Dracula Untold


Enter the dragon.

Enter the dragon.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye, William Houston, Noah Huntley, Ronan Vibert, Zach McGowan, Ferdinand Kingsley, Joseph Long, Thor Kristjansson, Jakub Gierszal, Joe Benjamin, Paul Bullion, Mish Boyko, Dilan Gwyn, Louise Parker. Directed by Gary Shore

You may think you know the story of Dracula but most of us only know his Victorian-age story as told by Bram Stoker. However, even by that point the infamous vampire was centuries old, the undead creature once known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Transylvanian prince who was already a bit of a monster while he was still alive. Of course, history is often a different tale than what those who were there might have narrated.

Vlad who as a boy was sent to live with the Turks as a sort of tribute (and also to keep the numerically superior Turkish army from annihilating the Transylvanians) wants nothing more than to live in peace with his people and his family – his wife Mirena (Gadon) and son Ingeras (Parkinson).

But that is not to be. A Turkish delegation arrives, demanding that the Transylvanians supply them with a thousand boys to serve in the Sultan’s army – including Vlad’s own son. Vlad tries to reason with them, but the envoy won’t hear of it. When a small party of Turks comes to take Ingeras, Vlad kills all of them.

Knowing they can never defeat the massive Turkish army who are well-armed and well-trained, Vlad turns desperate to protect his family at all costs. He ascends a forbidding mountain and there meets the Master Vampire (Dance), a creature half of myth and legend but certainly real enough. He cautions Vlad that the price for power is staggeringly high. If Vlad drinks of the vampire’s blood, he will have most of the vampire’s powers for three days. If he can keep from drinking human blood in that three day period, he will return to his human form. Should Vlad drink any human blood during those three days, a vampire he’ll remain for eternity and the Master Vampire will be freed from his prison and be allowed to walk the world again after centuries of imprisonment.

At first it seems like Vlad made a great bargain; he defeats a Turkish battalion by himself, able to change into bats, control the creatures of the night and possessed of the strength of a hundred men. However, the thirst is proving to be more difficult to resist than he might have thought possible. He also discovers that this was just a diversionary tactic by the Turks and they are coming with an army of hundreds of thousands to wipe out the Transylvanians, led by the Sultan (Cooper) himself, once a boyhood friend of Vlad’s. Can he find a way to defeat the Turks and keep his humanity at the same time?

This is one of those movies that mixes in fact and fiction together to create a different kind of brew, although the “facts” are somewhat fast and loose. In fact, just about the only thing the writers got right was that Dracula which translates depending on who you ask as the Son of the Dragon, or the Son of the Devil, was a prince of Transylvania who would impale his enemies as a means of intimidation. There the distinctions stop. There were no Turks in the 15th century; back then it was known as the Ottoman Empire and the Turks were but one ethnic group in the Empire. Also, his wife’s name was Ilona, not Mirena. He had a daughter named Mircea and a son named Mihnea but no child named Ingeras. Nor was Vlad all that popular among his nobles who were angered by his usurping of what they thought were their rights. Vlad wanted autocratic authority.

All that could have been forgiven if we’d been given a dynamic Vlad but Evans doesn’t deliver one. We get a fairly bland portrayal of the legendary nobleman, one that lacks force or charisma. We never get much of a sense as to what Vlad is like other than that he’s a devoted family man. That’s all well and good but we get a sense of his cruelty only by reputation; Vlad the Impaler might as well have been nicknamed Vlad the Doting Dad. There are a couple of scenes of stakes with Vlad watching them in anguish but that seems pretty at odds with the kind of guy who had no problems letting his enemies die horribly painful deaths. Evans seems distracted, like his mind is on a different movie than the one he’s shooting.

Mirena’s role isn’t well-defined. One gets a sense she’s supposed to be fiercely devoted to her son and husband and that she was strong enough to stand up to her sometimes hot-tempered husband but then at other times she seems uncharacteristically meek and submissive. Thus we are unable to get a real handle on who the true Mirena is.

The special effects are nifty, particularly Dracula transforming into a flock of bats, or controlling the storm near the end of the film. By and large though this isn’t as effects-driven as you might think; mostly this is a costumed action-adventure film in horror sheep’s clothing. The sets are extravagant looking and the cinematography of Ireland (subbing for the Carpathian Mountains) is lovely.

It can be said that this is lovely packaging for essentially an empty box. The suspense element is by the boards because we all know that Vlad is destined to be an immortal vampire so we know that he is going to consume the blood within those three days; it’s just a matter of how and when. So we’re left with mindlessly entertaining,,merely a trifle that will be forgotten the moment you leave the theater.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects sequences. Lush cinematography and nice sets and costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Evans is a bit wooden. Bloated and stodgy in places. Some historical inaccuracies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence, scenes of bloody vampire attacks, some disturbing images and a little sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam Worthington was originally set to star until he had to drop out and was replaced by Evans.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Van Helsing
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness begins!

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X-Men: Days of Future Past


Smile and the world smiles with you.

Smile and the world smiles with you.

(2014) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Omar Sy, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Mark Camacho, Zabryna Guevara. Directed by Bryan Singer

In the modern era of Superhero films, each franchise faces a particular problem – each succeeding entry in the franchise needs to be bigger and better, the stakes higher in order for the audience to continue to flock to the multiplex to see them. That is why, in my opinion, studios choose to go the reboot route rather than continue on with existing casts.

Bryan Singer may not necessarily subscribe to that theorem. He took the cast members of the X-Men: First Class reboot of the popular mutant superhero series and blended it with the original X-Men cast of his era and created a time-travel epic that carries the torch for both series’ nicely.

In a dystopian future, mutants have been all but eradicated as well as a good chunk of the human race. The Sentinels, giant robots with organic elements and an artificial intelligence that allows them to adapt to the various powers of the different heroes they fight, have become so powerful that not even the X-Men of the future can best them. The only humans left are those who agree with the agenda that mutants must be wiped off the face of the planet, using those who remain as slave labor.

Making a last stand in a Chinese temple are the remaining X-Men: Professor X (Stewart), Magneto (McKellen), Storm (Berry), Wolverine (Jackman), Bishop (Sy), Colossus (Cudmore), Shadowcat a.k.a. Kitty Pryde (Page), Blink (Fan), Sunspot (Canto) and Warpath (Stewart). They know that it is inevitable that the battle will be lost. They have only survived because Pryde has developed a plan in which she sends one of their members consciousness back a day to warn the rest that an attack is imminent so they can be elsewhere when the attack comes.

Professor X proposes that they do something similar but long-range. He has pinpointed the problem back to an event in 1973 – one in which weapons scientist Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), an anti-mutant hater of epic proportions, is assassinated by Mystique (Lawrence), the shape-shifting chameleon who was once the close friend of Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and later became the ally of Eric Lensherr (Fassbender) a.k.a. Magneto. She was later captured and her DNA was used to make what was already hard-to-defeat giant robots into nearly unbeatable sentient machines. The assassination also turned public sentiment against the mutants.

Sending someone back forty years is nearly impossible however. Pryde points out that “the human mind can only stretch so far before it breaks.” However Wolverine with his mutant healing power is the only one who can survive the trip. So it is that Mr. Cheroot first and Ask Questions Later is sent back to the Disco age where he will be given the monumental task of convincing the younger Xavier to try and find Mystique and stop her from her appointment with Trask.

Wolverine knows full well that it will take both Xavier and Lensherr to talk the headstrong Mystique who is angry and wounded over the deaths of several friends in Trask’s experiments on living mutants to discover what makes them tick. However, this is no walk in the park assignment. Xavier is bitter and angry over being shot by his old friend. He was paralyzed in the incident but a serum that Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Hoult) developed allows him to walk and numbs the pain but also blocks out his powers. Xavier is just fine with that and really doesn’t give much of a flying you-know-what for the future but at last his conscience kicks in and he agrees to help Wolverine.

Getting Lensherr aboard is slightly more difficult. He is being kept in a metal-less prison hundreds of feet below the Pentagon – apparently he’s been blamed for the magic bullet that killed JFK – but Wolverine knows a guy. That guy is Peter Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver (Peters) who has superspeed and the attitude to match.

Of course, once they free Magneto he turns out to have an agenda all his own and now the clock is literally ticking – in the future, the Sentinels are approaching the temple where the remaining X-Men are holed up and Wolverine’s consciousness hangs in the balance.

This all sounds very convoluted and it is. I have deliberately left the individual powers of most of the different X-Men unexplained – it would just take too long. The issue I have with movies like this is that we get literally a dozen or more different characters most of whom are given short shrift or split screen time with a younger/older counterpart. When you have a cast that’s chock full of actors who’ve received Oscar consideration (there are eight of them), something’s got to give. Poor Halle Berry (who won Oscar gold) has almost no dialogue and only a couple of minutes of screen time although to be fair, Berry’s pregnancy prevented her from taking part in the movie as much as the producers would have liked. Anna Paquin (who also won an Oscar) gets no dialogue and less screen time than it takes to read this sentence and yet she gets star billing. Ah, the magic of Hollywood credits.

Despite this, the movie flows surprisingly well and those actors who do get more than a few moments of screen time make the most of it. McAvoy in particular does well with his self-medicating and self-loathing Professor a far cry from the suave and confident Professor X of his counterpart Patrick Stewart. We see the road that Xavier is taking towards the compassion and wisdom his character becomes known for and it’s rather fascinating. Jackman as well continues to make Wolverine his own and while it’s hard to make something new out of a character he’s played seven times, Jackman manages to accomplish that.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar and Dinklage is a superb villain. His Bolivar Trask doesn’t see himself as a villain but rather the facilitator who unites mankind against a common enemy. His enmity against the mutants is somewhat surprising considering that as a small person, Trask is himself an outsider within society. It’s a multi-layered role and a villain worthy of a broad canvas such as this.

As you’d expect the battle sequences are plentiful and well-done. The Sentinels are fearsome creatures that have expressionless faces that are all the more terrifying for their mechanical blankness. Lots of things get blown up real good, and there are plenty of fists, fur and energy beams flying through the ether, not to mention flames, ice and the occasional claw.

A warning to those unfamiliar with the X-Men comics; there is a lot that goes unstated in the film that may not make sense. For example, the Wolverine in the ’70s has bone claws and in the future, claws of metal. That’s because the metal infusion that changes the nature of his weapon doesn’t take place until later on in time. In fact, the man responsible, Stryker (Helman) makes an appearance as an ambitious Trask operative here – he’d be played by Brian Cox in X2.

What really saves this movie is the plot which is complex and intelligent. Some often snipe at comic books and the movies that are based on them for being dumb and loud, but this is certainly not the former (and only occasionally the latter). Some thought was given to the mechanics and ramifications of time travel. The movie also made a good effort in re-creating the time period. Just as First Class was something of a superhero Bond movie, this is a lot like a superhero conspiracy movie, complete with Tricky Dick, the military-industrial complex and lava lamps.

This is the kind of entertainment that is synonymous with summer and a perfect fit for a year which has been thus far an improvement over last summer. The X-Men have always been some of the most interesting of comic books with some of the most compelling themes in the art form. The apocalyptic vision of the future here however is nothing compared to what is to come in the next installment of the series which is teased in an extra scene following the credits.

REASONS TO GO: Some sensational action scenes. Riveting storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters; may be hard for non-fans to keep up with all of them. May not make sense to those unfamiliar with the comic.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of comic book action and violence, some suggestive material, brief nudity and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the comic storyline the movie is based on, it is Kitty Pryde who travels back in time, not Wolverine. The change was made for continuity reasons – in the 1970s Pryde wouldn’t have been born yet, whereas Logan is ageless and would appear exactly the same in both future and past.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)


Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

(2007) Drama (Disney/Walden) Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison, Kate Butler, Devon Wood, Emma Fenton, Grace Brannigan, Latham Gaines, Judy McIntosh, Patricia Aldersley, Lauren Clinton, Isabelle Rose Kircher, Cameron Wakefield, Elliott Lawless, Carly Owen, Jen Wolfe. Directed by Gabor Csupo

Sometimes a great friend comes along when we least expect it. Someone who broadens our horizons, turns our perspectives upside down and makes us look at the world differently. Sadly, sometimes great friends also leave us when we most need them.

Jesse (Hutcherson) doesn’t have the most ideal home life. Sometimes, he feels like the invisible boy. His dad (Patrick) and mom (Butler) dote on his little sister May Belle (Madison) and all his other little sisters. They have way too much on their minds though to spare much of a thought for him – money is tight and that alone is enough to get him bullied by Janice Avery (Clinton), a large sadistic girl.

There’s a new girl in class though – Leslie Burke (Robb). Jesse has always taken solace that he’s the fastest kid in school, but Leslie beats him in a race, netting him further grief from his tormentors. On the bus ride home, he discovers that Leslie lives next door. Irritated with her victory, he rebuffs her attempts to make friends.

Eventually she wins him over, especially when she expresses her admiration for his drawings in the notebook he carries around with him at all times. She tells him about her love for fantasy stories. Together they go exploring the woods near their home, crossing the creek on a fallen log. They find an abandoned treehouse and a broken down old truck near it. They decide that this is their castle and this is the world of Terabithia, populated by gnomes, trolls and all manner of fearsome beasts. They are the King and Queen of their little world which comes to life in their imagination.

Leslie has had a rough time of it, moving from place to place and having trouble making or keeping friends. Even though her parents are wealthy and loving, Leslie has been a lonely little girl. Jesse is really the first and best friend she’s ever had, so Leslie’s parents embrace him as one of their own. Leslie discovers that Janice has had an even tougher time of it. She is the victim of abuse from her father. Leslie befriends her, a turning point in Janice’s life.

Leslie isn’t the only one noticing Jesse’s talents. Ms. Edmunds (Deschanel), the music teacher Jesse has a secret crush on, invites him on a trip to the art museum. Although he tells his mom where they are going, she is half asleep and he takes her mumbled response for approval for his trip. He has the opportunity to take Leslie along but at the last moment he doesn’t, wanting the experience all for himself. Spending the day at an art museum on a stormy day seems like absolute heaven to him.

However, his trip to the art museum will have unintended but devastating consequences as tragedy will strike very close to him. Jesse’s life will never be the same afterwards.

The movie is based on the award-winning children’s book by Katherine Paterson which is in turn based on the real life experiences of her son David (who wrote the screenplay for the movie). Perhaps that is why the kids seem realistic to me and their relationship organic and natural. Robb who has also turned out impressive performances in Race to Witch Mountain and later in Soul Surfer is a lustrous beauty even at this age who seems almost angelic. Hutcherson who has gone on to star in the Hunger Games movies, shows some solid acting chops. While he doesn’t have Robb’s screen charisma, he is nonetheless more than adequate for the role.

Disney marketed this as a straight up fantasy movie which it isn’t really at all, although there are certainly digital creature effects thanks to WETA (which are better than average, by the way). This is a coming of age drama essentially with elements of fantasy which are meant to highlight the imagination of the children – we see what they see. Some people who saw the movie left disappointing, expecting something along the lines of a Harry Potter movies. There are also those who went into the film expecting another disappointing young adult fantasy movie and emerged pleasantly surprised.

There is a great deal of depth to this movie and it deals with a lot of things that kids deal with – bullying, economic hardship, fitting in, loneliness, imagination, feeling left out, and loss. Some of these things can be difficult for parents to help their kids with and in fact the parents in this movie don’t have all the answers. Just like most of us.

Still, I highly recommend this for not only pre-teen kids but their parents as well. There are some terrific opportunities for dialogue between parents and children to be opened up here. Not only that, this is as satisfying a movie for adults as it’s going to be for their kids. Highly recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly candid and insightful. Pulls no punches. Terrific performances from Hutcherson and Robb, with Deschanel her usual solid self.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fantasy sequences can be a bit cliche.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are depictions of bullying and peril as well as a few mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be cinematographer Michael Chapman’s final film as he retired after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video for the song “Keep Your Mind Wide Open” from cast member Robb, as well as a discussion about the book by cast members, educators and most insightful of all, author Katherine Paterson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137.6M on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Need for Speed

Thor: The Dark World


Quoth the raven, nevermore will there be barbers and razors in Asgard.

Quoth the raven, nevermore will there be barbers and razors in Asgard.

(2013) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano, Rene Russo, Alice Krige, Clive Russell, Jonathan Howard, Chris O’Dowd, Talulah Riley. Directed by Alan Taylor

It is hard to achieve success when it comes to the movies, but it is harder still to maintain it. The Marvel superhero films have been on a long winning streak but has the moviegoing public tired of their celluloid adventures yet? Not according to the box office.

Thor (Hemsworth) pines away on Asgard, having had to clean up the mess that his half-brother Loki (Hiddleston) – who rots in an Asgardian prison – wrought with his invasion of Earth in The Avengers. Two years have passed since New York was trashed and Thor has been busy mopping up the results of those events, leaving Jane Foster (Portman) – his earth-born ladylove – petulant and sulky, wondering if her God-like boyfriend has dumped her.

Something called the Convergence is approaching – an event when all nine realms which include Asgard and Earth – are perfectly aligned. As it approaches the boundaries between the realms get a bit thin, causing some temporal and spacial anomalies. While Jane is investigating one of these (leaving a date with the hapless Richard (O’Dowd) to do so) she is infected by something called the Aether.

That’s a bad thing. Apparently this is the stuff that the Dark Elves planned to use at the last Convergence to bring about a return of the universe to complete darkness, something that the Dark Elves and their leader Malekith (Eccleston) are very eager to do. The Asgardians had gone to war with the Dark Elves to prevent this and only through the efforts of Thor’s grandfather had the forces of light prevailed. Malekith and his major-domo Kurse (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) skedaddled into a spaceship where they would remain in stasis until the Aether called them back, which when Jane is touched by the stuff is precisely what happens.

Cue Thor to fetch Jane to Asgard to see if the medicine of the Gods can help her. Cue Odin (Hopkins) to be grouchy and a bit frumpy. Cue Thor’s mom Frigga (Russo) to be far more understanding than her husband. Cue Thor’s pals Fandral (Levi), Vostagg (Stevenson), Sif (Alexander) and Hogun (Asano) to be understanding. Cue Jane’s ex-boss Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to lose his marbles and walk around Stonehenge stark naked and muttering crazy talk about the Convergence. Cue Jane’s intern Darcy (Dennings) to be snarky and get an intern of her own (Howard). And after Thor desperately seeks his help, cue Loki to make some plans of his own.

Taking over from Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair is Alan Taylor who cut his teeth on the Game of Thrones HBO series as well as other fine TV shows but it is the adaptation of the George R.R. Martin fantasy that prepared Taylor for this big screen debut. He certainly doesn’t have any problem with the scale needed for a cinematic franchise like this. Asgard is properly awe-inspiring, the battle sequences (of which there are several) are properly epic and the heroes properly heroic.

While some critics have groused about Hemsworth as Thor, I don’t agree with their assessment. His character has a bit of an inflated ego (hey, he’s a Norse God after all and the son of the King for all that) and a bit of a maturity issue and he is well aware that his strength doesn’t lie in his intellect. He is the kind of guy who charges in to lay a beat-down on his enemies first and asks questions later. However Thor isn’t just a caricature thanks to Hemsworth who makes his personality work and be relatable to his audience. That’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

Hiddleston however is the star of this show in many ways. He is deliciously evil as Loki with a snarky attitude to boot. He revels in his badness but shows some depth that makes his character perhaps the most interesting one in the film. He has some of the best comic relief in the movie and also conversely some of the most poignant moments. Hiddleston is a star in the making and perhaps with this performance arrives in that sense.

The drawbacks here is that the movie drags a bit particularly in the middle and for a movie of this nature that can be a killer. Also early on some of the events are a bit confusing and are never properly explained or given context.

Fortunately the movies plusses outweigh those fairly significant minuses, making this solid entertainment that will please the superhero junkie in your family, although I predict that the fanboys will probably pick it apart and as we head into the next Marvel film will in all likelihood trash it and moan about how it has killed the Marvel franchise. They’ve done the same with Iron Man 3 which is no better or no worse than this.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful eye candy. Hiddleston raises the bar on super-villains. Hemsworth is a terrific Thor.

REASONS TO STAY: Confusing in places. Lumbers a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of sci-fi/comic book violence, a few bad words and some suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This the last film to be written by Don Payne (who also wrote Thor). He died of bone cancer shortly before the movie was released.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: What Happens in Vegas

Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!

Epic


Another oblivious, bumbling dad stumbling in just in time for Father's Day.

Another oblivious, bumbling dad stumbling in just in time for Father’s Day.

(2013) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Aziz Ansari, Steven Tyler, Beyonce Knowles, Pitbull, Blake Anderson, Judah Friedlander, Chris O’Dowd, Dan Green, Allison Bills, John DiMaggio, Troy Evans, Kelly Keaton, Malikha Mallette. Directed by Chris Wedge

The natural world is nothing like what we think it is. Yes, there are flora and fauna, rocks and trees and water but there are also tiny little creatures who are waging a war for the very survival of the forest. Don’t believe me?

Dr. Bomba (Sudeikis) does. He’s been searching the forest outside his home for years, convinced that these creatures exist. He’s managed to find some artifacts of them but thus far, no concrete proof of their existence. His obsession cost him his standing in the scientific community and eventually, his family.

His ex-wife has recently passed away and his estranged daughter Mary Katherine (Seyfried) has come to live with him. She’s a rebellious teen now however, mourning her mother and wishing to go by the name MK. As in MK Ultra, maybe. Anywho, she trusts her distracted dad about as far as she could throw him – although he’s kind of scrawny and she’s kind of tough sot that could be a considerable distance.

When she arrives she’s not sure of what’s going to happen but the worst essentially does – she discovers dear old dad hasn’t changed any and the same craziness that drove her mother out is still present and accounted for, thank you. She desperately needs to talk things out with him but every time she tries to get him to sit down, one of his camera sensors starts beeping and off he goes, with an outlandish helmet that Wayne Szalinski of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids would probably find stylish.

She means to leave and make her own way but on her way out the door her dad’s (and her childhood pet) Ozzie, a three legged dog, gets out and MK goes out into the woods to find him. What she finds is something else entirely.

You see, her dad was right – there are tiny little creatures battling it out in the woods. On the side of good are the Leaf Men, valiant and noble warriors who ride hummingbirds, are able to leap tremendous distances and insure the safety and tranquility of the woods. They are ruled over (and are charged to protect) Queen Tara (Knowles) who that very day as it so happens is partaking in a ceremony that will transfer her powers to a new heir who is yet to be chosen.

The evil Boggans don’t want that to happen. They are ruled over by the nefarious Mandrake (Waltz) whose minions are charged with spreading rot and decay, destroying the green woods forever. Tara keeps them at bay, able to regenerate any damage they do. However, Mandrake has figured out a plan to stop her from passing on her powers, which would allow he and his Boggans to take things over and turn the woods into a lovely dead stretch of rotted vegetation.

Tara seems to think there isn’t much of a threat, much to the consternation of Ronin (Farrell), her captain of the guards, or leader of the Leaf Men. He’s in charge of her security and he knows the Boggans are up to something. Of course nobody listens to him, particularly Nod (Hutcherson), the reckless young man who is the son of Ronin’s best friend who was killed in battle. Ronin has raised Nod as his own, which clearly shows it must suck to be his kid. In any case, Nod chafes under Ronin’s rough discipline and takes a powder, leaving the Leaf Men.

They should have listened. The Boggans interrupt the ceremony and send everyone scurrying in all directions. Tara, alone and desperate, is forced to transfer all her powers into a seed pod as she lays dying on the forest floor. MK (remember her?), wandering out on the forest looking for Ozzie, stumbles onto the dying Tara instead. Tara hands her the pod which magically shrinks MK down to Leaf Man size. Before the Boggans can get there, Ronin arrives in time for the Queen to die in his arms, turning into mulch and scattering to the four winds as she passes. At least, it would be mulch if mulch was sparkly.

This is a lot of plot to take in and we’re talking only the first 20 minutes or so here. The rest of the movie is spent with the small group of Leaf Men – Ronin, MK, Nod and the caretakers of the pod – slug Mub (Ansari) and snail Grub (O’Dowd) – and their attempts to get the pod from point A to point B so it can be in the proper place when the moon is at its height and, well, yadda yadda yadda. Mub and Grub provide comic relief – Mub a kind of ladies man slug, and Grub who desperately yearns to be a Leaf Man. They are neither cute enough to be kiddy favorites. I don’t care how funny the voice actors are, kids are just not going to warm up to slugs and snails. Are you listening, makers of Turbo?

Wedge, who had a hand in Ice Age and Robots, is given a beautiful palette to work with. The animated forest is realistic and beautiful. However, the trailer made the place look incredible, with small cities and fairy-like creatures turning up under every flower and twig. The finished film shows some of that but those scenes are few and far between. The sense of wonder that the trailer had is missing from the final film and how ironic is that?

Kids aren’t going to care much that there are huge lapses in internal logic. For example, the Leaf Men and Boggans are said to be too small for the human eye to see but they are large enough to ride hummingbirds and bats. They are also moving too fast for us to see or hear but what happens when they’re sleeping?

This is the kind of movie that tries to look superficially green without offending conservative families. The message is at least on the surface about being a caretaker to the planet which is admirable but then the buck is passed. It’s not OUR responsibility to care for the planet – it’s these little Leaf Men. Carry on with your carbon footprint kiddies, you’re off the hook (and by the way, the rot that the Leaf Men are so afraid of is actually beneficial for the forest, acting as fertilizer, mulch and clearing space to allow things to grow). At least The Lorax sent a message that it is our personal responsibility to take charge of our own behavior in regards to the environment.

This is a movie trying to offend nobody and winds up being offensive because of it. I wish the filmmakers had the courage of their convictions but I can’t imagine Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, sending out an eco-friendly kid-film under any circumstances so perhaps we can’t blame them overly much. We can blame them for a convoluted plot, however and an over-abundance of characters who flit in and out of the movie, many of which without any real need to be there.

The movie liberally borrows from too many other movies. There’s a bit of Neverending Story here, a bit of The Secret of NIMH there, a little more The Secret World of Arrietty over there. There’s even a bit of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (there are pod races and a bullfrog with more than a little resemblance to Jabba the Hut). This is a mish mash that will probably do good business (at least until Monsters University opens) but is a big disappointing. The very young might be enchanted by some of the beautiful visuals but they aren’t sustained long and it turns into more fluff than substance. Even a kid can recognize a bad movie when they see it.

REASONS TO GO: Some lush animation. Farrell’s Ronin is terrific.

REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing overall; lacks a sense of wonder. Suffers from Green Hippie disease.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a couple of watered down action sequences which shouldn’t be too much for the kiddies, mild bad language and a scary image or two.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film produced by Blue Sky Animation Studios to feature a female protagonist and the first animated feature overall from Fox to do so since Anastasia in 1997.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; I’d call them mildly positive reviews overall.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Secret of NIMH

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Scream 3

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins, the greatest little hobbit of them all!

Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins, the greatest little hobbit of them all!

(2012) Fantasy (New Line) Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, John Callen, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Sylvester McCoy, Adam Brown, Andy Serkis, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Barry Humphries, Manu Bennett. Directed by Peter Jackson

It is easy to become attached to one’s hearth and home. Here are we most comfortable, here is where our routine is. It is also very easy to fall into a rut at home. Why have adventures of your own when you can stay safely at home and live vicariously through the adventures of someone else’s reality or imagination on a computer/television screen?

Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is of this mind. As a hobbit, he has a particular love of fine victuals, a comfortable bed and a cozy hole. Yet one day the sorcerer Gandalf the Grey (McKellen) turns up at his door, looking for a hobbit who wants to go on an adventure with him. He’s definitely in the wrong place for that. Bilbo is, after all, as respectable a hobbit as you’re likely to find anywhere and respectable hobbits don’t go on adventures, no sir. Adventures are messy, inconvenient things that make one late for dinner.

But Gandalf knows better and soon a company of dwarves are knocking on Bilbo’s door, including Balin (Stott), Dwalin (McTavish), Bifur (Kircher), Bofur (Nesbitt), Bombur (Hunter), Fili (O’Gorman), Kili (Turner), Oin (Callen), Gloin (Hambleton), Nori (Brophy), Dori (Hadlow), Ori (Brown) and their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage).

The Dwarves were driven from their home in Erebor below the Lonely Mountain by Smaug the Dragon, who was attracted by the fabulous horde of gold and gems that were amassed by their King, who had grown greedy. Now homeless, doing odd jobs to get by, the small band means to reclaim their home using a map which will gain them entrance to Erebor through a secret entrance as the only other entrance to their beautiful home is guarded by the ever-watchful Smaug.

Bilbo is at first reluctant to join them but eventually relents, sympathetic to those who have no home. He means to help them retake theirs, even though the way is dangerous as it proves to be. They are captured by Trolls although Bilbo and Gandalf save them; they are also chased by Orcs led by the half-mad Azog the Defiler (Bennett) who bears a personal grudge with Thorin.

They also meet with Elrond (Weaving) in Rivendell although Thorin bears great enmity to the Elves who stood by and watched without helping when the Dwarves needed their aid against Smaug. Elrond alone can read the map and show them the way to the hidden door to Erebor. Also at this council is Galadriel (Bennett), queen of the High Elves, and Saruman (Lee), chief of the sorcerer’s order. Both Elrond and Saruman council caution, while news from Radagast the Brown (McCoy), a sorcerer who protects the Greenwood that a necromancer has appeared in the deserted fortress of Dol Guldur are met with skepticism.

Galadriel however sides with Gandalf and privately offers her support if and when it’s needed. However, there is some dismay when it is revealed that the Dwarves have already departed for the Misty Mountains through which they must pass in order to reach the Lonely Mountain and Erebor. However, in the Misty Mountains they will meet their greatest challenge and Bilbo will find a date with destiny –  a strange creature named Gollum (Serkis) who has a very peculiar ring.

Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most beloved film series in history, not only generating a box office bonanza but Oscars as well. However, it was always known that the books they were based on were essentially sequels to The Hobbit which author J.R.R. Tolkien altered after publishing in order to create closer ties between the books.

The original novel was a children’s story and is shorter than each of the three of the books that comprised the trilogy, but Jackson has elected to create three movies from this book totaling well over eight hours of screen time (An Unexpected Journey clocks in at just under three hours). Buffering it with new material and some from other Tolkien works, this might upset purists who probably would have been happier with a single film.

Still, Jackson makes epics like nobody else and his attention to detail is legendary. Once again he has re-created Middle Earth in New Zealand and it looks every inch the part. So does Martin Freeman, a respected actor who is perfect as Bilbo. He gets the nuances of Bilbo, the good and courageous heart that is sometimes hidden beneath a stuffy exterior. Freeman’s voice even sounds like Bilbo. Happily enough, he resembles Ian Holm facially (Holm played Bilbo in the trilogy and reprises the role as the elderly Bilbo and narrates early on; he also gets a lovely seen with Frodo, with Elijah Wood reprising his role as well).

Armitage makes a splendid Thorin and may wind up getting the career boost Viggo Mortensen did from the trilogy. He is charismatic here with an inner nobility and a gruff exterior – just like I remember Thorin from the book. Like Mortensen, he’s also a very handsome man who is going to get his share of female attention.

Now the Dwarven company numbers thirteen including Thorin and while they all have their own personalities and characteristics, it’s difficult separating one from the other. Fili and Kili, the youngest and brashest members stand out as does the oldest, Balin and Dwalin. The others more or less run together – one’s the glutton, one’s the sensitive soul and then there’s the grumpy one. And Sneezy and Sleepy and Doc.

The party sequence at Bilbo’s runs on far too long; it could have easily been shortened by half. In fact, the whole movie is a bit longish; I would have been much happier had it been closer to two hours than three. We really don’t get much more than a glimpse of Smaug (which I suspect won’t change until the third film in 2014) or even the Lonely Mountain which we see from a distance at the very end of the film – not counting the prologue when we witness the Dwarves fleeing Erebor.

Does it recapture the magic of the first three films? Absolutely and that’s the thing to remember. It doesn’t duplicate it however – the mood of The Hobbit is a lot different than the mood of the trilogy – and I think a lot of critics who have dissed this movie have been thrown by that. If you’re expecting a note-by-note LOTR replay, you’ll be disappointed. This is clearly a new set of movies set in the same universe and unlike the Star Wars prequels, these is actually a good movie that you’ll want to see and not just because it’s Middle Earth but because you’ll be entertained.

Da Queen and I decided to go whole hog with this one and we saw it in IMAX 3D with the accelerated frame rate and I highly recommend it. For once the upcharge is worth it.

REASONS TO GO: A welcome return to Middle Earth. Freeman is the perfect Bilbo and the Dwarves are a merry lot. Nice cameos from LOTR veterans.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long; some of the beginning scenes with Bilbo meeting the Dwarves might have been cut a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images, plenty of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film to be shot at a frame rate of 48 frames per second, twice the industry standard. The difference is noticeable with smoother motion, but especially in the 3D version which the depth of field is more realistic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are surprisingly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fellowship of the Ring

TROLL LOVERS: The troll scene contains some very realistic if dimwitted trolls.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill begins!