Hitman: Agent 47


Shoot first and and don't bother to ask questions later.

Shoot first and and don’t bother to ask questions later.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Jurgen Prochnow, Rolf Kanies, Sebastian Hulk, Jerry Hoffman, Dan Bakkedahl, Emilio Rivera, Helena Pieske, Johannes Suhm, Angelababy, Tom Jester, Charlene Beck, Jesse Hergt, Daniel Stockhorst, Mona Pirzad. Directed by Aleksander Bach

Videogames are a multi-billion dollar business. There are tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of gamers in the United States and around the world. Why, then, are movies based on videogames so bad and why have none been embraced by the gaming community? One theory is that gaming is an interactive medium whereas watching movies is a passive undertaking. Gamers prefer to influence their games, make decisions, determine the shape of the story. They can’t do that in a movie.

Which is horse hockey. Sure, gamers prefer an interactive medium, but that pre-supposes that gaming is the only medium they subscribe to. In fact evidence points to gamers also being readers as well as moviegoers. The reason that gamers can’t get behind movies based on games is because the studios, notorious for not understanding games or gamers, put what can only be described as a cursory (no pun intended) effort behind the film adaptations and the results are movies that aren’t just bad videogame adaptations but just bad period.

Take Hitman: Agent 47 for example. Games are by their nature cinematic and one gets the sense that Bach actually understands this; the movie is beautifully rendered, mainly lensed in Singapore (which is a city of fantastic architecture) and Berlin. The look of the movie is sleek and futuristic. There are some shots of a bikini-wearing woman slowly entering an infinity pool at the top of an exclusive Singapore hotel at dusk; cobalt blues, neon reds and greens blend to give the scene a surreal urban glow. However, this shot is also a microcosm for what’s wrong with the movie; the shot only exists for us to see Hannah Ware in a bikini. She has no reason to be swimming at that moment and it’s not germane to the plot.

The plot consists of Agent 47 (Friend), a genetically engineered assassin who is smarter, faster and stronger than the average human. He is on the hunt for Katia (Ware), a young woman who has shall we say hidden talents. What he’s really after is her father Dr. Litvenko (Hinds), who originated the Agent program. Many have tried to duplicate his work without success; one multinational corporation – known only by the obviously non-sinister nomenclature of The Syndicate, really wants an Agent. An army of them, in fact and their director, the Belgian Le Clerq (Kretschmann, a German) has sent a genetically modified assassin, John Smith (Quinto) to fetch the girl and find out what she knows. However 47, with a barcode tattooed on the back of his bald head, has his own agenda.

The story is weak and cliche and to be honest, I think that the studios really believe that the gaming community has to be pandered to rather than giving them stories that have depth and innovation. It hasn’t occurred to them that gamers are used to vast universes with complex back stories and games that not only challenge the gamer to think but require him/her to. Videogames are not all shoot-em-ups or football simulations.

This is a beautiful looking film, with lovely cityscapes and urban environments. The syndicate’s headquarters is all glass and fiberglass, with computer terminals the size of desks and cubicles that look like they were designed by the same person who does the W Hotel chain.  The film is well-lit for a change, which means that the movie isn’t murky throughout like a lot of action movies seem to be these days.

There are also some nifty action sequences with Syndicate goons going after 47 and Katia, or vice versa. Generally the movie is at it’s best when the action takes center stage. Friend is fairly limber which is necessary when making some of the moves 47 does, pirouetting and tumbling about like a demented gymnast in a suit. The choreography, while not up to some of the great Hong Kong action films, is nonetheless superior to most Hollywood action movies.

Friend goes through the movie essentially trying to play a Vulcan, which he could have gotten pointers from Quinto on. He mostly speaks in a monotone which really isn’t the way to go and from time to time I get the feel that the actor is frustrated with his role. Quinto is a good deal of fun when he’s onscreen, the reliable Hinds does what he can in a standard aging mad scientist role and Ware is pretty much wasted in a role that could have been a strong feminine heroine but isn’t.

This is like a supermodel with a lobotomy; great to look at but really nothing inside which is a shame; there’s a lot of potential in the franchise but the producers and the studio bungled it in a depressing way. The studios will probably go on thinking that the gamer market should be dumbed down to and will pour money into all the wrong things when it comes to videogame adaptations and audiences and critics alike will continue to go on thinking that the studios don’t have a clue what to do with these franchises, which is a frustrating situation for those who’d love to see some really good movies come out of these great video game franchises. Why is it that Hollywood can make great movies out of comic books but not of video games? I think that someone like Blizzard or Square Enix will have to do what Marvel did – create their own film division – before we see that happen.

REASONS TO GO: Visually impressive. Quinto is fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Inane plot. Wasted potential.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Walker was set to play the title role until his untimely death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 7% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Kingsman: The Secret Service
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meru

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Jurassic World


Here comes the cavalry.

Here comes the cavalry.

(2015) Science Fiction  (Universal) Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Jake Johnson, Irrfan Khan, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee, Katie McGrath, Andy Buckley, Eric Edelstein, Courtney James Clark, Colby Boothman-Shepard, Jimmy Fallon, James DuMont, Matthew Burke, Anna Talakkotur. Directed by Colin Trevorrow

It is not unusual to be fascinated by dinosaurs. We all look at the great lizards who ruled the world before men walked upright in awe and wonder. Now there is nothing left but the fossilized remains of their bones. We know precious little about them, mostly extrapolating from the few tantalizing clues we’ve discovered over the years. How would it capture the imagination if we could examine a real, living dinosaur – and how insanely dangerous would that be?

John Hammond had a dream. He’d discovered away to clone dinosaurs using blood found in mosquitoes trapped in amber over several million years. He wanted to display them in a biological preserve on Isla Nublar off the cost of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, his plans to open Jurassic Park (as he hoped to call the theme park) met with disaster and death.

However, that was 22 years ago. His dream became reality eventually – in Jurassic World, a high-tech theme park complete with Starbucks and a resort hotel. Hammond is no longer with us, but his successor – Simon Masrani (Khan) – has given the world a major tourist attraction that draws millions every year.

However, like every human endeavor, the shine wears off pretty quickly and people grow jaded, their attention captured by other things. In order to stay competitive, Masrani knows he has to present new attractions to keep the crowds coming. But dinosaurs don’t exactly grow on trees; there are only so many of them to go around. He knows what the public wants – bigger, louder, more teeth. So he sets his chief mad scientist Dr. Henry Wu (Wong) to genetically engineer one, one with the traits of a variety of different dinosaurs – only bigger, louder and with more teeth.

Park director Claire (Howard) has no problem with that. She’s already got Verizon interesting in sponsoring the new exhibit. However, one of her top trainers isn’t so excited. Owen (Pratt), who has a history with Claire (they dated for about five minutes years ago) and a military background, has managed to make some inroads with the Velociraptors who at least have a kind of mutual respect thing going with him and will occasional listen to his commands.  A genetically engineered dinosaur? Messing with nature can only end up in disaster.

And so it does. The new dinosaur – dubbed Indominus Rex or “fierce/untamed king” – using previously undiscovered abilities has escaped from her enclosure and she’s got a mean on. She doesn’t kill for food; she kills for sport. That’s bad news for the other dinosaurs, but worse news for the tourists who aren’t aware that they’re going to become snacks for the new predator. And to make matters worse, Claire’s two nephews – brilliant Gray (Simpkins) and hormonal Zach (Robinson) – have ditched the sitter she sent to keep an eye on them and are about to have an up close and personal encounter with Indominus. She gets Owen to go out and fetch her wayward nephews but once he does, where does he take them when there is literally no safe place on the entire island?

Jurassic World broke box office records opening weekend, proving that there is still life in a franchise that Universal had abandoned some fourteen years previously. Director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) who also co-wrote this beast made a conscious effort to disconnect his movie from the other films in the franchise in subtle ways – only Wong, who appeared in the very first film, returns from the previous installments in the series. Fans may miss Ian Malcolm, Ellie Sattler and Allen Grant. However, there are plenty of connections still there, some subtle, some not so much.

First thing that fans are going to want to know is that there are dinosaurs and plenty of them. With CGI technology so much more advanced than they were in 1993 when the first film opened, the dinosaurs are much more detailed and realistically rendered here. There are almost no practical effects regarding the thunder lizards here, which is good and bad. You don’t get a sense of their physical presence as much, although Trevorrow utilized motion capture in order to make them move more realistically.

The park itself is modeled after modern theme parks, complete with Margaritaville restaurants, merchandising and a shopping/dining/entertainment zone in addition to the various attractions. Visitors kayak in a stream with Stegosauruses, roam a paddock in a gyrosphere with Apatosauruses, ride a monorail past the Tyrannosaurus Rex and watch a Mosasaurus leap out of a lagoon to pull a shark into the water before the stands are lowered to watch the leviathan devour its lunch through gigantic glass walls. There is an undercurrent of consumerism throughout that is meant to be a criticism of modern society, which while certainly inarguable is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m pretty sure most of us have noticed all the corporate sponsorship around us all these days.

Pratt, who shot to superstardom with Guardians in the Galaxy last summer looks to own this summer as well. I can’t recall an actor who has had two back-to-back movies do this kind of box office, and there are some pretty compelling reasons why audiences are connecting with Pratt. For one thing, he is an extremely likable sort with a quirky sense of humor that people first became familiar with in Parks and Recreation. He is also a genuinely nice guy who has connected with fans on a personal level, and that comes through onscreen.

Howard has one of her higher profile roles yet and Ron’s daughter acquits herself nicely. She is playing a kind of ice queen sort early on who has no idea how to interact with her nephews, so she fobs them off on an overworked and harried assistant (McGrath). Eventually she develops an ability to show the feelings she’s submerged over the years and as the movie progresses she becomes more identifiable – most of us know what it’s like to invest too much of ourselves into our jobs.

The supporting cast is pretty impressive, with D’Onofrio playing an InGen executive looking to militarize dinosaurs (which seems to be a potential theme for the inevitable sequel) and Johnson providing some comic relief as a nerdy technician with a crush on another nerdy technician (Lapkus). He also has one of the film’s nicer moments when it is revealed he’s wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt that he got on E-Bay. The movie also visits the original Park at one point in the movie which is both touching and a bit creepy as well. Greer has a brief but memorable turn as the mother of the nephews and Claire’s sister.

The movie never recaptures the wonder that the first Jurassic Park elicited from audiences, but quite frankly that genii has already left the bottle, so expecting to be wowed in the same way just isn’t realistic. This is an entirely different movie made in an entirely different era so those grousing that the movie isn’t as good or the same as the first one are banging their heads against the wrong wall.

That isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. Like the first movie in which genius kids rescue the entire park, the kids – who put adults in danger by failing to listen to adult instructions – become insufferable because they are apparently more competent than people who have trained all their lives to do what they do. Like Alex the hacker who puts the whole park back online after the computer reboot in the original, the boys manage to elude dinosaurs that have wiped out entire squadrons of security guards better armed than they.

Short of that subplot ringing untrue, the movie has all the enjoyable elements needed for a good summer movie. While it doesn’t measure up to the first (and never intended to), it certainly stands on its own as a fun ride constructed well, although without innovation. While I can agree with those who grouse that the plot is too similar to the first Jurassic Park and follows in the formula that all four of the movies have been constructed with, I have to admit that when something works there’s no point in abandoning it. While I would love to see a JP 5 that eliminates the kids from the equation, it is unlikely that will ever happen. Kids after all make up a goodly chunk of the core audience for this film, so it would be economic suicide to ignore that chunk. This is nonetheless good, solid summer fun and anyone who says otherwise has a dino-sized stick up their rump.

REASONS TO GO: More dinosaurs is always a good thing. The park looks like a place I’d want to visit. Pratt has become a pre-eminent action hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the wonder that the first film created. Suffers from genius kid syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of dino-violence, peril and people being eaten.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bryce Dallas Howard’s outfit is all white in tribute to the costume worn by the late Sir Richard Attenborough as John Hammond in Jurassic Park. Both of the characters were directors of the park in their respective films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lost World: Jurassic Park
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Carnage

Jupiter Ascending


Star-crossed lovers...literally.

Star-crossed lovers…literally.

(2015) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Ramon Tikaram, David Ajala, Doona Bae, Ariyon Bakare, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Edward Hogg, Tim Pigott-Smith, James D’Arcy, Jeremy Swift, Vanessa Kirby. Directed by the Wachowskis

The vastness of space seems to lend itself to stories that are epic. After all, a character study seems to lose focus when confronted with the vast nature of the cosmos. That doesn’t mean, however, that science fiction doesn’t have room for well-developed characters.

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is living a life that she probably wouldn’t have chosen for herself. A house cleaner with relatives on her mother’s (Kennedy) side, she was born in mid-Atlantic after her mother fled Russia on the occasion of the murder of her husband (D’Arcy) – an astronomer studying in Russia – by Russian criminals.

She wakes up before dawn and spends most of her time wondering if this is all there is. When a particularly enterprising cousin urges her to sell her eggs for the money she needs to buy a telescope, something that would be a precious legacy from her ad, she goes for it. But for some strange reason, the surgical team wants to kill her. And they would have, too, if not for the intervention of Caine Wise (Tatum).

Wise, a genetically spliced humanoid of both human and canine genes, is a bred warrior who wears gravity boots that allow him to soar in an approximation of flight, although he has to move like a demented speed skater in order to use them properly. He takes Jupiter to the home of Stinger (Bean), likewise a spliced warrior sort and there Jupiter learns the truth; her genes are an exact match for the matriarch of an enormously wealthy and powerful family. They own whole planets that have been seeded with humanoids, using the genetic material once harvested to extend the lives of the very wealthy (like themselves). Three of the matriarch’s children – eldest son Balem (Redmayne) who owns the Earth and seems slightly psychotic, middle son Titus (Booth) who is something of a playboy, and youngest daughter Kalique (Middleton) who is ambitious, are all plotting to gain control of Jupiter with Balem wanting to kill her altogether because she, as the genetic duplicate of his mother, would receive the rights to all of the children’s fortunes.

This is all a bit much for Jupiter and if she feels like a pawn in an enormous game, well, that’s just because she is. However, Jupiter isn’t the frightened weakling the Abrasax family seems to think she is and before long, with Caine by her side and the support of the galactic police force, she may yet see this through. However, the Abrasax heirs with the stakes so high won’t play by any particular set of rules.

The Wachowskis who made their reputation on creating a world familiar and yet not in the Matrix trilogy, have attempted to create a detailed and lush environment on a gigantic planet, with a budget said to be in the $165 million range. There is a whole lot of that on the screen, because the special effects here are as good as any you’ll see this year and likely to get a nomination for next year’s Oscars although they’ll have to compete with the new Star Wars episode in that category. Bummer.

The problem here is that the story is so complicated and there is so much back stabbing and about facing going on that it’s hard to follow along. While you’re attempting to follow along you’re also treated to visuals that are so incredible and detailed that it’s really hard to take it in. This is a movie that’s built for repeated viewings.

The performances run the gamut. Tatum, who has matured into a pretty decent actor with a great deal of potential ahead after being somewhat wooden at the beginning of his career, helps make this film enjoyable. Caine is often mystified by the behavior of others and while he is quick with the “your majesty” and deference, he also is quite willing to take a chunk out of an entitled jerkwad if the occasion calls for it. Kunis is also quite the capable actress but here she’s a bit frustrating. She is definitely a damsel in distress here, not projecting much strength or wisdom on her own; she has these incredible genes that apparently the galaxy has been searching for but no genetic gifts. While I understand she was raised in the working class as a housekeeper (and why doesn’t she have a Russian accent like the rest of her family?) there should be something else there, don’t you think? This is where the character development thing comes in handy.

Redmayne, who is in the running for an Oscar this weekend, plays this role like he won the part in a reality show. It’s truly mystifying because we’re all aware what a terrific actor he can be, but he speaks in such a murmur it’s often difficult to make out what he’s saying, before erupting into Pacino-like shouts whenever his character gets frustrated. If it’s meant to convey that Belem is psychotic, well, yeah but psychotic in an “I eat spiders” kind of way rather than as a devious, dangerous villain. More like a petulant child. “The Earth is mine,” he says at one point and I half expected him to stomp his feet and shriek “MINE! MINE! MINE!”

Enormous space craft cruise majestically through space and there is that epic quality to the movie that I think is intentional, but there is also kind of a glacial quality that I think is not. Yes, there are some pretty good action sequences (including a chase sequence near the beginning of the film set in Chicago) but the kinetics of those sequences don’t continue throughout the movie; the momentum that is built up by the action just falls to the floor like a dead fish.

I really wanted to like this film. Heck, I really wanted to love this film – I respect the Wachowskis as film makers and have admired their films from the beginning of their career back in Bound and even including Cloud Atlas which didn’t receive a lot of love from critics and audience alike but I thought was one of the top movies of 2012 although in the interest of full disclosure, I was much more a fan of the sequences directed by Tom Tykwer than I was of those directed by the Wachowskis.

This will not make my list of top films this year, although it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s just an intimidating one, full of sound and fury but I’m not quite sure what was signified here. It’s not nothing, though. That I can tell you for sure.

REASONS TO GO: State-of-the-art eye candy. Tatum manages to perform well in a goofy role.
REASONS TO STAY: Head-scratching performance by Oscar-nominated Redmayne. Convoluted story.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence and space battle action, some sexually suggestive content and some partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally supposed to be released on June 20, 2014 but was delayed eight months so that the special effects could get more time and detail in post production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicles of Riddick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Kingsman: The Secret Service

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


Spider-Man goes electric.

Spider-Man goes electric.

(2014) Superhero (Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Jamie Foxx, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Chris Cooper, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Marton Csokas, B.J. Novak, Michael Massee, Louis Cancelmi, Felicity Jones, Max Charles, Sarah Gordon, Jorge Vega, Bill Heck, Helen Stern, Kari Coleman. Directed by Marc Webb

It is inevitable that when a superhero shows up, eventually a super-villain will as well. With great power comes great responsibility but also comes great angst and great greed as well.

Despite Peter Parker’s (Garfield) a.k.a. Spider-Man promise to stay away from Gwen Stacy (Stone), daughter of the police captain (Leary) who died in the first ASM film, the feelings between the two are so strong that they can’t stay away from each other, at least until Peter starts seeing disapproving visions of her dear old dad and the guilt forces him to break up with her. Or she gets tired of all the on-again, off-again stuff and tells him to take a hike.

Peter is also haunted by the death of his parents, dad Richard (Scott) who once worked for the evil Oscorp empire, and mom (Davidtz) whom Peter remembers only fragments of. He finally confronts his Aunt May (Field) about them. May, who sometimes comes off as too saintly in both the comic and the first film trilogy, actually acts with a completely understandable anger – wasn’t she there for him? Wasn’t her love enough?

He’s also busy taking care of things in New York City, including taking down a crazed Russian mobster who will eventually come to be known as the Rhino (Giamatti). His best friend Harry Osborne (DeHaan) returns to town as his diseased and despotic father Norman (Cooper) lays dying, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces, take over Oscorp and fend off the scheming Donald Menken (Feore) who has an agenda of his own. Harry also discovers that he may soon share his father’s fate and only the blood of a certain Spider-Man might contain the clue that can cure him.

On top of that there’s a new super-villain in town. Mild mannered Max Dillon (Foxx) who develops a man-crush on Spidey after he saves him from being hit by a bus has a terrifying accident as he is shocked by high power lines and falls into a tank full of genetically altered electric eels which leave him badly burned but with the ability to shoot electric charges from his hands and eventually turn into living electric current.

Max, now going by the name Electro, has felt ignored and marginalized all his life. He is tired of being invisible (which ironically becomes one of his superpowers) and now that he can cause so much carnage feels vindicated that people can “see” him now and his freakish appearance is a small price to pay. He also feels betrayed by Spider-Man, his buddy who forgot his name.

All this leads to a pair of climactic battles as betrayals lead to rage which leads to a tragic confrontation that will alter Spider-Man’s life forever. Which is essentially how the second installment in any superhero franchise tends to go.

The second film in the Sam Raimi Spider-trilogy turned out to be one of the best superhero movies ever. This one, sadly, falls more into the category of the third Raimi movie which was sunk by too many supervillains and not enough memorable characters mainly because the film doesn’t get to develop them too much other than Foxx’s Electro and even he doesn’t get a whole lot of background.

What does get some background is the romance between Gwen and Peter which is a double-edged sword. Some of the most natural sequences in the movie involve those two and the banter between the two of them reflects the real-life romance that has developed between Stone and Garfield, eerily reflecting the real-life romance between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst that developed in the first Spider-trilogy. However, spending as much time on the romance as Webb does tends to mess with the momentum of the film, creating awkward breaks between action sequences and a sense that Webb is trying to make a movie that is all things to all audiences. Columbia execs have a history of becoming too involved in the Spider-Man films and I get a sense that studio interference may have occurred here as well.

Webb shows some deft touch with the action sequences and his vision of Electro is nothing short of amazing, worthy of a high-profile superhero franchise such as this one. One sequence in which Electro disappears into an ordinary electric outlet to go and wreak havoc is so well done that it looks as if it could have actually happened. That’s excellent effects in my book.

The character of Gwen Stacy doesn’t work as well for me. Stone described her as the “brains” of the operation which is a bit of a departure from the comic book in which the nerdy Peter, one of the first true science geeks, was capable of being the strategist but it is Gwen who comes to his rescue time after time by figuring out solutions to problems Spider-Man is having and incredibly, as an intern at Oscorp in biochemistry for whatever reason has learned how to work the electric grid of New York City which Oscorp runs. That part doesn’t ring true at all and took me right out of the film. I don’t mind smart women in movies but make her realistically clever please.

Garfield however continues to impress as both Parker and Spider-Man. In the latter role he has the fluid movements that make him look just non-human enough to be different. In the former role, he isn’t quite as brooding as he was in the first film (until near the end) but he certainly shows the inner conflicts that come from wanting to do the right thing but knowing that doing so could potentially put those he loves in danger. Some critics have groused about the smartaleck wisecracking that Spider-Man does, but that is part of the comic book personality of the character and is Parker’s way of coping with his own self-doubt.

This isn’t the sequel I was hoping for. I’m a big fan of Webb and I like the way Garfield plays both Peter and Spider-Man. I was hoping after the unnecessary second origin movie in ten years for the character that they might take Garfield’s strong performance in the title role and build on it. To some extent they do but their ambitions exceed the realistic here and they wind up making a movie that is a bit of a mess. It’s still plenty entertaining and has all the thrills, action and emotions that you need to make a great summer blockbuster, but they also failed to learn from Raimi’s mistakes. It’s worth seeing for the action, for Garfield and for some of the emotional sequences but the movie is nonetheless very flawed.

REASONS TO GO: The Electro sequences are amazing. Some emotional high points.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and subplots. The flow of the film doesn’t quite work. Logical issues.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of superhero violence and peril, plus a brief scene that may be disturbing for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Spider-Man movie to film in New York City where the series is set – it is also the largest production to date to film in the state of New York.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Words and Pictures

After Earth


Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry  film critics.

Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry film critics.

(2013) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere, Diego Klattenhoff, David Denman, Lincoln Lewis, Jaden Martin, Sincere L. Bobb, Monika Jolly, Demetrice Jackson, Joe Farina, Albert Valladares, Jim Gunter, Tiffany E. Green. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

A friend of mine – who happens to be a big movie buff – posted on his Facebook page that he overheard during a trailer for After Earth at a different movie some people re-christen the movie Afterbirth. I chastised him at the time, saying something about judging a movie before you’d seen it (which seems to be an Internet hobby for many these days). We went back and forth over all the red flags he’d seen in the trailer that were making him uneasy about the movie. We left it with that he has no plans to see it unless he hears from friends he trusts that the movie is worth checking out. I think it’s safe to say that he’ll probably not be coming to the multiplex for this one.

The movie takes place over 1,000 years in the future. The human race has abandoned Earth after polluting it into essentially an uninhabitable wasteland. We eventually made our way to a planet called Nova Prime which sadly already had their own inhabitants who didn’t take kindly to our incursion. They genetically engineered a creature called an Ursa which was all razor sharp pincers and teeth which hunted based on smell. It literally was attracted to its prey by fear.

General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) found a way to mask his fear, rendering him invisible to the Ursa, allowing him and other Rangers (the military force of the human race) to essentially end the threat of the creatures. However it came at a high cost – while Cypher was away on duty, an Ursa invaded his home killing his daughter Senshi (Kravitz) in front of his young son Kitai (Martin).

Five years after that tragedy, a 14-year-old Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying out for the Rangers. While great in the classroom, he has a tendency to fall apart in the field, haunted by the death of his sister. Commander Velan (Morshower) tells him as gently as possible that he has failed his application into the Rangers. Kitai is mortified; his father is due home that evening and will not be pleased at all.

His mother Faia (Okonedo) urges Cypher to bond with his son who is desperate to please him. Cypher, knowing that he hasn’t been the presence in his son’s life that he needs to be, takes him along on an off-world mission transporting an Ursa to a research station on a distant moon. Instead, the ship runs into a freak meteor storm and is forced to crash land where it all started – on Earth. As the ship goes down it breaks in two.

Cypher breaks both his legs seriously in the crash and he and Kitai are the only survivors in the front section of the ship. The distress beacon is also damaged beyond repair but there is another one in the tail section. The trouble is it’s 100 km (about 62 miles) away through hostile territory. The planet you see isn’t so thrilled about what the humans did to it and all life has evolved to kill humans. We are no longer used to the atmosphere so a liquid must be consumed every 24 hours to help us breathe. The planet is prone to violent temperature swings. And the captive Ursa has gotten loose and is sure to be after the creature it was bred to kill – a fearful human an there’s nobody more fearful than Kitai. Still, Kitai must overcome his fear and reach the beacon or both he and his dad will be toast.

The studio was very cagey about marketing the film. Director Shyamalan, whose name has appeared in the title of his last few films, was absent from all marketing materials – even the trailers. I can kind of understand why. Shyamalan, who had become an acclaimed director based on The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable had fallen on a series of bombs that have turned his name into box office poison which is kind of a shame – he’s a very talented director with a great visual sense who had for whatever reason become something of an Internet Kryptonite when it came to movies. The fanboys loathe him  and so the studio felt that the movie would be unfairly judged if Shyamalan’s name was attached to it (a fear that I think was justified). By emphasizing the presence of the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith the studio thought they’d attract an audience.

Unfortunately, the movie really isn’t very good. The story is interesting, and there’s a compelling message of mastering your fear and learning to balance your emotions. There are also some pretty amazing visuals that will keep your eyes happy.

There are also some questionable decisions, like the odd accent that the people of the future affect (was that really necessary to anything?) to some of the lapses in logic that dot the film (why would a planet evolve to kill a species that has been gone for a millennium, and why would a race that could develop a hand-held beacon not make it go off automatically in a crash, or at least allow the crew to deploy it manually before the crash). Those are kind of bothersome.

Will Smith, the loving dad, really sets this movie up to be Jaden’s film. I can’t really blame the proud papa; his son has shown some promise in his brief acting career but I think he expected a little too much from him here. Quite frankly, his son’s performance is disappointing. Part of it is that odd accent that makes him sound a bit goofy, and the script also calls upon Kitai to freak out with great regularity which makes the character generally unlikable, which doesn’t do Jaden any favors. The fact is however that the emotional outbursts that Kitai has are never very believable; Jaden just ratchets up the volume and that’s supposed to convince us of his rage and frustration. His brow is crinkled up through much of the film, making him look like he’s about to cry which also sends a subliminal message to the audience that this boy isn’t ready for this.

I feel bad having to say these things because as a critic, you really don’t want to rank on a young actor who may not have the coping skills necessary to deal with criticism but I think that at the end of the day my readers deserve to know what to expect when they see the film. Frankly, had Cypher been alone and had to make the journey himself it might have been a more riveting film but of course that would have upended much of the film’s message – but it would have made for a better movie

REASONS TO GO: Some amazing visuals.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit muddled. Logical lapses. Jayden Smith’s performance is excruciating.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of the sci-fi variety as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in 20 years that Shyamalan has accepted a project based on a screenplay that was written by someone else.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oblivion

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Spy Next Door

My Sister’s Keeper


My Sister's Keeper

It's an awkward moment as Cameron Diaz asks Alec Baldwin about any openings on 30 Rock.

(New Line) Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin, Jason Patric, Joan Cusack, Sofia Vassilieva, Evan Ellingson, Emily Deschanel, Thomas Dekker. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

As parents, part of our job is to protect our children. It is a given that we will do anything – absolutely, positively anything – to keep our child safe from harm. When we are helpless to do so – as in the case of a terrible disease for example – our fight takes on a different tone.

At first glance the Fitzgerald family seems nearly perfect. Dad Brian (Patric) is a fire chief, while mom Sara (Diaz) is a top-notch lawyer. They have three great kids; Kate (Vassilieva), Jesse (Ellingson) and Anna (Breslin).

“Nearly” can be a very important word, however. Kate is suffering from a particularly dreadful and aggressive strain of leukemia. As a matter of fact, most kids who have it don’t live past the age of five. However, Sara is willing to do anything to keep her daughter alive. That includes having another child, fertilized in vitro, to supply Kate with bone marrow, blood and other spare parts to keep her alive.

The plan works, although it’s far from perfect; Anna (the test tube baby) is subjected to frequent and often painful hospital procedures in order to procure whatever it is that Kate needs to continue to live. She’s a teenager now, and the disease has reared its ugly head again and this time it’s going to take more than a blood transfusion or bone marrow; Kate’s kidney has shut down and she needs a new one to survive.

Normally she’d go to the spare parts store that is her sister, but Anna has had enough. She realizes the consequences of having only one functioning kidney and it means the end to any sort of normal life that she might want to lead. She engages the services of a lawyer, the kind that advertises on bus benches and late night TV. His name is Campbell Alexander (Baldwin) and after some deliberation, decides to accept her suit for medical emancipation from her parents.

Sara is no slouch as a lawyer and prepares her own defense, but as the case drags on, Kate grows weaker and weaker and the case tears the family apart. Is Anna turning her back on her sister or is she just reaching for the only chance at a normal life she may ever have?

This is a movie that raises some interesting, fundamental questions and to its credit, gives the viewer much room for thought. The unfortunate part is that it wraps the compelling concepts in so many tearjerker clichés that after awhile what might have been a fresh take on a difficult subject seems very formula and rote.

There is some fine acting going on here. Breslin is in my opinion the best child actor in Hollywood at the moment, having dethroned Dakota Fanning who is in the teen actress realm now. She plays Anna as terribly conflicted but intensely driven. Her Anna is much more like her mother than her mother would care to admit, and rather than showing the common traits in the same way that Cameron Diaz shows them instead gives them her own take.

Baldwin, who is as hot as anyone in Hollywood at the moment, is also superb as the quirky lawyer who has a bit of a prima donna in him. He’s self-deprecating and the part is so solidly in Baldwin’s wheelhouse that you can’t imagine any other actor in the role.

Diaz is not normally someone I’d turn to for her acting chops, but she delivers here. She does chew the scenery a little bit but just a little bit. The mother is a bit of a shrew and more than a little of a control freak, but there is a fierce love for her child that is so consuming that it nearly blocks her other children out entirely. It’s not an unusual situation in families, and it’s played out here quite naturally.

There are some nice turns. The hospital romance between Kate and another cancer patient (Dekker) provides the movie with some of its sweetest moments, although the outcome is somewhat predictable. Joan Cusack plays the judge who has some empathy for Kate, but much more wisdom than the tunnel visionary mom.

There is also an unnecessary third child who I guess is in the movie to illustrate Sara’s complete focus on her one sick daughter at the expense of her other children. He is usually onscreen accompanied by melancholy folk music; it gets a bit distracting, to be honest.

Still, the movie is strong enough for me to recommend. I know that it is fashionable for critics to snipe about movies that manipulate emotionally, but I find that hypocritical; all movies are manipulative in one form or another; these tearjerkers are just upfront about it. If the manipulation is done well and brings me a bit of catharsis, I consider it a job well done and so I can recommend My Sister’s Keeper on that basis. If you are in need of a good cry, by all means your ship has arrived.

WHY RENT THIS: For those in need of a cathartic release, this is the movie to see. Breslin again shows she is the best child actor in Hollywood.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times, the movie sinks unnecessarily into maudlin cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: The topic is very mature and certainly will upset children who may not understand the dynamics of what’s going on; the frank depiction of the disease and its consequences will also be difficult for the sensitive. Parents should also be aware there are some scenes of teen drinking and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Kate was originally offered to Dakota Fanning, with her sister Elle to be cast as Anna; however, Dakota reportedly balked at shaving her head for the role, so both sisters bowed out of the production.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Valkyrie

Avatar


Avatar

A gunship moves through one of the majestic landscapes of Pandora.

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron

A race with superior technology has a responsibility to protect those races that are less advanced than they. However, the history of humankind has shown that to rarely be the case in those sorts of situations.

In the year 2154, Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) was a grunt whose spine was injured during a campaign in Venezuela, leaving him confined to a wheelchair. His identical twin brother was a scientist who had been leaving for the wondrous world of Pandora, an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, as part of the avatar program. The journey was supposed to take five years of cryo-sleep just to arrive but it would never happen; Jake’s brother was killed during a mugging.

Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans. The planet is full of flora and fauna, much of which is aggressive and lethal. There is an indigenous race of humanoids called the Na’Vi, a race of 10-12 foot tall tailed bipeds that have a great deal in common with Native Americans. Even their language sounds similar.

Humans communicate with the Na’Vi through avatars, genetically engineered creatures utilizing human and Na’Vi DNA that humans link through a machine that transfers the human’s mind into the avatar allowing the human to experience what the avatar sees, tastes and touches. The Na’Vi call the avatars “dreamwalkers” because when the humans return to their own bodies, the avatars lose consciousness and appear to sleep.

Because avatars are so hideously expensive, it is determined that Jake will take his brother’s place on Pandora despite the fact that he has had no training in an avatar and is abysmally ignorant of Pandora and its dangers. When Jake arrives on Na’Vi he finds a bit of a power struggle going on in the human fortress-encampment between the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), a cantankerous botanist, and Col. Miles Quaritch (Lang), a gung-ho ex-Marine employed as a mercenary by the RDA Corporation and its smarmy representative Parker Selfridge (Ribisi) – notice the similarity to the word “selfish” here – who are after a rare mineral called, somewhat irreverently, unobtanium. One particular Na’Vi settlement sits on a particularly rich deposit of the stuff.

The Na’Vi don’t trust the humans and with good reason. The humans look around Pandora and see a dangerous world whose resources exist for their exploitation for corporate gain. The Na’Vi sees a living world that is beautiful and inter-connected.

Jake goes on his first mission into the forest accompanied by fellow rookie Norm Spellman (Moore) and Dr. Augustine and immediately gets himself into trouble, winding up being chased by a rhino-like creature (with the head of a hammerhead shark) into a chasm where he is separated from his fellow avatars. Day turns into night and the forest becomes even more dangerous as a pack of black canine-like creatures attacks Jake. He is saved by one of the Na’Vi, the beautiful Neytiri (Saldana) who has nothing but contempt for the avatars,who as she puts it walk through the forest like ignorant children and “see nothing.” However, when a jellyfish-like lifeform becomes curious about Jake, Neytiri interprets this as a sign and takes Jake to their village.

There her father Eytukan (Studi), the clan chief and her mother Moat (Pounder), the shaman of the clan, make the determination that Jake should be trained as a hunter for the clan. Tsu-tey (Alonso), the clan’s best hunter who is also heir to the position of chief and as thus betrothed to Neytiri, is skeptical that this can be done.

My son characterized the plot as “Dances With Aliens” and he has a point. There are many similarities between the plots of Avatar and Dances With Wolves but this definitely has its own take on it. The conflict between the needs of the corporation and the world of the Na’Vi eventually come to a head. There are some intense battle sequences but in all honesty, these are not why you come to see this movie.

Never before in motion picture history has so complete an alien environment ever been created. The look of Pandora is astonishing and realistic. It is certainly alien with some familiar elements; lush vegetation, grasses and trees and many unusual flora and fauna. There is literally no way to take it all in with a single viewing which is what the filmmakers intended undoubtedly.

Some movies become event movies simply on the basis of hype and a precious few because they are game changers. Star Wars was one of the latter and so is Avatar. This is a movie that many will see simply because everyone will be talking about it and they want to get in on the conversation. Director Cameron has once again proven himself one of the most visionary directors of his generation. While some think of him as the director of Titanic, the biggest-grossing movie of all time, his legacy may rest with Avatar. This will literally change how movies get made.

The acting is surprisingly good. Weaver has made a career of delivering strong, capable performances and her Grace Augustine may rank with Ripley as the character most associated with her in the future. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that has already landed him the lead in high-profile movies and undoubtedly will continue to do so. He has all the qualities to be a big star and while his performance in Terminator Salvation hints at it, he delivers big time here. Michelle Rodriguez, an actress I’ve never really connected with before, is superb as a sympathetic pilot.

The movie runs two hours and forty minutes which is a bit long; the 3D glasses are bulky and uncomfortable and I wound up with a sore nose where the glasses rested. I have to admit that Cameron’s strong point is not dialogue and some of the characters utter lines that made me groan out loud. His points on corporate greed and its role in wiping out the ecology of our own world, the treatment of aboriginal races and the general irresponsibility of humankind are well-taken but at times he uses a 2×4 to whack us over the head with it when an ostrich feather would have done the trick.

Reviews for this movie are almost superfluous other than to pile on superlatives for a movie that richly deserves them. Avatar may be the closest thing to a visit to an alien world that most of us will get to experience in our lifetimes, but I’m sure most people have either already seen it or were planning to see it anyway without my endorsement. Still, count me in among the endorsers of this film; widely-hyped, intensely scrutinized and greatly anticipated, it delivers as one of the year’s very best.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals, the visuals, the visuals. This is a detailed, realistic world that has an internal logic. Even the elements of the fantastic make sense.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is probably about 20-30 minutes too long and can cause a bit of sensory overload at times. Some of the film’s points get hammered in a bit too strongly.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair bit of violence and some language, but pretty much okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The avatars have five fingers and toes while the Na’Vi have four.

HOME OR THEATER: This absolutely must be experienced on the big screen, preferably in 3D and in the IMAX format if you have a theater equipped for it nearby.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: World Trade Center