or that trend of darkening up classic fairytales, Disney has taken a new approach to the story of Sleeping Beauty with a focus on the villainous Maleficent. But as the voice-over introduction implies, there’s more to the story than we originally thought. In fact, this version believes that the story is completely wrong. Maleficent wasn’t a villain at all, but a wronged woman who ends up saving the day. Such a route isn’t uncommon as the only two ways to make a movie about a villain is to either have them turn around as the hero or slink comfortably into their role of evil. But in the quest to make Maleficent the hero in this story, so much else is sacrificed in the name of making a female-friendly witch of great power and pathos.

The movie begins innocent enough portraying Maleficent as a curious, young fairy of the forest who fancies a prince that wanders into her domain. The two form a relationship, but their souls grow apart as the kingdom of humans threatens to encroach on the magical forest. Battles ensue between the king’s army of knights and Maleficent’s army of trees. Eventually the prince must make a serious choice about where he stands by cutting off the wings of his secret love. And this is the moment where the story loses all its character and tone the way Maleficent being de-winged is staged as a rape allegory with her being drugged, sliced and crying in a pool of her tears in the morning.

This would seem to be the setup for a darker path of a villain given how horribly wronged she was by her first love. But once we get to the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty with the iconic scene of the wicked witch cursing the princess, the movie starts dipping down into the depths of a mediocre fan-fiction. Rather than despise Sleeping Beauty and attempt to keep her comatose for eternity, the magical matriarch regrets her decision after years of watching over her like a mother hen. Rather than harbor some fleeting emotions of their earlier romance, Maleficent and the prince-turned-king are simplistic enemies. And rather than Sleeping Beauty being awakened by the kiss of a prince, she’s actually awakened by Maleficent herself.

All of this staged as if to imply that the true story of Sleeping Beauty was a massive coverup by a patriarchal society. There’s nothing wrong with rewriting a fairytale from a different perspective, but this one appears more vindictive than creative. The best part of the picture is Angelina Jolie as the cackling and sinister Maleficent, embodying the role as no other actor could. The worst part of the movie is everything else. The character that surround Maleficent’s arc are all one-dimensional. The king who descends into madness has no buildup – one scene he’s a boy in love with a fairy, the next he’s a babbling madman swinging a sword. Prince Charming appears in the picture, but only as a worthless red herring. The three fairies that watch over Sleeping Beauty are just forced comic relief embodying a female version of The Three Stooges. And Sleeping Beauty herself would have been better off spending the entire movie asleep with how little she has to say or do.

The consensus among both the writer, director and Jolie was that they felt compelled to make this movie as an aspiring figure for little girls. Sure, because this is what little girls want to see in a movie, right? They don’t want a fantasy story filled with enchantment and wonder – they want rape allegories and pathos in a tone-deaf revenge tale. The movie is entirely dependent on Jolie’s performance to hold this rickety narrative together that tacks on CGI battles and light humor. At its best, the grand effects of walking trees and fire-breathing dragons is serviceable. At its worst, the bickering of the fairies will have you tearing your hair out in annoyance.

Maleficent features Angelina Jolie all dolled up as the perfect villain with nowhere to go. She leaves behind every single actor in the dust as if her magical powers sucked every ounce of character out of the cast. Even her companion – a crow that transforms into a man – isn’t much for conversation. Though given how terrible the dialogue is of the three fairies, maybe he got off lucky. It’s such a shame that the marvelous talents of Jolie are wasted on a ham-fisted script where she has to act against cardboard characters. Sure, she’s a memorable character for rediscovering love and she emits a palpable charm, but at what cost? I want to love her and this movie, but it’s hard to do that when this picture refuses to define its characters or pick a consistent tone.