New Releases for the Week of May 19, 2017


ALIEN COVENANT

(20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Callie Hernandez. Directed by Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise with an all-new prequel to the original. A colony ship, the Covenant, is on its way to a planet across the galaxy and thought to be paradise. However when they arrive they find the planet strangely devoid of animal life and a previously unknown spaceship crash landed on the surface. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that there is a life form on the planet, something entirely malevolent and that they will be in for the fight of their lives to escape.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo, a prequel video and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity)

Buster’s Mal Heart

(Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Lin Shaye, Kate Lyn Shell. A troubled man hides from the authorities in summer homes to avoid the cruel winters of Montana. Estranged from his family, his encounter with a conspiracy-obsessed drifter left him in a state of paranoia, preparing for an event known only as “The Inversion.” How much of his paranoia is real and how much is a product of his imagination is anyone’s guess. This played last month’s Florida Film Festival to much acclaim.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

(20th Century Fox) Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott, Charlie Wright, Jason Drucker. The Hefley family takes a road trip. The world is disinterested.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some rude humor)

Everything, Everything

(Warner Brothers/MGM) Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera. A beautiful young girl with an auto-immune disorder has spent her entire life in a hermetically sealed home. The slightest contact with the outside world could prove fatal. Dreaming of one day seeing the ocean with her own eyes, she falls in love with the new boy next door. Together, the two scheme to risk everything for that one perfect day – that could cost them both everything.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Young Adult Romance
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief sensuality)

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

(The Orchard) Jeremiah Tower, Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Martha Stewart. Tower is one of the most influential chefs of his time. Bourdain, a friend and admirer of Tower, produced this documentary which not only explores the life of the chef but also of the forces that shaped his culinary journey and not only  changed his life but also the way all of us see dining in general.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language)

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The Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue

Parental Guidance


No matter how much they stretch, they can't make the kid any taller.

No matter how much they stretch, they can’t make the kid any taller.

(2012) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Gedde Watanabe, Jennifer Crystal Foley, Rhoda Griffis, Tony Hawk, Steve Levy, Christine Lakin. Directed by Andy Fickman

Spare the rod and spoil the child is how the saying went. Parenting has changed a lot since then. These days, we’re about making sure our little tykes have enough self-esteem to carry them through the painful years of growing up. Self-discipline? Courtesy for others? Those are concepts as outdated as powdered wigs.

Artie Decker (Crystal) has a good life. He’s the voice of the Fresno Grizzlies, is married to Diane (Midler) who has supported him throughout his career. Their only daughter, Alice (Tomei) lives in Atlanta with her husband Phil (Scott), a programmer who’s created software that essentially controls the home with voice commands, and their three children. Artie and Diane rarely get to see their grandkids and Artie sorta likes it that way.

However, things turn upside down in a hurray as they tend to do. Artie is fired by the Grizzlies who are looking for a less “old school” announcer. Then Phil, whose product is up for an award, wants to take Alice with him for a little vacation in Hilton Head. The other grandparents who usually babysit aren’t available. Desperate for the first vacation they’ve had in five years, Alice asks her parents to come by and take care of the kids. Diane is ecstatic. Phil, not so much.

From here it gets pretty predictable; you’ve got blossoming Harper (Madison) who is practicing the violin for a future spot in her favorite philharmonic – but first she’s got to get a spot in the Atlanta Youth Symphony which is far from a sure thing and she’s stressing about it like a Republican at a Greenpeace convention. Turner (Rush) has a stammer and this gets him picked on like nobody’s business in middle school. Finally there’s little Barker (Breitkopf) who is a five-year-old terror who doesn’t like being told what to do but can be bribed into doing it.

Phil and Alice have raised these kids in a touchy feely new age kind of parenting style in which “use your words” has replaced time outs, t-ball games have replaced outs and scores with eventual hits and ties and self-esteem has replaced responsibility and consequences. You can tell the writers tend to place more faith in old school methods.

The outcome is pretty much pre-determined; Grandma and Grandpa are going to mess up (particularly Grandpa who is pretty much an oaf) but eventually, they are going to get these poor messed-up kids from being neurotic and borderline head cases into healthy and well-adjusted in the space of a weekend. It’s wonderful how a game of kick-the-can in the rain can wash away all of a kid’s issues.

Not wanting to get involved overly much in the political correctness of it, you really aren’t going to remember what parenting lessons, if any, are passed down here. Mostly you’re going to remember Billy Crystal and you’re going to remember just how good he was at shtick. It’s been ten years since he’s done a lead role in a live-action movie (I looked it up on iMDB – his last significant role in a movie that wasn’t an animated feature was 2002’s Analyze That. To me, that’s a waste of an amazing talent; when he’s on, Crystal is one of the funniest men alive – still. He’s pushing 60 and playing a grandparent but the man still can string together a gaggle of zingers to keep audiences of any age in stitches. He doesn’t do it often enough here though.

The divine miss M is given the indignity of dancing on a stripper pole (relax, she’s teaching a class) that harkens back to her days as one of the bawdiest performers in show business, and one of the most fun. She mostly kvetches here – see how all the Yiddishisms are creeping into my review which should give you an idea of how the rhythms of this movie go – but she does get to sing a couple of songs including a duet with Crystal on the 50s standard “Book of Love” which is charming.

Tomei is one of those actresses who can be memorable at any given moment but she seems a little lost here, although she gets a father-daughter scene with Crystal which works nicely. I think the material is a little bit beneath her but hey, it’s a paycheck.

The acting here is pretty much at ham level. SO much is overplayed that you find yourself rolling your eyes in a lot of places. Also, the humor is pretty low-brow; crotch shots for Crystal who responds by vomiting on a kid, urinating at the X-Games and plenty of caca to go around. If your aiming at an audience of 5-year-olds, this is the way to go.

I wish I could have loved this movie and despite an overabundance of sentiment, I might still have loved it if it simply didn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. There are plenty of wonderful statements to make about the joys and pitfalls of parenting – and grandparenting – but the filmmakers chose to make none of them. Instead what we have is kind of an embarrassing mess that is saved only by Crystal’s riffing and if you don’t find that palatable, you are really going to hate this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Billy Crystal does a bang-up job.

REASONS TO STAY: Schmaltzy. Relies on toilet humor far too much. Lots and lots of overacting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mildly rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Crystal has hosted the Oscars nine times, second only to Bob Hope who hosted the ceremony 18 times.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100. The reviews have been pretty bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Next Door

MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL LOVERS: Artie is the radio announcer for the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team, the San Francisco Giants AAA affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Artie broadcasts a game from Chukchansi Park, the actual stadium the Grizzlies play in – although he talks about the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes as a potential opponent when in fact the Quakes play in the California League, not the PCL.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mystic River

New Releases for the Week of December 28, 2012


Les Miserables

LES MISERABLES

(Universal) Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks. Directed by Tom Hooper

Based on the hit Broadway musical which in turn was based on the Victor Hugo classic, it follows the epic tale of Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for stealing bread to feed his family. When he breaks parole, he is chased by the obsessive and relentless Javert who hounds the basically decent Valjean over a time of great upheaval and change in France.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic material)

Django Unchained

(Weinstein) Jamie Foxx, Leonardo di Caprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson. A bounty hunter frees a slave to help him track down a pair of murderers whose identity only the slave – Django – knows. From there they become a formidable pair in the pre-Civil War South but Django has his own agenda; to rescue his wife from brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie but this rescue will have a much higher price than anyone could have imagined

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Western

Rating: R (for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity)

Parental Guidance

(20th Century Fox) Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott. A pair of old-fashioned grandparents are enlisted to watch their grandchildren while the parents are forced to go away for work. 20th century old school meets 21st century new school in a cage match with the winner getting a shot at the main event at Parentmania. Let the parental smackdown begin!

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG (for some rude humor)

Mars Needs Moms


 

Mars Needs Moms

Ki, Gribble and Milo look at the box office bomb descending on their heads.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney) Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Joan Cusack, Elizabeth Harnois, Mindy Sterling, Kevin Cahoon, Tom Everett Scott, Adam Jennings, Amber Gainey Meade, Julene Renee, Seth Dusky, Jo McGinley, Daniel James O’Connor. Directed by Simon Wells

 

Director Simon Wells has also done The Land Before Time and The Time Machine. This is significant because he’s the great-grandson of the legendary writer H.G. Wells who not only wrote The Time Machine but also War of the Worlds which depicted an attempted invasion of Earth by Martians. Here, they’re only after one specific Earthling.

Milo (Green, voiced by Dusky) is a stubborn, self-centered 11-year-old boy. That is, typical. He hates doing homework, won’t eat broccoli, lies to his mother (Cusack)  and says particularly cruel things to her. Dad (Scott) travels a lot so he’s not around much to help. When Milo voices the wish that his mother would not be around so that his life would be easier, his wish is granted – not by a kooky angel trying to earn his wings but by the Martians.

You see, they have a litter of hatchlings come to term every 25 years. Their mothers are far too busy to take care of the kids so they are entrusted to nanny-bots. Unfortunately the programming needs rebooting every 25 years or so, so an Earthling mom who shows the right stuff (the Martian culture is a rigid disciplinarian one) is kidnapped to download her memories into the nanny-bots. Unfortunately, the process destroys the mother forever.

Milo sees his mom being kidnapped and manages to stow away on the Martian spacecraft. On Mars, he meets Gribble (Fogler) whose mom was also kidnapped 25 years previously. He lets Milo know that he has until sunrise to save his mom or else poof. Unfortunately, Gribble was too late to save his mom, so he had to grow up all by himself without mom, dad or family, hiding out from the Martian police in a trash dump.

Aided by Ki (Harnois), a rebellious Martian girl that Gribble is sweet on, Milo sets out to rescue his mom from the clutches of the Supervisor (Sterling) but that is much easier said than done. He must overcome his somewhat less-than-reliable new friend and the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Martian police if he is going to save his mom – and even then, getting her back home may take even more doing.

This was badly mismarketed as a science fiction spoof rather than as a family adventure as it should have been. There are some truly poignant moments that work far better than the humorous ones, even though the film was based on a graphic novel by Berkeley Breathed, the creator of “Bloom County” and other politically-oriented strips.

Part of the problem is the motion capture technology used to animate the film. While there have been some decent motion capture films, one of the problems is that they never really get facial expressions right, giving the humans a kind of robotic emotion-less look. The same holds true here; there is no sparkle of life in these characters so they look kind of like re-animated dolls. It’s a bit creepy and I’m not alone in thinking that.

Cusack holds her own but Fogler’s comic relief is a bit lame – he doesn’t have the personality to pull off the rather weak dialogue. This became a major bomb for Disney and in a lot of ways has killed the motion capture subgenre altogether (plans to make a motion capture remake of Yellow Submarine were quietly shelved by Disney after Mars Needs Moms tanked) which might be a good thing – I think the technology has to improve before it becomes a viable artform.

Critics were surprisingly easy on the film, given some of the wooden performances both onscreen and vocally. The movie certainly has its champions but I think the public got it right on this one. It really isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT THIS: At times very moving, a treatise on the importance of family.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Motion capture still doesn’t quite capture facial expressions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some minor sci-fi action and peril, nothing that’s too rough for most kids except for the very youngest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Disney’s worst box office loss ever and the fifth biggest bomb of all time (unadjusted for inflation).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a major financial bomb.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW:Hannibal

Race to Witch Mountain


Race to Witch Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Extraordinary Measures