Sucker Punch


Sucker Punch

Superheroines don’t necessarily need to look slutty to be effective.

(2011) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn, Richard Cetone, Gerard Plunkett, Malcolm Scott, Ron Selmour, AC Peterson, Frederique De Raucourt. Directed by Zack Snyder

The imagination is a powerful thing. It can transport us from any situation, no matter how painful, and set us free. We can use it as a tool to help us escape from our pain – or else wallow in it and ignore the means of our own salvation.

Babydoll (Browning) has seen her mother die, her cruel stepfather attempt to rape both her and her sister (De Raucourt) and her sister die in a tragic accident for which she has been blamed. She is committed to a mental institution by said cruel stepfather who stands to inherit a fortune if Babydoll becomes mentally incompetent; a lobotomy would certainly go a long way to achieving that aim, but the doctor who performs these procedures will not be available for five days, so Babydoll gets the use of her brain essentially for five more days.

But is this really a gothic mental institution in the 1950s? Or is it a bordello into which Babydoll has been sold into white slavery, forced to dance for a high rolling clientele? Baby is befriended by Rocket (Malone), a spunky blonde who is also incarcerated there with her sister Sweet Pea (Cornish). Also there are their friends Blondie (Hudgens, a brunette) and Amber (Chung). They are presided over by Vera Gorski (Gugino), a Polish choreographer who might also be a doctor in the asylum. The club is owned by Blue Jones (Isaac) who may also be an orderly in the asylum.

It also turns out that Babydoll’s dances not only entrance her audience – they also transport Babydoll into a parallel world where she meets Wiseman (Glenn), a wrinkled old sage in a Japanese temple who informs her that she needs five items to escape; a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mystery. These can be found in the bordello but in order to retrieve these closely guarded items, Babydoll’s friends will need to grab them while the staff and guests of the bordello are distracted by Babydoll’s dancing. However, time is ticking down, cruel Blue might be onto them and each parallel world is more dangerous and scarier than the next. Can Babydoll and her friends make it out of their prison and into freedom?

First of all, let me just say that Zack Snyder is one of the most imaginative directors working in Hollywood today; he has given us 300, Watchmen and The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, all of which I can recommend without any hesitation whatsoever. I really can’t say the same for this one, however (which is incidentally the first original story he’s made a movie from – all the rest of his films are based on graphic novels, children’s books or are remakes of existing movies). In fact, this might wind up being the biggest disappointment of 2011.

There is so much going for this movie, too – great action sequences, lots of imagination and plenty of eye candy, both of the special effects sort and the female kind as well. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t gel. Much of this can be attributed by the storytelling, one of Snyder’s strong points but lacking here. He is essentially creating three parallel stories and trying to link them together but the linking is done in a clumsy fashion; the movement between the three parallel worlds should be seamless and frankly, it’s jarring the first time it happens, leaving the audience going WTF (which should also be in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language if LOL is).

For much of the movie, the primarily female cast are mostly in lingerie and stockings, which while a fine idea to my mind also kind of demeans them as action heroes when the script calls upon them to be that way. You’d never have seen the members of The Expendables prancing around in Speedos and socks before going out to kick ass. Then again, would you really want to?

There are some very nice performances, particularly from the always-reliable Gugino as the Polish madame/psychiatrist who is a figure of sympathy despite having made a deal with the devil. Malone also fares very well as Babydoll’s bestie, showing an enormous amount of pluck as well as being sexy and strong. Cornish, who plays her big sister, also does well as the over-protective Sweet Pea who has seen her leadership position usurped by Babydoll.

Browning, however left me a bit flat as Babydoll. She has nice pouty lips and big blue eyes but she never really convinced me as the action hero or the leader of the pack. She’s done fine work in other movies, but this one ain’t gonna be one of her shining career moments.

We rarely get to see female team movies like this and given the propensity for women to bicker and argue among themselves (at least as seen when they are teamed up by gender on reality television shows), I might have liked to see a bit more of the dynamics of an all-female action team. Unfortunately that’s a lost opportunity here.

Most of the men here are either rapists, flunkies or hopelessly clueless with the exception of Scott Glenn’s Yoda-esque Wiseman. Glenn is one of those actors from the 80s and 90s who did extensively good work (who can forget his turn as the sub captain in The Hunt for Red October or as the iconic cowboy hero Emmett in Silverado) but rarely got credit for it. He’s a terrific screen presence who I love seeing on the screen even though he’s pushing 70 now.

I really, really, really wanted to recommend this film and I really, really can’t. The story is too disjointed, the performance of Browning not compelling enough to grab my interest. The special effects, the fantasy sequences and the lingerie all are good enough to command my attention but the sad fact of the matter is that the movie simply doesn’t come together into a cohesive whole and the disappointing box office reflects that. I know Snyder as a director is as capable and imaginative as they come – I just wish he’d let a capable and imaginative writer handle the script.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible special effects and an amazing amount of imagination.

REASONS TO STAY: Storytelling shortcuts ruin the flow of the movie. Some of the performances are less-than-compelling.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexuality (as you can see from the picture although no overt sex), some fairly graphic violence, a bit of bad language and some disturbing thematic stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Browning doesn’t have a line of dialogue (despite being the lead character) until nearly twenty minutes into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The digital effects alone are worth seeing on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Queen

New Releases for the Week of March 25, 2011


March 25, 2011

Beautiful girls at war - Zach Snyder knows what makes teenage boys drool.

SUCKER PUNCH

(Warner Brothers) Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish, Jamie Chung, Jena Malone, Carla Gugino, Scott Glenn, Jon Hamm, Oscar Isaac. Directed by Zach Snyder

A young girl is sent to an asylum against her will and discovers that in a few short days she will be lobotomized. She and a group of her friends mean to escape, but there seems to be no way. They enter a dream world where the keys to their salvation may lie.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette and an animated short here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

(20th Century Fox) Steve Zahn, Rachael Harris, Devon Bostick, Zachary Gordon. As Greg enters the 7th grade, he and his nemesis (his brother Rodrick) are thrust together by their parents in a misguided attempt to force the brothers to bond. Superglue couldn’t bond these guys together.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family Comedy

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor and mischief)

The Fifth Quarter

(Rocky Mountain) Ryan Merriman, Aidan Quinn, Andie MacDowell, Andrea Powell. Star Wake Forest football player Jon Abbate dedicates his season to his younger brother, who passed away tragically in a car crash. The rest of the team is inspired by Jon’s dedication and devotion and the team makes one of the most memorable turnarounds in college football history.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Sports Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements)

Happythankyoumoreplease

(Anchor Bay) Josh Radnor, Malin Ackerman, Kate Mara, Zoe Kazan. When an aspiring writer finds an orphaned boy on a subway platform and agrees to care for him for a couple of days, his life is turned upside-down as is that of his friends.  This friendship with a young boy however may bring to him a new level of maturity as he begins to see life with a different perspective.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for language)

Faster


Faster

Dwayne Johnson realizes that sometimes, the People's Elbow just isn't enough.

(2010) Action (CBS) Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Tom Berenger, Courtney Gains, Mike Epps, Xander Berkeley, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jennifer Carpenter. Directed by George Tillman Jr.

The American action picture is somewhat of an archetype. It borrows heavily from the Western and often employs taciturn loners as heroes. It takes place on windswept plains and empty towns, and sometimes in big cities which convey a different type of loneliness. In this world, a man is measured by the size of his gun and his willingness to use it.

Driver (Johnson) is being released from prison after doing a ten-year stretch. Although the warden (Berenger) chides him to seek help if he finds himself going down the wrong path, Driver already has a direction in mind.

After picking up a 72 Chevy muscle car in a scrap yard, Driver has some business to take care of. You see, the gang that pulled off the bank heist that got him sent to the pen was ambushed by a rival gang who killed them all off and left Driver for dead having taken a bullet to the back of the skull. Surgeons affixed a metal plate to keep his brains from leaking out and now he walks around with a bit of a bad attitude.

Normally Driver could let something like that go but one of the dead was his half-brother and Driver doesn’t cotton much to that. He’s out to kill every mutha on the list of those who were responsible, from the low-lifes who were there to the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes. The latter would rather he didn’t come too close so they send out a hit man (Jackson-Cohen) with a strange British accent and impulse control problems. Killer, as he’s called is more of a dilettante than a professional, but he does have a girl (Grace) of his own and by gum he’s gonna marry that girl if it’s the last thing he does.

Also on Driver’s tale is a Cop (Thornton) who has even more problems than Driver or Killer. Ten days from retirement, he is a heroin user whose estranged wife harangues him for being late picking up his son for a baseball game and he’s more or less a joke to his peers. He has one last chance at redemption, not that Detective Cicero (Gugino), his partner, is interested; she just wants to catch this killer and she doesn’t want a sad sack junkie partner slowing her down.

This sounds more like an action movie of the ‘70s and in some ways it is. There is also a bit of the dark soul of film noir from the ‘40s and in some ways, it is. What it REALLY is, believe it or not, is an old-fashioned morality play. This story is not so much about revenge as it is redemption; it’s not so much about car chases as it is about forgiveness. While the trappings of an action movie are there, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Part of why the movie succeeds is because of Johnson. The Rock, the Brahma Bull, the People’s Champ. That guy. This is by far his best performance to date. His Driver starts out a killing machine, fueled by rage. As the body count gets higher, so does his sense of remorse, and a feeling that maybe revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. By the time he reaches the final name on his list, a man who has reformed and become a Pentecostal preacher (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) the doubts have really set in. Things are no longer so black and white; it’s easy to walk up to a bad guy and blow the back of his head off if there is no doubt he is bad.

Thornton excels at playing folks who are a little bit flawed; he’s even better at playing folks who are a LOT flawed. That’s just what Cop is – a lot flawed (he actually has a name that appears briefly on a document near the end of the movie, but I didn’t catch it). Thornton gives him the hangdog look of a man who has made more mistakes than he can count and is desperate to try and redeem himself.  There’s that whole redemption thing again.

Gugino, who I still continue to maintain is one of the most criminally underutilized actresses in Hollywood gets wasted again in a role that she could easily have phoned in but chose not to. Her character is suspicious and somewhat hostile at first but ultimately makes some choices that show her to have a soft heart as well…oh yeah, I guess that you could call that…the “R”  word.

This is not a typical action movie and I don’t believe it ever was intended to be. In some ways it’s grim and brutal and the story line is a bit predictable (Da Queen figured out who was behind all the messed-up events long before the Big Reveal in the final reel, which puts her one up on me) and at times it feels like the characters are going through the motions as they drive through the deserts of Bakersfield and Inyo County. It isn’t the kind of entertainment that is mindless and easy (not that there is anything wrong with entertainment that is both of those things). I found myself reacting to the movie with a curious intellectual fascination which is not something you get from an action movie normally. For that reason alone I can recommend this.

REASONS TO GO: While ostensibly an action movie, this is also a morality play on steroids. Johnson makes a welcome return to a genre he is very well suited to.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit predictable and the movie has a curious lack of energy for a movie of this type.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surprising amount of drug use in the movie, quite a bit of violence and a fair amount of foul language. There is also some brief sexuality that ought to bother nobody.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first strictly action film that Johnson has done since Doom (2005).

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the car chase sequences look good on the big screen but a lot of the rest of the movie is fairly intimate. Too close to call for me, so I’ll let you make it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Righteous Kill


Righteous Kill

This is what happen to screenwriters who deliver subpar scripts to De Niro and Pacino.

(2008) Police Drama (Overture) Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Carla Gugino, Donnie Wahlberg, 50 Cent, John Leguizamo, Brian Dennehy, Trilby Glover, Melissa Leo, Alan Rosenberg, Rob Dyrdek. Directed by Jon Avnet

It takes a special kind of person to be a police officer. The temptation of corruption is always there, plus there’s the endless string of disappointment and frustration as felon after felon that you’ve worked hard to convict gets let off on technicalities or under the auspices of a sympathetic judge.

Turk Cowan (De Niro) and Rooster Fisk (Pacino) are New York City Police Department detectives. They make a pretty good team; Rooster is the brains, Turk is the brawn. They are pretty well regarded by their peers, although there are some whispers that once upon a time Turk manufactured some evidence to put a killer away.

Well, that part is true, and it might be that he’s up to his old tricks again. Guilty parties who had escaped justice are turning up dead with the same bad poetry left with the bodies that Turk had left previously. Nobody is really mourning the bad guys, but the cops know that if one of their own falls under suspicion, they all are under suspicion and so Rooster knows he must go about protecting his partner by finding the real killer.

This is standard cop show plotting, not something you’d put on the plates of two of the most decorated actors in history, but here it is. Of course, Pacino and De Niro could elevate anything put before them; heck, you cast Pacino as Bella Swan and De Niro as Edward, you could even make the Twilight series more interesting. Okay, maybe not.

But the two of them need to be at the top of their game, right? Not here they’re not. Pacino operates barely above a whisper most of the time, sort of like Michael Corleone having a real bad sore throat. De Niro also seems oddly dispirited, like his mind was elsewhere. Maybe Jake LaMotta took one too many to the head.

Jon Avnet also has better films than this one on his resume. There just seems to be a feeling of punching a time clock here. This is a pretty impressive cast when you look at it on paper; it seems almost unheard of that Donnie Wahlberg would give the most memorable performance out of all of them, but there you have it. Wahlberg, as a fellow detective, is the most believable and the most intense. If everyone had given the kind of energy to their performance that Wahlberg did, this movie would have been a whole different story.

But when you give Carla Gugino a role which is basically all about having rough sex with De Niro (who ironically enough played her father in A Boy’s Life), it’s a waste of a terrific actress, one who doesn’t get enough work as it is. It’s not that Gugino isn’t sexy or kinky enough; it’s just you need to give her more to work with than just her sexuality. Take that away from the role and you have a television medical examiner part that could be done by any actress who can pronounce the jargon.

When you get a team up of De Niro and Pacino, you set expectations extremely high. The two have only had essentially six minutes of screen time together prior to this movie which, to be fair, gives them an awful lot of screen time together. The problem is that you wonder why they cast these two in roles that any halfway decent actor could do, and you get the feeling that this was simply stunt casting that the two bought into for the paycheck. Not that they shouldn’t get paid – after all, they’ve contributed some of the most memorable movie moments of the past twenty years – but Righteous Kill is very much like seeing a match race between Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson, only to see them both coast around the track.

WHY RENT THIS: A case can be made for Pacino and De Niro to be the two greatest actors to appear in American films, and seeing them together is a big treat.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The rest of the movie, particularly the script, doesn’t fit the prestige of the two leads.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most police dramas there’s plenty of violence and bad language, but in this one there’s some kinky sexuality, as well as a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pacino and De Niro have appeared in three movies together; in the first Godfather Part II, they both played gangsters. In the second, Heat, one played a gangster and one played a cop and in this one, both play cops.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the temptations of police work, the kind of personalities attracted to the job and real life cases of corruption and brutality.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.4M on a $60M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Eagle Eye

New Releases for the Week of November 26, 2010


November 26, 2010

Rider is having a bad hair day.

 

TANGLED

(Disney) Starring the voices of Zachary Levi, Mandy Moore, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, Jeffrey Tambor, M.C. Gainey, Brad Garrett, Paul F. Tompkins. Directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno

Rapunzel gets the Disney feature treatment in this updated and somewhat irreverent version of the Fairy Tale. Flynn Rider is a cocksure but capable thief who has gone a little bit too far and has the entire kingdom looking for him – half to imprison him, the other half to kill him. He decides to hole up in an isolated tower in the middle of nowhere until the heat blows over, never realizing that the girl who lives in the tower is far more dangerous than all the king’s men put together.

See the trailer, featurettes, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Fantasy

Rating: PG (for brief mild violence)

127 Hours

(Fox Searchlight) James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Kate Burton. The Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire returns with this astonishing true story of Aron Ralston, a type-A personality who gets trapped by a boulder pinning his arm to a mountain while climbing and has to go to astonishing lengths in order to survive and escape. Franco is considered a lock for an Oscar nomination and the movie may well be one of the big contenders for a number of different Oscars in February, including Best Picture.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images)

Break Ke Baad

(Reliance Big Pictures) Deepika Padukone, Imran Khan, Sharmila Tagore, Navin Nischol. Two childhood friends are drawn together by their passions which also threaten to separate them forever – her dreams of becoming an actress and his love for her. Polar opposites in their lives, they will either find the strength to carry on together, or be without each other forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Drama

Rating: NR

Burlesque

 (Screen Gems) Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Eric Dane. A starry-eyed young girl from a small town goes to L.A. to become a star. She goes to one of the last burlesque-style nightclubs in the city, only to be told she doesn’t have what it takes. She believes in herself and her talent and eventually gets the opportunity, and uses it to become a star. Stardom, sadly, isn’t everything she thought it would be…say, didn’t Judy Garland make a movie like this a few years back?

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language and some thematic material)

Faster

 (CBS) Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace. After ten years in prison, Driver looks to avenge the death of his brother, which came during a botched heist that led to him getting pinched in the first place. Now, with a dogged cop on his tail and a demented hit man not far behind, Driver’s to-do list is getting shorter by the day, but it might just get him killed.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, some drug use and language)

Love and Other Drugs

 (20th Century Fox) Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria. A young pharmaceutical salesman has everything going for him – women, career success, and great friends. When he hooks up with the one woman he can’t have, he becomes enmeshed in the folds of heartbreak just as his greatest opportunity for wealth materializes – a new wonder drug called Viagra.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, pervasive language and some drug material)

The Unborn


The Unborn

Idris Elba finds out firsthand that kids suck, especially creepy icy blue-eyed dybbuk kids.

(Rogue) Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Cam Gigandet, Meagan Good, Carla Gugino, Jane Alexander, Idris Elba, Rhys Coiro, James Remar. Directed by David S. Goyer

Life is precious and we get to experience it all-too-briefly. If it’s precious to us, how much more so must it be to an entity that doesn’t possess it?

Casey Beldon (Yustman) has been experiencing some terrifying nightmares of late, bad dreams that she can’t explain but are unsettling. She is a pretty college student with a group of awesome friends, but those nightmares are starting to spill over into her waking hours. Images of creepy children with icy blue eyes, dogs with creepy masks, creepy fetuses floating in creepy jars, creepy big-ass ants, creepy creepy creepy.

It turns out that Casey is actually one-half of a matching set; she had a twin who had died in utero, leading to the suicide of her mother (Gugino) and some lingering guilt from her dad (Remar). Along the way she is led to an ancient woman in a nursing home who – surprise! – turns out to be her grandma Sophie (Alexander) and also a concentration camp survivor. It also turns out that the experimentation that had been performed upon identical twin in Auschwitz had led to the unleashing of a dybbuk, a creature from Jewish legend that was the spirit of the unborn. And this particular dybbuk (with the innocuous name of Jumby) wants to be born in the worst way.

Casey watches her friends get picked off one by one by the angry Jumby and those he is able to control until she reaches out to the local Rabbi Sendak (Oldman) for help. This leads to the mother of all exorcisms, this one from the Jewish tradition and involves the bleating of a ram’s horn courtesy of the good Rabbi, who must have gotten a kick of the irony of a cleric named for the author of Where the Wild Things Are blowing through a ram’s horn.

I read several fanboy-type reviews that bashed this movie and particularly the director, sneering at a resume that includes such treats as The Invisible to his directing resume and Kickboxer 2: The Road Back and Puppetmaster vs. Demonic Toys as a writer. However, they fail to mention he also wrote the remarkable Dark City and the last two Batman movies as well. That’s what we in the critic biz call “selective resume tunnel vision” or SRTV for short. It’s a terrible condition, so give generously at the next telethon.

This is actually not a bad horror movie at all. It has a lot of the requisite elements – a major league yechh factor, frightening images, attractive female leads dressed in skimpy underwear and plenty of shock frights to give you the jumpies. It is a bit light on the sex, which is a bit intriguing considering it is essentially a horror movie about something wanting to be born so bad it would kill for it, but I suspect that the studio wanted a PG-13 rating which is what this got. Sometimes, you gotta go for the gusto for a really effective scare film.

Odette Yustman is a pretty girl and a decent actress, but I’m not sure she’s really scream queen material. She doesn’t have that kick-ass quality that a good horror heroine needs, and her character is written to be a bit on the passive side anyway, which makes it harder for the audience to connect with her. Alexander stands out in a fairly solid supporting cast as the grandmother, and Twilight’s Gigandet does well as the second banana boyfriend.

I give Goyer props for writing a supernatural theme from a Jewish viewpoint instead of the usual Catholic one. It gives the movie a nice twist that sets it apart from other supernatural horror movies. If you’re looking for a disc that’s going to deliver some nice frights and make for a dark night scary movie popcorn evening, this one certainly makes a solid candidate.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some pretty nifty visuals, particularly the demonic upside-down headed people and dogs. Some quirky humor scattered throughout shows up at unexpected moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the plot points stretch believability to the breaking point. I couldn’t really get behind Yustman who seems a bit too passive to be a horror heroine.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of graphic violence and terrifying images, lots of foul language (hey, you’d swear too) and some implied sexuality in this one, so no kiddies allowed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene depicting concentration camp experimentation on the pigmentation of the iris of the eyes is based on actual experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele who is, we assume, the doctor depicted here.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Race to Witch Mountain


Race to Witch Mountain

AnnaSophia Robb tries to keep a straight face after convincing the others that Triple H was about to land a flying elbow out of the trees.

(Disney) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Tom Everett Scott, Christopher Marquette, Cheech Marin, Garry Marshall. Directed by Andy Fickman

It is said that everything old will become new again at some point. In Hollywood, that translates to everything old will be remade again.

A decidedly modern update of the 1975 Disney kidflick Escape to Witch Mountain finds a Las Vegas cab driver by the name of Jack Bruno (Johnson) trying to make a living ferrying whackos at a UFO convention up and down the strip. Jack used to be a driver for the mob but has tried to make a go of it on the straight and narrow. That isn’t easy with a couple of goons stopping by to remind him that once in the mob, always in the mob.

In the meantime, scientists are monitoring a spacecraft crash landing in the desert outside of Vegas. They send for Henry Burke (Hinds), a high muckety muck in the military whom everybody seems to be terrified of. He visits the crash site and is notified that the craft had been occupied but was no longer. He realizes that there are aliens running around and puts his team on high alert.

When a couple of kids materialize in the back seat of Jack’s car, he seems to take it in stride. When they apparently have a pretty good pile of money for kids their age, he gets a little bit suspicious. When they tell him to head in a general direction – “that way,” says little Sara (Robb), pointing – he is skeptical. When he finds out they have superhuman powers (Sara can control things with her mind, Seth (Ludwig) can alter the molecular density of his body which would make corporal punishment a bit problematic on both their parts), he is amazed. And when they are chased by Burke and his government goons in a fleet of sinister-looking SUVs with sinister-looking tinted windows, he gets annoyed.

Not nearly as annoyed, however, as he gets later when he takes on a sinister-looking alien assassin in a sinister-looking black spacesuit with a sinister-looking black helmet. If Vince McMahon had yanked off the helmet and exclaimed “I am your father, Rock” I wouldn’t have been surprised.

It turns out that the kids are the aliens everyone is looking for (ya think?) and that they need to retrieve a device that looks not unlike an iPhone that they need to activate in order to avert a full-scale invasion of the Earth by the military sorts who want to take Earth’s precious resources by force. The iPhone apparently can allow the aliens to re-create those resources (which have been irretrievably poisoned on their world) and allow them to save their planet without wiping out the puny humans. Now, that’s what I call an app!!

Still, they have to avoid the government goons who want to dissect them, the mob who wants to lay a beating on Jack and the alien assassin who wants to microwave them. They enlist the help of a legitimate scientist (Gugino) and a whacko alien abduction sort (Marshall) and must penetrate deep into the super-secret Witch Mountain base (so secret it doesn’t even appear on Google – which surely has the brass at Google running to their lawyers crying “NOT POSSIBLE”) and retrieve their spaceship before Earth becomes a smoking cinder swinging around the sun.

The original Escape to Witch Mountain had an air of mystery and intrigue to it (the kids in that version weren’t aware that they were aliens until near the end of the movie) while this is pretty much sheer action and adventure. Nothing wrong with that, I say – it’s certainly an easier sell to a newer generation of kids who prefer a much more direct approach than kids from my generation who didn’t mind figuring out things for ourselves (end of smug patting on the back segment).

The Rock (Dwayne Johnson is his given name but for me, as with millions – and millions – of others, he will always be the Rock) has the kind of effortless charm that makes him extremely likable, even when he’s laying the smack down on government goons. He needs to carry this movie and he does so very nicely. Gugino, a criminally underused actress who always seems to turn in a strong performance even in poorly written roles, has a nice chemistry with him that while not romantic makes their banter very believable.

I have to say that I didn’t appreciate that the movie seems dumbed down in places. Now, I’m not sure whether the filmmakers of today have a lower opinion of the ability of kids to follow a story, or whether the kids of today have difficulty following a story, but a lot more is essentially spelled out for the audience, whereas in the original we were given the clues to figure things out on our own which most of us did. I think filmmakers need to give the younger audiences more credit, although I will admit that it’s possible I’m giving them too much.

Robb, who was spectacular in Bridge to Terabithia, continues her development as one of the stronger juvenile actresses today. Unfortunately, Ludwig, who was a bit stiff and wooden in The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, exhibits those same tendencies here.

Of course, if you go looking for the Royal Shakespeare Company in a Disney kidflick, you’re going to wind up disappointed every time. For the most part, this is a competently assembled adventure/action movie that is strongly skewed to Disney’s target audience. Those parents who are made to watch the movie will be able at least to enjoy it on that level. I’d be interested in renting it side by side with the original, just for comparison purposes. If I ever get around to it, I’ll let you know what I think.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock’s easy charm carries the movie effortlessly and Gugino plays off of him nicely. Some pretty nifty special effects sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely dumbed down in places. While Robb is solid, Ludwig seems uncomfortable in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the action sequences and the unmasking of the baddie might be too intense for the tiniest of tots, but otherwise suitable for most family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who played the two children in the original, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, both put in cameos here. The character names given them reference their original character names; Tina for Richards (who was Tia in the original) and Anthony for Eisenmann (Tony in the original).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a mighty enjoyable little featurette that details the differences between the original and the new version, and how this version pays homage to the original.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Extraordinary Measures