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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) takes us into modern-day NYC, where a militant group called The Foot Clan has been terrorizing the city. Intrepid reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) has tried tirelessly to break out of reporting fluff news pieces – and in her eyes, the Foot Clan story is the perfect way to do that.

However, as April begins tracking The Foot, she soon becomes aware that a group of mysterious vigilantes have been terrorizing the terrorists. Determined to crack the story, April goes deeper down the rabbit hole of her investigation, but what she finds down there (both literally and figuratively) is far from mere rabbits, and the discovery changes her life forever – past, present and future.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Reviews starring Megan Fox and Will Arnett 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review

Master Splinter April Leonardo Raphael Donatello and Michaelangelo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review

A beloved and iconic franchise stretching from the 1980s into present day, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles returns to the big screen riding a wave of fan nostalgia. The final product – by way of Battle Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans director Jonathan Liebesman – is just that: “product.” But while it may be a shallow popcorn movie experience, it’s also not the disaster that many were expecting – and even succeeds in its most important goal: selling us on the zany, bantering, butt-kicking mutant, turtle, ninja teenagers.

On a directorial front, TMNT is a composite of filmmaking styles. There is much borrowing from and/or homage to recent superhero films and genre blockbusters (the Nolan Batman Trilogy and Michael Bay Transformers franchise, most notably), which are then combined with Liebesman’s signature close-up frenetic action framing. It does, at times, feel like a mishmash of stylistic ideas – but overall, this is probably the best blockbuster film the director has crafted – and his love for the TMNT brand is apparent in both the presentation of the material, and the many visual odes and Easter eggs to various iterations of the franchise (both on the page as well as the big and small screens).

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles visual effects and motion capture Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review

The actual visual effects are pretty polished as well – most notably in the motion-capture characters of the four ninja turtles. “Purists” can complain about nostrils all the want, but Liebesman and his army of digital effects artists do pull off the impossible and create four mutant creatures that feel both authentic and believable enough in a real-world setting, and (thanks to some soulful infusion from mo-cap actors) capture the personalities of the four turtles in iconic yet modernized fashion. 3D isn’t a must in this case, but for those who want to invest, several key action sequences in the film will be worth your while.

Script credits go to Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (Mission: Impossible 4), along with Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman). Together, the trio re-imagineTMNT lore in a way that hardcore fans will recognize as a composite of various pieces plucked from the TV, movie and comic book adaptations that have existed over the years. In fact, for those worried that this movie is inauthentic, it’s ironically the opposite: this film is heavy with authenticity and reverence for the source material, there’s just so many versions of said material that only true experts will be able to recognize it all.

However, while the mythos, irreverence, humor, fun (and even some of the original satire) of TMNT may have been successfully translated from the source material to this movie, the actual narrative arc of the film is paper-thin and lacks any depth at all on both the character and thematic levels. Granted, this is a movie aimed at a younger crowd with no high-brow or intellectual illusions about its far-out premise; but in the age of Pixar and movies like Frozen or Super 8, it’s a cop-out to claim that juvenile-minded films can’t have thematic or emotional weight. Even the 1990 TMNTlive-action movie found a way to incorporate a more serious story about family into its whacky ninja turtle hijinks – with a more restrictive rating, to boot (PG, as opposed to the “edgier” PG-13 version we have now). And when you incorporate the hokey, cartoonish dialogue that permeates much of the script, it becomes apparent that TMNT‘s weak point is on paper, more so than film.

Splinter vs The Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review

To be fair, there is a sense that early on the script was meant to build toward more intricate threads of character and thematic development; but once the fists start flying around the middle of the second act, the film settles into a hollow progression of point-to-point action set pieces tinged with juvenile humor, leaving all that early potential for rich story behind. The second half of TMNT is your now-standard video game-style CGI action with a simple “good guys stop bad buys” conflict – and it alllooks good, even if it isn’t that engaging or fun. By the end, you find yourself in a situation where you have four great characters who have been successfully (if just barely) sold by their cinematic vehicle, with a genuine a hope that they get something more compelling to do in a future installment.

Credit due to the five mo-cap actors – Pete Ploszek, Jeremy Howard, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher and Danny Woodburn – and the many digital effects gurus who all collaborated to create the mo-cap turtles and Master Splinter. All debates aside, for those who never got into this franchise previously, this movie is a faithful adaptation of the characters, with new flourishes that help make them more distinct and personable than ever. (Seriously, colored masks and differing weapons are nice, but actual aesthetic and behavioral differences turn out to be even better.) Each of the turtles shines in some way or another; although Master Splinter is somewhat gross (creating a realistic humanoid rat turns out to be more curse than blessing), and it is ironically the characters with the big celebrity voices (Tony Shalhoub for Splinter; Johnny Knoxville for Leonardo) who tend to be the flattest and least interesting out of the bunch. Go figure.

William Fitchner and The Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Review

While the villains are not all that deep or interesting, a lot of early worry about how this movie would incorporate iconic TMNT antagonists turns out to be unfounded. William Fichtner is (as usual) a great character actor to play a subtle but menacing antagonist – and it is surprisingly straightforward in the film that The Shredder (played by Tohoru Masamune) is a separate villain altogether – one that hews much closer to the dark and violent depiction of the villain from the original TMNT comics. Megan Fox manages to carry the opening act with more gusto than usual (until thankfully handing things off to her CGI co-stars), while actors like Whoopi Goldberg, Will Arnett, Abby Elliott and Minae Noji are FAR less annoying or flat than the bit human characters you find in your average Bay Transformers film.

In the end, TMNT reflects many of the criticisms now inherent in just about any Platinum Dunes remake (polished and prettier, but lacking the depth, substance and fun of the original) – but as with many of those same remakes, that doesn’t qualify it as a terrible movie. TMNT is shallow popcorn entertainment – but within the spectrum of reboots and remake, it falls on the safe side of honorable. There is still a place in this world for those heroes in a half-shell – if the world (and the high walls of fan nostalgia) ever give them another chance to prove it.

In Hercules, the eponymous super-strong warrior (Dwayne Johnson) has become a legend for (supposedly) being the son of Zeus and having performed his twelve labors; nowadays, though, he and his loyal band of fellow mercenaries now spend their time working to earn gold – and not much else. Herc and his buddies are then approached by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), the daughter of Cotys, King of Thrace (John Hurt), who offers a substantial payment. The job? Hercules and his crew will train the King’s army to do battle with a dangerous – and possibly supernatural – warlord named Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).

However, even as he transforms the Thracian peasants into the deadliest of fighters imaginable, Hercules finds that he cannot escape a tragedy from his past that has come to define him – nor can he ignore his troubled conscience, once he realizes just how far he has fallen from his days of heroism. When a chance for redemption presents itself, it’s left up to Herc to rally his comrades, save the day, and prove once and for all that Hercules the Mighty Hero is more than just a legend.

Hercules is the second Hollywood studio-backed film released in 2014 to feature the titular demigod, arriving on the scene less than seven months after director Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules (starring Kellan Lutz as a young Herc). Johnson’s vehicle, by comparison, never really comes close to being a remarkable re-imagining of the Hercules mythos, but it does a better job of providing charmingly hammy entertainment – thanks primarily to its charismatic leading man and a screenplay that generally knows not to take itself too seriously.

hercules dwayne johnson1 Hercules Review

Based loosely on Steve Moore and Cris Bolsin’s graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian War, the script for Hercules was penned by Ryan J. Condal (The Sixth Gun) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Pooh’s Heffalump MovieCinderella III: A Twist in Time). As such, this film ends up often feeling akin to a mashup of ancient mythology with comparatively more contemporary B-movie tropes (cheesy one-liners, action-driven storytelling, and so on), plus a rogues’ gallery of colorful supporting characters and personalities that you might expect to find in a PG-13 Rated Disney feature. Unlike the Mouse House’s Hercules animated musical, however, this movie tries to deconstruct the centuries-old superhero’s legacy and examine larger ideas about how legends are formed and what true heroism means – but has very limited success doing so.

In part, that’s because Hercules – like a handful of other notable Summer 2014 blockbusters – feels as though it has been heavily edited and chopped down, with moments of meaningful character and/or thematic development having been stripped away (but the action sequences maintained), in order to keep a tighter running time. The other major problem is director Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand), who to his credit, makes sure the film delivers on its promise of epic battle scenarios – as each act of the film contains at least one major fight sequence – but does so with little sense of style or creativity, from a technical perspective.

hercules dwayne johnson cast Hercules Review

Ratner and his frequent collaborator, director of photography Dante Spinotti, stage all the sword-clashing, arrow-flying, action in Hercules in a visually clean fashion (read: no handheld camerawork for heightened “realism”), though it often feels as though the film is just marking off items on a checklist from an Epic Moviemaking 101book (see: Lord of the Rings-esque swooping helicopter shots of the landscapes in Budapest where it was shot) – which is to say, Ratner’s direction is barely passable. On a related note: Hercules was clearly not designed with 3D in mind; save for a handful of pop-out visual gimmicks, there’s not much to be gained from watching the movie in 3D instead of 2D. (You don’t lose anything either, so it really depends on your preferences, when it comes to which format you ought to choose.)

Johnson, as such, is responsible for carrying much of the film on his shoulders – which he does, yak hair beard and all. The Rock’s Hercules isn’t exactly what you would call complex – basically, a disillusioned superhero who’s never gone that dark since his fall from grace – but he is compelling enough and easy to root for. Similarly, Herc’s family of warriors – including the sardonic Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), stern Amazonian warrior Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and the animalistic Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) – are all pretty much two-dimensional, but the cast members’ likable performances help to make up the difference.

hercules movie 2014 ian mcshane Hercules ReviewIan McShane as Amphiaraus, a member of Herc’s band whose seer abilities are rather questionable, ably handles the task of providing both comic relief and necessary exposition/narration, while Reece Ritchie as Herc’s young “cousin” Iolaus, who yearns to be a great warrior, is the only actor outside of Johnson whose character really has an arc in the story. The remainder of the cast is stuck portraying stock archetypes – Rebecca Ferguson’s Ergenia is a damsel in distress, Joseph Fiennes as King Eurystheus (a character from Herc’s past) gives the appearance of a benevolent ruler, and so on – whose motivations are dictated by the demands of the script’s narrative, above all else.

At the end of the day, though, Hercules is mostly geared towards providing the sort of tongue in cheek, lunkheaded summer blockbuster entertainment as, say, Johnson’s previous swords and sandals genre vehicle, The Scorpion King – as well as the Mummy movie franchise that spawned that film – and in that sense, it’s more success than failure. Basically, if the phrase “Brett Ratner’s Hercules starring The Rock” sounds like a fun movie to you, then you’ll get your money’s worth from the film.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up a decade after the milestone events ofRise of the Planet of the Apes, revealing a new world order in which genetically-enhanced ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) has successfully established an ape colony in the wilderness outside of San Francisco. With a family by his side and a tribe to lead and protect, Caesar feels content with the life he chose amongst his fellow apes. However, when evidence of humanity’s survival comes (literally) walking up to the apes’ doorstep, the situation changes quickly – and drastically.

After meeting the kind and intelligent Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Caesar is forced to confront emotions about humanity he thought he’d left behind. But while Caesar still remembers the good in humans, his friend and lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), only remembers the cruel savagery of being their lab rat. In Koba’s eye, Malcolm and the human stronghold he comes from are all deadly threats to apes; meanwhile, on the human side, war-worn human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) feels much the same way about the apes. With factions of their respective camps angling for conflict, Malcolm and Caesar try to find common ground between man and ape, so that both species may live peacefully on what is left of the earth.

Gary Oldman in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was nothing less than a dark horse success story. It took an exhausted sci-fi property (which Tim Burton had already failed to reinvent for the 21st century) and gave it a compelling and moving restart bolstered by some revolutionary motion-capture performances – most notably that of actor Andy Serkis as Caesar. Well, it’s easy to report that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes everything great about the first film and kicks it up to a higher level, resulting in one of the best (and most technically proficient) films of the year.

In short: This is the best film in the Planet of the Apes series, and a film that once again raises the question of whether or not motion-capture performers deserve the same awards considerations as any other actor.

Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

The sequel trades Rise director Rupert Wyatt for Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves – a trade that turns out to be for the better. From the very first image to the very last, Reeves makes the bold choice to make the apes his primary focus – an extremely daunting task (narratively and technologically) which he rises to meet, and then, conquers. The world of the film feels like a natural extension of where Riseleft us, but it is so well-designed and technically sound that the spectacle of seeing it is, in and of itself, worth the price of admission (and the 3D upgrade). This is one of those visual event films you want to experience in full theatrical glory.

More than that, though, Dawn is proficient as a piece of cinema. In fact, calling it a “blockbuster” is a limiting term, as the film is arguably on the level of an Oscar-bait drama. There are moments in the movie of brilliant visual shorthand and iconographic imagery; awesome visual and audio nods to sci-fi greats like Stanley Kubrick (Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino’s score shines in such moments); action set pieces that are thankfully more competent (but still just as epic and gorgeous) as Michael Bay’s Transformers; even comedy and horror beats that are extremely effective at keeping things light and scary, respectively.

Tying it all together is a well-crafted and focused character drama with relevant socio-political overtones, which uses an outlandish premise to address something important about the state of the world and the human condition – in the way that only quality sci-fi can. Credit goes to The Wolverine writer Mark Bomback for helping Rise writers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa truly expand upon the Caesar character and his world and how all of it is relevant to ours. This film – in a way not seen since the original PoTA – makes highly effective use of its sci-fi metaphor.

Kirck Acavedo Kerri Russell Jason Clarke and Kodi Smit McPhee in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

The human cast – Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman, Keri Russell (The Americans) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) – are given the hard task of having to play supporting characters in an ape-led film, while still presenting more than one-note “evil human” caricatures. Credit goes to Clarke and Oldman in particular – but all of the principal homo sapiens are able to convincingly infer the deep trauma and desperation lurking just beneath the re-established veil of civilization. We are able to know and relate to the human players without ever really knowing them; a crucial piece of the puzzle that creates a necessary complexity to the different sides of the ape/human conflict, and elevates the story to a much higher and more compelling level of drama.

Of course, what everyone will leave this film talking about are the motion-capture ape performances, and lead ape actors Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell deserve awards consideration for their work in this film. By now it’s almost considered a t-shirt slogan to say that Andy Serkis deserves an award for creating memorable motion-capture characters like Gollum, King Kong and Caesar – what’s there to add except that Caesar in Dawn is Serkis’ (and Weta’s) most complex, nuanced, and visually-impressive creation yet? Keep printing those t-shirts, I guess. One day he’ll get the acclaim he so clearly deserves…

Caesar Andy Serkis and Koba Toby Kebbell in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

The real revelation in the film, however, is Toby Kebbell (Prince of Persia) as Koba. The Caesar/Koba arc is the most dynamic and emotional in the film, and Kebbell is almost frighteningly good bringing the (literally and figuratively) scarred ape to life through motion-capture performance (keyword: performance). Moments like watching Kebbell play an intelligent ape who is pretending to be an un-intelligent ape may boggle your mind as it did mine; a film is only as good as its villain, and Kebbell makes Koba a great one. (Expectations for his role as Doctor Doom in The Fantastic Four reboot have now gone way up). At the risk of playing favorites, let it be said that there are plenty of other actors – Judy Greer, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Kirk Acevedo – who also deserve credit for bringing the supporting ape and human characters to life. It’s a really solid cast all around.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an undeniable one-two punch of a winning movie; it’s the type of milestone spectacle film that is a must-see in theaters – it just so happens that it’s also one of the best (and awards-worthy) films of the year. A third installment is a must, as it (literally) looks like these Apes are only getting better (and smarter) with each new installment.

Life so far so good. Bliss.

Good times

X-Men: Days of Future Pastimagines a near-future in which both mutants and humans have been decimated by deadly killing machines known as The Sentinels. In this nightmarish dystopia, Professor X and his “old friend” Magneto gather the most powerful surviving X-Men together for a last-ditch effort to stop the Sentinel war: altering the past so that it never happened in the first place.

That plan requires Kitty Pryde sending Wolverine’s consciousness back into his 1970s body, in order to stop an event that forever sets history on the course of a dark future. But things are bleak in the past, as well: young Charles Xavier, Magneto and Mystique are all damaged and estranged from one another; the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis (seen in X-Men: First Class) have already inspired the beginnings of the Sentinel program; and with every passing moment in the future, the Sentinels get closer to eliminating the last of the X-Men and destroying all hope of altering history.

At the center of this desperate mission lie some big questions: Can history be altered, or is destiny set in stone? And can Wolverine play the role of mentor to his own mentor in time to repair some very broken people and save two timelines?

X Men Mystique Movie X Men: Days of Future Past Review

X-Men: Days of Future Past is by far the most ambitious film in the franchise – an attempt to take the entire six-film saga (and all of the notorious continuity errors that come with it) and soft-reboot it via a story that is both character drama and spectacle, meant to honor both the Original Trilogy and First Class halves of the franchise. Against all odds, Singer manages to deliver all of the above, resulting in the best X-Men movie to date, and a comic book movie that could (arguably) be placed in the company of the genre’s elite.

It is with a sad note of irony that, on a directorial level, Bryan Singer has delivered his best film ever. Days of Future Past is a showcase of directorial talent, to the point that it is arguably a handful of well-crafted movies, woven together. The futuristic sci-fi world and mutant action sequences are awesome spectacle, while the future Sentinels are dark, frightening creatures; the ’70s period piece is colorful, gleefully retro, and well-staged in nearly every scene; and there’s an excellent character drama at the film’s core, utilizing great actors who deliver performances above and beyond expectations of the genre.

X Men Days of Future Past Trailer Sunspot Blasting Sentinel 700x425 X Men: Days of Future Past Review

Uniting these eclectic parts is a steady thematic and tonal pulse that retains the fun, the fantastical action and the emotional resonance which have been the defining blend of X-Men comic books since their inception. Days of Future Past also boasts set pieces and sequences that raise the bar for the franchise, and in some instances, comic book movies in general. Futuristic battle sequences and certain ’70s sequences (read: Quicksilver) make the film totally worth seeing in 3D; you want the full X-perience with this one.

Like the direction, the script combines eclectic elements into a fine blend. The story idea comes from First Class architects Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, with the actual script written by X-Men: The Last Stand scribe Simon Kinberg (who is now the franchise’s narrative architect). Kinberg’s DoFP script keeps things steadily moving at a tight, focused pace; there are welcome injections of fun and humor, and the story manages to hit the proper beats of character and narrative development to make each action and interaction feel important and compelling. For hardcore fans of the film series, the movie pays proper homage to both the Original Trilogy and the developments of First Class, while not being afraid of wiping away that past, in order to set up (what looks to be) a better, more cohesive future… But that’s not to say that this film is the total savior of continuity errors past.

James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart in X Men Days of Future Past X Men: Days of Future Past Review

By combining both the Original Trilogy and First Class mythos into one world, the filmmakers do manage to tie their franchise universe together; but there are a number of contradictions still left on the table by the end. The hope was likely that with a fast-paced and entertaining story, any hangups about continuity or character adaptation (read: Quicksilver) could be ignored – and for the most part, that is the case. Days of Future Past is good enough that it’s easy to accept its telling of things over any other cinematic telling that may have come before (or even the comic book source material); but if you want to go looking for the continuity errors, you’ll see that the movie cannot completely circumvent them. They are never distracting, but they are there.

Then again, it’s hard to complain about which characters are present (or what state they’re in) when the cast of actors is delivering strong performances. Hugh Jackman leads the franchise once again, but manages to be an effective team player this time. His performance is much more restrained and nuanced, drawing on Wolverine’soverexposure extensive history in the franchise to create an interesting spin on the character as an older and wiser mentor. The core First Class squad – Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) – deliver even more of the best elements of that prequel film (i.e., improved character drama), with Jackman serving as a welcome addition to their half of the franchise. 

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in X Men Days of Future Past1 X Men: Days of Future Past Review

Meanwhile, Original Trilogy stars like Patrick Stewart (Prof X), Ian McKellen (Magneto), Halle Berry (Storm), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman), Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat) and Daniel Cudmore (Colossus) all return to deliver better, more confident (if not smaller) performances, in what would be a fitting epilogue to their portion of the franchise. (Then again, they also manage to remind us why seeing some of the original squad return isn’t so bad, so who knows what the future will be…)

New additions to the franchise like “International X-Men” Blink (Bingbing Fan), Bishop (Omar Sy), Sunspot (Adan Canto), and Warpath (Booboo Stewart) all get moments to shine in some of the franchise’s best mutant action sequences, and for all the controversy about his adaptation, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver steals every moment of his screen time. Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage likewise shines in his moments playing Bolivar Trask, the designer of the Sentinels, while Josh Helman (The Pacific) does a fine riff on the William Stryker character seen in X2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. There are also a number of nice cameos and fun nods to both comic book and historical figures, but those are best saved for the viewing experience.

X Men Days of Future Past Full Cast Promo Photo 620x370 X Men: Days of Future Past Review

In the end, X-Men: Days of Future Past succeeds at being a thrilling and fun superhero movie, balanced by well-earned dramatic weight. It may only be three-quarters successful in forging the fractured franchise into a unified whole, but it does manage to distill the best parts of the saga and use them to push things forward into a (semi-)fresh start, where fans can forget sins of the past and once again feel optimistic about the notion of X-Men movies.

…And according to the implications of the post-credits scene, there is hint that the future of this franchise is going to continue to be a bigger, bolder, and ultimately more exciting one.

As long as Gemma gets it. I can’t wait for her to meet her fate. Its been coming for a long time now. Yup, season 7 in the making. Can’t bloody wait!

Day 1: Hope these works went well. Best of luck!

Day 1: Hope these works went well. Best of luck!

I hate to admit it, but upon the unveiling of ‘Cloudkicker’, the solitary glimpse of No PeaceTrash Talk's forthcoming fifth full-length offering, I developed a sick fascination in sifting through countless comments, spewed across YouTube and SoundCloud, and smirking to myself. Recently recruited by Odd Future Records (yes, the brainchild of those Golf Wang hoodlums), many of their followers seem unaware of hardcore's historic affiliation with hip-hop - and they expressed their distaste in amusing fashion.

Not that Lee Spielman and his fellow hell raisers give a fuck. Their reputation has been precariously built on volatile teen angst and bruising live shows, cracked foundations that threaten to crumble at any time, but simply add to the unpredictability of it all.

If 119 felt oddly lacking in identity, unusually reserved, possibly suffering from the band struggling to find a firm foothold within a new label, No Peace is the band’s most successful effort at bottling their trademark live intensity and translating it to record. Their somewhat one dimensional formula, a criticism from many observers, feels reinvigorated due to welcome guest spots from Wiki and, erm, King Krule, as well as The Alchemist providing intriguing production on ‘Reprieve’ and the scratchy, instrumental stomp of ‘Amnesiatic’. There’s even a stab at conventional song structure lurking within ‘Locked In Skin’, a coy flirt with the mainstream, that may send diehard fans scrabbling for the pause button.

Aside from that, it is business as usual, ‘Body Stuffer’ and ‘Leech’ hurtle past at eye watering speed, a bone-shattering flail of bloodied fists and battered headbutts, while ‘The Great Escape’ somehow thrashes with darker intensity. While it is never an easy listen, it often feels necessary to wipe Lee Spielman’s spittle from your cheek, such is No Peace's front row ferocity. Good luck unearthing a record that bristles with such glorious unrest all year.

In Godzilla, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a chief engineer working at the Janjira nuclear plant, discovers a mysterious seismic activity pattern that, if ignored, could threaten the stability of his facility (as well as the lives of nearby residents). Yet, before Joe can plead to his superiors for caution, a mysterious force causes a meltdown within the plant – leaving Joe, his family, along with the rest of the area, devastated.

Fifteen years later, Joe is still searching for answers, obsessed with uncovering the real reason behind Janjira’s nuclear meltdown. When the eccentric conspiracy theorist is arrested inside a quarantine zone, Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy EOD technician, must travel to Japan in an effort to bring his father back to the states – and put an end to Joe’s increasingly dangerous search for answers. Yet, just after Ford arrives in Japan, it becomes clear that Joe was right all along – and that the world is about to pay the price for not listening to his warnings.

Bryan Cranston Aaron Taylor Johnson Godzilla 2014 Godzilla Review

When his critically-acclaimed film Monsters became an indie sci-fi favorite, director Gareth Edwards was challenged with rebooting the iconic King of the Monsters for Legendary Pictures. Despite abysmal ratings for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla, the film’s $370 million (unadjusted) in ticket sales made it clear the giant lizard still had pull at the global box office. Thankfully, Edwards learned from Hollywood’s past mistakes and the new Godzilla offers a fresh and tantalizing moviegoing experience for longtime fans of “Monster Zero-One,” as well as casual viewers looking for summer spectacle.

In spite of tongue-in-cheek Godzilla vs. [Insert Monster X] movies over the last half-century, the original Toho Gojira (1954) wasn’t created to birth a cinematic icon – the monster was used as a horrifying metaphor for the atomic bomb. To that end, Edwards smartly blends sixty years worth of Godzilla movies into a cautionary tale warning of modern humankind’s arrogance, presenting the King of Monsters as both horror and hero. Some may complain that there isn’t quite enough Godzilla in Godzilla, but Edwards’ restraint is actually a credit to the success of the film – especially in an era where audiences can become desensitized to CGI characters and onscreen destruction. The director walks a fine line between showing off the redesigned reptile while harnessing the creature’s larger-than-life persona. Godzilla makes a big impression, dealing genuinely crowd-pleasing moments without overstaying his welcome, and leaving audiences to relish in every shot of the monster.

Godzilla 2014 Monster Godzilla Review

Instead of relying on massive CGI fights to sell the film, Edwards makes smart use of interesting human stories – which lead viewers through increasingly revealing looks at Godzilla and other threats. Edwards’ movie isn’t just about Godzilla or military might, it’s a captivating tale of people (at all levels) as we encounter natural forces outside of our control. Regardless of its scope, the movie is surprisingly intimate – with beautiful cinematography that grounds Godzilla in a rich and lived-in world. Edwards keeps his focus tight on a small group of human characters – allowing them to develop within the context of the greater crisis (but without stealing the spotlight from their titular star). As a result, the computer generated antihero is rarely disconnected from the perils of people on the ground – with seamless shots that transition back and forth between selfless human heroics and eye-popping monster mayhem.

Cranston sets the tone early as charming but compulsive Joe Brody – a man that, even before disaster strikes, is aloof and obsessive. Despite an award-winning turn as Walter White in Breaking Bad, Cranston has been relegated to thin caricature in most of his film roles – one-note villains or tough-as-nails military men. Fortunately, Cranston is given a lot more to work with in Godzilla and the actor supplies an emotional and empathetic performance which ensures that both pillars of the narrative (sci-fi fantasy and human drama) are taken seriously.

Aaron Taylor Johnson Elizabeth Olsen Godzilla 2014 Godzilla Review

Paired with Cranston, Taylor-Johnson is a serviceable leading-man for the story as Ford – a relatable hero trying to get back to his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and son Sam (Carson Bolde). At times it’s clear that Ford is a fictional fabrication – a character designed for every occasion in all the right places at the right times – but thanks to a likable turn from Taylor-Johnson, it’s easy to suspend disbelief and follow along.

While Olsen furnishes one of the stronger performances in the film, the talented actress is given very little screen time. Instead of developing Elle as a character, Edwards sidelines Olsen to fleshing-out the men and monsters around her - adding another layer to Ford as well as providing on-the-ground emotional drama once Godzilla hits the mainland. Similarly, Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa is tasked with delivering exposition in nearly every single scene – providing backstory, scientific revelations, and giant monster insights whenever a character (and the audience) needs clarification. That said, Serizawa is still an impactful addition, similar to Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) in the original Godzilla, a scientist reeling from the collision of scientific discovery and its consequences. Serizawa helps viewers navigate conflicting feelings about Godzilla – making it acceptable (at least this time) to root for the King of Monsters, even when he’s destroying entire cities in the process.

Ken Watanabe Dr Ichiro Serizawa Godzilla 2014 Godzilla Review

Godzilla is also playing in 3D and 3D IMAX theaters and the film takes full advantage of both premium formats. The film may not have been shot in 3D but the post-conversion contributes in immersion and enhanced visual spectacle. IMAX 3D is also a worthy investment, even for frugal filmgoers, since the extra screen size and audio fidelity enhance Godzilla’s massive size and heart-pounding roar. The 3D isn’t essential (especially in certain parts of the film) but viewers who are willing to invest in a premium ticket will get their money’s worth from the IMAX experience.

Moviegoers expecting two hours of CGI monster beat downs may be underwhelmed by the amount of Godzilla in Edwards’ reboot. However, the director has actually delivered a much more ambitious and memorable experience, blending a crowd-pleasing return for the titular star, poignant human drama, thought-provoking cautionary themes, as well as fun Toho series nods (like monster battles on TV) – all with entertaining blockbuster spectacle and a third act brawl that sets a new bar for the beloved King of the Monsters.

The Raid 2(also known as Berandal) picks up hours after the events of The Raid: Redemption, as the fallout from rookie cop Rama’s (Iko Uwais) siege on Boss Tama’s high-rise compound makes big ripples in both the cop and crook worlds. Rama quickly finds himself between a rock and a hard place; not only are murderous gangsters looking for him, the corrupt cops and politicians who green-lit Boss Tama’s trap are after him as well. On the advice of a veteran cop he can trust, Rama agrees to a dangerous mission: go undercover in the criminal underworld to root-out the real threat of political corruption in Jakarta.

After much time and hardship, Rama manages to infiltrate the inner circle of Ucok (Arifin Putra), the son of crime boss Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo). But as the saying goes, it’s warmer under the dragon’s wing than one might think. When rival gang leader Bejo (Alex Abbad) starts a clandestine war for the streets of Jakarta, Rama finds that his choice of bedfellows isn’t as clear-cut as he originally thought – and not everyone is who they originally seem to be.

The Raid 2 Yayan Ruhian as Prakoso The Raid 2 Review

The Raid: Redemption was nothing short of a new milestone for the action genre (read my 5-Star review – Spoilers: I liked it). Using bare minimum, writer/director Gareth Evans scrapped together a sick single-setting action/horror thrill ride, complete with camera tricks and martial arts choreography that hadn’t really been seen before; living in that shadow, The Raid 2 would have to do something truly astounding to top its predecessor. Sadly, despite its expansive ambitions, The Raid 2 falls short of matching the simple pleasure of the first installment – but for action fans, there is still some next-level stunt and choreography work alive and present in Evans’ sequel.

Berandal is basically the movie Evans wanted to make before budgetary restrictions forced him to make The Raid: Redemption instead. The sequel in many ways seems like a celebration of the first film’s success (and an expanded budget), which is both good and bad for the film, overall. Yes, there are some pretty crazy ambitious set pieces and fight sequences – and a lot more evidence of Evans’ stylistic fingerprint in the way shots and sequences are designed and executed onscreen (see: the prison yard riot sequence). The Raid 2 looks – on a directorial level – much more sophisticated and lavish than The Raid 1, proving that Evans has artistry to go along with those action sequencing skills.

The Raid 2 Prison Fight Sequence The Raid 2 Review

However, much of The Raid 2‘s biggest sequences feel arbitrary and disconnected from overly convoluted narrative (more on that later). On the whole, the film feels like “action porn” – i.e., a pastiche of scenes and bloody “money shots” that are loosely strung together by a flimsy and clichéd narrative, which only serves to transition us from one bloody sequence to another. Several of the battle sequences have nothing at all to do with our main character – they’re just there as evidence of Evans’ filmmaking creativity and prowess, another deposit in the Berandal money-shot bank. In the moment, each action sequence is pretty captivating to watch – but without proper story/character support, the film becomes a flaccid routine around the time the thirtieth bone is being sadistically broken, or the seventeenth gash is being grotesquely cut through flesh. The pleasure quotient of action porn has a pretty short shelf-life.

That’s not to say that Evans doesn’t tack a story onto The Raid 2; in fact, it’s a much more intricate and layered story than first film. However, complexity is not always a good thing: the first film benefitted from its thrilling simplicity (get to the top of a building full of psycho addicts and murders without dying); the sequel nearly drowns in its over-bloated cast of characters and their accompanying storylines. Just talking dramatis personae: there are three crime boss characters (Indonesian, Japanese and Arab); a Godfather-style father/son crime drama; a whole sub-set of assassin characters who get their own storylines and sequences; and oh yeah, Rama’s Infernal Affairs undercover drama is part of it, too.

The Raid 2 Berandal Uwais The Raid 2 Review

It’s far too much to keep track of, and at 2.5 hours of runtime, the bloated weight of the film is all too noticeable as it drags along.  The Raid 2 is admittedly a universe-expanding chapter of the franchise (stay tuned for The Raid 3), and so therefore it has a lot of narrative to service and set up – but some of the choices that Evans makes with the storyline are downright shocking – and not in a good way. The first 10 minutes of the film will likely baffle fans of the first film – as will the point where the sequel leaves off. Worse yet, the overall point or theme of this intricately woven crime saga is unclear, as the violent climax doesn’t work nearly as smartly or as effectively as, say, the final moments of PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood – which this movie has “borrowed” from quite liberally…

The cast of actors include both veteran and fresh faces from the Indonesian film industry – including some regulars from “Camp Evans.” Performances are solid, with Tio Pakusodewo bringing some theatrical gravitas to make Bangun an interesting antagonist, and Iko Uwais being given a lot more range to work with. Julie Estelle’s “Hammer Girl” doesn’t say much but will nonetheless be a fan-favorite (one of the better elements of the movie); but Yayan Ruhian (‘Mad Dog’ from the first film) is completely shoehorned into the mix, in what is one of film’s most needless and extraneous plot threads. The physical acting is top of its game though, and is easily the one area in which the sequel exceeds the original. Some of what choreographers Uwais and Ruhian come up with is deliciously crazy… and pretty awesome to witness onscreen.

Hammer Girl in The Raid 2 The Raid 2 Review

ltimately, The Raid 2 leaves us somewhere in a middle ground: a slow and convoluted crime saga story to sift through in order to experience some bigger, bloodier, crazier action sequence highlights. A bit of a sophomore slump – but not for lack of effort or ambition on the part of Evans and his crew. Let’s just hope that The Raid 3 (which apparently will attempt an ambitious midquel story approach) will cut some fat and streamline things back down into a leaner, more focused narrative direction. Given the body count in this chapter, that shouldn’t be much of a problem.

In Oculus, two young adults are still trying to move past the horrific and traumatizing death of their parents many years before. For Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), recovery means leaving a psychiatric hospital and reacclimating to life in the real world; for his older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), “recovery” means tracking down an old mirror that used to hang in their childhood home – a mirror that Kaylie is convinced houses the evil spirit responsible for the deaths of their parents.

By holding Tim to a promise made in their youth, Kaylie scores herself one night in their old home to test out the theory of the haunted mirror. With decades of research and a house full of ghost traps and recording devices all at her disposal, Kaylie tries to lead Tim through a demonstration of the mirror’s terrible power – while keeping them alive long enough to prove their findings. But daylight is a far away, and the eyes of the mirror see all the way into the deepest recess of the mind – to memories best forgotten.

The latest low-budget horror film pickup by Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal ActivitySinister, The Purge), Oculus attempts to stretch the acclaimed 2006 short film Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan into a feature-length scare-fest – with middling success. While the concept and look of the film are unique and crisp (respectively), scrutiny of the overall storyline and larger meaning of the narrative quickly reveal some glaring deficiencies. Short version: like looking through a one-way mirror, there’s something to see here but little to actually reflect upon.

Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites in Oculus 2014 Oculus Review

Mike Flanagan (Absentia) directed the short and feature versions of Oculus, with newcomer writer Jeff Howard fleshing out the initial short story by Jeff Seidman and Flanagan. The concept actually approaches haunted house horror in a fresh way, using a two-pronged story (Kaylie and Tim’s experiences with the mirror as both children and adults) to give the film some nice stylistic distinction. The experiences of past and present blend seamlessly together as Kaylie and Tim relive the horrific night of their parents’ deaths; thanks to the nature of the evil entity at the center of the story, the filmmakers are able to bend the rules of reality to create some unique moments of shock and fear. For the most part, this ghost’s mind-games are fun to play.

The narrative of Oculus appears to have substance and meaning, but it is really just smokescreen, an illusion that evaporates as soon as the movie is over. It’s almost as if Flanagan and Howard never really found a way to expand upon the initial short film, as so much of the narrative feels implied or vague rather than fleshed-out and connected. The best horror stories are those which act as dark metaphors for real-life events or experiences, but this film never achieves that resonance. There is also little narrative drive, questionable character motivations, confusing logic to follow – and when it’s all said and done, the long stare into the looking-glass reveals nothing but a hollow center underneath all the elaborate surrealist wrappings. We get an unnerving journey, but the ultimate destination is pretty unimpressive.

Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan in Oculus Oculus Review

The lead roles played by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), Rory Cochrane (Argo), Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy), Brenton Thwaites (Home and Away) and young actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan are all solid enough – even if their respective characters are underdeveloped. There seems to be a half-hearted underpinning about family tensions, infidelity, etc., underscored by a half-formed mirror metaphor – but given the surreal stylistic approach (slipping in and out of time periods, memories and illusions) the mechanics of the story’s execution eclipse much of the subtext and meaning of each scene. The actors seem to be aware of character layers that simply don’t come across in the narrative – worse yet, elements of the characters that are teased initially never get fully developed (Kaylie’s obsession, Tim’s instability, the mom’s jealousy, the father’s aloofness, etc.).

By the end of the film (which fancies itself to be a shocking twist) there is little impact or horror to be felt, beyond the sense of having witnessed creepy or strange events. You won’t exactly go home thinking twice about the mirror in your own home; this ghost story is not that effective, or that memorable. Still, for fans of the genre, the unique stylistic approach to haunted house horror will be a novelty of sorts – just don’t be disappointed when it all ends with a fizzle instead of a bang.

In Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s re-imagining of the biblical flood narrative, the titular patriarch loses his father, Lamech, at a young age – as “Men” (born from the lineage of Cain) attempt to purge the remaining descendants of Adam and Eve’s youngest child, Seth, from the Earth. Hidden from the Men at the time of Lamech’s slaying, Noah (Russell Crowe) grows into a kind-hearted father and husband who lives off the land – in balance with animals and plant life.

The unchecked pillaging of Earth by Man begins to spread to the isolated hillside that Noah and his family call home. Tired of Man’s rape, murder, and butchery, “The Creator” speaks to Noah in a series of visions – instructing him to protect the innocents of creation (specifically, the animals) from a forthcoming cataclysmic event designed to wipe the failure of Man from the planet. Horrified by the darkness he sees in others, Noah sets out with his family to build an ark and fulfill The Creator’s request. Yet, despite honorable intentions, the mission creates unforeseen conflict within Noah’s house, forcing him to confront his own wickedness, and question whether any man (himself and his sons included) deserves to inherit The Creator’s new world.

Noah Movie 2014 Russell Crowe Noah Review

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Aronofsky’s Noah – since the film is a significant re-imagining of an iconic story from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious texts. Still, the director does not present his depiction as either “true” or a “more accurate” version of events; instead, he exercises the Noah narrative as an allegorical opportunity to explore the differences between ideologies of faith and human self-determination. Moviegoers who believe that reimagining religious scripture (even for the purpose of modern symbolism) undermines the message of the source text will find countless feather ruffling alterations. As a result, the changes are bound to makeNoah a hard watch for viewers that would have preferred a more traditional adaptation – especially viewers who are already criticizing the movie simply because “it didn’t happen this way in the Bible.

Sadly, all of the controversy has distracted from the quality of the actual film – which presents an impactful experience for both religious and secular viewers, alike. In fact, many of the contentious changes actually make Noah a more engaging choice for moviegoers who are open to Aronofsky’s artistic vision and subject matter. The movie is neither Christian propaganda nor a threat to the bible, it’s a relatable tale of human nature and the mysteries of creation – one that actually reaffirms key themes from the original story and thought-provoking moments in the journey of a peaceful man whose life is torn apart in an attempt to do the “right” thing.

Noah Movie Russell Crowe Ray Winstone Noah Review

To that end, Russell Crowe gives an engrossing performance – presenting a rich iteration of Noah: a lover, a warrior, and a bully, all in one. Aronofsky’s character isn’t just a man of honor and faith, when necessary, he’s a man of violence. The film portrays Noah as a dedicated believer willing to defend The Creator’s plan at all costs – even to the detriment of his own loved ones. The director takes Noah’s journey to its logical (albeit heart-wrenching) conclusion, even exploring the consequences of watching as humanity is destroyed, and asking: “What effect would that responsibility have on a person?”

The supporting cast is equally strong – with Ray Winstone in the role of antagonist King Tubal-cain. Winstone’s portrayal is far more complex than a standard stock villain – offering a smart juxtaposition against Russell’s Noah and outlining the major philosophical differences between Men and the few descendants of Seth who clung to faith in The Creator. Through Tubal-cain, the actor manages to balance both the wickedness of humanity with enough charisma to make his beliefs relatable – even if they are, ultimately, barbaric.

Noah Movie Emma Watson Ila Noah Review

Along with solid efforts from Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, and Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson is another key standout as orphan-turned-member of Noah’s family, Ila. In addition to providing a significant amount of exposition that could have been eye-rolling in the hands of a less capable actress, Watson is responsible for one of the toughest scenes in the film – selling a major turning point with a downright dynamic performance.

To sell the scale of Noah’s task, and the subsequent flooding of the Earth, Aronofsky employed a notable amount of CGI. Fortunately, quality visual representations of the Ark, animals, and The Watchers (creatures that have been hidden from the trailers but play a major role in the film) aid in a reimagining that is both immersive and grounded. Supernatural elements, such as the aforementioned Watchers, are utilized both to enhance the emotional impact of the story while also solving challenges that might otherwise have distracted casual viewers asking a host of logistical questions. Not to mention The Watchers, which actually enjoy an intriguing and extremely relevant backstory, also allow for several of the movie’s most epic moments.

Noah Movie 2014 Ark Animals Noah Review

Select details might be different but Noah honors the scriptural source material with an inspiring tale of love and dedication in the face of unchecked darkness. Understandably, certain viewers will be frustrated (and even offended) that Aronofsky didn’t choose to develop a “faithful” retelling of the religious text; yet, for those with an open mind, Noah supplies an immersive and thought-provoking movie experience. Given the movie’s premise, it will be easy for moviegoers at extreme ends of the spectrum to dismiss the film outright – but viewers that are willing to give Noah a chance might find that, despite differences of opinion and belief, there’s plenty of universal value in Aronofsky’s gripping tale of good overcoming evil.

I, singing in a band.

I, singing in a band.

Fahmy. Kuala Lumpur City Follow me on Twitter