The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1


Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

(2014) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Willow Shields, Mahershala Ali, Paula Malcomson, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Stef Dawson, Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Francis Lawrence

It has become something of a habit now for Hollywood to take the final book in a young adult franchise based on a book and split it in two; this has been done for the Harry Potter series, Twilight and now The Hunger Games with the same fate planned for the Divergent series. This is a blatant cash grab that cynical studios use to squeeze every last penny that they can out of a successful franchise. As for the Potter series, the first part was the weakest movie of the eight-film franchise (although the second part turned out to be one of the strongest). In the Twilight series Lionsgate both movies were poor and the final entry the worst of the entire series.

In this penultimate film, the events of Catching Fire have led to the complete carpet bombing and destruction of District 12, home of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) who has been taken to the previously-thought abandoned District 13. However her love Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) had been left behind and was captured by the men of President Snow (Sutherland) and brought back to the Capital. There he is used as a pawn, with interviews conducted by the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) which essentially are propaganda pieces.

District 13 president Alma Coin (Moore) is wary of using Katniss for the same purpose; clearly Katniss is shell-shocked and not in an emotional state where she is able to be a spokesman for the revolution that is sweeping Panem. However uber-patient ex-boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) is on hand to help Katniss make it through; old friends Haymitch (Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Banks) and Finnick (Claflin) are there to support Katniss. Rescued from the rubble of District 12 are Kat’s sister Primrose (Shields) and mom (Malcomson).

Pulling the strings in District 13 is Plutarch (Hoffman) a cynical but brilliant marketing man who is selling the revolution to the people of Panem whereas President Snow is selling safety and security while providing neither. A villain of the first order, he callously orders the bombing of a hospital in order to set an example of what happens to people when they allow a visit from the Girl on Fire who is now referred to as the Mockingjay. This pisses Katniss off enough to pull out of her funk temporarily – until the callow Peeta makes another plea for peace. Who knew the face of revolution would be so emotional?

And so after that atrocity the rebels are finally moved to push into an offensive against the Capital, giving them the opportunity to rescue Peeta and the other Victors held captive by the President, including Finnick’s girlfriend Anna (Dawson). However, they don’t begin to see the depth of the game being played by President Snow – and how far he is willing to go to win it.

As any fan of the series will tell you, it’s all about Katniss and thus it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence. Normally I’d say that’s a pretty safe bet; after all, she has become one of the hottest actresses in the world, with Oscar wins as well as starring in one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood today. However, I can’t say as I like what is happening to her character here.

Now I’ll admit that it should be taken into account that I’m not a teenage girl nor have I ever been one – nor am I likely to ever be one. I may be getting this all wrong but I feel cheated a little bit by what Katniss has become in this movie. I had always viewed her as a good role model for young girls; strong, independent, able to defend herself and those around her and with a strong moral compass. I’m not sure what the author’s intentions were  but I saw the same thing happen to Bella Swan in Twilight as well. Both series were written by women but I’m not sure if they were saying it’s okay to be ruled by your emotions to the point where you become virtually immobilized by them, or if they’re saying that’s part of being female.

I don’t know about that part. How is it role model material for your strong, independent heroine to be literally whining “It’s not fair!” while pining away for her boyfriend to the point that she’s willing to let all sorts of people – including her sister and mom – be killed because she’s too emotional to act to prevent it. That kind of self-centeredness may be part of modern culture but it seems out of place for a movie heroine. Of course, my perceptions of what a role model should be may be hopelessly outdated but I do like to think that there are some things that are fairly basic and timeless.

Lawrence is a terrific actress but she seems curiously lifeless here. Even so, she still manages to dominate the screen and while this isn’t her best work, it certainly is enough to carry the movie. She gets some able support, particularly from the late Hoffman whom the film is dedicated to. Mostly though this is a lot of people going through the motions for a paycheck and Moore, also a fine actress, looks distinctly uncomfortable in an unfortunate wig.

There’s just not a lot of energy and life to this movie even though the visuals are well shot and there are some pleasant moments in idyllic forests. Most of the movie takes place in District 13’s underground bunker and is perpetually underlit. Even without 3D this movie is dark and dingy-looking most of the time. You have to admit though it does set a certain kind of bleak mood.

There is subtext here about image-making and its use in manipulating opinion, and while that is a fascinating subject, the filmmakers tend to thunk us over the head with a shillelagh rather than skewer us with a rapier which would be much more preferable. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here but then again, I get the sense that the filmmakers don’t respect their target audience a whole lot. Certainly the kind of girls that identify with Katniss are capable of understanding subtlety.

This is a big disappointment for me. Thus far I’ve actually enjoyed the series and was looking forward to seeing this one. Although it is reasonably entertaining to earn a feeble recommendation, I was hoping for so much more. With any luck,  the finale next Thanksgiving will pull out all the stops and let the series end on a high note rather than a whimper or a whine which is where it seems to be going. Prove me wrong. Please.

REASONS TO GO: Some pleasing eye-candy. Lawrence is terrific even when she’s subpar.
REASONS TO STAY: Turgid and boring. Lacks any kind of spark. Katniss, a strong and courageous soul, is reduced to a weepy teen pining for her boyfriend and feeling sorry for herself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some intense violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman passed away a week before filming concluded; rather than recasting the part, the filmmakers did some rewrites so that the portions Hoffman didn’t film could be incorporated in different ways.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Divergent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Daybreakers

The Quiet Ones (2014)


Sam Claflin perfects his "What's that noise?" look.

Sam Claflin perfects his “What’s that noise?” look.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Lionsgate) Sam Claflin, Jared Harris, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Laurie Calvert, Aldo Maland, Max Pirkis, Tracy Ray, Richard Cunningham, Eileen Nicholas, Rebecca Scott, Ben Holden (voice), Aretha Ayeh, Max Mackintosh, Harman Singh, Dean Mitchell, Nick Owenford. Directed by John Pogue

There are things that we can’t explain yet. Phenomena that occur that seem without rational, scientific explanation. Many of these eventually will be explained once you dig deep enough. Sometimes though, our ignorance can be dangerous.

Professor Joseph Coupland (Harris) specializes in abnormal psychology. He has a theory that people who have been labeled “possessed” – people around whom paranormal events seem to occur – have traditionally been institutionalized, or harm themselves or others before that happens actually manufacture these occurrences through the powers of their own minds. Coupland believes that these occurrences are due to strong negative feelings inside and that if you can get the patients to transfer these feelings into a doll or some other inanimate object that they can be cured. “Cure one and you cure the world,” he tells his class at Oxford.

To that end he has a patient – one Jane Harper (Cooke) who has been in and out of foster homes and institutions all her life. She is said to be clairvoyant and haunted by poltergeists. Coupland believes that she can be cured of these issues by manifesting her negative feelings and pushing them into a doll. He is assisted by students Harry Abrams (Fleck-Byrne) and Krissi Dalton (Richards). Documenting it is a graduate, Brian McNeil (Claflin).

This being 1974, the dons at Oxford are none too pleased about the noise (the students keep Jane awake by playing loud rock music at all hours in order to get her into a state where she can manifest) and less pleased still about the subject of Professor Coupland’s thesis. Predictably, they pull their funding.

Enraged but still determined, Prof. Coupland rents a spooky looking house in the English countryside some distance from Oxford. There, isolated and essentially free to do as he wants, he starts working on Jane, keeping her exhausted and locked up to keep her from running away – or harming anyone.

At first, the manifestations are more startling than terrifying – things moving, doors opening, distinct rapping noises. In the meantime, Harry and the oversexed Krissi have become a kind of thing (although Krissi has also shown some affection for the chain-smoking Professor) and the shy Brian and the fragile Jane have also shown signs of attraction.

But things don’t remain this way for long. Tension is beginning to build among all five people, isolated in the middle of nowhere – Krissi likens it to being in a prison. Prof. Coupland has become more obsessive, refusing to admit that he may be wrong about his hypothesis. The manifestations have begun to get more sinister as Jane’s spirit guide Evie, a little girl who apparently died in a fire, has grown more agitated and almost cruel. Brian begins to suspect that there may be something going on beyond what Prof. Coupland can explain. Can he get Jane out of this environment before the experiment goes tragically wrong?

This is the most recent movie by Hammer, the venerable British horror production company that back in the day made the Christopher Lee Dracula movies and more recently, the excellent The Woman in Black. This one was actually completed back in 2012 but hasn’t been released until now. Considering the tepid reviews it’s gotten, that’s not surprising although it must be said that the studio has released movies far worse than this one in the interim.

Claflin has been slowly building up a leading man resume and while he hasn’t broken through with a star-making role just yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does sooner rather than later. He has the looks and the charisma although in this particular part he doesn’t really have a whole lot to work with. Cooke and Harris come off as the best of a nondescript bunch. Harris, the son of the late Richard Harris, has settled into a character actor’s lot in life and this is the kind of role that he excels at – officious, smart but corrupt in ways that aren’t always apparent. He is the glue that holds this movie together. Cooke gives us a classic possessed girl performance but adds a touch of melancholy to the role which is the perfect grace note. She’s an English rose, even as unkempt and unglamorous as she is much of this film.

The era of the 70s is captured very nicely, not just with the period audio-visual and scientific equipment but also with the cars, hair styles, clothes and more importantly, attitude. Modern audiences might be horrified at the amount of smoking that goes on in this film, but that was pretty much standard for its time (I lived through it, remember?) and especially place.

A horror film’s job is to scare its audience and the movie is successful at that more often than not, although there is a tendency to rely on cliches of the genre a bit too much. That makes the movie a little bit more pedestrian than it needs to be. I think partly too the filmmakers were waffling between making an atmospheric ghost story with gothic overtones, and making a slam-bang scarefest and wound up with neither. There’s even a “found footage” kind of sequence during the movie that reminded me how overused that particular genre has become. However, the climax while not breaking any new ground delivers one of the best scares of the film which goes a long way to redeeming some of the films more glaring faults.

This isn’t a bad movie; it’s well-acted for the most part, delivers some nice scares, shows off some young female breasts and is spooky and atmospheric at times. It just isn’t particularly innovative nor is it going to kick you in the seat of your pants with its scares nor is it going to creep you out with its atmosphere. At the end of the day the movie ends up being blander than most horror audiences – including me – tend to like.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent scares. Captures time and place adequately.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies on horror film cliches overly much.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of terrifying moments, some violence, bad language throughout, some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on the Philip Experiment which took place in Toronto with eight participants.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Jodorowsky’s Dune

New Releases for the Week of April 25, 2014


The Other WomanTHE OTHER WOMAN

(20th Century Fox) Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Upton, Taylor Kinney, Nicki Minaj, Don Johnson. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

A high-powered lawyer who has her pick of men has settled on one – who might be the One. When she discovers he’s married, she’s devastated. When she accidentally gets together with the wife of her former boyfriend, they discover that they have a lot in common – among other things that he’s cheating on the both of them with another woman. Joining forces with the other other woman, the three women plot this philanderer’s comeuppance.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual references and language)

Brick Mansions

(Relativity) Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy. In the Detroit of the near future (does that sound familiar?) a gigantic wall has been built around the worst slum, Brick Mansions. The crimelord of the district has put into motion a plan to devastate the entire city. An undercover cop and a fearless ex-con, each of whom have a stake in apprehending the crimelord, must (reluctantly) team up to stop him before all Hell breaks loose.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for frenetic gunplay, violence and action throughout, language, sexual menace and drug material)

From the Rough

(Freestyle Releasing) Taraji P. Henson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Tom Felton, Justin Chon. The swim coach of the woman’s swim team makes history as the first woman to coach a men’s golf team. Not only is she a pioneer, but she successfully takes the team to record-breaking heights. Based on a true story.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Drama

Rating: PG (for language and thematic elements)

Joe

(Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins.An ex-con with a hair-trigger temper takes a homeless young boy under his wing to the chagrin of the boy’s alcoholic and brutal father. The ex-con, beset by his own demons, tries to set the boy on the right path of life while facing the consequences of his own poor choices. Sold out it’s showing during the Florida Film Festival, you can read my review here.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for violence, disturbing material, language and some sexual content)

The Last Passenger

(Cohen Media Group) Dougray Scott, Kara Tointon, David Schofield, Lindsay Duncan. A weary London commuter and his son board the last train of the evening, headed home. As the train rolls into the night, he discovers that the conductor has disappeared and the brakes have been sabotaged. A lunatic has taken control of the train and means to commit suicide by train, taking the passengers with him.  This passenger, however, isn’t ready to die just yet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for language)

The Quiet Ones

(Lionsgate) Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Erin Richards, Olivia Cooke. University students set out to create a poltergeist, the focus of their experiments being a dangerously disturbed young woman who seems able to manifest dark energies. However as the experiment continues, they soon discover to their horror they have unleashed something far more dangerous than they imagined and much too powerful to contain.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and terror, sexual content, thematic material, language, and smoking throughout)

The Railway Man

(Weinstein) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Hiroyuki Sanada. A veteran of the Second World War is haunted by his harrowing experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He and his cohorts are used as forced labor to build a railway system. Years after the war is over, he discovers that the interpreter whom he holds responsible for much of his brutal treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him and make him pay for what he did. This true story is based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing prisoners of war violence)

Walking With the Enemy

(Liberty) Ben Kingsley, Jonah Armstrong, Hannah Tointon, Burn Gorman.In the waning days of World War II, a young Hungarian man utilizes a stolen Nazi officer’s uniform to try and find his displaced family. Trying to get as many Jews to safety as he can, he disrupts the activities of the Germans in order to keep them from implementing their final solution in his city. Said to be inspired by actual events.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for war violence including crimes against humanity)

The Zero Theorem

(Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton.  In a dystopian future, a reclusive computer genius is given the assignment of finding the meaning of life. Plagued by angst and confusion, he is tortured by unwanted visitors by those he doesn’t trust. It isn’t until he breaks down the walls he has erected for himself with love and desire that he finds the tools to carry out his assignment. The newest film from visionary director Terry Gilliam.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

(2013) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Toby Jones, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Megan Hayes. Directed by Francis Lawrence

With the Twilight series completed (at least for now), the studios scrambled to find a new franchise that would appeal to a similar demographic. They’ve found it with The Hunger Games based on the best-selling Young Adult book series by Suzanne Collins.

Following the events of the first film (there are spoilers for that film if you haven’t seen it yet), Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are preparing to go on their Victor’s Tour of the 12 Districts of Panem, a traditional responsibility of the winners. Their love story has captivated all of Panem which has the tyrannical President Snow (Sutherland) a bit worried. You see, he has seen through the pair’s ruse. Katniss still has it bad for the strapping miner Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) and her sham relationship with Peeta was something done so that they could both survive. Snow warns Katniss that she not only has to convince Panem that her feelings for Peeta are genuine – she has to convince the President first of all.

This isn’t the same Panem that Katniss left however. The repressive policies that have created such a wide gulf between the haves of Capital and the Have-Nots of the Districts has begun to spark some thoughts of uprising with Katniss herself a symbol that is giving the people the courage to stand up for themselves. The new master of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) agrees with the President that Katniss needs to go – but not as a martyr. She must be associated with the government of Panem and become a symbol of its corruption and repression – then they can kill her.

And he has just the means to do it. The 75th Edition of the Hunger Games is coming up, the so-called Quarter Quell and rather than getting all-new tributes, Heavensbee proposes that the tributes be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Katniss, as the only female winner from District 12 is automatically chosen to go and this time she’ll be up against trained killers who have a win in the Games to their credit. This will be a Hunger Games like none seen before.

While director Gary Ross has exited and Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has stepped in, there are plenty of familiar faces including Haymitch (Harrelson), the alcoholic former winner who has become mentor to Peeta and Katniss; Effie (Banks), Caesar (Tucci) the smarmy host of the Games whose capped teeth can be seen from space and Cinna (Kravitz), the brilliant clothing designer who is largely responsible for Katniss’ popularity and image.

There are also new faces mostly the tributes for the Quarter Quell including the hunky Finnick (Claflin), his mentor Mags (Cohen), the brainy engineer Beetee (Wright) and the savant Wiress (Plummer), as well as the buttkicking Johanna (Malone) whose motivations remain unclear. The overall performance level has been raised significantly from the first film.

So too have the special effects. There is a sequence in which a kind of mandrill-like monkey clan attacks and it is done so smoothly and seamlessly that it doesn’t seem like CGI at all. The look of the film is pretty satisfying in every sense.

More importantly, there’s so much going on here than just a mere action tale or a romance. There are all sorts of underlying subtexts from the class warfare to the vapid fashion-obsessed culture to the role of mass media in shaping opinion. That’s the kind of thing that makes a critic’s heart beat faster – assuming they have the gumption to look more closely at the movie or its source material.

Lawrence has won an Oscar since the last time she played Katniss and her self-confidence from that clearly shows in Kat’s own growth. While Hemsworth is a fine actor, it’s Hutcherson who captured my attention and seemed to make a better foil for Ms. Everdeen. However, be warned that some of the romantic elements don’t have the same amount of complexity that the rest of the story has and so it seems aimed more squarely at juvenile hearts. Also it should be said that at times Katniss is of a participant in her own story and more of a reactant. For someone who is as supposedly kickass a warrior and strong in spirit she can come off as a self-pitying wimp in places. I don’t think it’s Ms. Lawrence’s fault so much as it is male writers who have problems writing strong female characters. I’d love to see a female screenwriter take a crack at the next one although I understand that’s fairly unlikely an occurrence.

Still, this is solid entertainment that is going to capture the imaginations of its young female core audience. Katniss is truly a heroine to be admired, much more so than Bella Swan. In every respect this is a superior franchise to that other one with a lead character who is much worthier of being a role model despite the occasional hiccups. I wasn’t sure if I cared about seeing a sequel after the first Hunger Games; after the second, I can’t wait for the third.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine performances and action sequences along with a solid storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Stumbles over itself with occasional overkill and main character sometimes doesn’t seem true to her own traits.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, with a few frightening images, some suggestive situations, a couple of instances of bad language and overall thematic elements not for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the Capitol scenes were filmed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel which also happens to be where Dragoncon, one of the Southeast’s premiere conventions, takes place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Running Man

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Muscle Shoals

Snow White and the Huntsman


Snow White and the Huntsman

Charlize Theron was really hoping for “A Game of Thrones.”

(2012) Fantasy (Universal) Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Stewart, Sam Claflin, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Izzard, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Stephen Graham, Lily Cole, Sam Spruell, Vincent Regan, Liberty Ross, Noah Huntley, Jonny Harris, Brian Gleeson, Rachael Stirling. Directed by Rupert Sanders

 

Fairy tales have a reputation for being sweetness and light, stories for children that are suffused with happy endings. In truth, fairy tales are dark things for which happy endings are often a matter of perspective.

The kingdom of good King Magnus (Huntley) is a kindly and prosperous place, where justice reigns and the people are content. All adore in particular the beautiful child Snow White, who has hair dark as a raven’s wing, lips red as rose petals, skin pale and flawless as alabaster. But one particularly cruel winter, the queen (Ross) dies, leaving Magnus bereft.

Shortly thereafter a mysterious army attacks his kingdom and Magnus leads his army out to defend his subjects. They are victorious and amidst the carnage they discover a wagon with a beautiful woman in it. She is Ravenna (Theron) and seems to have been a captive of the evil army that Magnus has vanquished. She is beautiful and slightly timid and Magnus is immediately taken by her. In a matter of days he proposes and the kingdom rejoices; it will have a queen once again.

Ravenna and Snow White are friendly; the latter is thrilled that her father will be happy once again, the former insisting that she has no plans to replace her mother. The wedding is joyous and solemn, and for a night things are perfect. However in their wedding bed, Ravenna’s true nature reveals itself; she has poisoned her new husband and stabs him through the heart to seal the deal. Then she opens the gates and allows in her real army to massacre everyone inside.

Count Hammond (Regan) escapes with his son William and leave for their own castle, thinking Snow White dead. She is very much alive, however, and grows to adulthood (Stewart), imprisoned in one of the towers of the castle. Ravenna, who is a powerful sorceress, is bleeding the land dry. She has a magic mirror (which moves, Terminator T-1000 like, into a puddle of liquid silver to take shape as a cowled man) who reassures her that she is the fairest one of all. To insure that, she steals the youth from many maidens in the kingdom including Greta (Cole), keeping her young and vibrant.

Then her mirror tells her that the only threat to her reign is Snow White, who is alone capable of killing and defeating her (not necessarily in that order). However, if Ravenna kills Snow White and takes her still-beating heart, Ravenna will live eternally and reign forever. Ravenna then sends her brother Finn (Spruell) to fetch Snow White but she manages to escape, finding her way into the Dark Forest, where even the bravest of the Queen’s soldiers don’t dare go.

The Queen enlists a Huntsman (Hemsworth) who is grieving the death of his wife. His qualifications: he has entered the Dark Forest and survived, returning to become a bit of a tosspot. He is unwilling to help the Queen for whom he holds no love but when promised to be reunited with his love, he goes even though he doesn’t trust the Queen or her brother.

His instincts prove to be true and he manages to not only avoid the trap set for him but to find Snow White and become her ally. He guides her to the forest to a town made up mostly of women whose men have gone to war for the Queen. They have scarred their faces in order to protect themselves from having their youth taken by Ravenna’s magic. However, this proves to be a brief respite as Flynn and his men arrive, searching for Snow White.

With Flynn is William (Claflin), the son of the Duke and Snow White’s childhood friend. He’s hunting her too but for a different reason than Flynn – he wants to rescue her and take her back to the castle where she would be the symbol that the people of the kingdom need to rally behind and rise up against the evil of Ravenna. However, the Huntsman and Snow White escape into an enchanted fairy forest where dwell eight dwarves, including Beith (McShane), Muir (Hoskins), Gort (Winstone), Nion (Frost), Duir (Marsan), Coll (Jones), Quert (Harris) and Gus (Gleeson) capture them.

Beith and the Huntsman apparently have a past which is none to friendly but the blind Muir persuades the band to take Snow White under their wings, which proves to be a smart decision when she is blessed by the Great Stag, indicating that she is destined to dethrone the Queen and allow nature to return to the Kingdom. But how will she do this, chased by the Queen’s deadly magic against a magic army in an impenetrable castle?

While the basic outline of the story is the same of the beloved fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, this ain’t your momma’s Snow White – and it certainly isn’t Disney’s either. Sanders – a British commercial director, makes his feature debut with a splash, creating a vision that is both ugly and beautiful, magical and authentic. There are medieval battles as well as the gorgeous fairy forest, where mushrooms stare back at you, fairies ride mossy turtles and butterflies combine into a giant stag.

As good as the visuals are, Charlize Theron is better. As the evil Queen she is more than just a cold-hearted bitch that other movies relegate evil queens to. She is evil, but with a personality; she is dreadfully in fear of losing her youth, and possessed of an intense hatred of men who have used her for her beauty throughout her life. She is evil as a means of taking control, and punishes women for being younger than she, men for being…well, men.

Also of note is Hemsworth who has achieved stardom through his portrayal of Thor. His work here convinces me that he is going to be an able leading man and not just a one-dimensional superhero. This Huntsman is grief-stricken and looking for something to believe in, finding it with Snow White. While some of the mead-drinking shenanigans are reminiscent of his work in Thor, there is enough here that is new that leads me to believe that the man’s career will have staying power.

Less successful is Stewart. Legions of her fans helped give this an impressive opening weekend, but she never really convinced me of her authenticity here. Not so much as a princess – any little girl can play that – but as a leader and as someone people would want to follow. Stewart also overacts a little bit in places, particularly when she’s called upon to make a stirring speech. She’s beautiful, sure – but fairer than Charlize Theron? I don’t think so.

I would have liked the movie to meander a little bit less. The battle sequences were also far less convincing than the magic, and I think the movie would have benefitted from leaning more in that direction than it did. Still, the visuals are so striking and Theron’s performance so compelling that I can recommend this even to non-fans of Kristen Stewart – and the anti-Twilight legions will probably want to give this a miss (with good reason) but you’re missing some solid summer entertainment if you do.

REASONS TO GO: Theron is deliciously evil. Hemsworth shows signs of being a terrific leading man. Some of the special effects are lovely.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit jumbled. Stewart overacted a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of science fiction violence, explosions, gruesome aliens and a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kristen Stewart had to overcome a childhood fear of horses in order to do the battle scene which called for her to ride one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are nearly all rotten.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mirror Mirror

CELTIC ALPHABET LOVERS: The dwarf names are based on Ogham, the ancient “Tree Alphabet” of the Celtics in which letters are associated with certain trees and assigned a symbolic value; for example, Beith equals “B” which equals birch which stands for new beginnings.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hoodwinked 2: Hood vs. Evil

New Releases for the Week of June 1, 2012


June 1, 2012

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN

(Universal) Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Eddie Izzard, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Lily Cole. Directed by Rupert Sanders

The fairy tale of Snow White is re-imagined as an epic tale of magic and battle. A wicked queen, obsessed with retaining her youth and beauty, uses a magic mirror to prophesy that her reign would be eternal if only she dispatched the only woman whose beauty could potentially eclipse hers – Snow White. However, the girl has fled into the dark forest in habited by all manner of creatures. She dispatches a brave huntsman who has no fear of the woods in to kill her. Instead, they form an unlikely alliance, along with seven doughty dwarves to take on the might of the queen and her magic minions.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, action and destruction, and for language)

Battlefield America

(Cinedigm) Marques Houston, Mekia Cox, Christopher Jones, Zach Belandes. A young businessman takes a group of kids from the wrong side of the tracks and tries to turn them into a champion underground dance crew. They’ll have to battle the odds – and each other – to rise above the streets, the drugs and the hopelessness they came from.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Dance

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements involving some drug material, and for some language)  

Bernie

(Millennium) Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rip Torn. The true story of a beloved figure in a small Texas town who taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir and worked at the local funeral home. When he befriended a rich widow whose outlook on life was as sour as her bank account was large, nobody was surprised – everybody liked Bernie, after all. When she turned up dead and Bernie was arrested for the murder, though, that was a surprise.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images and brief strong language)  

Crooked Arrows

(Freestyle Releasing) Brandon Routh, Gil Birmingham, Michael Hudson, Chelsea Ricketts. A native American reluctantly takes on the lacrosse coaching duty at a reservation high school. As he helps the kids connect with a game that is largely part of their heritage, he in turn reconnects with his own native American spirituality as he leads his decidedly underdog club against an elite prep school with its own longstanding lacrosse tradition.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Drama

Rating: PG-13  (for some suggestive references)

For Greater Glory

(ARC Entertainment) Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Peter O’Toole, Oscar Isaac. The story of General Gorostieta, a Mexican military officer who had retired from war and hoped to live his life out in peace. However when civil war came to his country fueled by the injustice and repression of a corrupt regime, he feels compelled to take up the cause and turn a ragtag group of farmers and peasants into an army.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for war violence and some disturbing images) 

High School

(Anchor Bay) Adrien Brody, Michael Chiklis, Colin Hanks, Mykelti Williamson. After a high school principal declares a zero tolerance for drugs and initiates mandatory drug testing for all students, the class valedictorian takes offense. In fact, he sees this as a grave injustice. So rather than risk that some of his fellow students be expelled for drug use, he decides to get the entire student body high – they can’t all get expelled, can they? This will take some doing however, but with the help of an epic stoner, he might just succeed.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive drugs and language, crude and sexual content, some nudity – all involving teens) 

The Intouchables

(Weinstein) Omar Sy, Francois Cluzet, Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot. A wealthy but spiritually bereft white French man who is a quadriplegic brings a black ex-con into his life as his attendant. Both men end up transformed by the experience. Saw this at the Florida Film Festival in April; you can read my review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for language and some drug use) 

Rowdy Rathore

(UTV) Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha, Supreeth Reddy. A conman meets and falls in love with a woman at a wedding he wasn’t invited to. Yearning to turn over a new leaf in order to keep the girl of his dreams, he runs into a six-year-old girl who inexplicably believes him to be her father. In the meantime the small town that he wants to settle down in, ruthless gangs are set to make life there a living hell…and he will need to find the inner hero to save the town, get the girl and be the father he needs to be.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Queen Anne's Revenge is apparently moths in the sails.

(2011) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin R. McNally, Sam Claflin, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Stephen Graham, Keith Richards, Richard Griffiths, Greg Ellis, Damian O’Hare, Oscar Jaenada, Roger Allam, Judi Dench. Directed by Rob Marshall

The trouble with living is that we all have to die. Sooner or later, we have to give up our space on planet Earth. However, legend has it that there is a place that we can get at least a temporary extension.

 Joshamee Gibbs (McNally) has been mistaken for infamous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) and has been taken to London for trial and eventual hanging as a pirate. However, Jack has a daring plan to rescue his shipmate. Unfortunately, like most of Jack’s daring plans, it ends in disaster with a bunch of guns being pointed in his general direction.

Jack is hauled in front of the corpulent King George III (Griffiths) and his obsequious prime minister (Allam) to be offered a proposition. Jack reputedly knows the location of the Fountain of Youth. It turns out that the Spanish have discovered the location and have sent a humorless grandee (Jaenada) to go there. Rumor has it that Jack is putting together a crew for such a venture but this is the first the good Captain has heard of it. However, the crown has a ship and a captain and if Jack joins them, they might have a chance at catching up to the Spanish expedition. When Jack discovers that the captain of the British expedition is none other than his former first mate and nemesis, a dandified Barbarosa (Rush) – who has not only lost a leg but also Jack’s beloved Black Pearl, Jack says no thanks and makes good his escape.

While fleeing the redcoats he is aided by his father (Richards) who warns him against making the trip to the Fountain of Youth. Jack seems more interested in finding out who is impersonating him – which turns out to be Angelica (Cruz), a former lover of his. To make matters even more complicated, she turns out to be the daughter of Blackbeard (McShane), the pirate whom all other pirates fear. One of her crew knocks out Jack with a blow dart and he wakes up on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s notorious ship which has a bunch of zombies for officers (zombies are much more pliable, according to Angelica).

Blackbeard has very particular motives for reaching the Fountain – it is prophesized that he will be killed by a one-legged man within a fortnight. He wants the waters of the Fountain as an insurance policy.

Blackbeard and Jack know that two additional items are needed for the waters to work – the chalices of Ponce de Leon, which they need to get, and the tears of a mermaid, which they also need to get. As it turns out, mermaids are extremely capricious creatures who can be as deadly as any monster. They are able, however, with the aid of a noble missionary named Phillip (Claflin) they manage to snare a beautiful mermaid named Syrena (Berges-Frisbey).

So it’s a race to the fountain with three interested parties converging on the Fountain and the wreck of de Leon’s ship; which one will be granted eternal life? And will they have chosen…wisely?

After the last Pirates movie, there had been some talk that the franchise was finished despite the massive box office numbers it had done. The director of the first three films, Gore Verbinski was involved with this new film initially but eventually chose to bow out, allowing Marshall in. Marshall, who has among other films the Oscar-winning Chicago to his credit, was an intriguing choice to direct as he had never attempted a summer blockbuster before, being better known for Broadway musical adaptations. He stages some pretty nice sequences here, action-wise – none as silly as the water wheel sequence from the second film – particularly an early swordfight between Jack and Angelica, as well as the mutiny sequence. Some of the sequences fall flat however, including the climactic battle.

Depp has made this role his own which is good and bad, mostly bad. Despite the presence of a bit of backstory, he adds nothing new to the role. I wouldn’t say that the performance is phoned in because he certainly puts enough effort into it, but there is nothing in it that really calls for me to recommend you see it nor make me super enthusiastic for the next film in the series, for which this is said to be the first in a proposed new trilogy.

Cruz makes a nice foil for Depp. Fiery and temperamental but with a good heart buried under her bravado, she is much more of a presence than Keira Knightley was in the first three films. An Easter egg scene following the credits sets up the next film and implies that Cruz will be a major component in it. That wouldn’t be a bad thing in my opinion.

With Orlando Bloom also absent, more is given for the always-reliable McNally to do. He does well with the expanded role although again he does pretty well with the material and screen time he is given. Graham also adds a bit of luster as comic relief.

McShane has developed into an actor who always delivers an excellent performance regardless of the quality of the material. He makes a perfectly vile pirate who is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone for his own purposes. Of all the pirates we’ve seen in the series thus far, he is by far the nastiest, worse than Davy Jones himself. He also lends a bit of gravitas.

I will admit that this is better than the last two movies in the series. It’s nowhere near as good as the first. It’s decent summer entertainment but just decent; you’ll watch it once, forget it quickly and move on. That’s not much of a recommendation but that’s all I’ve got; McShane is worth seeing anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty action sequences and a nice ambience.  McShane makes a worthy Blackbeard. 

REASONS TO STAY: It’s possible Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow has worn out his welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a bit of fantasy violence and a little bit of innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Penelope Cruz was pregnant throughout the shoot and it was only in several sequences at the end of filming where her sister was used as a body double in order to hide her pregnancy.

HOME OR THEATER: Big action sequences, big fantasy, big performances – big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Kings of the Evening

New Releases for the Week of May 20, 2011


May 20, 2011

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Kevin R. McNally, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Geoffrey Rush, Sam Claflin, Stephen Graham, Keith Richards, Richard Griffiths, Roger Allam, Judi Dench. Directed by Rob Marshall

Cap’n Jack Sparrow returns after a five year absence and this time he’s going for the biggest prize of them all – the fabled Fountain of Youth. Many have sought this elusive goal but none have ever succeeded; then again, none of them are Captain Jack Sparrow! He’ll have to traverse treacherous waters to find his treasure this time – waters filled with mermaids, monsters, the British navy and the deadliest pirate of them all – Blackbeard!

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard. 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Adventure

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo)

The Beaver

(Summit) Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence. A family man spirals into a deep depression, forcing his wife to kick him out. Despondent, alone, his life seemingly at rock bottom, he finds a hand puppet in a dumpster – a beaver. Somehow, this puppet allows him to begin to communicate and soon, allows him to become functional again. However as he comes back to life, the question becomes how much the man controls the puppet – or the puppet controls the man.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference)

Incendies

(Sony Classics) Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard. When their mother dies, the contents of her will send a pair of twins on a journey into the past of the woman they thought they knew. Each step of the way changes their perception of her – and of their own place in the world. This French-Canadian co-production was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for some strong violence and language)