X2


Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Kelly Hu, Katie Stuart, Kea Wong, Cotter Smith, Chiara Zanni, Daniel Cudmore, Peter Wingfield, Shauna Cain. Directed by Bryan Singer

As I write, moonlight shines down blue as sapphires through my open window. I can see a four-leaf clover clearly in the grass of my front lawn. If a haystack were at hand, I could unerringly find the needle hidden therein. Actually, none of those things are happening, but it feels as if they could. After all, I’ve just witnessed the extremely improbable: a sequel better than the original. Hard to believe, but true.

When last we left the X-Men (in 2000), their greatest foe, Magneto (McKellan) was confined to a plastic prison, unable to use his powers to escape. Rogue (Paquin) was back among the students at Xavier School, sporting a cool white streak in her hair after her ordeal on Liberty Island. Wolverine (Jackman) was leaving for Alkali Lake, a facility in Canada where some clues to his past might be found. To get there, he liberated a motorcycle belonging to Cyclops (Marsden). And Senator Kelly (Davison) had come out against the mutant registration bill he had sponsored. Of course, we know that the good senator was really Mystique (Romijn-Stamos), but that’s just our little secret.

As this sequel opens, the White House is under attack from a single mutant; a blue-skinned, acrobatic guy with a long tail and the ability to teleport. He takes on the Secret Service and dispatches agents with nearly no trouble, threatens the President (Smith) with a knife before teleporting out of the Oval Office, leaving the commander-in-chief more susceptible to his Mutant Affairs advisor, Colonel. Styker’s (Cox) suggestion that he raid the Xavier School, which he described as a training facility for mutants. Of course, it sounded much more sinister when he said it.

About this time, Wolverine returned home to Xavier’s School, having found nothing but rubble and deserted buildings at Alkali Lake. The attack on the president, obviously carried out by a mutant, troubles Professor Xavier (Stewart). He decides to send two of his most capable X-Men, Storm (Berry) and Jean Grey (Janssen) to retrieve the President’s attacker. Professor X uses his neato-keeno computer Cerebro, through which he is able to connect with every living person on the planet, to find the blue teleporter. Professor X also decides to pay his old pal Magneto a visit, taking Cyclops with him.

While visiting Magneto, Professor X finds out something horrible; the secret of his school has been compromised by Magneto. Not willingly; Magneto would never betray his own kind to humans. Using an acid-like substance applied to the back of the mutant’s neck, Col. Stryker was able to control the powerful Magneto just enough to get him to reveal the information Stryker wanted; the exact location of Cerebro. Too late, Professor Xavier realizes he is caught in a trap and both he and Cyclops are gassed into unconsciousness.

At the same time, Storm and Jean Grey have found the mutant responsible for the attack on the White House, a pious German named Kurt Wagner, or as he was known in the Berlin Circus, Night Crawler (Cumming). Rather than being a dangerous villain, he’s actually rather sweet and endearing. Puzzled, Storm and Jean arrange to transport the German back to the Xavier School. It’s about here they lose contact with everybody.

Of course, things are not going too well at the School. Under attack from deadly commandos who menace shrieking children with what looks like Tasers, the soldiers find the mutant children to be a little harder to capture than they may have thought. Some, like Kitty Pryde (Stuart) are able to literally walk through walls to escape. Some, like Colossus (Cudmore) grow an impenetrable metal armor on their skin. Others, like Bobby Drake (Ashmore) can create walls of ice. And Wolverine? Well, he just kicks ass.

Wolverine escapes with Rogue, Bobby Drake, and a kid with attitude named Pyro (Stanford) who can manipulate fire. They go to Boston, where Storm and Jean Grey are and where Bobby Drake’s family lives. It leads to an awkward confrontation with Bobby’s parents, leading to one of the best lines of the movie; “Have you tried NOT being a mutant?” whines Bobby’s rather dense mother. Unfortunately, before any kind of understanding is reached, Bobby’s brother calls the police, which leads to a great deal of destruction and injury, most caused by Pyro. Things threaten to get WAY out of hand before Storm and Jean Grey arrive to whisk Wolverine and the kids away.

Now we find out what the reason for all this is. Col. Stryker doesn’t just fear mutants. He doesn’t just hate mutants. He wants to kill all of them. Permanently. And, using a second generation of Cerebro based on the components he’s stolen from the school, he has the means to do it in Professor Charles Xavier. Of course, the X-Men have no choice but to rescue their mentor, stop the genocide and save the day. And they have acquired a most unlikely ally: Magneto, who has escaped from prison in a rather clever (but gruesome) way. And, Mystique.

This uneasy alliance leaves you wondering about Magneto’s own agenda, which manifests itself in a spectacular way. The inevitable rescue attempt will lead to a surprise outcome in which one of the X-Men will defect to Magneto, and another will face the ultimate challenge. And when did this start sounding like a comic book?

The special effects are far more extensive here than in the first movie, and utilized more effectively. The fight scenes between Nightcrawler and the Secret Service, Wolferine and Lady Deathstrike (Hu) and Pyro and the Boston Police are done well, marrying expert fight choreography with special effects that bring to life the powers of the comic book heroes. Visually, the movie never lets up.

The X-Universe that Marvel Comics has created has a rich tapestry of characters from which to draw; many standbys, such as Gambit, Beast and Angel, have only been glimpsed so far in the movies.

What really sets X2 apart from its predecessor is the depth that is given to the characters. Jean Grey faces, in one of the movie’s better subplots, the increase of her own powers beyond her own abilities to handle them. Stryker is evil, but not in a cartoon-like manner. His hate is the man’s driving force, his fear the engine that powers his hate. His fear of mutants has hit his home in an impactful way, and drives him to exploit even those closest to him to meet his genocidal objectives.

Storm has always been one of the more enigmatic figures in the comic; she is aloof, distant and cold, but also loyal and fiercely determined. Berry plays her with all her vulnerabilities intact, quite a juxtaposition for a character able to create dozens of tornadoes with a thought.

That is, perhaps, why we relate to the X-Men so well; they are powerful, yet completely human, with all the vulnerability and frailty that implies. Even Magneto, the arrogant master of magnetism, is not all-powerful. Hugh Jackman captures Wolverine’s essence: feral and utterly devoid of conscience when fighting, but tormented by a past he cannot remember, held hostage to questions he can’t answer. Some of his questions are answered during the course of X2 but of course not all of them and several new ones arise in the process.

Wolverine’s defense of the Xavier School is one of the most vicious fight scenes ever filmed in a superhero movie and while it got cheers from the audience, it also left me a bit unsettled. There is something about stabbing a soldier with diamond-hard, razor-sharp claws that is more violent than beating him into unconsciousness with closed fists, or shooting him with a rifle. It made me wonder how far one can stretch the concept of “good guy” when the good guy is stabbing people. It’s all psychology; stabbing is a far more personal act than shooting someone. Dead is dead either way, but in our culture, heroes don’t stab.

Cumming portrays Nightcrawler as a tormented, but gentle soul whose faith is the rock that he clings to, even when his faith is sorely tested. He’s almost puppy dog eager to please his new friends so when the rubber hits the road he is there for them at great personal risk to himself. Cumming makes excellent use of his screen time, making his character one that you want to see more of.

Keep an eye out for Colossus, as well. The audience really reacted to his limited onscreen time; you can bet the filmmakers are taking notice of this for a future movie in the series although to this point that hasn’t happened yet.

The true test of a movie can be broken down to a single old saw: did the audience leave wanting more? X2 has got it all; eye candy, subtle undercurrents to which most of us can relate, characters who are not cartoons (another irony, given that this is based on comic books), big explosions, terrific fight scenes, everything for the summer movie Neanderthal in all of us. X2 is a perfect popcorn escape.

WHY RENT THIS: All the action you an ask for. Character depth and sophisticated story. Perfect summer popcorn movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Still gives short shrift to some of the characters.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of comic book violence, a bit of sensuality and brief rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Entered the Guinness Book of World Records on its opening day by getting the most number of screens for a single movie on its opening day ever.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The special edition DVD release included a feature on Nightcrawler and rehearsal footage of the fight sequence between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike as well as a web-based Q&A session from the film’s release date. The Blu-Ray adds a history of the comic book X-Men as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $407.7M on a $110M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Wind Rises

Vertical Limit


If you're just going to hang around, I'm gonna leave.

If you’re just going to hang around, I’m gonna leave.

(2000) Action (Columbia) Chris O’Donnell, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton, Scott Glenn, Stuart Wilson, Temuera Morrison, Alexander Siddig, Izabella Scorupco, Ben Mendelsohn, David Hayman, Augie Davis, Roshan Seth, Nicholas Lea, Alejandro Valdes-Rochin, Rod Brown, Robert Taylor, Steve Le Marquand, Robert Mammone. Directed by Martin Campbell

Those who climb mountains are a different sort of breed. They risk life and limb, push themselves farther than even they themselves think they can go, for a reward of standing someplace few humans can visit.

For most of us, the mountain peaks of the Himalayas are farther away than the moon; someday, we may be able to take a shuttle to the moon. No matter what future, it will always take a special sort of human being to scale those heights.

Peter, Annie and Boyce Garrett are such human beings. Dedicated climbers, they push themselves up the highest peaks and they do it with joy. However, tragedy intervenes when Peter (O’Donnell) is forced to make an awful decision, one he must revisit later in the movie.

The results of this drive a rift between him and Annie (Tunney). Peter becomes a National Geographic nature photographer, whereas Annie continues climbing, becoming one of the world’s best. She signs onto an expedition funded by billionaire adventurer Elliot Vaughn (Paxton) to scale K2, one of the most fearsome, lethal peaks in existence.

Vaughn had been part of an ill-fated expedition that was caught by the weather just short of the summit, resulting in the loss of the entire team except for him. Vaughn wants to find his personal redemption on the peak, which is never a good thing when going up against K2.

Despite the warnings of veteran climber Montgomery Wick (Glenn), the well-outfitted team ascends and Vaughn promptly shows his true colors, making decisions based on ego and ignoring the expertise of his climbers. Caught by a storm and avalanche, three of his team members (including Annie) are buried in a crevasse.

Peter frantically mounts a rescue mission along with Wick (who has his own reasons for going along) and, among others, Monique (ex-Bond girl Scorupco) who’s in it for the money, Kareem (Siddig) who’s in it to save his cousin, and brothers Cyril (Le Marquand) and Malcolm Beach (Mendelsohn) who are in it as comedy relief.

They are in a race against time, as the survivors will suffer from fatal pulmonary edema (due to the altitude) if not pulled off the mountain in time. Did I forget to mention they are carting unstable nitro bombs to help dig the survivors out? Spectacular stunts and explosions to follow.

The stunts are spectacular, with a helicopter sequence having both Da Queen and I frozen to our seats.  Campbell (Goldeneye) keeps the pacing murderous, as the climbers go from peril to peril. Trying to keep the story as realistic as possible, the filmmakers used a lot of expertise from real climbers to give audiences a sense of being up there (some of the scenes were filmed at the actual K2 base camp).

The problem here is believability. There are a number of rather sizable holes I couldn’t really reconcile. The biggest one is this; after a perilous climb to reach the dying survivors that takes everything the rescue party has and then some, how are they supposed to cart down the crevasse-dwellers who are too sick to even move a leg out of the way of a rock outcropping? Don’t ask me It’s just Hollywood, right? Also, there are too many close calls. It’s almost rote that people wind up dangling in mortal danger of a rather long plummet only to be saved as they slip off the mountain, either by their sheer willpower, or by the intervention of another climber thought to be too far away to be of help. It gets old after a while, guys.

Nonetheless, this is exquisite eye candy, beautifully filmed. If there was an Oscar for best stunt performances (and by golly there should be), Vertical Limit would be a major contendah. As it is, it is disposable entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous vistas of mountain peaks. Some pretty spectacular stunts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly repetitive. Too many holes in logic and too many occasions when believability is stretched beyond the breaking point.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scenes of intense peril as well as occasional bits of strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The backdrop for the mountains was Mt. Cook in New Zealand standing in for K2 in Pakistan; this would mark the first time that director Kiwi-born Martin Campbell has filmed in his native country.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: While most behind-the-scenes featurettes are normally little more than puff pieces put together by the publicity department, the one here is actually fascinating, detailing the kind of training the actors went through and the challenges – often potentially life-threatening – the cast and crew faced in making the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $215.7M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cliffhanger

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: 47 Ronin

U-571


The crew of a WW2 sub has 99 problems and you're not one of them.

The crew of a WW2 sub has 99 problems and you’re not one of them.

(2000) War Thriller (Universal) Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi, Jake Weber, David Keith, Thomas Kretschmann, Jack Noseworthy, Tom Guiry, Will Estes, Terrence “T.C.” Carson, Erik Palladino, Dave Power, Derk Cheetwood, Matthew Settle, Rebecca Tilney, Burnell Tucker, Robin Askwith, Carsten Voigt. Directed by Jonathan Mostow

After the success of Saving Private Ryan, movies about the Second World War began to creep into the studio release schedules in the first years of the new millennium, with this film and Pearl Harbor (among others) both hoping to recapture the magic of the Steven Spielberg classic.

This time, the focus is on the submarine service of the U.S. Navy. Lt. Tyler (McConaughey) is the very competent exec of the S-33, one of the Navy’s older rustbuckets. He is chafing for his own command, but hasn’t been able to get the recommendation of his commanding officer (Bill Paxton), so he continues to be second in command as the battle in the Atlantic shipping lanes continues to go badly for the Allies. German U-Boats continue to sink allied ships at a terrifying rate and the navy is virtually powerless to break their codes.

However, that’s about to change. During a battle at sea, a U-boat is left crippled and sends a radio signal to Berlin. Allied intelligence manages to figure out what happened (don’t ask how, since they supposedly don’t know German codes) and have sent a taciturn intelligence officer, Lt. Hirsch (Weber) and a gung-ho Marine (Keith) to lead a mission to rendezvous with the crippled German sub posing as its supply vessel and steal the Enigma decoder and codebook. Along with them they bring Tyler, his respected by the men chief (Keitel) and a group of seamen to help take over the sub.

After a bloody battle, they manage to secure the German U-boat and get the decoder, when the REAL supply boat arrives and sinks the American submarine. The survivors are left aboard a vessel that’s unfamiliar and in which everything is written in a language they can’t read. To make matters worse, the U-boat is still crippled (although they manage to make some jury-rigged repairs) and is engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with a German destroyer.

Mostow manages to capture the claustrophobic feel of submarine service of the time, and the amazing stress that comes with avoiding depth charges, enemy torpedoes and the pressure of the deep. The sacrifice and bravery of the men and the coming of age of Tyler are the center of the storyline. Along the way, you get a pretty good idea of what terror a depth-charge barrage can be.

In the early years of his career McConaughey was a bit wooden more often than not but here he plays the heroic role with a certain amount of stoicism. Keitel plays the cliché gruff ole seadog pretty well, considering it’s not the kind of role he’s known for. But then nobody really expects the acting to be this film’s strong point. It’s the stomach-knotting tension that makes or breaks U-571 and there are times when this movie makes you want to leap out of your skin. However, they are unable to maintain the atmosphere consistently.

The reality of submarine service during the war, as nasty as this movie depicts it, was way more intense. If you are looking for a more realistic portrayal, try Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, which is THE best submarine movie ever done. If that doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat, nothing will.

WHY RENT THIS: Realistic sub battles. A good sense of tension. Keitel makes a terrific seadog.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Inconsistent. McConaughey was a bit too laid back.

FAMILY MATTERS: A pretty goodly amount of violence and some scenes of extreme tension and fear.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Enigma machine depicted here wasn’t a prop; it was an actual Enigma that was loaned to the production by a collector.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some newsreel and archived material which are used to explain what inspired the making of the film. The Blu-Ray version makes this available in the U-Control Picture-in-Picture function.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.7M on a $62M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Thor: The Dark World

Intermedio


While they're both pretty in pink, Molly Ringwald they're not.

While they’re both pretty in pink, Molly Ringwald they’re not.

(2005) Horror (The Asylum) Edward Furlong, Steve Railsback, Cerina Vincent, Amber Benson, Callard Harris, Paul Cram, Alejandro Samaniego, Dean Arevalo, Eric Castelton, Josef Geiger, Richard Miranda, Michael Latt, Serina Latt, Adam Gobble. Directed by Andrew Lauer

We all want to have some sort of control over our own lives. However, it is the things that we cannot control that eludes us and drives us crazy. The things we cannot explain, most of all – how can we control what we don’t understand?

Malik (Furlong) and his ex-girlfriend Gen (Vincent), her friend Barbie (Benson) who incongruously wears a t-shirt that says “Kari” and her other friend Wes (Harris) decide to take a weekend trip to a ghost town. Now this wouldn’t be bad in and of itself but they make a stop at an abandoned mining operation with miles of tunnels that are said to stretch to the Mexican border. Even though Gen and Malik’s fathers both disappeared in those self-same tunnels, the four decide to climb down and take a look for themselves. Poor decision making at its finest.

Once there they run into a couple of drug dealers – Jorge (Samaniego) and Al (Arevalo) with their mute tag-along teen friend Zee (Cram) – hauling in some contraband from Mexico. The armed dealers force the other four to accompany them. This makes no sense whatsoever – why not just shoot them and be done with it? – but fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, they are attacked by vicious ghosts. Or spirits. Or specters. Or whatever you want to call them.

This leads to much screaming, lots of running and some pretty nifty deaths. There seems to be no way out of this maze of tunnels. The criminals and the criminally stupid must join forces to survive but there are some questions to be answered – what are these ghosts and why are they so angry? Who is the mysterious old man (Railsback) and what does he have to do with any of this? And why doesn’t Zee have anything to say?

The Asylum is known for low-budget direct-to-video horror films that often crop up on premium cable movie channels and like many low-budget direct-to-video horror film studios runs the gamut in terms of quality. Certainly the special effects are none-too-special here, a combination of practical effects and CGI that aren’t terrifying at all.

Furlong, who once played John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day has had a checkered career since then that has been plagued by substance abuse and legal issues stemming from domestic abuse cases. He is reasonably talented, particularly when it comes to playing characters with a dark disposition as he does here. I do hope he figures things out and gets his life in order; he’s had a rough life from day one and deserves a little happiness.

Benson, one of the mainstays of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series is reasonably hot although Vincent isn’t hard on the eyes at all herself and essentially, they both are playing generic scream queens (heroine and victim of course). They mostly have to run through dusty tunnels and swear a lot – and I do mean a lot. People offended by bad language will feel their eardrums bursting into flames here.

I like the premise quite a bit and there was a worthwhile horror film to be made here but it’s a victim of lazy writing and a budget that didn’t match their ambitions. Horror movies get a bad rap sometimes for these same reasons; they can’t help the latter so much but the former they certainly can. Cranking out gore for gore’s sake doesn’t a good horror movie make. I hope sometime that producers of the genre will realize that a horror movie is like any other movie in that if you want to make a good movie, you need interesting characters and well-thought out plots. Just throwing a bunch of generic horror film characters into a standard situation – or even a nifty idea – doesn’t really do anything for anybody. This isn’t a total waste of time and energy (I’m an Amber Benson fan admittedly) but it could have used a bit of care and love in pre-production before any film was actually shot.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice concept.  Benson is memorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly shot and so murky in places you can’t tell what’s going on. Sound cuts out at one point. Cheesy CGI.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and gore and a surfeit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barbie is on crutches in the movie due to an injury actress Amber Benson suffered prior to filming.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Dusk Til Dawn

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: District B-13: Ultimatum

Les Miserables (2012)


Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman face off.

Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman face off.

(2012) Musical (Universal) Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson, Michael Jibson, Isabelle Allen, Charlotte Spencer. Directed by Tom Hooper

As a nation we love musicals. There’s something about the scope of them, the music, the spectacle that we just connect with. We love seeing them on Broadway but we also love seeing them in the movie theater. However, not all musicals translate well to the big screen.

Most folks are aware that this is based on the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel and was adapted for the French stage by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil and later for English audiences at the West End by lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. It was a big hit on the Broadway stage in the 80s and won eight Tony awards in 1987.

The film production was taken up by Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and boasts an all-star cast. The story concerns Jean Valjean (Jackman), arrested for stealing bread and serving a 19-year sentence for daring to feed his starving family. Released, he seems destined for a life of further crime as nobody will hire him since his papers identify him as a dangerous ex-convict. But an act of charity by the Bishop of Digne (Wilkinson) turns his outlook around. He realizes that in order to become the good man he once was, he must break parole and begin fresh.

That puts the obsessive Inspector Javert (Crowe) on his tail. Javert looks at the law as something of black and white, with those who commit crimes as criminals who can never change their natures. He sees Valjean as nothing more than a common criminal whose lot in life is to steal.

Valjean becomes a successful mill owner and becomes mayor of a small French provincial town. One of his employees is Fantine (Hathaway), a beautiful woman who rejects the advances of the lecherous Foreman (Jibson) and whose pay mostly goes to support her daughter Cosette (Allen) who is being looked after by the innkeeper Thenardier (Cohen) and his wife (Carter). The other women of the factory, jealous of her looks, get wind of her daughter and this gives the Foreman an excuse to fire her.

Fantine becomes immediately destitute, selling her hair, her teeth and eventually, her sex. She gets very ill and Valjean witnesses a client threatening to beat her up after she fends off his unwelcome advances. He sees that she is taken to the hospital and promises to send for Cosette. However he has something else to worry about; it seems that Jean Valjean has been caught – at least, someone who has been accused of being him and it appears that someone else will be going back to jail in his stead. This would appear to be the perfect solution but Valjean’s conscience can’t allow it so he goes to the trial and confesses. He leaves to go clear up his affairs, intending to surrender himself to Javert but he witnesses Fantine’s death and goes to fetch Cosette who now has nobody. He knows only he can save her from a life of abuse and takes her away from the Thenardiers, paying them 1500 francs to do so. Valjean and Cosette barely escape Javert and make their way to Paris.

There once again Valjean becomes prosperous and Cosette, now a beautiful young woman (Seyfried) has attracted the eye of Marius (Redmayne), a fervent young revolutionary who is the son of a wealthy man. Cosette falls deeply for Marius but he and his fellow revolutionaries led by the charismatic Enjolras (Tveit). The coming battle looks to be a slaughter of the revolutionaries and Valjean, who realizes Javert has spotted him again, knows that fleeing Paris would be the sensible thing to do but it would break Cosette’s heart.

One of the advantages that a film has is that it can put a more three dimensional feel to the story. A play is limited to the area of the stage; film can go on location or create landscapes of its own. A good translation won’t feel staged or confined. Oddly, that happens a lot here despite the often epic vistas.

One of the big problems I’ve had with Les Mis all along (and I know that this is sacrilegious) is that it’s too ambitious. Nearly every line is sung to the point where you long for some dialogue (there are a few lines here and there but not much) and quite frankly, the music doesn’t hold up for an entire two and a half hour long movie. A good deal of it is mediocre although there are several songs that are amazing (“Who Am I” and “I Dreamed a Dream” among them). This is more of an opera than a musical in that sense.

The performances here are pretty strong. Hathaway has justly received notice as delivering an Oscar-worthy performance and it seems a lock that she’ll get a best supporting actress nomination and most likely the win. The tortured and abused Fantine is a role that demands a great deal of the actress playing her and certainly Hathaway gives it everything she’s got and more.

Jackman does a pretty fine job as well. This is one of his finest performances ever. Having started out as a song and dance man, he should be a slam dunk for this but a tiny little complaint – I think that the key is just about on the high end of his range. It would have behooved the music director to move it down a couple of keys so that they could have gotten a better benefit of Jackman’s vocals.

Crowe has a nice voice but he almost seems to be in a different movie. He’s extremely low-key and doesn’t really pull off the obsessive quality of Javert. He’s a little too stoic here and the part really calls for someone who unravels and that just isn’t Crowe. He does a decent enough job however. Cohen and Carter (which sounds a bit like the name of a law firm) do reasonably well as the comic relief.

This might have been an excellent movie had this not been a musical/opera hybrid. A little more dialogue would have made it more palatable. This is a very emotional movie that requires little manipulation to get your tear ducts working overtime. That it’s sad is a given; the title is, after all, “The Miserable.” But be that as it may, there are some fine performances, enough to recommend the film but don’t go in there expecting the movie of the year. It certainly isn’t that.

REASONS TO GO: Some really amazing performances, particularly from Hathaway and Jackman. Nice comic relief from Cohen and Carter.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much singing for music that doesn’t hold up throughout. A little stage-y in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a suggestion of sexuality, some violence and adult themes. This isn’t a Disney musical folks; there’s some real suffering going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Seyfried and Hathaway have sung with Jackman at the Academy Awards, although on separate occasions.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews seem to be pretty mixed but leaning somewhat towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chicago

WEST END LOVERS: Many of the extras and small parts in the film are played by West End veterans, many of whom have appeared in the West End version of Les Mis.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away

Rise of the Guardians


Rise of the Guardians

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Dakota Goyo, Khamani Griffin, Kamil McFadden, Dominique Grund, Georgie Grieve, Emily Nordwind, Jacob Bertrand, Olivia Mattingly, April Lawrence. Directed by Peter Ramsey

 

Certain figures hold a kind of reverence in all of our childhoods; the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and of course Santa Claus. They are symbols of various aspects of our youth and remind us that who we are now is informed by who we were then. These figures are venerated because of their association with children. They are protectors of their innocence. They are guardians.

Jack Frost (Pine) is a mischievous sort, the sort who brings snow and ice to cold climates and provides children everywhere with snow days. When you’re hit in the face with a stray snowball that nobody can remember throwing, he’s likely to be the culprit. Nobody can see him, after all because nobody really believes in him. This depresses him somewhat.

But he has been chosen to be the newest Guardian by the enigmatic Man in the Moon (who never speaks). The current Guardians – Santa Claus (Baldwin), a buff Russian accented behemoth who answers to North and carries swords as well as candy canes, The Easter Bunny (Jackman) who speaks with an Australian lilt, tosses boomerangs and exploding eggs in battle and travels by magical portals through the underground; the Sandman, a pint-sized sleepy sort who visualizes his thoughts through sand and uses sandy whips to create creams, and the Tooth Fairy (Fisher) who commands an army of little hummingbird-like fairies that collect teeth in which childhood memories are stored – are aware that one of their own, the Boogie Man who also is known as Pitch (Law) who has spent centuries preparing for his own moment – to use the Sandman’s ability to create good dreams and perverting it to cause nightmares and fear. And as the kids of the world lose faith in their Guardians, the Guardians begin to disappear and lose their powers.

The lynchpin is Jack Frost, but he may not be up to the task. How can someone nobody believes in become a hero?

I kind of like the concept here, although I do admit that it likely posed all sorts of problems not only for the filmmaker but for William Joyce, the author of the children’s books that this movie was (loosely) based on. Creating characters that not only contain the traits that kids know and love about these legends but also are believable as a superhero team is a bit of a tricky prospect.

It doesn’t always work. Think of Super Friends with better animation, a reference which probably flies over the head of most kids whom this is aimed at and that’s just as well. The target audience has barely lived long enough to be in kindergarten.

There is plenty of color here and some truly magical moments, most of which have to do with visiting the homes of these characters. Santa’s workshop, for example, is staffed by Yeti toymakers (who look like the lovechildren of Bigfoot and Wilford Brimley) and elves who might remind some of the Minions of Despicable Me. The Easter Bunny’s warren has Pacific Island-looking stone heads, trees that dispense little eggs with legs that walk through a Willy Wonka-looking contraption that paints them. The Tooth Fairy’s castle is a cross between a Disney princess abode, a dentist’s office and Hogwarts’ Castle.

I’m not sure why Baldwin picked a Russian/Slavic accent for Santa – if he wanted to be a bit more accurate he might have gone Germanic with it but I suppose it might be a bit too easy to characterize Santa as a Nazi had he done that. In fact, most of the vocal work is pretty adequate and I do like some of the characterizations (like the flirtatious Tooth Fairy who has a thing for Jack’s teeth). The Easter Bunny is a bit impatient and trades barbs with Jack who is on the Bunny’s poo list for causing a blizzard a few Easters back.

Da Queen liked this a lot better than I did. She commented afterwards on the messages of working as a team, putting the greater good ahead of your own personal needs and the need for sacrifice – and it’s rare I admit that you see that sort of pointing towards selflessness in modern animated features which more often stress being true to yourself than being true to the world.

Still, I had trouble with the rather predictable story and it’s overuse of Jack’s angst as a plot point. There were also several superhero poses that were a bit incongruous – you know, the crouch with arms outstretched, staffs and swords pointed in aggressive poses. I suppose that the message that problems need to be solved with violence is also kind of ingrained in this – no attempt is ever made to negotiate with Pitch and his own issues, which get revealed late in the film, seem to be made light of because, by nature, Pitch is Bad which means that some people are naturally Bad and should be dealt with violently which I kind of had issues with. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you will.

Even so this is solid entertainment that small kids will adore and their parents won’t feel is a burden for them to watch with their progeny. Be advised that although Santa is being marketed as a central character (which he is), this isn’t strictly speaking a Christmas movie so if you’re expecting one, you might leave disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Kind of fun to see all those characters together. Visually inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Story is much too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes and some of the action sequences might be a little scary for the wee ones, especially if they’re impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last DreamWorks Animation film to be distributed by Paramount. The company has signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox that begins in 2013.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are pretty decent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles

EASTER LOVERS: .Part of the film takes place during the spring holiday, and we get a nice look at the Easter Bunny’s castle.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jolene

Four-Warned: July 2012


July 2012Every month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either.

The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.

Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief comment

Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

FOUR TO SEE
1. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (1.0)
2. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (1.2)
3. THE WATCH (1.8)
4. SAVAGES (2.0)

FOUR TO SEEK OUT (FILMS NOT IN WIDE RELEASE)
1. HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI (1.4)
2. RUBY SPARKS (1.5)
3. PLANET OF SNAIL (1.6)
TIE. SACRIFICE (1.6)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

JULY 3, 2012

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (Columbia) Genre: Superhero. A young man searches for clues to his parents disappearance while dealing with his own nascent superpowers and a lizard-like creature terrorizing New York. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D). RATING: 1.2 One wonders if this reboot of the franchise will live up to the previous trilogy but I have faith in director Marc Webb.

JULY 5, 2012

KATE PERRY: PART OF ME (Paramount Insurge) Genre: Concert. Follows the quirky pop chanteuse on her 2011 California Dreams tour. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.8 While I admire her personally for her perseverance and her determination to be who she is, her music just isn’t my personal cup of tea.

JULY 6, 2012

COLLABORATOR (Tribeca) Genre: Drama. A reunion between childhood friends goes horribly wrong. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 Looks a bit like a black comedy crossed with a crime drama; could be a winner.
CRAZY EYES (Strand) Genre: Drama. An L.A. rich kid who’s smack dab in the middle of the Hollywood party scene finds the demands of real life increasing. Release Strategy: Los Angeles only. RATING: 3.3 I’m not sure I can get behind the poor little rich kid drama here.
THE DO DECA-PENTATHLON (Fox Searchlight/Red Flag) Genre: Comedy. A pair of ultra-competitive brothers engage in a twisted Olympics-style competition during a family reunion. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.9 From the Duplass Brothers who have done several admirable films including Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
LAST RIDE (Music Box) Genre: Drama. A boy is bundled into the family car in the middle of the night by his dad and they take a frightening journey into the unknown. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.1 Looks extremely compelling and with Hugo Weaving in the lead, I’m all in.
THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE (Magnet) Genre: Dramedy. An aging writer of Western novels whose alcoholism has led to a decline in his skills finds inspiration in the family next door when he rents a lakeside vacation home for the summer. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 I love Morgan Freeman but somehow I just don’t see him as a bitter old man who’s given up on life.
THE PACT (IFC Midnight) Genre: Horror. A pair of sisters staying in their mother’s old home after she passes away discovers dark secrets about her past even as unexplained things begin happening in the house. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.3 I just love haunted house movies and this looks like a good one.
SAVAGES (Universal) Genre: Crime Thriller. A Mexican drug cartel tries to intimidate a pair of high-end pot growers to supply them by kidnapping their woman. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.0 Looks a bit like Oliver Stone is doing his version of Traffic.
STARRY STARRY NIGHT (China Lion) Genre: Drama. A young girl falls in love with a young boy even as her parents’ divorce and her grandfather lies dying; on a journey to her grandparents home together they embark on a journey more profound than they could imagine. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 1.7 Looks imaginative and visually striking; can’t wait to see this one.

JULY 11, 2012

EASY MONEY (Weinstein) Genre: Crime Drama. Three people on the fringes of the Swedish underworld collide over a stolen cocaine shipment. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.9 This Swedish film got universal acclaim and is already being remade by Martin Scorsese.

JULY 13, 2012

ALPS (Kino Lorber) Genre: Drama. A company specializing in playing roles of the deceased to family, friends and business colleagues begins to fall apart when one of its members goes off-script. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.5 A look at the grieving process that is certainly out of the box.
BALLPLAYER: PETOLERO (Strand) Genre: Sports Documentary. The brutally competitive world of major league baseball camps in the Dominican Republic is just the beginning of the cost of achieving baseball stardom. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 Looks far from being a whitewash and sheds some light on a corrupt system.
FAMILY PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE (First Pond) Genre: Documentary. Ukrainian foster mom Olga Nenya, raising 23 foster kids as a single woman, is profiled. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.9 Looks compelling and complicated as racism – as well as how love sometimes condones it – enters the mix.
FAREWELL, MY QUEEN (Cohen) Genre: Drama. The final days of Marie Antoinette as seen by one of her ladies in waiting. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 Looks sumptuous and sexy; could be worth seeking out.
ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT (20th Century Fox) Genre: Animated Feature. When the Pangaea continent splits into the seven we know today, Manny, Diego and Sid are split from their families and must find their way back. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D). RATING: 2.7 The franchise looks to be losing a bit of steam in its fourth installment.
THE IMPOSTOR (Indomina) Genre: Documentary. After a young boy is kidnapped from his Texas home, he is found alive and well in Southern Spain years later with an incredible tale of torture and survival, but all is not what it appears to be. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.0 Looks so bizarre and compelling it has to be true – and it is.
RED LIGHTS (Millennium) Genre: Thriller. A paranormal researcher specializing in debunking charlatans and hoaxers is determined to expose a blind psychic as a fraud – but may wind up having to re-examine his own core beliefs. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 Looks pretty spooky, but something tells me it isn’t; still a cast that includes Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro and Cillian Murphy has got to have something going for it.
TRISHNA (Sundance Selects) Genre: Drama. The daughter of a poor family working at a resort falls in love with the son of the resort’s only; when they become a couple the deep schism between classes in India threatens the relationship. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.9 An adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles set in India.
UNION SQUARE (DADA) Genre: Drama. A pair of estranged sisters collide as one is about to be married and the other is in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 Kinda looks like indie neurotic New Yorker hipster chic.

JULY 20, 2012

30 BEATS (Roadside Attractions) Genre: Romantic Comedy. A summer heat wave triggers a series of sexual encounters in New York City. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 A hot, steamy, Big Apple-centric version of the French classic La Ronde.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Warner Brothers) Genre: Superhero. Batman returns from self-imposed exile and outlaw status to once again rescue Gotham, this time from the clutches of the madman Bane. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, IMAX). RATING: 1.0 Hopefully Christopher Nolan’s final visit to the world of the Dark Knight will exit with a bang.
HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI (Tribeca) Genre: Drama. A samurai requests an honorable suicide of his liege lord, prompting the revelation of unexpected secrets. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 1.4 From legendary director Takashi Miike comes this gorgeous looking samurai film.
THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (Magnolia) Genre: Documentary. Timeshare multi-millionaires set to build the largest private home in America only to fall victim to the economic crash. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 Seems like a look at how divorced from reality the 1% really is.

JULY 25, 2012

PLANET OF SNAIL (Cinema Guild) Genre: Documentary. The story of a blind and deaf Chinese poet and his beautiful wife who communicate through finger Braille and have created an amazing, beautiful life for each other. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 1.6 Much of the film is set to his poetry; this looks like one of those movies which might sneak out of the really small indie distributor sets to make a real impact.
RUBY SPARKS (Fox Searchlight) Genre: Fantasy. A lonely young author suffering from writer’s block breaks through it by writing about a fictional girl who shows up in his apartment. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.5 Reminds me a little bit of Stranger Than Fiction.

JULY 27, 2012

AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY (Sundance Selects) Genre: Documentary. In honor of a Chinese photographer under house arrest for photographing people flipping the bird at symbols of injustice in his homeland, this film shows artists and activists around the world doing the same. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.2 Explores the link between art and activism and how each can bring about change.
BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* (WG) Genre: Documentary. A documentary about the abuse of Nicaraguan plantation workers is subjected to the bullying tactics of a multinational corporation. Release Strategy: New York City (opening in Los Angeles August 3). RATING: 2.2 A sobering look at how major corporations can subvert freedom of speech using the legal system.
KILLER JOE (LD Distribution) Genre: Thriller. A drug dealer whose mother steals his stash must come up with six grand or die; when he discovers his mother’s insurance policy will more than cover it he hires a hitman who will accept the dealer’s sister as sexual collateral. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.0 Looks delightfully twisted and Matthew McConaughey is as badass as he’s ever been in the title role.
KLOWN (Drafthouse) Genre: Comedy. A man kidnaps his pregnant girlfriend’s nephew in order to prove to her that he is father material and gets caught up in the 12-year-old boy’s sexual misadventures. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 This was one of the most talked about (in a good way) movies at this year’s Florida Film Festival.
NUIT #1 (Adopt) Genre: Drama. Two seemingly mismatched people hook up after a rave and instead of going their separate ways the morning after they stay and divulge their innermost secrets to one another. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.8 An unconventional love story from the French Canadian perspective.
RITES OF SPRING (IFC Midnight) Genre: Horror. The kidnapping of the daughter of a wealthy socialite sharply divides the kidnappers in the abandoned school they’re using as a hideout, paving the way for a mysterious creature that requires ritualistic sacrifices. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 3.2 Looks a bit cliché.
SACRIFICE (Goldwyn) Genre: Martial Arts. After a power-mad general wipes out a rivals entire family, the surviving newborn is protected and raised by the doctor that delivered him as an instrument of his own revenge. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.6 A powerful tale of sacrifice and vengeance from legendary Chinese director Chen Kaige.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (Sony Classics) Genre: Documentary. A couple of South African fans seek the true story of Rodriguez, a legendary rocker from Detroit who released one album in the 70s that bombed and disappeared into obscurity. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 Looks like it can be one of those rock and roll mythologies where the truth is even better than the legend.
STEP UP REVOLUTION (Summit) Genre: Urban Dance. A well-known Miami flash mob decides to use their creativity to help thwart a greedy developer’s attempts to raze a neighborhood for a new hotel. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 4.0 Dance movies as you can tell by my rating leave me stone cold.
THE WATCH (20th Century Fox) Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy. A neighborhood watch group discovers that an alien invasion is underway and their neighborhood is ground zero. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.8 I probably should be a little more leery after the last Ben Stiller-led all-star ensemble film.

SCHEDULED TO BE REVIEWED HERE AS NEW RELEASES
The Amazing Spider-Man, Savages, Ice Age: Continental Drift, The Dark Knight Rises, The Queen of Versailles, The Watch.

Act of Valor


Act of Valor

An unusual sighting of the rare Flying Seal.

(2012) Action (Relativity) Active Duty U.S. Navy Seals, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle, Artie Malesci, Marc Margulies, Dimeter Marinov, Ailsa Marshall, Gonzalo Menendez, Emilio Rivera, Dan Southworth. Directed by Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh

 

We owe so much to our men and women in uniform. Say what you will about the reasons we send them out to risk their lives for us, they still serve with the knowledge that they may be called upon to die for their country and yet they still do it. There’s no doubt that our military personnel should be given the highest respect and honors by all of us and for the most part, most of us feel that way about them.

We can be proud that our service people are some of the most highly trained badasses on the face of the Earth. From the Army Rangers to the Air Force fighter pilots to the entire God Damn U.S. Marine Corps, these are guys (and gals) you should be VERY thankful are on our side.

Some of the badassest guys and gals in our military are the Navy SEALs. These are the same guys who got Bin Laden and rescued the Captain of that merchant vessel from Somali pirates. When they are given a mission, they execute it – and sometimes the cost is tragically high.

A group of SEALs led by Chief Dave and Lt. Cmmdr. Rorke (both first names only – which apparently is also the names of the real-life SEALs that portray them) have been given the task of rescuing a female CIA agent (Sanchez) who has been kidnapped by a Ukrainian arms dealer who supplies to the Chechnyans (Veadov). She is being tortured in some central American hell hole but the SEALs come in and against a well-armed numerically superior force pick up the woman (who has been brutally tortured) and take her to safety.

Except their work isn’t done quite yet. It turns out that the arms dealer has a link to a jihadist (Cottle) who is smuggling in suicide bombers using high-tech vests with porcelain ball bearings that can take out an entire city block, which in those numbers would bring our economy to its knees. The SEALs must find the jihadist and stop him before his plan comes to fruition.

Doubtlessly you have heard by now that the SEALs in the movie are played by real life SEALs who are on active military duty. It sounds a bit gimmicky – and it is. It also plays a lot like a recruitment video, which isn’t surprising since it supposedly started out life as one but became more of a traditional movie in which SEAL tactics and personnel were used to illustrate just what they do.

I don’t have any objection to that. I don’t mind learning what life is like from the perspective of someone like the men here, who actually put their lives on the line on a regular basis. I don’t mind being educated, but I do object to propaganda…which this, thankfully, isn’t (although some critics seem to think it is). This isn’t some Fox News rant about how great the military is and how the liberals of our nation are killing our freedoms yadda yadda yadda; this is meant to realistically portray conditions in the field and the kind of things our fighting men and women have to go through.

Is it Hollywoodized? Sure, at least just a bit. The dialogue is heavy on the pound-your-chest macho aphorisms. The situations resolve themselves far more neatly than they do in real life – or even in the field. I may be no military man but I’ve enough common sense to realize that few missions this complicated end up as cut and dried as this one does – there are always curveballs and snafus. In fact lest we forget, the term “snafu” itself is military in origin.

The directors, who go by the name of the Bandido Brothers, prove to be very capable directors of action sequences. They boast that live ammo was used in many of the sequences and while that does add to the realism quotient, it makes me uncomfortable. No matter how many precautions you can take, you don’t mess with live ammo. Nobody’s life is worth shooting a movie for.

I wound up liking the movie and Da Queen had a good catharsis of her own by the movie’s end (she comes from a military family so it hit home with her a bit deeper than it did with me). In fact, those who do have any sort of military connection will find something that resonates here, from the goodbyes to loved ones being deployed into harm’s way to the hasty phone calls from God-knows-where that only make you miss them more.

I wound up appreciating the movie and admiring it from a technical standpoint, but still I couldn’t get over the feeling that it was a bit gimmicky with the literal stunt casting. For my money, I’d rather have these men out in the field doing what they do best or better still, home with their families  rather than in front of the cameras. Still, the movie was much more entertaining than I anticipated so it’s definitely worth a look-see.

REASONS TO GO: Great kinetic action sequences.  

REASONS TO STAY: More recruitment film than film. SEALs are not necessarily good actors and the sometimes stiff jingoistic dialogue doesn’t help them much. A little gimmicky in the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly graphic torture sequences as well as military violence. There are also some bad words here and there but probably nothing compared to the language SEALS use during actual operations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially the plan was for the SEALs to be portrayed by actors but when several SEALs who were asked to consult for accuracy complained that the SEALs in the film weren’t being portrayed accurately, it was decided to have actual active duty military in the cast portraying those roles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews are poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Top Gun

MILITARY LOVERS: The equipment used here is all currently in use by the U.S. Military, giving those who are into military things a reason to drool.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Vampires

The Wicker Man (2006)


Wicker Man

"Anything Mel can do I can do better, I can do anything better than Mel..."

(2006) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Diane Delano, Michael Wiseman, Erika-Shaye Gair, Aaron Eckhart. Directed by Neil LaBute.

The 1973 horror-suspense film The Wicker Man, which starred Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, was an atmospheric piece that depended on creating a mood to creep audiences out. There was little overt gore, but it still remains in the minds of many, a masterpiece of horror that is unsung. Only now that a high-profile remake is being released is it getting the kind of DVD release it deserves. So what of that high-profile remake?

It’s a bit different than the original. Highway patrol officer Edward Malus (Cage) is traumatized by an accident on the highway in which a mother and daughter burn to death and he is unable to rescue them. He is deep in depression, having overcome the physical injuries but still blames himself for the two lives he couldn’t save. 

Out of the blue he gets a letter from an ex-fiancée named Willow (Beahan) who left him and basically broke his heart. Now, she needs his help. Her daughter Rowan (Gair) has disappeared and she is frightened for her safety. She lives on an island in the Puget Sound called Summerisle, a privately-owned communal farm that specializes in honey. There are no regular ferries, so the girl must still be on the island. Despite misgivings by his partner Pete (Wiseman), Malus, being of no forethought – get it? – decides to go find the girl, deep down hoping he can redeem himself for the one he lost.

After basically conning his way onto the island, Malus is met by a chilly reception by the island’s inhabitants, a sort of Amish-like community in homespun dresses. After blustering his way around the island, he finally finds Willow in a common house, where the bartender Beech (Delano) reluctantly gives him a room.

As Malus investigates, things begin to get weirder. First of all, the women seem to be in a dominant position on the island, the men being relegated to menial labor and breeding stock. They never speak – I thought they had been made mute, although da Queen thought they were just too frightened to speak. He is having hallucinatory flashbacks to the accident, and sees visions that are terrifying. Most of the islanders deny the very existence of Rowan, but soon the stodgy Malus begins to find evidence that he is being lied to. A meeting with the Queen Bee of the colony, Sister Summerisle (Burstyn) convinces him that there is a secret that the women of the island are hiding. Still, he is getting no help from Willow whose behavior is becoming increasingly confused and dazed. With no phone service and no connection to the outside world, Malus realizes he is alone in a very dangerous situation.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers decided to take the Christian vs. Pagan themes of the original movie and change them into a women vs. men scenario. The result is kind of a severe anti-feminist backlash, in which earth mother-worshipping females, who in the real world tend to be nurturing and gentle, become bloodthirsty advocates of human sacrifice. Not only does the psychology make no sense whatsoever, I found the movie to be exceedingly misogynistic. There is only one sympathetic female character in the entire movie – a waitress in the very first scene. I don’t know if that was the intention of the director and the writer, but that’s the impression I got from the movie, and I don’t think I was alone in that feeling.

As if that isn’t bad enough, LaBute – who also wrote the screenplay – is guilty of some poor writing. There are many unnecessary plot contrivances that just leave you with a frustrating feeling of trying to figure out why they bothered to include that thread in the movie. For example, the fate of the pilot who transports Cage to the island is unnecessary except to provide a gross-out moment late in the movie. Once Cage is on the island, the pilot is no longer needed and should have been allowed to remain offscreen. Also, the climactic confrontation between Malus and the colony is drawn out too long and the plot “twist” is easily seen from miles away. Once you know what is coming, the movie takes way too long to get there. 

One thing I was glad to see was that the character of Malus was not some sort of supersleuth. A patrol officer with ambitions towards being a detective, he blusters and stumbles his way through the investigation, preferring the blunt force trauma method of investigating over the finesse method with predictable results. He is not a brilliant man, but an obsessed one with an increasing undercurrent of desperation. Still, I thought that while Cage did a credible job, he was clearly wrong for the role. This is one of the few times I’ve ever gotten a sense from him that he didn’t really have a clear handle on what the character was all about.

While it is very much Cage’s movie, he doesn’t get a lot of help from the supporting cast. Burstyn overacts like she doesn’t get out much anymore so she needs to show off every acting chop she has and Beahan gets so increasingly dazed and confused that by the end of the movie you aren’t taking her character seriously at all. Sobieski is good in her role as a straight-to-the-point kinda sister, but is ultimately wasted. I was reminded, however, of how good she can be in the right role. This one reminded me for some reason of her work in Eyes Wide Shut although I couldn’t tell you why.

Beautifully photographed in British Columbia, there are some nifty sequences (such as the accident at the beginning of the film) but in the end, this is a disappointing movie. I can’t decide if it’s a horror movie that isn’t scary, a suspense movie that has no suspense or a thriller that isn’t thrilling. Any way you slice it this isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT IT: Some nice cinematography and one of Cage’s best over-the-top scenes of his over-the-top career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cage is miscast, most of the supporting cast isn’t of much help and the script is oddly misogynistic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some intensely disturbing imagery and scenes of violence. There is also a smattering of nasty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the police station scene early in the movie, there is a missing persons poster with a picture of actor Edward Woodward, who played the lead role in the 1973 original.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is an alternate ending that is far more violent and close-ended than what appeared in the film that is superior in every way to how the original release was ended (at the insistence of the studio according to the commentary).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38.8M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Little Miss Sunshine 

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Keanu Barada Nikto.

(20th Century Fox) Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, James Hong, John Cleese. Directed by Scott Derrickson

It is no secret that we have been poor custodians of our planet. One wonders what superior intelligences might think if they noticed us, and if they would be moved to step in.

Dr. Helen Benson (Connelly) has a full plate. Not only is she an academic with a classroom-full of disinterested minds, she has an unruly stepson named Jacob (Smith) who has been acting out ever since his father – her late husband – died in Iraq.

One night she is fetched by stern, humorless military sorts who escort her from her home to an unknown destination. They won’t – or can’t – tell her what’s going on, but there is no doubt it’s serious; a busy freeway has been completely closed off for the benefit of their motorcade.

It turns out there’s a spaceship approaching Earth and it appears it is going to land in Central Park, which should have alerted the Men in Black immediately. Instead, we get the Army with a bunch of trigger-happy jarheads that open fire the moment something emerges from the spaceship, which is actually a sphere of swirling green.

Lots of these spheres have landed all over the Earth, but none of them have a giant robot (which is called Gort after some military acronym that I forgot five seconds after the line was spoken). It is about to open up a can of giant robot whoopass on the Army when the fallen alien speaks “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” Truer lines have never been spoken.

While recovering from its gunshot wound, the alien begins to evolve at an accelerated rate, eventually evolving into Keanu Reeves (I guess the alien wasn’t done evolving yet…thanks folks, I’ll be here all week). The alien, whose name is Klaatu, demands to be taken to our leaders (sorry, I couldn’t resist) which according to Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Bates) is out of the question. Instead, she sets up Klaatu to be interrogated. This is what is known in the biz as a bad choice.

Using powers beyond human ability, he escapes and seeks out Dr. Benson, the only human who has treated him with any kindness at all. The government is absolutely bonkers to get him back and puts out an APB, which means that everyone is chasing Klaatu, Dr. Benson and the spoiled brat…I mean Jacob. Dr. Benson finds out to her horror that Klaatu represents a coalition of aliens that have been observing our planet and are very disappointed at how we’re treating our planet. Therefore, in order to save this life-giving orb, they need to wipe out the parasites that are killing it…namely us. She must find a way to convince him that we are worth saving, otherwise we’ll be joining the dinosaurs on the woulda coulda shoulda list.

Obviously this is based on the 1951 classic sci-fi film of the same name. Derrickson and his writers are relatively faithful to the original, making only minor changes in the overall story but some of them are rather crucial. While the first was an anti-war and anti-nuclear holocaust warning, this one is squarely on the side of those scientists who have been making dire predictions about where the planet is going (and somewhere, Al Gore is smirking “See? You shoulda voted for me”). It’s the details which are vastly different and quite frankly, therein lies the devil.

While this isn’t particularly a special effects-driven movie, they are pretty spectacular when the movie chooses to use them. The robot Gort, who is 28 feet tall (20 feet taller than the original Gort), is particularly menacing although some purists were screaming when they found out that Gort was actually a biological being and not mechanical.

On that score, I have my doubts about Keanu Reeves. His stiff, emotionless demeanor actually works here as an alien being. He is well matched with Connelly, who is one of the more expressive actresses we have going. She is the yin to his yang in the movie, and that makes the movie far more successful than it might have been otherwise; whereas Keanu is the movie’s brain, Connelly is the heart.

Monty Python’s John Cleese does a fine turn in a non-comedic role as a scientist Helen brings Klaatu to talk to in a last-ditch effort to convince him not to kill everybody. Bates is always dependable to be plucky although she brings an element of menace that she usually doesn’t display. Jaden Smith, excellent in The Pursuit of Happyness is merely average here; he’s such a brat that you just want to throw him under the nearest freight train, which I suppose must mean he’s a plenty good actor because if he was really that whiny and disrespectful, his dad Will Smith would have long ago put the fear of Gawd into him.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it tends to be a bit preachy and a little overbearing. While I get the urgency of the message, I still get peeved when someone feels the urge to nag me about it, even if it is for my own good. It’s enough to make me want to trade in my Hybrid for a Hummer.

The movie may have been a little too thoughtful for its own good in that regard. It surprisingly doesn’t disgrace the original, which I quite expected it to do – that’s a very high bar to live up to – but it doesn’t measure up to it either, which I also quite expected from it. This won’t make the Earth stand still, but it might just make it take notice if we’re lucky.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very nifty special effects and Connelly makes a great every-woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a little bit over-ponderous and preachy.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of global disaster and some occasionally disturbing violence; those prone to nightmares and the more sensitive sorts should probably not see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Central Park bridge under which the surviving heroes take shelter with at the movie’s conclusion is the same one used at the end of Cloverfield.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the eco-friendliness of the production as well as on the real-life search for extra-terrestrial life. Visual Effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun discusses how the filmmakers arrived at the final version of Gort, which is fascinating stuff. The Blu-Ray edition has a feature that allows you to design your own Gort, and finally as a special bonus treat, the two and three disc DVD editions as well as the Blu-Ray edition come complete with the 1951 version this movie is based on, starring Michael Rennie and the late Patricia Neal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $233m on an $80 production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Killshot