Seventh Son


"No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?"

“No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?”

(2014) Fantasy (Universal/Legendary) Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Ben Barnes, Olivia Williams, Djimon Hounsou, Antje Traue, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, John DeSantis, Gerard Plunkett, Jason Scott Lee, Kandyse McClure, Luc Roderique, Zahf Paroo, Timothy Webber, Lilah Fitzgerald, Marcel Bridges, Libby Osler, Primo Allon, Taya Clyne. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

In Hollywood’s seemingly unceasing attempt to grab the newest Harry Potter, Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen from a Young Adult novel series, they have moved on to their latest attempt with a cemetery full of potential candidates who didn’t make any sort of box office impact behind them. So will this enter that final resting place of dismal cinematic failures or will it be the next license for the studio to print money?

Master Gregory (Bridges) is the last of a once-vaunted but now nearly extinct order of Knights, the Knights of the Falcon – more popularly known as Spooks. That’s because this particular order hunted the supernatural, witches and dragons and such. In order to be effective in such a venture, they are all made up of the seventh sons of seventh sons, which makes them stronger than ordinary humans as well as more sensitive to magic and wizardry.

With his most recent apprentice (Harrington) indisposed, Master Gregory needs to find one in a hurry. That’s because one of his most powerful foes, Mother Malkin (Moore), a particularly powerful and malevolent witch, has escaped her entombment in a mountain and becomes more powerful by the moment with the approach of a once-in-a-century Blood Moon. She has the means to perform a ritual that will allow her to be all-powerful and to strike down Gregory which will allow the witches of the land to rule with impunity.

Gregory seeks Tom Ward (Barnes), an honest hard-working sort whose mother (Williams) seems to know more about what he’s in for than she’s saying. Gregory doesn’t have time to train Tom properly but he’ll just have to learn on the job; Malkin is gathering her forces including her right-hand witch Lizzie (Traue), master assassin Radu (Hounsou) and were-cheetah Sarikin (McClure). There’s also young Alice (Vikander) who Tom becomes sweet on but she’s actually Lizzie’s daughter, which complicates things.

All will come to a head in the witch’s castle high in a forbidden and desolate mountain range where a sacrifice needs to be made for the witch to become all-powerful. With the world at stake, can Gregory the aged knight triumph with an untested apprentice at his side?

Like many of the Young Adult fantasies to come our way in recent years, there is a heavy reliance on CG creatures which here have a kind of Ray Harryhausen-like aesthetic, only without the jerky movement of stop motion. One definitely has to give Bodrov, who wowed Russian and American audiences with the epic sweeping Mongol back in 2007, props for the respect.

Unfortunately, he has a very weak script to work with, one that was evidently written by Captain BeenThereDoneThat. We get an untested young protagonist who seems destined to fail, despite trying his hardest time after time but when a significant event occurs, he finds the power within himself and turns out to be even more powerful than anyone ever imagined. Most of those who litter the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed have very similar storylines.

Sadly, this doesn’t have a Jennifer Lawrence or a Daniel Radcliffe either. Ben Barnes is an attractive young actor and he’s certainly got the looks that you need to pull in the hormonal teen girl crowd, but he’s got about as much charisma as his character name implies. Not to knock Barnes who shows moments of talent, but this kind of part requires charisma of a once-in-a-blue-moon sort. Barnes does his best and makes a likable lead, but not a messianic one.

Bridges and Moore, both familiar with Oscar (and in Moore’s case, likely to become even more familiar shortly) get to chew the scenery and they have at it with abandon. In Moore’s case, she becomes a sexy femme fatale who has been wronged and who has seen her people persecuted. If only the writers had chosen to explore that aspect of it more and make Mother Malkin less of a black hat and more of a tragic villain, this might have been a far different – and far better – movie.

Bridges mumbles and slurs his speech like a drunkard (which, to be fair, Master Gregory is) which wouldn’t be a problem except that he’s donned a similar affectation in his last four films. His Van Dyke beard looks a bit anachronistic considering this is supposed to be set during a medieval period but I can overlook that. There’s just little chemistry between him and Barnes so there’s a distance between the two characters that belies the fatherly affection that Gregory displays later in the film.

Part of the problem is that for a Young Adult series to succeed cinematically, it has to appeal to an audience beyond the target. In other words, Old Adults have to find something to latch onto as well, thus the casting of Bridges and Moore. However, the lead character needs to be charismatic and memorable and Barnes simply has not shown that he has that kind of screen presence, not as Prince Caspian and not as Tom Ward. Not yet anyway.

The attempts at humor mostly revolve around Gregory’s drunkenness leading me to think that this is a movie that takes itself way too seriously. While the supporting crew – in particular Hounsou, Williams and Vikander – are satisfactory, Moore and Bridges are both fine actors having a fine time with Barnes trying to and falling a little short. This isn’t a bad film, you understand – there have been far worse in this genre – but it’s just fairly ordinary entertainment, making this a likely candidate for a headstone in the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice monster effects. Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. Some decent support.
REASONS TO STAY: Humorless. Clunky. Predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of swords and sorcery violence, some frightening images of monsters and mayhem and some brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Harvey

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!

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

Timeline


The aforementioned nifty battle scene.

The aforementioned nifty battle scene.

(2003) Science Fiction (Paramount) Paul Walker, Billy Connolly, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler, Matt Craven, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough, Anna Friel, Ethan Embry, Michael Sheen, Lambert Wilson, Marton Csokas, Rossif Sutherland, Steve Kahan, David La Haye, Richard Zeman, Patrick Sabongui, Mike Chute, Lois Dellar. Directed by Richard Donner

The late Michael Crichton’s novel have always translated  well to the silver screen; Timeline  is one of his best novels and with director Richard Donner at the helm, it should be a recipe for success, no?

No. Young Chris Johnston (Walker), the son of a renowned archaeologist (Connolly) is visiting his dad on the site of a medieval French castle. Chris is not much for history; he’s watched it consume his father. Chris is more interested in Kate (O’Connor), one of his dad’s students. Although Chris finds a sympathetic ear in Andre Marek (Butler), one of his father’s colleagues, there is a gulf between father and son that neither man quite knows how to bridge.

That all has to wait however as Professor Johnston has been summoned back to ITC, the high-tech corporation that funded the digs that has helped in leading the researchers to different finds with almost uncanny precision. Professor Johnston intends to find out why.

Kate is seeking a rumored tunnel that led from the castle to the monastery below. Marek relates the story of the castle’s fall: How when the English lord who held the French castle hung the Lady Claire from the battlements; rather than demoralizing the French, this spurred the Gallic troops to greater fury and they overwhelmed the castle.

Meanwhile back at the monastery, a hidden room has been discovered. And in that hidden room, which has not been seen by human eyes since the 14th Century, an even more amazing find: an eyeglass spectacle, and a note, in the Professor’s handwriting, with a date and the words “Help me.”

This causes all sorts of consternation among the dig team. And when they are unable to contact the professor, they become considerably upset. Finally, they force a face-to-face meeting with Robert Doniger (Thewlis), the CEO of ITC, and his top scientist, Dr. Kramer (Craven).

It turns out that ITC’s big project is a teleportation device, something that will send physical objects from one location to another, which Kramer likens to “faxing.” Except that it doesn’t work exactly the way they intended. They inadvertently opened a wormhole to the past. However, they are only able to go to a specific time and place; you guessed it, 14th-century France — and the very castle which is doomed to be overrun by the French. It turns out that Professor Johnston was sent there and then, but is unable to return. A rescue team is needed, and who better than the experts on the area where the Professor is trapped?

Most of the group agrees to go, and Doniger insists on sending three security men with them, including head of security Gordon (McDonough). The team is warned not to bring any modern items with them, especially weapons; but they must keep electronic markers with them at all times, so they will be able to return to the 21st century.

Things go wrong immediately, when the team is attacked by English knights who mistake them for French spies. One of the security team panics and returns back to the future, with a loaded grenade he incomprehensibly smuggled. The grenade predictably goes off, destroying the time machine and stranding the rest of the team in the past. While ITC’s technicians frantically work to repair the time machine, Marek, Kate, Francois (Sutherland), Chris and Gordon work on finding the professor while staying alive.

They are aided by a plucky French girl (Friel), but eventually are captured by an evil English lord (Sheen) who immediately kills Francois, the only one of them who speaks French (fortunately, nearly everyone in the movie speaks English — modern English at that).

Soon after, they anti-climactically find the Professor, but are unable to return to the future (where is Christopher Lloyd when you really need him?) and spend most of the rest of the movie believing that one or another of them is dead, evading dastardly English knights and discovering Doniger’s real treachery. All this on the eve of the big blow-out battle. And, if you haven’t already seen it coming a mile away, the plucky French girl turns out to be the ill-fated Lady Claire — and Marek has fallen head over heels in love with her.

The novel Timeline is a taut, thrilling and well-researched book. Crichton paid special attention to the details of the time. How the characters in the book were able to handle things such as communicating with people who don’t speak any language we currently understand, for example, is part of the book’s charm. That’s all jettisoned in favor of dumbing down the plot to its lowest common denominator.

Therein lies the major flaw of Timeline. Crichton never talked down to his readers, but screenwriter Jeff Maguire finds it easier to just gloss over whatever obstacles you would think time travelers would face in favor of setting up nifty battle sequences. And nifty they are; flaming arrows rise into the night sky, balls of fire are launched by ballistae, exploding against the castle walls. The battle sequences are visually inspiring, and it’s amazing they were accomplished without CGI, which is rare even in 2003.

Butler and O’Connor are quite good in their roles, as is Wilson as a French knight. But there are plenty of big, big holes. For example, the time travelers in this film kill people with abandon, without thought as to how what they are doing might affect the future to which they hope to return. These are themes being explored in movies like A Sound of Thunder and The Butterfly Effect far more effectively and logically and when someone says that A Sound of Thunder is far more logical than your movie, you should cringe.

While there are some cool moments (such as when Marek realizes that the grave he discovered in the 21st century is his own), the time travel here is mainly the means to set up the big action sequences. And if that’s all that you’re going to use time-travel for, why not just set the movie in 14th century France?

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty battle scenes. Butler, O’Connor, Connolly and Wilson all perform admirably.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The screenwriters are talking down to you. Lapses in logic and consequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Brief foul language and some fairly intense battle sequences that while not terribly gory still might give the more sensitive a bit of trouble.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the French knights carried shields emblazoned with the flag of Quebec; some of the film was shot in the Canadian province.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.9M on an $80M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Captain Phillips

Shadow of the Vampire


Dinner is served.

Dinner is served.

(2000) Horror (Lionsgate) John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Aden Gillett, Nicholas Elliott, Ronan Vibert, Sophie Langevin, Myriam Muller, Milos Hlavak, Marja-Leener Junker, Derek Kueter, Norman Golightly, Patrick Hastert, Sacha Ley, Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Directed by E. Elias Merhige

 

Since we cringed in caves at the dawn of time, we have been scared of the dark. The dark hides the things we can’t see; our imagination makes those things hideous. The noise of wind rustling through the trees becomes a stranger, with a knife, creeping through the grass. Fear has always been more a product of our imagination more than anything else.

That fear was never better crystallized than in the masterwork novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula. It captured the imagination of millions from the time it was published even up to this 21st century and most likely beyond. Stoker made the monsters of our imagination real, demons in the dark made flesh. That’s a dangerous thing in and of its own self.

Filmmaker F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) was fascinated by the novel, and yearned to film it. He was denied permission by the Stoker estate, but was determined to make the ultimate horror movie anyway.  Murnau recognized that realism would make his horror all the more effective. To that end, he hired an unusual actor by the name of Max Schreck (which, translated from German, means “shriek”) to play his Count Orlock, the Dracula of his film. Schreck (Dafoe) is a strange sort who demands that he be addressed as Orlock, and is in character (and the accompanying creepy-looking costume) at all times. Most of the cast and crew assign this as the quirks of an actor and think nothing of it.

It appears that Murnau’s vision is being realized. The film, Nosferatu, is turning out to be everything he hoped – one of the classic horror films of all time. Still, things are not quite right. His cinematographer (Gillett) has taken mysteriously ill and is near death. Murnau must shut down the production to procure a new one. While he is gone, mysterious deaths haunt the production.

When Murnau returns with his drug-addled replacement (Elwes), it soon becomes apparent that the terrifying Schreck is much more than he seems. And he has an unhealthy obsession with the movies leading lady (McCormick, Mel Gibson’s wife in Braveheart). You see, Schreck is not some Stanislavsky disciple taking the method to extremes; he actually IS undead.

What a fascinating and terrific idea for a movie this is. Nosferatu remains one of the most brilliant and terrifying movies ever made, and the mystery surrounding the real Max Schreck makes for some interesting speculation. “Max Schreck” was almost certainly a stage name; nobody knows for sure who he really was. Heck, for all we know he could have been a vampire.

Screenwriter Steven Katz was inspired by the original film, and includes many little touches that ring true; the decadence of jazz age Berlin; the solitude and creepiness of the castle exteriors. He even adds the little factoid that Murnau’s crew shot their movies while wearing lab coats and goggles, giving the proceedings a pseudo-scientific air.

Director Elias Merhige (Begotten) has assembled an impressive cast, including one-time Warhol associate Udo Kier as a producer. Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance (and in fact he was nominated) as the sinister Schreck, an ancient creature who has grown too old, watching a century he does not understand encroach into the only world he has ever known. It is strangely affecting.

The problem here is that Merhige often sacrifices his story for the sake of atmosphere and art. He is successful at creating a genuinely creepy vibe, using old-time film effects and title cards to enhance the mood and set the period. As a result, the look of the film holds up next to the original, a not-inconsiderable task in itself.

But an overly long opening credits sequence put my jaw on edge from the beginning, not the way you want your audience to go into a movie like this. I found the pacing overall to be a bit slow. The film’s climax is also a bit off-putting.

That said, this is a genuine creep-out that will stand your hair on end in various places. Dafoe’s performance by itself is commendable. It’s funny, sad and terrifying all at once. Shadow of the Vampire wisely uses the best monster of all – our imaginations and our fear of the dark – to its advantage.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Dafoe. Brilliant concept. Creepily atmospheric.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Style over substance. Overly long opening titles sequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of horrific images, some drug use and sexuality, a bit of violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The producers of Spider-Man hired Dafoe to be their Green Goblin based on his performance here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a make-up montage that shows the process of actor Willem Dafoe going from human to Nosferatu in a matter of minutes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORANCE: $11.2M on an $8M production budget; the film was shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream 3

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Internship

 

Jack the Giant Slayer


Think of it as "rural renewal".

Think of it as “rural renewal”.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line) Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Christopher Fairbank, Simon Lowe, Mingus Johnston, Ralph Brown, Warwick Davis, Joy McBrinn, Lee Boardman, Tandi Wright. Directed by Bryan Singer

Fee, Fai, Fo, Fum…I smell the blood of a Hollywoodman. A beloved fairy tale is given the reel CGI treatment and turns out a cut above other recent celluloid fairy tales.

Jack (Hoult) is the son of a farmer recently passed of the plague. He lives with his uncle (Fairbank) who is stressed out – money makes the world go round even in the world of Grimm. As a boy, Jack’s father read him the bedtime story of the mighty King Erik the Great, who fought the evil giants who lived in a land between Heaven and Earth and has used magic seeds to grow enormous beanstalks that rose to the land of th Giants. It was only through the use of a magic crown forged from the heart of a giant that allowed Erik to vanquish his much larger and stronger foes.

Isabelle (Tomlinson) has heard the same tale only from her other the Queen (who, like Jack’s father passes away before the opening credits) and yearns for adventures of her own. Her good but misguided father, King Brahmwell (McShane) has betrothed his headstrong daughter to his advisor Roderick (Tucci), a man she thoroughly loathes. She is constantly slipping out of the castle to mingle among the common folk much to the consternation of Sir Elmont (McGregor), the brave and noble knight charged with the protection of the Princess. Not an easy task to say the least.

Roderick has in fact discovered the magic crown and remaining beans and means to use them to get to the Land of the Giants and lead them in conquest of the entire Earth (why have one kingdom when you can have it all?) or at least the parts they can reach. A monk (Lowe) has stolen the beans and manages to pass them on to Jack while he is at market trying to sell his horse. Jack takes the beans home, not knowing what they are.

In the middle of a rainstorm, the Princess (who is out on one of her adventures) seeks shelter from a storm in the farmhouse Jack lives in. The two hit it off but accidentally activate the beans which of course grow a beanstalk, sending the farmhouse up into the clouds. Jack is knocked senseless in a fall, discovered by the King and Elmont who are out searching for the wayward Princess.

They quickly discover the story of the giants was no myth and the giants, led by the fearsome two-headed General Fallon (Nighy) have quite the mad on about humans and also the treachery of Roderick is revealed. Jack will have to rescue the princess and warn the King before it’s too late – but who will believe him?

If you gathered 100 people together, I doubt you’d find even one who would name “Jack and the Beanstalk” their favorite fairy tale and therein lies the main obstacle for the filmmakers. They need to take a story that is well-known but not necessarily beloved and make it appealing for modern day moviegoers. That’s no easy feat – ask the makers of recent fairy tale adaptations like Mirror, Mirror. There needs to be a balance between light and dark to appeal to children who prefer the light but at the same time dark enough because as Christopher Nolan will tell you dark sells.

Nicholas Hoult, who has shown promise in recent roles like Warm Bodies is an engaging hero, likable and charismatic. He is still a bit raw but he shows every sign of graduating up the ranks into the pantheon of A-list stars. He’s not quite there yet but his work here illustrates that he has the tools to get there. He’s come a long way since About a Boy.

Tomlinson I’m less sure about. Her performance isn’t particularly memorable but to be fair she’s given kind of a lousy hand to play with. Sure, Isabelle has spunk but then she spends most of the film being rescued. Note to filmmakers: the reason little girls are so obsessed with Disney princesses is that they are given girls who are not only glamorous and beautiful but also self-reliant and heroic. Most Disney princesses will like as not be the ones doing the rescuing; they don’t need a prince to do the job for them.

The giants are kind of fun, although there’s not a single giantess – apparently these humanoids reproduce asexually. They have a variety of looks which is to the good, from the two-headed Fallon to the squat-headed Fum. They are kind of goofy-looking and not particularly scary, but they unleash a good deal of mayhem and find human flesh to be a delicacy. It’s not so much the look of the giants but their actions that might induce nightmares in the very young.

The CGI is fairly impressive in most places, with the beanstalks themselves some of the best of the computer generated filmmaking here. They are labyrinthine, semi-realistic (real world physics would collapse the structure of the beanstalks if ever a magic bean makes its way to our dimension) and impressive. The castle of Cloister and the Giant’s Castle are both impressively rendered, a tribute to the set designer as well (Gavin Bocquet, take a bow).

Sadly the story doesn’t pass muster. It’s fairly predictable and despite McGregor’s and Tucci’s best efforts and bringing comic relief, it lacks a lighter side that will make this more palatable for parents. However, thanks to Hoult and director Singer’s acumen with action scenes and CGI, the movie actually is much better than I expected it to be. In a year which has been off to a rocky start in terms of quality movies, that’s as good as a goose that lays golden eggs.

REASONS TO GO: Hoult has A list potential. McGregor and Tucci are fun. Some fairly decent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Some fairly significant plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  While most of the giants aren’t terribly frightening in looks, the damage they do (and is done to them) is and there are a few foul words thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: D.J. Caruso was initially set to direct but was replaced in 2010 with Singer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100; the reviews were fair to middlin’.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Crime

Brave


Brave

Merida takes aim at teen angst.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, Sally Kinghorn, Eilidh Fraser, Peigi Barker, Steven Cree, John Ratzenberger. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

 

Fate is a word we sometimes bandy around with negative connotations. There are those of us who believe that it implies that our destiny is set in stone, that we are doomed to live a certain type of life. Some believe that fate is not necessarily set in stone – it can be changed with the right impetus.

Merida (Macdonald) is of the latter sort. She is a spunky, willful princess – literally. She’s the daughter of King Fergus (Connolly) of Scotland, a gruff rough and tumble sort who’s leg was bitten off by a bear that attacked his family, including Queen Elinor (Thompson) who some years later delivered triplets – three wee devils who act as comic relief in the castle.

Merida finds nothing funny about life  though. She longs to go on adventures like her dad, and has become quite the archer. Her mother, though, wants her only daughter to be a proper princess, one who will grow up into a beautiful, regal Queen. And it’s about high time she did; while Elinor nags, Merida stews. And when Merida becomes of marriageable age, as is traditional among the clans a competition will be held to determine which Lord’s son will win the hand of the fair maiden – be it the sons of Lord Dingwall (Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Ferguson) or Lord MacGuffin (McKidd) – all of whom have travelled to the castle of King Fergus for the games, feasting and tales of bear hunting.

Merida is having none of it. She is for one thing a far better archer than any of the scions of the clans. And for another, she doesn’t want to get married (and to be honest, she is nowhere near ready to be). She and her mother can barely hold a civil conversation and her Dad is too engrossed in the feasting and tale-telling to really notice. So Merida goes off for a ride and finds herself in a Stonehenge-like circle of sacred stones from whence the wills-o’-the-wisp lead her to the cottage of an eccentric witch (Walters) whom Merida asks to purchase a spell from – a spell that will allow her mother to change her mind and in doing so, changing Merida’s fate. However, like most spells that are selfish in origin, it doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

There is an air of mystery and mysticism here that is very welcome. Here we get to see Scotland as a magical land that is wild, beautiful and just a little bit off-kilter. Yes, pun intended. The animation here is gorgeous – quite possibly the best and most intricate that Pixar has accomplished up to now. The look is very much like classic Disney animation and that’s not by accident.

Thinking about it, this is quite the gathering of the clans if your clans are Scottish actors and actors of Scottish descent. It gives them a chance to air out their brogues a little. I have an affection for the accent and even though it can be hard to understand for those who aren’t used to it although to be fair it’s toned down here so it’s pretty easily understandable even for those who don’t have the ear for it.

There is quite a dynamic that goes on between Elinor and Merida – like many mother-daughter relationships it’s love-hate. And, like most teens and their parents, you have two sides talking and neither side listening. Elinor at first is a mom who has a vision in her head of what she wants her daughter to be – without taking into account what her daughter wants to make of herself. For Merida’s part, she’s willful and stubborn, openly defiant of her parents and quite a bit stubborn. Her means of communicating is to make pronouncements and that doesn’t go over well with her mum.

In fact, Merida’s spoiled behavior leads directly to some fairly savage consequences for her family. Now, as a parent I can tell you that tolerance is a great big survival skill for any parent of a teen – they are going to make mistakes no matter how much you try to warn them (pretty much the way we did when we were teens) but I have to admit, it is rare for any parent to have to deal with a mistake the magnitude that Merida makes. Yes, I’m being deliberately vague here because not knowing the nature of what Merida did and the consequences that ensued makes the movie so much more enjoyable, although I have seen a couple of reviews that have spoiled it – including the usually-reliable Roger Ebert, so take that into account when reading before seeing.

This is quite a departure for Pixar – straight into Disney territory. Think about all the elements you have here – a feisty princess, a witch who lives in an isolated cottage in the woods, danger, intrigue – all that is lacking here is true love’s kiss – but then Merida would much rather kiss a frog than a thousand princes. Still, after the lackluster effort that was Cars 2 this is a welcome return to form.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe the best animation in Pixar’s history. Goofy when it needs to be.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to glorify willful, spoiled behavior.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences that might be frightening for toddlers, and there is a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pixar’s first film set in the past, the first to feature a female protagonist and Merida the first Pixar character to become a Disney princess.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulan

BEAR LOVERS: We see bears of all sorts in the film, including three little ones, a mama bear and a scary bear.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Ted

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Ben Barnes has sworn off taking LSD before battle sequences.

(2008) Fantasy (Disney) Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis, Liam Neeson (voice), Sergio Castellitto, Eddie Izzard (voice), Vincent Grass, Harry Gregson-Williams (voice), Tilda Swinton. Directed by Andrew Adamson

 

When last we left the magical world of Narnia, the Pevensies – High King Peter (Moseley), King Edmund (Keynes), Princess Susan (Popplewell) and Princess Lucy (Henley) have returned to our world of wartime England only moments after they left, despite having spent a lifetime in Narnia, growing up to be young men and women. Instead, they are children again with a lifetime of memories and experiences. I guess they can scarcely be called children with that in their heads.

While standing in a London tube station they suddenly realize that they are being called back into Narnia and wind up on the beach. But isn’t that Cair Paravel, their beautiful Camelot-like castle? And why is it in ruins?

Things have changed in Narnia. For one thing, centuries have passed and the Four Kings and Queens have passed into legend. Narnia has been invaded by a race called the Telmarines who speak with a Latin accent (some say Spanish, others Italian) who have routed the magical creatures that live there until they have faded into mythology. Some say they never existed.

Miraz (Castellitto), brother of the recently deceased King of Narnia and Uncle of the rightful heir Caspian (Barnes) , is the proud father of a newborn baby. It’s an occasion for joy, but what Caspian doesn’t realize is that Miraz was the one who had his father killed. He needed Caspian to legitimize his rule over the kingdom; now that Miraz has a son, Caspian is unnecessary. Caspian’s tutor, Doctor Cornelius (Grass) realizes this. He also, being a native Narnian (an increasingly rare breed under Telmarine rule) is privy to the information that the magical creatures are still alive and living in hiding in the woods of Narnia.

Cornelius urges Caspian to flee and find the natives which he does, but Miraz discovers his absence and sets out his soldiers to find him. Caspian blows on a horn – Susan’s horn – which is what summons the Pevensies back. It also gets Caspian aid from the creatures of Narnia, whom Caspian had always thought of as monsters. There are some tense moments as neither Caspian nor the Narnians trust each other.

However after the Pevensies witness some Telmarine soldiers preparing to drown Trumpkin (Dinklage), a surly dwarf, they rescue him and in return he takes them to the headquarters of the Narnians where they meet up with Caspian. Of course, a bit of a pissing contest ensues between the ancient King of Narnia and the rightful king but as Caspian’s confidence grows, Peter realizes that he isn’t there to run things.

As the Telmarines begin building a bridge that will allow their main army to attack the Narnians (over which they have a vast numerical advantage), the Narnians must lead a daring raid on the castle and then prepare to defend themselves against the Telmarines. With Aslan (Neeson) nowhere in sight, it will take a miracle to save Narnia and restore her to her rightful citizens.

This is a much darker film than The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which was more of a straightforward fantasy. This has political intrigue as well as medieval battle scenes which are realistic although fairly bloodless. It is also a bit more talky than the first movie which was a bit more action-oriented.

The problem with the Narnia series is that the lead quartet of actors are just not nearly as accomplished as the Harry Potter leads. Simply put, they’re bland and not as appealing – Keynes and Henley, the two younger ones, can be downright annoying in places (although Keynes would redeem himself in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Barnes, the latest addition to the main cast, is handsome but he seems a little bit unsure of himself in the movie. This isn’t his first rodeo but I doubt any of his other projects have put as much weight on his shoulders and on top of that he’s given a ridiculous accent to master, one that disappears (thankfully) in Dawn Treader.

Dinklage and Izzard fare well in their roles bringing some gravitas and comic relief and the effects can be marvelous. The battle scenes are well-choreographed and much better than those in the first film. While they don’t have an antagonist as evil as the White Witch nor a performance on par with Swinton’s (who makes a cameo as the Witch midway through the movie). However, the Telmarines are far more realistic a foe, giving the movie an entirely different feel, which is a good thing.

This is to date the weakest of the three films although it isn’t that bad as you can see by the score. The series is currently on hold; a fourth film was planned but the untimely death of one of the producers has left the franchise waiting for someone to pick up the slack and bring the series back on track. Certainly given the box office of this film, the future movies in the series (if any) will have much smaller budgets.

While this series has never gotten the love of other fantasy franchises, it’s still managed  to produce some quality movies thus far. That’s not to say that the movie measures up in quality to Potter or the Lord of the Rings films but it isn’t a total loss either. Let’s just say that those who love fantasy won’t be disappointed; those who loved the books from their childhood might be.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fine battle and special effects sequences. Creature effects are pretty nifty. Peter Dinklage – need I say more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Pevensies are still wooden and bland. The movie is a little more talky and why are the Telmarines Spaniards?

FAMILY VALUES:  Fantasy violence and a few somewhat scary creatures.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to playing the White Witch, Tilda Swinton also makes a cameo as a centaur.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a fascinating featurette on how this big production affected the tiny village of Bovec in Slovenia, where the bridge scene was filmed. The Blu-Ray edition contains something called Circle Vision Interactive which allows the viewer to watch the castle raid sequence with commentary and features all shot with a 360 degree field with HD resolution. It’s pretty nifty.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $419.7M on a $225M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make its production and marketing budget back..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inkheart

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Kill Bill: Vol. 2

The Brothers Bloom


The Brothers Bloom

Now that's a fine how-da-ya-do!

(2009) Offbeat Caper Comedy (Summit) Adrian Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, Maximillian Schell, Ricky Jay (voice), Zachary Gordon, Max Records, Andy Nyman. Directed by Rian Johnson

When you’re a con man, there is no real life. There is no trust, there is nothing that isn’t scripted down to the finest detail, there isn’t anything really exciting. That’s the way it’s done, at least, by this brother team.

Brothers Stephen (Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody) are con artists, and they would tell you there is considerable art in what they do. For Stephen, the ultimate con is where everyone gets what they want; for Bloom, he just wants a life that is unscripted, one he can call his own – one that isn’t quite so predictable. Obviously, he hasn’t lived the life the rest of us lead.

We see them as youngsters in foster care, having been thrown out of every reputable foster home in the state of New Jersey – that’s about 38 of them back in the day (Sha-zing!) when young Stephen (Records) organized the first con starring his brother (Gordon) in an effort to get him to socialize. Twenty years later and Stephen is still trying to get his brother to be less socially awkward.

Now they are accompanied by Bang Bang (Kikuchi), a mostly silent Japanese demolitions expert who excels in making things blow up real good. For Bloom, however, the rose has lost its shine. He is tired of the game, tired of the life, tired of not knowing who he is. He wants out. As is de rigueur for con films, this is to be their last job, even though Stephen still delights and revels in the life.

The mark is Penelope Stamp (Weisz), an agoraphobic heiress who is bored bored bored with her life, so much so that she collects hobbies like juggling chainsaws on a unicycle, skateboarding, break dancing and performing unnecessary breast enlargements on alcoholic women. Okay, the last one wasn’t in the movie but she may well have done it. After a carefully orchestrated encounter with Bloom turns into a near-death experience, she gets roped into his world hook line and sinker.

And what a world it is, replete with vaguely threatening sorts (Coltrane as the Curator) and out-and-out threatening sorts (Schell as Diamond Dog, the mentor to the Brothers and now a rival) and, of course, exotic Eastern European locations. The issue becomes that Bloom begins to fall in love with the mark, and how can you con someone when you care about them?

Director Johnson debuted in 2005 with Brick, a kind of film noir hardboiled detective movie set in a modern California high school. Although Da Queen didn’t like it much, I respected it for its cadences, the obvious love of the source material and the imaginative genre-bending that was done. There are some of those elements here as well.

Brody is making a career out of the sad sack romantic, and nobody does it better. He’s not really the sweetest person on earth nor is he the handsomest, but he always seems endearing enough to charm the pants off (literally) nurturing young women. Ruffalo gets to play a very meaty part that doesn’t look like it so much on the surface, but he imbues Stephen with enough quirks and just enough compassion to make him really compelling by film’s end.

Think of Johnson stylistically as a cross between Wes Anderson and David Mamet; I’d say overall the tone of the movie combines Mamet’s House of Games with Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Anyone who knows these movies will either be straining at the leash to go see The Brothers Bloom based on that description or will be running for the nearest exit.

I get it; the movie is quirky and offbeat which can be a turn-off for mainstream moviegoers who like their movies pre-packaged with predictable storylines, well-known actors and Hollywood endings. This ain’t for you, folks; this is for those who love to be surprised and pulled every which way at the movies. This doesn’t have the wallop of The Sting but it does keep you guessing throughout the movie until you don’t know which way is up, which way is down or which way to the popcorn stand. If you’re headed that way, pick me up a bag with extra butter. If I’m going to chow down on The Brothers Bloom, I might as well go all the way.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson is a phenomenal talent behind the camera and the movie may be quirky but it is ultimately endearing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone of the movie is offbeat and American audiences don’t do offbeat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a touch of foul language, some brief violence and a bit of implied sensuality but overall nothing most kids haven’t already seen before. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various hobbies “collected”  by Penelope in the montage, actress Rachel Weisz learned to do every single one of them.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; although this is an indie as it gets, chances are it didn’t make any money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Righteous Kill