Video Verdict: Reviews of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,’ ‘The Maze Runner,’ ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ and ‘This is Where I Leave You’

Left to right, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo and Donatello fight the forces of evil in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”  Photo courtesy of Paramount

Left to right, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo and Donatello fight the forces of evil in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Photo courtesy of Paramount

A Woody Allen comedy, a star-studded film about family dysfunction and two science-fiction titles lead this week’s home video releases.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

2 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Paramount
Available on: Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, digital download and on demand

There are things to like about director Jonathan Liebesman’s (“Wrath of the Titans,” “Battle Los Angeles”) cinematic update of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. Unfortunately, storytelling isn’t one of them.

When director Steve Barron offered a live-action Ninja Turtles movie in 1990 it was a treat for fans, but the turtles were goofy looking. With the benefit of modern special effects, Liebesman fixes that problem and creates some spectacular action sequences that are particularly good when viewed in 3D. Unfortunately, the team-written script isn’t as impressive as the technical work.

The movie takes viewers back to the turtles’ origins, introducing them as impetuous youth who have been quietly growing up and honing martial arts skills in the sewers of New York. Thanks to a mutation, they are larger and considerably stronger than average human beings. They are also able to talk, stand on two feet and handle a variety of martial arts weaponry with expertise. The latter skill is thanks to copious training from their adoptive father, a large, mutated rat named Splinter.

This backstory is introduced relatively gracefully and spread throughout the duration of the 101-minute movie, meaning viewers don’t spend the first third of the picture mired in exposition. The structure is good, but Liebesman and his team of screenwriters don’t use the time as effectively as they might. The result is a film that contains lots of action but makes it difficult for audiences to warm to the characters.

The picture is presented in two arcs that eventually intersect. The first has Liebesman telling the story of the turtles, whose goal is to leave the sewers and battle bad guys on the streets of New York. The second story features April O’Neil (Megan Fox), an ambitious TV reporter who wants to cover real news instead of the fluff she is usually given. April thinks she’s found a career-altering story when she witnesses members of the criminal Foot Clan get mercilessly pummeled by a lone ninja. As April investigates the story, she draws nearer to the turtles who are making more trips to the surface despite Splinter’s insistence that they remain hidden.

Although Liebesman’s action sequences are strong, the pacing is off-kilter, and viewers don’t get to know the four turtles as well as they should. In fact, one leaves the film with only a cursory understanding of their personalities. Donatello is the brain, Leonardo is the leader, Michelangelo is the joker and Raphael is the tough guy. This is consistent with Ninja Turtles mythology, but that’s about the extent of the character development, meaning it’s difficult to make an emotional connection with any of them.

Although Fox is respectable as April, her character is no better developed than the turtles. Will Arnett and William Fichtner have key supporting roles, and they do a fine job, but they’re never asked to do anything more than play archetypes. That leaves viewers with a film looks great but does nothing to set itself apart from the scads of other effects-fueled spectacles that enter theaters every year.

The DVD release contains no extra features, but the Blu-ray releases include a music video, an extended ending and making-of featurettes.

 

The Maze Runner

3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download

Science-fiction adventures aimed at youth are among the hottest properties in Hollywood today, and “The Maze Runner” is looking to cash in on the trend. Based on the novel by James Dashner, the film centers on Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), a young man who wakes up with amnesia in a mysterious place known as the Glade.

The Glade is inhabited by other boys, some who have lived there for years, and they tell Thomas that they also arrived mysteriously and without memories. They also explain that the area is surrounded by a massive, changeable maze inhabited by dangerous, nocturnal creatures. This makes escape all but impossible. Nevertheless an elite group of boys enter the maze each day, running its corridors in a desperate attempt to map it.

Although many in the Glade have grown accustomed to life there, Thomas refuses to settle in. His determination shakes the previously established power structure, and things become even more complicated when the first-ever woman (Kaya Scodelario) arrives.

O’Brien is a likable leading man and first-time feature director Wes Ball does a good job getting viewers inside Thomas’ head. This builds a bond with the audience and raises the stakes, particularly as the movie heads into its action-packed third act.

Dashner’s book was the introduction to a trilogy, and 20th Century Fox is hoping the franchise follows in the footsteps of young-adult hits like “The Hunger Games.” That leads to the film’s only real downside: “The Maze Runner” ends on a cliffhanger. This once-rare happening is now a full-fledged trend, and it’s already growing tiresome. That said, it’s difficult to complain loudly when the filmmaking is as good as it is here.

The DVD release has no extras, but the Blu-ray has deleted scenes, a gag real, a visual effects reel, several behind-the-scenes features, a short film by Ball and a filmmakers’ commentary.

 

This is Where I Leave You

3 stars
Rated R for language, sexual content and some drug use
Warner Brothers
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

There are some strange families that call America home, and the movie industry is so obsessed by this fact that there’s an entire subgenre of cinema best described as “the dysfunctional family dramedy.” Standouts include “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Garden State” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” While few viewers will place “This Is Where I leave You” in the same class, the film is an obvious offshoot.

The plot centers on Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a middle-aged man who discovers that his wife is cheating on him and then learns that his father has died. Distraught, Judd returns to his childhood home, where his three siblings have gathered to grieve and provide comfort to their mother (Jane Fonda).

Each sibling brings additional baggage, and this drives the plot forward. Judd’s sister, Wendy (Tina Fey), is a busy mother whose love affair with the next-door neighbor (Timothy Olyphant) was cut short when he suffered a life-altering brain injury. Although now married and raising a child, Wendy’s self-absorbed husband (Aaron Lazar) makes her long for simpler times.

Judd’s youngest brother, Phillip (Adam Driver), is a free-spirited slacker who uses the reunion to introduce his latest girlfriend, an older woman (Connie Britton) who used to be his therapist. Paul (Corey Stoll) is the oldest sibling, and the most conservative and stable member of the family, but even he has issues. His wife (Kathryn Hahn) once dated Judd, and she is relentlessly badgering Paul about having a child.

The personal troubles of the siblings come to light as they reminisce about their father and mourn his loss with the help of the town rabbi (Ben Schwartz), a former friend that they still call by his childhood nickname, “Boner.”

Jonathan Tropper adapted the screenplay from his best-selling, 2009 novel, and the result is both fascinating and spasmodic. Director Shawn Levy (“The Internship,” “Night at the Museum”) has a cast to be reckoned with, and he infuses the film with an appropriate sense of whimsy.

Bateman, Fey, Fonda and Rose Byrne (in a supporting role) give the film energy and star power, and their lesser-known co-stars are just as solid. The primary failing of “This Is Where I Leave You” is the fact that there’s so much going on. While all families have drama, Levy’s film piles one unlikely scenario atop another until viewers are left with a teetering monster that strains all credibility. Viewers who can suspend disbelief and enjoy the craziness will have a good time, but those expecting subtlety will be disappointed.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a brief behind-the-scenes feature based on Schwartz’s portrayal of the rabbi.

 

Magic in the Moonlight

3 stars
Rated PG-13 for a brief suggestive comment and smoking throughout
Sony Pictures Classics
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

Writer-director Woody Allen is one of the most prolific filmmakers on the planet, and his work ranges from groundbreaking to pedestrian. “Magic in the Moonlight” falls somewhere between those extremes.

Presumably, Allen’s goal was a lightweight, old-fashioned comedy, and that is exactly what he achieves. The story is set during the late 1920s, and it centers on Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a world-famous magician who uses his knowledge of deception to discredit fake psychics. As the film opens, fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks Stanely to investigate a confounding case.

Howard tells Stanley that a wealthy American family is convinced that a young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone) is a mystic, and he is concerned that she is swindling them. Stanley, who doesn’t believe in true mysticism, is quick to sign on, but when he meets the charming and beautiful Sophie, he develops doubts.

Allen’s screenplay is sprightly and fun, and his direction is accomplished. The movie has a nostalgic tone, and Allen’s frothy storytelling is reminiscent of the period depicted. Most of the action takes place on location in the French Riviera, and gorgeous cinematography adds to the project’s luster.

The supporting cast includes Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden, Erica Leerhsen, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Shamos. Each actor does a fine job settling into the story, but it’s Firth and Stone who do the heavy lifting, and they are outstanding.

Allen was established as one of America’s greatest directors long ago, and – at 79 – he has nothing to prove. That makes all of his films a gift to movie lovers, and it’s easygoing affairs like “Magic in the Moonlight” which are often most enjoyable. The film is expertly presented yet lacks all affectation.

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a behind-the-scenes feature and footage from the movie’s Los Angeles premiere.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“The Skeleton Twins”: Through coincidence, estranged twins Milo and Maggie Dean (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) cheat death on the same day. This convinces them to set the past aside and attempt to make amends. Co-written and directed by Craig Johnson.

“Stonehearst Asylum”: Limited-release horror film starring Jim Sturgess as a young, Victorian-era physician who makes a horrible discovery while working for an older doctor (Ben Kingsley). Kate Beckinsale, Brendan Gleeson and Michael Caine also star. Based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.

“Extant” – The First Season: Initial 13 episodes of the CBS TV drama about an astronaut (Halle Berry) who returns to Earth pregnant after serving 13 months alone on a space station. Goran Visnjic, Pierce Gagnon, Hiroyuki Sanada and Michael O’Neill also star.

“Peter Pan Live!”: Taping of the Broadway musical that NBC broadcast live from New York on Dec. 4. Allison Williams stars as Peter Pan and Christopher Walken plays Captain Hook.

“The Americans” – Season 2: The third season of this FX drama will debut in late January. This release includes the 13 most-recent episodes. The action is set during the 1980s, and it centers on KGB agents (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) posing as a regular American couple.

“Cowboy Bebop” – The Complete Series: All 26 episodes of the late 1990s animated series about bounty hunters who travel through space in pursuit criminals.

 

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

NOTE: Blu-rays, DVDs and screening links are provided to the reviewer at no charge. This enables us to run reviews the day titles become public, but it does not influence the opinions expressed.
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3 Comments

Filed under Video Verdict

3 responses to “Video Verdict: Reviews of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,’ ‘The Maze Runner,’ ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ and ‘This is Where I Leave You’

  1. smilingldsgirl

    Cool reviews. All of these I missed (turtles by choice just the design was like flipping the bird to my youth). This is where I leave you looked like a million tropes done a million times.
    I hate to say it but aside from Mean Girls I am not a Tina Fey fan. I know #unpopularopinion. I hated Date Night, Admission, Baby Mama, I could go on. Her movies havent been good and I just dont think shes that funny. I dont even think 30 rock is very funny. Oh well.

    Like

  2. Thanks. I like Tina Fey, but I agree with you on most of her movies. “Mean Girls” is great, but I’m not a fan of the other movies you mention and I never got into “30 Rock.” I always liked her on SNL. She’s fine in “This Is Where I Leave You,” but Bateman really carries the show. I think it’s a movie that you will either like a little or dislike. I enjoyed it and don’t regret the time I spent with it, but I’m not in a big hurry to watch again … not that I ever have time to watch movies more than once.

    I really want to dig into some Christmas favorites right now, but I have so much to watch for my column, end of year lists, etc., that I’ll be lucky if I can watch one old favorite.

    Like

  3. Pingback: RiffTrax names worst films of 2014 |

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