Welcome to NICKPICKSFLICKS. I am your host for the evening, America's sweetheart, Nick Spake.
5 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Total Crap
Just Reviewed Lucy-July 25th
For Your Emmy Consideration: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-July 23rd
Just Reviewed Boyhood-July 18th
Nick's Best Movies of 2014 So Far-July 12th
Just Reviewed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes-July 11th
50% Dumb, 50% Smart, 100% Lame **
“Lucy” is a completely inconsequential movie. You watch it, shrug your shoulders with a “meh,” walk away, and forget about it the next day. That’d be all well and good if “Lucy” was simply aspiring to be another run-of-the-mill blockbuster. The film actually seems to have greater ambitions, though, trying hard to tackle a number of complex ideas and theories. On one hand, the film’s ambition at least makes it more admirable than mindless entertainment. On the other hand, the fact that the film can’t deliver on its ambition ultimately makes it more disappointing.
Scarlett Johansson has undoubtedly been on a role as of late. She gave a voiceover performance worthy of an Oscar nomination in “Her,” stole the show in “Captain America: The Winter Solider,” delivered some transcendent work in “Under the Skin,” had a charming supporting role in “Chef,” and now that winning streak comes to an end with “Lucy.” To Johansson’s credit, she does bring a lot of spunk and finesse to the film’s otherwise one-note title character. Her performance might not save “Lucy,” but Johansson does make it a better movie than it would have been. That’s a true testament to a movie star’s talent.
Lucy herself is an ordinary American woman who accidentally ends up as a drug mule for the Taiwanese mob. The drug has the appearance of Walter White’s baby blue crystal meth, but that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is the effect of the drug, which allows Lucy to use more than the typical 10% of her brain’s capacity. This turns her into a super smart, all knowing being that’s more incredible than all the Avengers combined. It’s about as plausible as the science in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
This is actually a potentially ingenious idea for a science fiction story. But unlike a Christopher Nolan or Wachowski Brothers picture, “Lucy” has nothing to offer other than ideas and philosophies. There isn’t a story or a character for the audience to become invested in. A majority of the movie is just Johansson and Dr. Morgan Freeman spewing out exposition as quickly as possible, taking no time for these fantastic ideas to blossom into something more meaningful. Maybe that’s why the film rushes through its narrative in just under 90 minutes.
Even as a purely philosophical film “Lucy” doesn’t work as it only takes a break from the improbable exposition for cliché shootouts with stock villains. This makes “Lucy” feel like watching two different movies, one smart, the other stupid, and both pretentiously full of themselves. Whatever Writer/Director Luc Besson was going for, his film isn’t smart or stupid enough to be a success. It’s just a confused mess that doesn’t know what it wants to be or what it wants to say.
The tagline for “Lucy” reads, “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.” The tagline just as easily could have read, “Imagine what the filmmakers could have done if only they had used 10% of their own brain capacity.”
When the 2014 Primetime Emmy nominees were announced a couple weeks ago, the biggest surprise didn’t occur in Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Comedy Series, or any of the so-called “major categories.” It was in Outstanding Animated Program. As expected, “South Park,” “Futurama,” and “Bob’s Burgers” all returned to the lineup. After years of being one of the funniest animated ensemble pieces on television, FX’s “Archer” also finally broke into the race. The real surprise, however, was the show that took the fifth spot. It wasn’t “The Simpsons” or “Family Guy,” but Nickelodeon’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for “The Manhattan Project.”
If you’re an award show junkie that follows the Emmy’s closely then you probably thought to yourself, “How did something as stupid as ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ pick up a Primetime Emmy nomination? A Daytime Emmy maybe, but a Primetime Emmy? Seriously, how did this happen?’” Well for one thing, the new CGI “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” series actually isn’t all that stupid. Oh sure, it’s still about giant reptiles that eat pizza and practice Ninjutsu in the sewers. As ridiculous as the premise remains, though, developers Joshua Sternin and J.R. Ventimilia have delivered a truly compelling show that mixes action, drama, and comedy better than any previous incarnation of “TMNT.”
When “Ninja Turtles” first rose into popularity in the eighties, older audiences all likely had the same reaction. “This is just a dumb fad that will never last.” Yet, almost thirty years later, “Ninja Turtles” is still one of the most popular franchises around. Is that because there will always be kids that are drawn to stupid ideas? Well yeah, why do think they keep watching “Power Rangers?” Unlike “Power Rangers,” however, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a franchise that’s shown considerable improvement over the years.
While the concept originated in the comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, “Ninja Turtles” hit the mainstream market with the 1987 cartoon series. Like most cartoons at the time, the series primarily existed as a means to sell toys to wide-eyed children hopped up on sugar cereal. Where “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” took on a more straight-faced tone, the people behind the “Ninja Turtles” cartoon seemed to know how ridiculous the premise was. As a result, “Ninja Turtles” played up its goofy, kid-friendly humor rather than hardcore action. The comedy itself often ranged from legitimately funny to insultingly corny. Nevertheless, James Avery’s Shredder and Pat Fraley’s Krang were always good for a laugh.
Kids got a darker take on “Ninja Turtles” with the 1990 live-action movie. The film was pleasant to look at, had some well-choreographed action, and can be viewed today as a 90’s time capsule of sorts. In retrospect, though, we all know that the “Ninja Turtles” cartoon and motion picture aren’t necessarily good per se. They’re still a ton of fun to watch, but that fun derives more from nostalgia than quality. Obviously, they’re not in the same league of something like the best Disney animations, which hold up as great art without nostalgic glasses.
The biggest problem with both the show and movie was the serve lack of distinctive leading characters. As mentioned before, this was an era where kids shows were solely made to mass-produce toys. Because of this, it was customary to simply color coat characters instead of giving them distinguishing personalities. That’s not to say that the four Ninja Turtles didn’t have some differences. As the title theme song written by Chuck Lorre goes, “Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool, but rude, Michelangelo is a Party Dude.” But aside from those slight character traits, they were all basically the same interchangeable turtle that spouted dated slang like, “Cowabunga.” The only things that honestly set them apart were their weapons and the colors of their bandanas. Maybe that’s why the voices constantly got mixed up.
It wasn’t until the 2003 reboot that the Ninja Turtles started to emerge as individuals. The turtles each had the key traits they were given in the previous cartoon series, but those traits were all significantly expanded upon and given more depth. Never before had Ralph seemed more badass, nor had Mikey been more of a wiseass. For the first time, you could tell the difference between the four based on personality and not bandana color. The showrunners set out to explore to dynamic between this unlikely family, producing some legitimate drama.
Speaking of drama, this was easily the most adult incarnation mass audiences had ever seen from the Ninja Turtles. As far as kid shows go, it was probably the darkest we had gotten since “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Gargoyles.” Sure, there was no blood, but there might as well have been as Leonardo is stabbed through the shoulder and Baxter Stockman loses a body part per episode. As for the Shredder, let’s just say that compared to the 1987 series it’s like “Dark Knight Rises” Bane VS “Batman & Robin” Bane. The show never went too far with its more adult approach, though. The creators always knew this was “Ninja Turtles” and that the show had to be fun for kids above all else.
While it was equally fun and dramatically involving, the 2003 reboot wasn’t without its share of dud episodes. The final “Flash Forward” and “Back to the Sewers” seasons can pretty much be skipped altogether. Still, the show was a massive step forward for this franchise with sharp animation and sophisticated storylines. The original cartoon’s sheer camp value has made it a more definitive version in the eyes of popular culture. Nevertheless, 2003’s “Ninja Turtles” is undoubtedly the superior series in terms of quality, revealing that this franchise could be more than just colorful junk food.
When it was announced that a third “Ninja Turtles” animated series was in the works for 2012, I had a hard time getting even remotely excited. We had already gotten a campy cartoon with the 1987 series, a gritty cartoon with the 2003 series, and a made for television crossover movie that brought everything full-circle with 2009’s “Turtles Forever.” There was no reason to reboot “Ninja Turtles” yet again. After binge-watching the first season, however, I stand corrected.
You know how some people have argued that if you took the best parts from the old “Spider-Man” movies and the new “Spider-Man” movies you’d have the perfect “Spider-Man” film? That’s kind of what Nickelodeon has done with the new “Ninja Turtles” animated series. The show flawlessly combines the joyful humor of the 1987 cartoon, the darker tone of the first movie, and the strong character dynamics of the 2003 reboot. The newest “Ninja Turtles” goes beyond barrowing from previous incarnations, though. Nickelodeon has worked in a number of it’s own inspired signatures, including some Beauty and the Beast styled romance, ongoing parodies of “Star Trek” and anime, tragic back-stories, spot-on voiceover work, morals that tie into the story without feeling forced, a brilliant twist towards the end of season one, not to mention the catchiest rendition of the classic theme song you’ll ever hear.
This is also probably the most self-aware interpretation of “Ninja Turtles,” noting how improbable it is for Donatello to fight off alien technology with a stick. The animation itself is a unique blend of various different styles, creating something incredibly likable to watch. That’s more than can be said about the pointless 2007 CGI movie, which just looked like footage from a video game. In many ways, the new “Ninja Turtles” has become everything the “Kung-fu Panda” animated series could have been, finding just the right balance of silliness and drama.
Nickelodeon’s “Ninja Turtles” is not only a prime example of how this franchise has evolved, but also how children’s TV shows have evolved. Granted, the 80s and 90s brought us a number of wonderful cartoons that still hold up like “DuckTales” and “Pinky and the Brain.” But let’s face it, there are just as many cartoon that don’t hold up as well as we remember. Is it blasphemous for me to say that “Pokemon” is actually kind of annoying?
There’s still undoubtedly a lot of pandering crap out there aimed at kids today. At the same time, however, never before have we gotten more kid shows (and movies for that matter) with grown up appeal. The ongoing storylines and running gags seen in “Adventure Time,” “Phineas and Ferb,” “The Legend of Korra,” “Gravity Falls” and of course Nickelodeon’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is proof of that. If you still think everything marketed to kids nowadays is automatically inferior to the shows of yesteryears, you’re either getting old or maybe you haven’t grown up much at all.
Considering all of the above, it’s actually not that surprising that “Ninja Turtles” earned a Primetime Emmy nomination. If anything, it’s encouraging that the Academy of Television would recognize the show as serious entertainment. Does that mean “The Manhattan Project” is bound for Emmy gold next month? Probably not, especially since it has to go up against “Futurama” for its touching final episode and “South Park” for its epic “Black Friday” story ark. If anything can be taken away from this nomination, though, it’s that you can never judge a show based on its exterior. Every ridiculous idea has potential to produce something magnificent, even one called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
12 years a boy ****1/2
If there’s one movie that every new adult should see this year it’s “Boyhood.” While we’ve gotten a lot of great coming of age stories in the past couple years like “The Spectacular Now” and “The Way Way Back,” Richard Linklater’s extraordinary film takes the genre to unfeasible new levels. In 2002, young Ellar Coltrane was cast to play the film’s protagonist, a little boy named Mason. “Boyhood” was then filmed and written over a twelve-year period, following Mason from age five to age eighteen. Throughout this entire process, Coltrane continued to reprise his role as Mason. Not only is “Boyhood” one of the boldest coming of age stories ever put on film, it’s one of the absolute boldest experimental films ever made. The fact that a picture like this got off the ground at all is an achievement in itself.
Anyone who grew up this previous era will connect with “Boyhood” in some way, shape, or form. The film perfectly captures a generation consumed by Ipods, Facebook, “Dragon Ball Z,” Britney Spears, “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” “High School Musical,” “The Dark Knight,” “Halo,” and “Wii Sports.” “Boyhood” does so much more than merely reference popular culture highlights from the past decade, however. It’s a picture perfect slice of life that feels all too real to be fiction. Had it only cast unknown actors, it probably could have been mistaken for a documentary. Of course then we would have been deprived of a couple career-best performances.
Patricia Arquette never hits a wrong note as Mason’s mother, who’s constantly stressed and on the brink of losing it. For someone raising two kids on her own and trying to get her college degree, though, she’s doing the best that any human being possibly could. Ethan Hawke is just as great as Mason’s father, an energized Obama backer who is constantly smoking cigarettes and probably something else too. Still trying to grow up himself, he makes for a solid weekend dad although he might not make for the most reliable full-time dad. Mason also has a stepfather played by Marco Perella, who seems nice enough at first, but turns out to be an abusive alcoholic. We’ve all known a parental figure like the adults here and the filmmakers never turn any of them into stereotypical caricatures.
In addition to the adult characters, “Boyhood” also contains some of the most authentic representations of children you’ll ever see. Linklater cast his daughter Lorelei Linklater as Mason’s sister, Samantha. Like Coltrane, she also grew up working on this film. Most movies tend to depict siblings as complete strangers that either never talk or are constantly at each other’s throats. The relationship between Mason and Samantha is a far more believable, though. Sure, they argue and tease each other, but there’s also a strong friendship that lasts throughout the years. It also helps that neither Mason nor Samantha are depicted as child stars that always spout witty one-liners that were obviously written by adults. They’re written as real kids that sometimes don’t know what to say or are likely imitating a character they saw on TV.
Mason himself is an extremely unique protagonist. He’s quiet and sometimes has trouble in school, but is a generally nice person. One might argue that Mason isn’t the most interesting character and to an extent that’s understandable. He’s essentially just a normal kid who acts as a blank slate for the audience to wear. This actually works wonderfully, though, as the film isn’t really about Mason so much as it is about witnessing a life play out through an adolescent’s eyes. Linklater does just that and what an enchanting life journey he takes us on.
So many movies feel like they need to retrain themselves to basic three act structures. “Boyhood” defies this unwritten rule, showing a person live their life rather than trying to turn it into a structured narrative. And you know what? That’s pretty fascinating, just as life itself is much more fascinating than we give it credit. Not every movie needs to follow the same formula we’ve seen a million times before. Not every movie needs to be about a hitman, bank heist, or giant robot. Not every movie needs a forced love triangle, action climax, or last minute misunderstanding. Sometimes just showing life play out is all you need.
Linklater has never been one to shy away from ambitious filmmaking. In “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight,” he told the love story between two people over the course of twenty years. In “Boyhood,” he beautifully condenses a person’s entire youth into 166 minutes. Some might shy away from “Boyhood” based on its running time of almost three hours. It goes by much quicker than you’d think, however, just like childhood.
Okay, real quick here are my fifteen favorite movies of the year so far. A half-assed half year list if you will. Looking the list over, it’s actually been a better half year than I thought. If you think otherwise then you must not be seeing the right movies or maybe you’re just not seeing them the right way. In any case, let’s hope the second half of 2014 brings us plenty of movies to add to this list.
1. Boyhood: One of the boldest coming of age stories ever put on film and one of the absolute boldest experimental films ever made.
2. Life Itself: A passionate tribute to Roger Ebert’s life, forever reminding us that he was the greatest film critic who ever lived and so much more.
3. How to Train Your Dragon 2: While the first “How to Train Your Dragon” was wonderful, it’s kind of shocking just how fantastic this sequel is, expanding on a grand world with a fittingly darker tone.
4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A Shakespearean tragedy meets a science fiction war epic that improves upon its predecessor in every way. It just might even improve upon the Charlton Heston version.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel: Another quirky, charming entertainment that could only be brought to the screen by the endlessly inventive Wes Anderson.
6. The Lego Movie: Everything is awesome…need I say more?
7. Captain America: The Winter Solider: Just when it seemed like Marvel was wearing out their welcome at the movies, they delivered this rousing superhero sequel with the essence of a conspiracy thriller.
8. Obvious Child: A true acting showcase for Jenny Slate, who proves she’s a star in the marking capable of tremendous feats.
9. X-Men: Days of Future Past: Everything that’s made “X-Men” a great franchise is displayed here, with jaw dropping, well-choreographed action, a witty sense of humor, and intelligent themes regarding prejudice.
10. Edge of Tomorrow: While it might look like “Transformers” meets “Groundhog Day” on the surface, this science fiction action romp is so much smarter, funnier, and more original than you’d ever expect.
11. The Fault in Our Stars: Shailene Woodley is faultless once again in this heartbreakingly authentic depiction of young people dealing with cancer.
12. The Normal Heart: An equally heartbreaking account of the AIDS epidemic that’s sure to win multiple Emmy’s next month.
13. Only Lovers Left Alive: A smart romance that always feels honest, despite the fact that the romance is between two vampires.
14. Belle: A charming period picture about overcoming ignorance to reach unthinkable feats.
15. Under the Skin: Although it might prove too vague and art housey for some, Scarlett Johansson’s performance, not to mention her naked body, make this surreal identity crisis well worth checking out.
Hail to the Chimp! ****1/2
While “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a surprisingly enjoyable reboot/sort-of prequel to the 1968 classic, the film at times came off as a trial run. It seemed like the filmmakers had a grander, richer story they wanted to tell but had to lay the groundwork first. Now that the exposition is out of the way, they’re free to tell that grander story in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the latest “Apes” film is a perfect example of how to make a sequel. It couldn’t have come at a better time considering how “Transformers: Age of Extinction” brought the summer season down a whole letter grade a couple weeks ago.
Taking place sometime after the previous film, a tribe of genetically evolved apes has overrun the Muir Woods in California. Their fearless leader is Caesar, played once again by Andy Serkis in a stunning performance made possible by motion capture technology. Life is mostly peaceful for Caesar and his clan, which includes his mate and two sons. It also appears that the ALZ-113 virus has wiped out all human life. Sorry, AIDS, another deadly virus linked to monkey’s beat you to the punch line.
It turns out, however, that there’s still a band of immune humans living in a section of San Francisco. They wish to access a dam in the woods to turn the lights back on and reach out to other survivors. To get to the dam, though, they’ll need some assistance from Caesar. Many of the apes are reluctant to help humans in any way, particularly one named Koba (Toby Kebbell). Although Caesar wishes to co-exist with the humans in peace, war between the two cultures seems inevitable. Of course anybody who’s seen the ending to the Charlton Heston version knows that.
Jason Clarke, Kerri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Gary Oldman all do solid work as the humans. Once again, though, this “Planet of the Apes” belongs to the apes themselves. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback wisely keep their dialog limited, almost entirely conveying emotion through facial expressions and sign language. It’s actually rather astonishing how emotionally involving “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is, taking time for quiet, subtle moments of awe that are foreign to the likes of Michael Bay.
At its heart, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a Shakespearean tragedy meets a science fiction war epic. It’s all about humanity and takes the time to develop everyone as a three-dimensional character, human and ape alike. Even the villains aren’t just war-hungry villains. You can understand their point of view just as you can understands Caesar’s point of view. This provides a multilayer commentary on the barrier between cultures, which some complained was too one-sided in “Avatar.”
You might be asking yourself, “how can a movie called ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ earn comparison to the works of Shakespeare, let alone be taken seriously?” But lets not forget, the original “Planet of the Apes” wasn’t just another lame B-movie. Michael Wilson, who also wrote “Lawrence of Arabia,” and Rod Serling, who created “The Twilight Zone,” saw potential for a thought-provoking story about prejudice, slavery, ignorance, and government. The people behind “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” saw that potential too. Both the original and this film manage to take a silly idea and turn it into something meaningful. That’s more than can be said about the Tim Burton version, which only made the idea sillier.
Naturally, the film does build up to an action climax. But even then Director Matt Reeves of “Let Me In” and “Cloverfield” never settles for mere explosion porn. He keeps us emotionally invested, not to mention excited, every step of the way. Walking away from the film, you can’t help but be pumped for the following chapter. As for what’s to come next, it seems like a showdown at the Statue of Liberty is in order.
5 Pleasant Surprises
1. Lizzy Caplan getting an Outstanding Drama Actress nomination for Masters of Sex
2. Archer finally getting into Outstanding Animated Program along with South Park and Futurama
3. And Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is officially an Emmy nominee for the surprisingly exceptional CGI series!
4. They almost got the Outstanding Guest Drama Actor category just right, although I don't know what Paul Giamatti is doing in there for Downton Abbey over Pedro Pascal for Game of Thrones
5. No snubs for Breaking Bad, Fargo, True Detective, The Big Bang Theory, The Normal Heart, or Orange is the New Black I'm particularly furious about
1. Tatiana Maslany snubbed again for Outstanding Drama Actress for Orphan Black
2. No Good Wife for Outstanding Drama Series
3. No Legend of Korra for Outstanding Animated Program or Gravity Falls for that matter
4. Way too much love for Downton Abbey's very subpar forth season
5. Not nearly enough love for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, although Andre Braugher at least got in
5 Things I Can't Be That Mad About Because I Knew They'd Never Happen Anyway
1. No Ilana or Abbi in Outstanding Comedy Actress for Broad City
2. No Andrew Daly in Outstanding Comedy Actor for Review
3. No Cristin Miloti in Outstanding Comedy Supporting Actress for How I Met Your Mother
4. No love for Arrow
5. None of the actresses on Brooklyn Nine-Nine