New ‘Smurfs’ proves well-intentioned films can still bore viewers to tears

New ‘Smurfs’ proves well-intentioned films can still bore viewers to tears

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

The worst of the three terrible Smurfs films this decade, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is a stale depiction of one-dimensional characters brought to life by celebrity voice actors.

As the first fully-animated modern Smurfs movie, “The Lost Village” does admittedly boast an impressive look, with bold visuals clearly inspired by James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Massive flowers, towering trees and magical plants surround the title characters, giving the world a majestic feel that the story fails to match, despite a hint of smart political commentary.

Demi Lovato leads the film as the voice of Smurfette, the outcast of Smurf Village. Other than Smurfette, each Smurf has two defining characteristics: they are male and they only have one personality trait. The early bits of the film would be more accurately titled “Snow White and the 101 Dwarves,” with a lone normal person surrounded by neurotic, gimmicky characters.

Much has been made of this “Smurfette Syndrome,” so much so that the concept has become a broad criticism of films with a single female cast member. When films such as those of the Smurfs franchise feature a single female character surrounded by men, it leads to an oddly creepy feeling, as though all the men are simply competing for the woman as a prize. “The Lost Village” carries elements of this issue, which distractingly leads to a question the film skirts around but never answers: How are Smurfs born?

Director Kelly Asbury obviously sees these problematic elements of the Smurf mythos, and addresses them by setting the plot into motion with some of the classic characters stumbling upon a village made up entirely of female Smurfs.

The new characters introduced in this village are highly-capable, generally-badass women that give the toon a refreshingly feminist twist. By turning the classic trope started by this franchise on its head, Asbury makes a strong statement about passive, “token” female characters that few animated movies dare.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie fails to match the boldness of its subtext, settling for a cheap, predictable plot padded with watered-down jokes and sight-gags that would fail to entertain even lifetime Smurfs fans for more than a few minutes.

The juvenile jokes not only waste the audience’s time, but also the skills of the dynamite voice actors, including “Magic Mike”’s Joe Manganiello as Hefty, “30 Rock”’s Jack McBrayer as Clumsy and “Community”’s Danny Pudi as Brainy. Each has a voice perfectly suited to their character, and they all deliver solid laughs upon their introductions in the film.

Following their humorous debuts, these characters inexplicably stay in the movie and become the supporting cast. Every five minutes or so, each one makes the same joke that introduced them, to an annoying and repetitive effect that makes the movie’s hour-and-a-half runtime feel like four hours.

Adding to the interminable experience of watching “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is its blindingly fast pace. The plot hops from place to place without any time to breathe, taking away all opportunity for character development.

With already flat characters, this prevents the viewer from developing any sort of emotional investment. In the end, it leads to a boring, unmemorable adventure where many things happen, but none of them mean anything.

After two disappointing outings, “Smurfs: The Lost Village,” looked to hit reset with a new aesthetic and the introduction of more female characters — but make no mistake, this is a bad, bad film.

“Smurfs: The Lost Village”

Rating: PG

Runtime: 89 minutes

Score: 1.5/5 stars

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Keanu Reeves returns in blood-soaked adrenaline rush “John Wick: Chapter 2”

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is an espresso shot of a movie, an action epic which ramps up its predecessor’s brutal fight scenes without any excess fat.

Some of the most interesting elements of the first “John Wick” was the mystery surrounding The Continental Hotel, a secret society of assassins. The sequel dives headfirst into its mythology to wonderful effect, filled wall-to-wall with brutal, fun and sometimes humorous action.

The film opens on John Wick (Keanu Reeves) during one of his trademark murderous rampages. In this opening scene, as Wick clashes with a veritable army of Russian henchmen during a vicious vehicular battle, director Chad Stahelski’s gory creativity runs wild. It immediately electrifies the audience while also giving a taste for what will follow.

From the opening onward, Stahelski’s high-octane directing style is turned up to 11 for the film’s entire duration and never drops down a notch. Flying solo without “John Wick” co-director David Leitch, Stahelski’s singular vision propels the movie into cinematic-action bliss.

After once again attempting retirement to give himself time to grieve the death of his wife, Wick is drawn back into the society of assassins when an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), claims his “mark,” a plot contrivance which requires Wick to assassinate any target for D’Antonio. The two clearly have a murky past, but Wick agrees to follow through with his duty and the story truly begins to unfold.

Wick’s journey takes him to Rome, and its location of The Continental Hotel. Each glimpse of Stahelski’s world gives more information without taking away from its mystery, and instead piques the viewer’s curiosity. One of these glimpses features the Roman Continental’s “Sommelier” (Peter Serafinowicz) who doesn’t specialize with wine, but weapons. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Serafinowicz and Reeves play perfectly off one another, using extended wine metaphors to refer to preparation for a night of combat.

The rest of the film is a globe-hopping journey which has Wick facing off against a brutal Common—yes, the rapper, startlingly intimidating here—as well as a mute yet equally imposing Ruby Rose. In a particularly stunning sequence toward the end, Wick takes down wave upon wave of assassins in a mirror house, using reflections and illusions to kill a vast amount of enemies. The body count in “John Wick” tops off around 80, and “John Wick: Chapter 2” at least doubles it, easily reaching 80 in headshots alone.

Make no mistake, this is a ferocious bloody film, but Reeves’ and Stahelski’s awareness about its inherent impracticality makes it work. The movie features a glimpse of a silent film from one of the original geniuses of physical comedy, Buster Keaton, and his influence is obvious here. The most entertaining bits of Keaton’s films involve miraculously overcoming a seemingly insurmountable problem, and Stahelski adopts Keaton’s signature humorous flair to fit a violent action film.

The most interesting action in both “John Wick” films comes from the moments when the titular hero runs out of bullets, and the many ways he is forced to compensate, including punching someone in the throat to buy him time, spearing an enemy with the barrel of his rifle and simply throwing the gun at his assailants. These films do not aim to shock or surprise their audience, but entertain, and on that front, Stahelski and Reeves perfectly stick the landing.

Rating: R

Runtime: 122 minutes

Score: 4.5/5 stars

Powerful “Manchester” tells heartbreaking, human story of grief

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has created his first masterpiece. “Manchester by the Sea” is an unqualified success of intimate filmmaking, storytelling and psychology.

Modern filmmaking often focuses on larger-than-life escapist narratives. Superheroes and talking animals make up the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2016, so when a film as personal as “Manchester by the Sea” comes along and reverses the trend, it packs a strong emotional punch.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, an apartment handyman in Boston who lives a simple, apparently lonely life. When Lee learns his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has abruptly died, he immediately travels to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. Joe left his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in Lee’s care, expecting him to move across the state, a request that both confuses and outrages Lee.

Much of the film plays out in flashback, gradually telling each character’s painful history. No character in “Manchester by the Sea” has lived an easy life, each struggling to overcome their past and learn to handle their own grief. Joe raised Patrick for most of his life without his mother, and Lee made a tragic mistake in his past, transforming a stereotypical Bostonian party-boy into a quiet and somber man.

The story reads as extraordinarily trite and typical of the “awards season” drama, but Lonergan elevates the plot through nonlinear storytelling techniques and the dynamic performances of his actors. Where the trailers sold an uplifting tale of familial love after the death of a father, Lonergan delivers a devastating story of people who have no clue how to cope with their grief. By saving Lee’s backstory as a mid-movie reveal, “Manchester” quickly turns from the decent if predictable Oscar film to a meditation on sorrow.

Every performance in “Manchester by the Sea” utterly shines. Affleck is perfect as Lee, making a wide range of emotion evident despite an understated performance. Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s ex-wife, and delivers the most powerful moments of the film alongside Affleck.

Twenty-year-old Lucas Hedges is the breakout star, playing Joe’s grieving, confused, love-stricken son Patrick. Hedges is, in many ways, the heart of the film. Without him, it would slip into gloom, but he is able to supply a surprising amount of humor. Patrick has the strongest arc of the story, gradually learning to handle his own pain. He leans on friends and girlfriends — yes, plural — to help him get by without actually processing the death of his father. When the grief eventually hits him, Hedges performs the realization perfectly, silently shaking and crying.

Lonergan shows an intentionally drab Massachusetts in winter, and the constant overcast weather matches the story’s tone while punctuating the few moments of color. The same can be said of the sound design. While silence fills the first seconds of the film, more pivotal moments are emphasized with the incorporation of the mournful, orchestral score, which progressively crescendos until it overwhelms even dialogue.

The script itself is wonderfully intimate and personal, feeling somehow autobiographical despite Lonergan’s promise of originality. Where some stories deal with grief and offer the characters closure at the end, “Manchester by the Sea” offers realism. The movie doesn’t end by wrapping up the characters’ stories with the promise of happiness — it simply stops. It is deliberately unsatisfying, mirroring the complex lives of the characters within the story.

Disney delivers moving musical masterpiece “Moana”

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

In a sea of greatness, standing out from the crowd is hard. The near-untouchable history of Disney musical films creates this problem every year, but “Moana” easily shines just as bright.

Young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of the village chief on Motunui, a Pacific island. Refreshingly, she is expected to take her father’s place when she comes of age without even a mention of her gender. She longs to explore the sea, but her responsibilities keep her bound to land. When all of the food on the island begins to mysteriously go bad, Moana accepts her call to adventure and begins the search for shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to return a magical stone to its proper resting place, which will appease the gods and save her island.

The banter between the two leads brings a kinetic energy to the dialogue, never leaving a dull moment. Moana and Maui initially have a very cold relationship, each trying to gain something from the other: Maui wanting Moana’s boat, and Moana needing Maui’s help. Their rocky first bond leads to a story that slowly builds a realistic friendship and thankfully never once hints at the typical princess romance.

Moana and Maui venture across the seas and the story becomes episodic, with the two heroes overcoming one obstacle at a time. One of these is a gang of “Mad Max”-inspired anthropomorphic coconuts in a sea-bound pursuit of the heroes. Another is a trip through the Realm of Monsters, which includes a hilarious David Bowie-like song from Flight of the Conchords band member Jemaine Clement.

As the movie propels toward its conclusion, the predictable easy win for the heroes becomes more and more likely — before suddenly taking a sharp, surprising turn. This leads to two songs and two scenes that are simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, aided by some of the finest Disney songwriting this side of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

The decision to hire “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda pays off in spades, as the songs bring a perfect sense of liveliness and heart that pays tribute to Disney’s past while also carving a new path. The songs take the archetypes viewers expect, such as the “I Want” song and the villain song, then turns them on their head, sometimes to powerful emotional effect.

The voices are also perfectly cast, with Dwayne Johnson bringing the perfect sense of humor, arrogance and surprising rap skills to Maui. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho adds spunk to the titular hero and has a masterful control of her voice. She belts the show-stopping ballad as easily as the softer moments, expertly manipulating the
audience’s emotions. Alan Tudyk, a Disney veteran, provides the sounds of a wordless idiot chicken named Heihei, a hilarious parody of the prototypical Disney animal sidekick.

“Moana” is a story of contrasting opposites: land and sea, water and fire, empathy and fear. Even the two main characters are a small human girl and a large male demigod. In telling a story of contradictions, the filmmakers effortlessly create conflict without even needing a true villain. In this story, the antagonist is simply the conflict they face and the barriers which prevent them from achieving it, not some nefarious monster manipulating the story behind the scenes. In doing this, the writers spend more time fleshing out the characters. “Moana”’s greatness truly shines when these fully rounded characters sing Miranda’s lyrics, tying the film’s best pieces together and frequently bringing the audience to tears.

Some may call Disney’s current hot streak its second renaissance. The filmmakers at Disney are certainly producing movies of a higher quality than 10 years ago, with the great recent output including “Frozen” and “Zootopia.” If “Frozen” started this second renaissance, “Moana” is the pinnacle — a hilarious, heartwarming tale with songs children will sing forever.

Marvel conjures up narratively-stunted, visually stunning superhero flick with “Doctor Strange”

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

“Doctor Strange” takes the superhero genre on a bizarre and awesome trip into mysticism. With beautiful action, abstract expeditions into the cosmos and a satisfying ending, the film is almost a success.

The Marvel cinematic universe has a history with hugely popular movies that can be great, incoherent or somewhere in between. Director Scott Derrickson’s “Doctor Strange” lands closer to “great” than “incoherent,” but makes enough mistakes to keep it from achieving excellence.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant yet arrogant man who is unfortunately the intersection of his own Sherlock Holmes and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. He suffers a terrible, but visually awe-inducing, car accident that cripples his hands, causing him to embark on a journey in search of a cure that leads him to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). From there, he learns magic and heals his hands as he unintentionally becomes entangled in a centuries-long war between darkness and light.

If the plot sounds familiar, it is. It borrows from Marvel’s own “Iron Man,” from “Batman Begins,” and the origin of Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous
Kaecilius is reminiscent of “Kung Fu Panda.” The direction and action sequences are enough to overcome the film’s lack of originality, but it still takes a toll on the otherwise visually innovative film.

The biggest issues are with the narrative, which is unoriginal and full of unearned plot beats. Doctor Strange‘s character does not have much of an arc, magically transitioning from self-centered doctor to magician to heroic sorcerer. These character shifts are spontaneous and baseless, and even his most substantial change-of-heart takes place off-screen.

Though the plot disappoints, “Doctor Strange” is visually stunning. When Strange is first “awakened,” he is sent on a trippy, fantastic expedition through the “multiverse.” The scene is part “2001: A Space Odyssey,” part the quantum realm sequence from “Ant-Man,” but with an unconventional, creative spin.

Action sequences are further improved by Derrickson’s touch, with rotating gravity, time reversal and folding realities. “Doctor Strange” opens with a battle scene in which ambiguous villains and heroes fight on the side of a building as it and the surrounding city rotate and fold in on themselves like a moving M.C. Escher painting. The scene is a rare case of 3-D actually improving a film, establishing different planes of action and adding much-needed clarity to scenes that could have become mindless mayhem.

As the movie progresses, it grows more daring and willing to jump into unabashed sci-fi fantasy, and the film is better off for it. Scenes of Strange and Mordo bickering while running across upside down buildings, fighting evil ninjas are far more entertaining than dull moments of an arrogant genius who only wants to help himself.

The conclusion to “Doctor Strange” is potentially the film’s greatest asset. Superhero films frequently end with a large object crashing into the ground as a beam of light streams into the sky, evidenced by “The Avengers,” “Man of Steel,” and even supposed parody film “Deadpool.” Derrickson wisely avoids this, and has Strange resolve the film’s conflict by outwitting the villain rather than blowing everything up.

Marvel has crafted another hit with “Doctor Strange.” Although the film’s misses are significant, they do not overwhelm when it hits the bullseye.

“Inferno” packages thrilling nonsense in entertaining format

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

Two-thirds of the way through “Inferno,” a plot twist caused as many exasperated laughs as it did shocked gasps. This reaction defines the movie, as “Inferno” manages to be as contrived as it is thrilling.

Director Ron Howard first adapted Dan Brown’s bestselling conspiracy thriller novel “The Da Vinci Code” 10 years ago. The Tom Hanks vehicle was a self-serious labyrinth of a film but addressed a fascinating conspiracy. From there, the sequels have grown more bold, more entertaining and more convoluted.

In Howard’s latest adaptation, Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital in Florence, Italy, unsure how he arrived there. This helps the story wisely skip the typically exposition-loaded first act and jump straight to the chase. Almost immediately, ambiguous groups begin firing at Langdon as he takes off to follow a trail left by a recently deceased billionaire, with his new female sidekick (Felicity Jones).

The mysterious puzzle is loosely tied to Dante’s “The Divine Comedy: Inferno,” but the film never gives a convincing reason why the epic poem figures so heavily into the story. For some reason, the billionaire who left the puzzle loved Italian art and Dante, using paintings as hints. Though entirely nonsensical, this enables Hanks to have strange visions of hell on Earth, including visually arresting sequences of heads turned backwards, people halfway buried in the ground and “The Shining”-like raging rivers of blood.

The plot unravels through flashbacks and plot twists, never really making much sense. In order to decode what actually happened in this movie, one would need a full day, a notebook and a symbologist as smart as Hanks’ character in the film.

Despite the disappointing plot, the entire cast is superb. Jones delivers a strong portrayal of a confused yet eager-to-help doctor, and she works surprisingly well with Hanks. Irrfan Khan is dynamite as the mysterious leader of a secretive corporation. His performance is convincing as a charmingly arrogant business man who is also an assassin with uncertain motivations — a ridiculous but extremely fun turn from the dramatic actor.

As Hanks’ character regains his memory, “Inferno” becomes less bold. Hanks’ freaky visions appear less frequently, and the movie starts to cave under its own weight, bending over backwards to make sense of the tangled plot. But “Inferno” never grows dull — whenever the plot hits a wall, its characters travel to another country, solve puzzles and dodge bullets there.

The film’s last flaw is its paint-by-numbers, typical Hollywood finale. For a series that finds its identity in being unpredictable, the ending comes up supremely disappointing. Further frustrating is the decision to stray from the conclusion to Brown’s novel, an ending as bold, preposterous and bizarrely awesome as the first 90 minutes of the film.

On the whole, Ron Howard’s “Inferno” is neither a good nor bad movie. It makes plenty of mistakes, but beautiful cinematography of historic buildings combined with an enjoyably absurd plot makes for an amusing time at the movies.

Those who are looking forward to “Inferno” should go to the theater, buy some popcorn and prepare for an awesome mess of a movie — but don’t forget your tin foil hats.

All-Star cast fails to save drab direction in “The Accountant”

Originally published on The Daily Texan.

Although Ben Affleck was recently on a roll with his directorial effort in “Argo” and well-chosen role in “Gone Girl,” his streak ends as he takes on the titular role in Gavin O’Connor’s “The Accountant.”

Affleck’s character is Will Hunting meets Jason Bourne: A man who is brilliant in math and invincible in a fight. He is joined by a dynamite cast of Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, John Lithgow, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Robert C. Treveiler and the deliciously evil Jon Bernthal. But aside from Affleck and Bernthal, their characters are underdeveloped and have minimal screen time.

“The Accountant” is overly long and convoluted, and a more detailed plot description might fill an entire page. It follows Christian Wolff (Affleck), an autistic mathematician with a hard childhood and a particular affinity for managing major criminals’ books. Wolff is called to help Lithgow’s company and bank accounts as two agents try to put Wolff behind bars. All the while, Bernthal leads some sort of private army hunting Wolff. The film has an unnecessary amount of subplots, including a treasury agent (Simmons) retiring, a new agent (Addai-Robinson) erasing a dark past, a father (Treveiler) struggling to raise an autistic child, the leadership and employees of a crooked company (Lithgow and Kendrick) and the leader of a private army (Bernthal).

Although the script fumbles with the high-concept idea, it remains somewhat engaging mostly due to Affleck’s performance as Wolff. He full-heartedly sells playful moments of awkwardness, as well as stone-faced action sequences or an occasional panic attack.

From a plot standpoint, Bernthal’s character only exists to remind the audience that Wolff faces an enemy with a similar violent skill set. Bernthal takes this role and runs with it, performing as a sort of dark mirror to Affleck’s socially awkward accountant. He fully sells the role of a southern-accented and somewhat charming murderer, making just as large an impact as Affleck in about one-fourth
the screen-time.

The other performances are lacking, with big-name stars delivering neither great nor terrible portrayals of two-dimensional characters.

The greatest problem with the film is not its hard-to-follow script or poorly-used cast, but its absolutely boring direction by O’Connor. The script deals with an interesting idea, and much of the cast is having fun, but the entire story plays out with no style at all. About 90 percent of the film is dialogue. This is not inherently detrimental to a film, but O’Connor fails to make these moments interesting. When Affleck is in a scene, the film has three possible shots: him talking, a reverse shot of someone else talking or a low-angle shot of Affleck looking angsty.

Recent action films such as “John Wick” or even “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” have specific stylistic elements during fight scenes. “Wick” uses clear, two-dimensional shots of the action, whereas “Captain America” uses quick editing and close-ups to disorient the viewer yet keep them informed. But “The Accountant” does neither, shooting the few action beats slowly as if they were scenes of Affleck and Kendrick discussing mathematical gibberish.

Although Affleck’s recent output has been strong, Gavin O’Connor’s “The Accountant” is a muddled, convoluted mess of a film, with decent elements that just do not add up.

“The Accountant”

Rating: R

Runtime: 128 minutes

Score: 2/5 stars