Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” could be a poster-movie for the exact type of gratuitously gun-heavy Hollywood flick that is being blamed for planting seeds of violence in young viewers. Bearing no resemblance to the Brothers Grimm fairy tale alluded to in its title, the R-rated movie is nothing more than an excuse for a series of barely connected fight and battle scenes than include numerous decapitations, exploding bodies, and plenty of guns being fired in the name of killing witches. Yawn. Writer-director Tommy Wirkola’s pitiful excuse for a script frequently makes continuity-breaking leaps that show no regard for the audience. Not even the least amount of disbelief suspension is maintained.
Most disconcerting is Jeremy Renner’s participation in a movie that sends his rising-star-career crashing down to a subterranean depth. Although set in medieval times, the movie is besieged with silly modern slang and weapons more befitting a 19th century spaghetti western. The Steampunk presentation is a travesty of clashing styles.
Renner and co-star Gemma Arterton play grown-up versions of the fabled kids that killed their candy-house captor, an evil witch who intended on eating them. Immune to witch spells for some mumbled reason, the bloodthirsty siblings travel between “shitty little towns” saving falsely accused witches, and killing off actual female practitioners of the dark arts.
A friendly CGI troll named Edward comes to Gretel’s rescue during a period when she is inexplicably separated from her badass brother. One-dimensional supporting efforts from Peter Stormare — as a slimy sheriff, and Famke Janssen — as the biggest and baddest witch of them all, just add insult to this awful film.
Rated R. 100 mins. (D-) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
THE LAST STAND
After watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lukewarm performance, you’ll hope that this bombastic exercise in gunplay is his last stand as an actor. Made up of composite cliché parts from various action flicks, “The Last Stand” is an oddly stilted affair. The former Governator plays Ray Owens, the badass sheriff of Sommerton Junction, a small boarder town that marks the final U.S. pass-through for escaped Mexican drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega). Cortez is on the run from Las Vegas FBI agents. With a female FBI agent hostage sitting in the passenger seat, Cortez hits speeds of over 200 mph in a stolen supercharged Corvette. The Chevrolet product placement couldn’t be any more obvious. The lawless speed-demon gets considerable advance road assistance from a gang of well-armed greasers led by Peter Stormare’s pathological killer Burrell.
Screenwriter Andrew Knauer doesn’t bother himself with too many continuity details regarding the staging for the film’s slow-to-arrive title climax on Sommerton’s main street. The movie reads as a puff-piece of pro-NRA propaganda. Guns and ammunition are fetishized. When a faceless baddie shows up in granny’s front room, she reaches into her handy knitting basket for the gun that will end his time on this planet.
Director Jee-woon Kim (“I Saw the Devil”) captures the fragmented eruptions of violence without giving a sufficient degree of character- illumination in the process. The effect is akin to watching a cartoon where you’re not familiar with the characters. Here’s one more mediocre movie ejected into the realm of January multiplex hell.
Rated R. 106 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Baytown Outlaws
Confirmation that January scrapes the bottom of the barrel for film releases, “The Baytown Outlaws” is as run-down a piece of cinematic tripe as you would expect. Checking in on the waning careers of Billy Bob Thornton and Eva Longoria, newbie co-screenwriter/director Barry Battles does neither actor any favors. Also burned at the altar of filmic crap is Thomas Brodie-Sangster (“Nanny McPhee”), who once seemed to have a bright future ahead.
A Tarantino-knock-off of the lowest order, “The Baytown Outlaws” announces its shoddy intentions with an opening blood bath sequence that is a study in bad taste. Good old boy Alabama redneck siblings McQueen (Travis Fimmel), Lincoln (Daniel Cudmore), and Brick Oodie (Clayne Crawford) dole out shotgun justice for local Sheriff Henry Millard (Andre Braugher). If they accidentally off the wrong bunch of lowlifes, so what? Enter slinky Celeste (Langoria) to bait the scuzzy bunch with $25,000 in bounty money them to extract her 17-year-old wheelchair bound (and mute) son Rob (Brodie-Sangster) from the clutches of her well defended drug kingpin ex Carlos (Thornton). Rob’s trust fund is about to come due on the boy’s 18th birthday. Killing Carlos is part of the assignment. Clichés surface like flies on manure. A fancy-pants ATF detective from Chicago rattles Sherriff Millard’s cage. The snotty Sherriff, in turn, spares no opportunity to insult and snub the Northern intruder.
The Oodie boys botch the kidnapping inasmuch as they leave Carlos alive to send his thugs after them. The story collapses into a chase-and-battle adventure that leave much blood smeared on various surfaces. Here is a movie that will last one week at your local cinema. Even that, is one week too long.
Rated R. 98 mins. (F) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
Yet one more example of a real-life story someone thought would “make a great movie,” “The Impossible” is as flat and predictable as they come. The story is based on one family’s precarious survival of the Christmas Day, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which was caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. The only thing the film has to offer — and it is no small contribution — is its impressive special effects that put the audience right in the middle of Mother Nature’s most destructive wrath. The tsunami sequences are astounding, and not for the weak or elderly. This is big screen spectacle like you’ve not seen before. Even Clint Eastwood’s immersive treatment of the same devastating event in his 2010 film “Hereafter,” pales by comparison.
Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play a British couple — Henry and Maria — who are on holiday at a beach resort hotel in Thailand. Oblivious to the warning signals of the approaching wall of water, the family is broadsided by the catastrophe that separates the family in the blink of an eye. The badly wounded Maria searches with her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) for the rest of their family. Henry, in the meantime, carries out his own desperate attempt to reunite with his family. Although the ensemble performances are solid, the story is simple to a fault. Not every dramatic real-life story can be turned into a great or even good movie. “The Impossible” falls somewhere below mediocre.
Rated PG13. 107 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Fans of Lee Childs’s hugely popular detective novels will have a tough time accepting the 5’ 7” Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, a hulking six-foot-five freelance investigator/enforcer with "hands the size of frozen turkeys.” Inversely, the fact of Tom Cruise’s ownership of the cinema franchise won’t provide an easy time for movie-inspired newcomers to the books. Mitigating the vast physical differences between the books’ stoic coffee-swilling protagonist with Cruise’s modest slow-burn interpretation is a bridge too far. Better casting options could easily have come from Liam Neeson, Vincent D.Onofio (my personal choice for the role), or Tim Robbins.
That said, “Jack Reacher” is a perfectly competent popcorn movie adaptation insofar as Hollywood action thrillers go. Screenwriter/ director Christopher McQuarrie (“The Way of the Gun”) strikes a respectable balance between gut-wrenching action and built-in narrative suspense. One car-chase scene in particular turns up the heat on a well-worn action movie device. McQuarrie is slated to direct Cruise’s next “Mission: Impossible” installment — due out in 2015.
Based on the Lee Childs novel “One Shot,” the story revolves around Jack Reacher’s efforts to solve a crime involving James Barr (Joseph Sikora, a tweaky military-trained sniper accused of taking out a group of civilians — think the opening sequence of “Dirty Harry.” Rosamund Pike is acceptable if not thoroughly engaging as Helen, the attorney daughter to Rodin, the local D.A. (Richard Jenkins). Intrigue and betrayal rub together as Reacher is led to a confrontation with Werner Herzog scene-stealing baddie, known only as The Zec. Robert Duvall brings his reliable acting skills to bear as Cash, a rifle-range owner with his own bag of tricks.
So long as you accept that the twain will never meet between the film and book versions of Jack Reacher, you should be able to enjoy each exclusively if not necessarily as a compliment to one another.
Rated PG-13. 130 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
Incomprehensible. If you are not familiar with the “Universal Soldier” franchise, which began in 1992, nothing in this fourth installment will make much sense, if any. And even if you are a fully committed fan of the series, “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” will register as nothing more than a guilty pleasure—and probably much less. Even then, that’s assuming you derive amusement from nearly two hours of unsupported sequences of outlandish violence.
The amiably campy sci-fi groundwork laid out by director Roland Emmerich for the original got squandered by the two straight-to-video dogs that followed — “Universal Soldier: The Return” (1999) and "Universal Soldier: Regeneration” (2009). Here the ongoing saga of genetically modified super-soldiers hits its Waterloo with “Day of Reckoning,” a horror-bent piece of exploitation cinema without a strand of humor in its disastrous make-up.
Looking like Ben Affleck’s evil no-talent twin, Scott Adkins plays his mechanically charged character John like an animatronic mannequin. After witnessing his wife and daughter being brutally murdered by masked assassins in his living room, John awakens in a hospital room sick for revenge. This time, original "Universal Soldier" hero Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of the killers — get it? Like in "Terminator 2"! when Arnold comes back as a good cyb…never mind. This time the Belgian action star is sporting a baldhead, which causes him to mimic Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from "Apocalypse Now.” Indeed, the film’s mano a mano climax between John and Van Damme’s Luc Deveraux echoes the showdown between Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz in Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece.
Dolph Lundgren makes an obligatory appearance reenergizing his franchise role as Andrew Scott, a red-beret-wearing cult leader baddie whose weapon of choice is a machete. Gory fight scenes involving an array of weapons and random objects ensue. An intense car chase scene emulates the adrenaline rush you might experience in a real movie, which this isn’t. Director John Hyams’s competent direction can’t compensate for the film’s by-committee travesty of a script. Waste your time and money if you must.
Rated R. 114 mins. (D-) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
VIDEO ESSAYS: LINCOLN — SKYFALL — THE BAY — THE FIREMEN'S BALL
The 23rd installment in the longest-running franchise in cinema history is crafted to satisfy fans from every era of the series based on the Ian Fleming novels. Sam Mendes tastefully directs this outing of action-based espionage, gently shifting gears between a literary approach to wit, style, personality, and spectacle. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men”) gives generous attention to the visual context of the story. Every composition is a pristine expression of Ian Fleming’s dangerous milieu.
“Skyfall” stands as one of the shrewder blasts of ecstasy in the long list of compelling 007 spy flicks. Another flawless credit sequence — this time featuring an evocative title song powerfully delivered by Adele — follows a mind-blowing mano-a-mano chase scene, between Bond and an estimable baddie, traveling across foot-wide rooftops on motorcycles before heading off on foot across the roofs of a fast-moving train. Audience heart rates go up. This is super-cool-action at its best.
“Skyfall” divides three distinct acts as individual homages to specific aspects of the franchise.
The first act is a nod to the leaner and grittier modern James Bond — as exquisitely played by Daniel Craig. He’s a first-rate action movie actor. This time around, Bond has to return to work after being thought dead for several years. He’s been off playing civilian — i.e., drinking a lot of booze. Sometimes he lets a live scorpion sit on his drinking hand as he slugs down a glass in a remote tropical island bar.
A computer-hacking genius villain named Silva launches an attack on Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s — with M (played by the irrepressible Judi Dench) in the crosshairs. Sliva has been busy revealing the identities of NATO undercover agents embedded in terrorist organizations. Javier Bardem introduces the film’s second act as Silva, with a ridiculously entertaining monologue entrance that hip drama students will be doing at auditions. Bardem’s effeminate Silva carefully measures his steps as he stalks his prey — a momentarily confined James Bond. Javier Bardem spits up and chews out scenery in Tarantino-worthy scenes. There’s a little Hannibal Lechter in Bardem’s creation. Talk about a case of perfect casting — whew.
The third act provides a retro vantage point. Bond pulls his trusty 1964 Aston Martin (circa Sean Connery's "Goldfinger") out of the garage, and treats the audience to a gloomy bit of nostalgia-defying action set in the Scottish mansion where James Bond lived as a boy when his parents died. Bond says he “never did like the place.” One thing's for sure, it won't be the same when his enemies are through with it.
The James Bond franchise is especially compelling for the lengths filmmakers go to in sidestepping hard-worn formula clichés with each new movie. Although it’s all the rage to beat up on Daniel Craig’s last Bond outing “Quantum of Solace,” it too fits the demands of the charismatic series. Daniel Craig’s trilogy of James Bond films — which started with “Casino Royale” — are hard-edged and efficient.
The bottom line is it’s taken too long for “Skyfall” to come out. Four years is too long to not be witnessing the best incarnation of James Bond ever. Great as he is, Daniel Craig isn’t getting younger.
Rated PG-13. 143 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Life of Pi — New York Film Festival 2012
Gracefully sidestepping its overreaching, religiously didactic premise — that the unfolding story offers up absolute proof of God — Ang Lee’s lush 3D adaptation of Yann Martel’s restrained novel of magical realism is a stunner. The real joy lies in Lee’s exacting ability to bring a seemingly unfilmable narrative to life. The invisible state-of-the-art special effects represent a game-changer for the film industry. Here we see that big screen spectacle doesn’t have to include explosions or gun battles to immerse an audience in a deeply entertaining experience.
Premiering at the New York Film Festival to critical acclaim, “Life of Pi” follows the survival narrative of an Indian boy named Pi (short for Piscine Molitor, a Parisian swimming pool). Born into a Hindu family, the teenaged Pi dabbles with Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam — much to the dismay of his strict father, who decides to move the family zoo to Canada. A catastrophic storm upends the Japanese freighter containing Pi’s family and their zoo animals. Pi miraculously escapes on a well-equipped lifeboat where a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger vie for precious space. Some fast-track Darwinism whittles the boat’s incompatible passengers down to Pi and the tiger — oddly named Richard Parker. Newcomer Suraj Sharma delivers an astounding performance as the 17-year-old Pi. In what is essentially a one-man acting showcase, Suraj rises to the challenge with exquisite results.
For 227 days, Pi endures an odyssey of subsistence. Every strand of Pi’s mental and physical fortitude is stretched far beyond its limit. Pi must not only build a separate raft to keep a safe distance from the tiger, but he must also strategize about how to provide for himself and the deadly cat. This helps focus his mind. Pi voraciously references the boat’s survival manual to make the best use of the food and materials inside its surprisingly ample hull.
Ang Lee orchestrates the film’s demanding visual, emotional, and thematic elements like a maestro with a carefully honed sense of dynamics. Famous for his abilities to conquer divergent genres — see “Sense and Sensibility” and “Brokeback Mountain” — Lee makes a bold artistic statement. Using a trio of different tigers to play Pi’s captive castaway, the filmmaker captures Richard Parker’s fierce moods with intense scenes that make the hair stand up on the back of you neck. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda works brilliantly to give each composition an effortless complexity of narrative purity. Mychael Danna’s original musical score is spot-on, never detracting from the mesmerizing adventure.
“Life of Pi” is not without its flaws. Cutaway sequences to an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) retelling his story to an ingratiating author, tip the film conspicuously to its inspirational intentions. The subordinate plot speaks to a lack of confidence in David Mage’s script construction — preaching rather trusting the audience to take away their own personal truths from the story. Yet the film’s overall effect is an incredibly rich cinematic experience incomparable to anything that has come before.
Not Rated. 120 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
The Expendables 2
With a script seemingly dashed off on a chalkboard, “The Expendables 2” lives up to its title in the most pejorative way. Everything about this bombastic goofball action movie screams “disposable.” Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger mumble their lines as if they have rocks in their mouths, while Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham come across as if they have rocks in their respective heads. Loaded with violence-for-violence-sake sequences of blood-splattering killings, the story lurches from one senseless battle to another. Stallone’s mercenary gang-leader Barney Ross owes Bruce Willis’s kingpin Mr. Church a big debt. To settle up, Barney takes on a mission that entails the participation of hotshot bad-chick Maggie (Yu Nan). Yu Nan’s superior acting skills elevates the movie if only by degree. Alongside poorly paced action sequences, the worst thing the movie has to offer is dud jokes and repetitive lines of sopping wet dialogue. For his role as the story’s baddie Vilain, Jean Claude Van Damme works some undermined magic. A mano y mano showdown between Barney and Vilain allows Van Damme to show off his signature aerial roundhouse kick. Of all the aging action stars on display, Van Damme retains the mojo of his youth better than the rest. If only the filmmakers had seen fit to stage a fistfight between Van Damme and Jet Li.
Rated R. 103 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Popcorn gets stuck in the bubblegum of director/co-writer David Koepp’s teenybopper crowd-pleaser. 99% of all movies have at least one chase scene of some variation because the intrinsically cinematic device heightens drama regardless of the genre. In the case of “Premium Rush” the whole movie is a combination of chase sequences linked together by the thinnest of narrative tissue. Good thing then that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is more than capable of putting his charismatic presence to use as Wilee, a Manhattan bike-messenger who gets caught in the cross-hairs of bad lieutenant cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon). Officer Monday is a gambling-addicted police detective on deadline to steal and pay out $50,000 in cash connected to an envelope Wilee is trying to transport from Columbia University to Chinatown. Koepp goes heavy on a time-flipping narrative twitch complete with giant Helvetica time-codes that pop on the screen at regular intervals. Michael Shannon is appropriately menacing if not as openly desperate as the wiggly plot demands. The movie is all about following Gordon-Levitt’s stunt double through Manhattan’s traffic-riddled streets without regard for any continuity regarding the actual city map. Wilee’s piecemeal voice-over narration gets in the way more than it elucidates anything we don’t know from watching him ride his fixed-gear steel-frame bike against busy traffic like a bat out of hell. The filmmakers clearly intended “Premium Rush” to be a guilty pleasure picture for audiences over the age of 16. For anyone younger, it’s a fantasy daredevil movie that dares them to risk their lives as bicycle messengers just as the Kevin Bacon movie “Quicksilver” did way back in 1986.
Rated PG-13. 90 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Action as Usual
The Cinema of Statham Rolls On
By Cole Smithey
As far as Jason Statham action movies go, writer-director Boaz Yakin’s Manhattan-set effort rolls with the best of them. It might not be the most interesting formula, but “Safe” does have the desired effect of raising the heart rate of its audience — even if every villain seems to have fallen out of a cereal box.
Statham’s two-note acting range has matured, if only ever so slightly. He almost manages to express a hint of emotion when its called for. The ageless British actor plays Luke Wright, an ex-cop and mixed martial arts cage fighter at the end of his rope. His pregnant wife’s murder at the hands of Russian mobsters leaves Luke contemplating a suicide that would bring immense pleasure to his numerous enemies on both sides of the law. Here’s where the movie picks up.
Borrowing a page from Luc Besson’s “The Professional,” a hyper-intelligent little girl leads Luke out of his depression. 12-year-old mathematics genius Mei (Catherine Chan) falls into the hands of a Chinese mob busy trying to improve profits from its illegal gambling houses and protected restaurants. The New York-based gangsters exploit Mei’s knack for memorizing numbers. She keeps in her memory an enormous string of digits that Luke recognizes as a code after rescuing her from a slew of bad guys. Local Russian mobsters and a group of corrupt New York cops are after Mei, who represents a kind of double MacGuffin that eventually gets misplaced in the shuffle of the film’s obsessive reflex for violence.
Gun-fueled action sequences hit a couple of gloriously hard crescendos. Although Yakin’s attempts to emulate a gritty ‘70s era action pictures — like say, “The French Connection” — the filmmaker is hamstrung by modern Manhattan’s glossy manicured look. Part of what made the New York action movies of the ‘70s look so great was Manhattan’s potent mixture of eccentric local characters acting out in a degraded unpredictable environment. That’s not to say that “Safe” isn’t without surprise. A couple of real doozies hit like a ton of bricks, as when our able-bodied hero makes an especially dangerous window-dive using a rival to break his fall. The scene knocks the wind out of the viewer no matter how prepared you are for the sudden impact that comes. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (“Batman Returns”) uses tight framing to mask New York’s Disneyfication that has replaced bodegas and dive bars with banks and cell phone stores.
Jason Statham represents a cottage film industry built on his name as the de facto franchise designation. For audiences who appreciate Statham’s character type in the “Transporter” movies over his more obnoxious personality in the “Crank” series, “Safe” is a reliable bet. There may not be much comparison with the American, or even British, gangster films of the ‘70s but at least you know what you’re getting.
Rated R. 95 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Tomorrow When the War Began
Aussie Teen Franchise
Vampires and Werewolves Turn Passé When There’s a War On
By Cole Smithey
A resistance-combatant-primer disguised as a teen-exploitation flick, “Tomorrow When the War Began” delights in guilty pleasures. Syrupy folk music—harmonica included—from Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek drains the drama out of more than a few scenes. The cliché-riddled movie is based on the first book of John Marsden’s popular series of young adult novels. Sequels will follow. Australia is the unlikely target for an invasion by unnamed Asian military forces. Good thing then that a troupe of eight hearty almost-legal schoolmates are on a weekend sabbatical to a remote region incongruously known as “Hell” when the assault strikes their family homes in the fictional town of Wirrawee. The township’s fairground transforms into a POW camp. With their loved ones missing or dead, the group is forced to turn to guerilla tactics to weaken their merciless occupiers from behind enemy lines.
In keeping with the demands of a franchise-starting segment, the movie spends much of its time establishing its romantically inclined characters. Undeniable hottie Caitlin Stasey plays the group’s self-appointed leader Ellie Linton. Elle’s tractor-driving farm skills prove a boon during the film’s centerpiece chase sequence involving a garbage truck attempting to outrun a couple of machine-gun mounted dune buggies. Cinematographer Ben Nott (“Daybreakers”) maximizes the film’s obviously limited budget.
Ellie makes her clandestine amorous intentions known to Lee (Chris Pang) when she invites him on the group camping trip. Lee’s Asian heritage presents a narrative stop-punch to any criticism the storyline might attract regarding Australia’s foreign oppressors. Deniz Akdeniz does obligatory beefcake duty as Homer, a bone-headed jock with the hots for poor-little-rich-girl Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin). Fiona’s denial of her own camera-pleasing beauty again second-guesses audience reaction before questions can be raised. Least convincing is Ashleigh Cummings’s plot-placeholder Robyn, a Christian bible-thumper from a religious family. Robyn protests vehemently against killing any of the occupying soldiers. You know what they say about those who “protest to much.”
Co-writer Stuart Beattle steps out of the shadow of screenwriting credits that include “30 Days of Night” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” to direct the Australian-centric storyline. The real buzz lies in the subtext of an us-versus-them scenario of an occupied country where a group of otherwise sensible teens are reduced to radical freedom fighters overnight. Such blatant anti-imperialist propaganda would never have passed muster in the heydays of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (1938-1975), even if it were coming in the form of a teen action flick from Australia. How times have changed.
“Tomorrow When the War Began,” with its brain-teasing title, doesn’t waste time condemning acts of military aggression against a sovereign nation. As history consistently proves, unrelenting reproach is compulsory for every native man, woman, and child. Neither is there any discussion about the various political motivations behind the sudden military enterprise. That’s not the point. The authors provide no genre-standard-devices of radio or television broadcasts blurting out frothy editorial information. As well, these kids aren’t occupied with tweeting, making cell-phone calls, or updating their blogs. The fight is all around them; they’re not looking for help beyond their immediate comrades. Guess whose side you’d rather be on.
Rated R. 120 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
Though hampered by some uninspired efforts in the joke department from newbie cousin screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn, "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" is a passable PG-rated family adventure movie. Added to the film’s flat sense of humor is the misguided replacement of franchise-starter Brendan Fraser (“Journey to the Center of the Earth”--2008). Dwayne Johnson suffers the indignation of performing step-dad duties to Josh Hutcherson’s returning daredevil character Sean Anderson. The actor formerly known as The Rock nearly redeems himself during a stirring ukulele rendition of "What a Wonderful World." The musical interlude unexpectedly brings the scattershot adventure momentarily into focus with some assistance from an indispensible but ultimately squandered Michael Caine.
Childhood literary classics that include Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and Jules Verne’s “The Mysterious Island” inform the story in a sidelong fashion. In the burbs of Dayton, Ohio Sean receives a coded message from his long-lost grandfather Alexander (Caine). Sean’s stepdad Hank is an ex-Navy man with a knack for code breaking. The missive sends Sean off on a chaperoned adventure to reunite with gramps. A sputtering chartered helicopter, flown by Luis Guzman and his character’s comely daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), enables a suspense-free hurricane ride that spits our plucky explorers out on the shores of an island that could just be the lost city of Atlantis.
Dwayne Johnson is an actor who tries so hard to be likable that it hurts. Given his obsequious nature, it’s easy to understand why the filmmakers chose him to replace Brendan Fraser, whose famously nerdy need to please comes across as a central aspect to his Canadian heritage. But where Fraser has a frenetic internal rhythm of free-spinning animation about his physicality, Johnson is plodding and methodical to a fault. His muscle-bound comportment overpowers the relative diminutive actors around him. There’s no jiving chemistry between Johnson’s fatherly Hank and Josh Hutcherson’s Sean. Caught between playing up a subplot of budding romance with Kailani, and following Michael Caine’s lead as the kind of person Sean aspires to be, Hutcherson gets hung out to dry in every scene he shares with Hank.
An example of the film’s lukewarm wit occurs when Hank gives Sean a demonstration of something he calls the “pec-pop.” Johnson flexes his pectoral muscles so they tense back and forth in a flip-flopping fashion. This odd display of masculine muscle manipulation is intended to impress members of the opposite sex. Needless to say Sean doesn’t possess such physical attributes to execute the maneuver in the first place. Hank demands that Sean throw berries at his bouncing pecs for the apparently singular reason of supplying the audience with an overworked sample of eye-blinking 3D effects. The ridiculous sequence begs the question, “What were the filmmakers thinking? The whole thing is just to weird to be funny.
Director Brad Peyton (“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”) struggles to make the most of superficially impressive creatures that populate the mysterious island that grandpa Alexander calls home. Miniature elephants, gargantuan bees, and slithering giant centipedes supply innocuous eye-candy that never reaches beyond its CGI limitations to anything substantial. A giant electric eel boots the possibilities for spectacle during the story’s underwater climax. A few window-breaking 3D effects spice up the amusement in a visually entertaining but narratively trivial movie. It might not be the bee’s knees for adult audiences, but “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” meets the unsophisticated demands of its pre-teen target audience.
Rated PG. 94 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five / no halves)
Proof positive that Steven Soderbergh can make a shamelessly fluffy action thriller, "Haywire’s” trump card is the estimable abilities of mixed-martial-arts-fighter-turned-actress Gina Carano. Though the movie is nothing more than a flashy debut showcase for the charismatic Carano to show she can act and kick butt, that's sufficient for much popcorn to be consumed.
Carano plays professional assassin Mallory Kane, on the run from a group of power brokers who set her up for a fall that doesn’t pan out. Told mainly in globetrotting flashbacks, the narrative traces Mallory’s problematic assignment to rescue a Chinese journalist being held in Barcelona. Fast-moving chase sequences mesh with flying bullets and plenty of hand-to-hand fighting between Mallory and various attackers who tend to underestimate Mallory’s killer instinct. Soderbergh’s camera drinks up stylish scenery in glossy action set pieces. The visual flare makes you want the movie to kick into a missing gear of Tarantino-inflected dialogue; sadly screenwriter Lem Dobbs simply isn’t capable of producing such delights. Still, there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor inherent in the bone-breaking fights that transpire. A roll call of witty supporting turns from the likes of Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, and Michael Fassbender spice up the flavor of the action. “Haywire” is a chamber piece action movie in which the athletic violence on display comes with kisses. If you don’t expect too much, you’ll be more than satisfied.
There’s a tendency to overestimate Steven Soderbergh’s abilities as a director. Since making an enormous independent splash in 1989 with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” Soderbergh’s films have swung wildly between peaking hills and sea-level valleys. Stable Hollywood fare (see “Erin Brockovich” and the “Ocean’s” franchise), offbeat personal projects (witness the disaster of “Full Frontal” and the underachieving “Girlfriend Experience”), topical epics (see “Traffic” and “Che”), a daring remake (“Solaris”), and retro Hollywood (his best film “The Good German”) map out a consistently inconsistent career. Steven Soderbergh has a tendency toward making films that have a compartmentalized and brittle feeling about them. “Contagion” and “The Informant!” are prime examples. While the Atlanta-born filmmaker has threatened to retire from directing in recent years, he maintains a prolific output that puts lesser filmmakers like Alexander Payne to shame. His upcoming films include “Behind the Candelabra,” a Liberace biopic and “Magic Mike,” a comedy about an upstart male stripper played by Channing Tatum.
As the latest addition to Soderbergh’s challenging oeuvre “Haywire” is a minor addition that does little to dispel the sense that the filmmaker suffers from a crisis of commitment. You don’t get the feeling that he made the movie out of any deep-seeded artistic urgency. Rather, “Haywire” seems a flashy little one-off on the way to something else. If the movie serves its most apparent purpose, to turn the muscular Gina Carano into Hollywood’s latest female action star, then so much the better for movie audiences to relish in her innate ability to charm and surprise. But that still leaves an open-ended question about whether Steven Soderbergh has what it takes to create the filmic masterpiece that his work as a filmmaker seems to point toward. It’s anybody’s guess whether or not he’ll pull it off.
Rated R. 93 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
A testament to January’s reputation as the worst month for new movie releases, “Contraband” is a purely disposable crime thriller. Mark Whalberg doesn't even bother to phone in his performance as John Bryce, an ex-smuggler who gets drawn back into the game after his brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) tosses overboard a shipment of drugs due to be delivered to Giovanni Ribisi's revenge-hungry gangster Tim Briggs. Rather, Whalberg goes through the motions of earning a paycheck as if he were doing a beer commercial--Shlitz paid for a sizable portion of the film's budget.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur fails to improve on a truly mediocre by-committee script written by Aaron Guzikowski, Arnaldur Indriðason, Óskar Jónasson--names you won't be seeing again anytime soon. The disjointed plot takes Bryce on a cargo ship to Panama City where he plans to purchase a palate filled with counterfeit bills to sell back in the states in order to pay back Briggs. Bryce leaves his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and kids in the unsteady hands of his recovering alcoholic pal Sebastian (Ben Foster). Inexplicably, Bryce takes Andy along on the voyage, thereby setting up one of the film's more dubious plot holes.
There's no comparison between a great action/espionage movie like "Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol" and cinematic trip such as "Contraband." To choose the latter over the former is a bad move.
Rated R. 109 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol
Aside from an unwarranted bit of miscasting in the guise of Simon Pegg, "Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol" is an energetic addition to the long-gone-missing franchise. It's been five-years since "Mission: Impossible III."
Screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec upturn the franchise's popular affinity for gadgets and disguises. In the 21st century's high-tech age, new fancy gadgets just aren't that reliable. Anti-gravity gloves fail right along with an automatic mask-making machine that promises to help Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team of special agents steal Russian nuclear launch codes before they fall into the hands of international baddie Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist). Hendricks already has control of a Russian satellite from which to wage World War III.
Jeremy Renner brings some necessary gravitas as Brandt, a Presidential right-hand man with a few well-kept secrets up his sleeve. Ethan and his accomplices, goofball tech-wiz Benji (Pegg), sultry fire-starter Jane (Paula Patton) and Brandt (Renner), constantly find themselves in uncertain situations where they must think and act way outside the proverbial box.
Director Brad Bird seamlessly transposes his skill for animated features (see "The Iron Giant") into the super-action format. You want heart-racing chase scenes, set pieces, and stunts; you got 'em in spades. The eye-popping sequences filmed to fit the IMAX screen do more than take your breath away. They mesmerize you before giving you the biggest kind of visual and visceral double-punch you can imagine receiving from a movie. It doesn't hurt that the film goes big-spectacle crazy in Russia--see the Kremlin explode--and in Dubai, where the world’s tallest building (the Burji Khalifa) does some great supporting-character duties. Prague also provides some impressive background atmosphere for roving espionage activity.
“Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol” is great cinematic entertainment. The storyline is sharp. The action sequences are brilliantly staged and edited. I highly recommend seeing the film in a real IMAX cinema if possible—beware of the mini-IMAXs. Sit in the middle back row. It’s all the excuse any movie fan should need to down some popcorn, Red Vines, and soda.
Rated PG-13. 133 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Guy Ritchie continues to degrade the iconic characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, albeit with a fresh round of screenwriters since the abominable 2009 franchise starter. “Deus ex machine” doesn't begin to describe a compulsive narrative tic that allows Robert Downey Jr.'s no-shit-Sherlock to see milliseconds into the future whenever he's under physical attack. Holmes’s slo-mo premonitions allow the audience to study in-depth the exact martial arts moves the sinewy Downey Jr. appears to employ with lightening quick reflexes.
The 1891 European-set "Game of Shadows" is an appropriate title for a movie that's all smoke-and-mirrors and no substance. Sherlock and engaged companion (not like that) Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are taunted by Jared Harris's Professor Moriarty. The diabolical villain is busy pulling political strings with a string of bombings designed to ignite a war between France and Germany. Don't worry, there's no groovy political allegory to get swept up in. Noomi Rapace stumbles into the story as Madam Simza Heron, a gypsy fortune teller whose level of believability roughly matches Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. The best thing you can say about “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is that it plays like a bunch of barely entertaining vignettes. Sarah Greenwood’s artful production designs keep your eyes busy. Still, frequent lulls come slogging by during the film’s corpulent 129-minute running time. It might be pretty to look at but nobody in their right mind would be so bold as to assert that anything here has the slightest thing to do with the pipe-smoking literary detective known to the world as Sherlock Holmes.
Rated PG-13. 128 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Mickey Rourke vs. Gods & Humans
No Family Jewels are Safe
By Cole Smithey
Pitched to the public for its producer's association to the 2008 cartoon-cutout sword and sandal trash fest "300," this spectacle-driven tale of myth-based fantasy rightly earns its stripes thanks to a heavy-duty cast that includes the masterful John Hurt as a human-disguised Zeus and Mickey Rourke as an incredibly vicious King Hyperion.
Said producers have taken note of the many criticisms levied against “300” and made significant changes in response. Tarsem Singh ("The Cell") is a welcome replacement to hit-and-miss director Zach Snyder (hit with "Watchmen" and miss with "Sucker Punch"). Gone is the fetishistic adoration of the exposed male physique, which sent “300” into the realm of camp, in favor of truly breathtaking scenes of spectacle in the context of a story that actually holds together. Neptune splashes down to Earth, setting off an unforgettable tsunami which crashes against a cliff shoreline with gigantic, mind-boggling ferocity. It’s one of the first times in recent memory that such a scene excited me so much as an audience member that I was momentarily shaken out of my “critic” mindset.
Greek peasant warrior Theseus (Henry Cavill – “The Tudors”) is handpicked by the mortal incarnation of Zeus (John Hurt) to take up arms against King Hyperion (Rourke) who, with the help of his enormous army, is wiping out everything in his path in search of an all-empowering golden bow (forged in the heavens by the god Ares) that will destroy humanity. Theseus has a running start at battling King Hyperion considering he’s been mentored by Zeus. Still, Rourke’s ruthlessly sadistic King Hyperion is like a cross between British Petroleum, Bernie Madoff, Alan Greenspan, and Dick Cheney.
Only the long-lost magical Epirus Bow can release an army of gargantuan Titans imprisoned in a giant cubical cell buried in Mount Tartaros, where they wait to be brought back to life so they can take revenge against the gods who put them there. The catch is that the Gods of Olympus who defeated the Titans are sworn not to interfere with human matters even if it means allowing King Hyperion to obtain the powerful bow. As such, Henry Cavill’s Theseus carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Lush compositions of magnificent iconic imagery are captured by cinematographer Brendan Galvin (“Veronica Guerin”). Ominous foreboding skies cover every scene like something out of a painting by Bruegel the Elder. There’s a constant sense of mythic themes running at crosscurrents to the brutality onscreen. Some of this effect can be attributed to John Hurt’s uncanny ability to influence the narrative during his short but crucial scenes that bookend the story. The incredibly violent action that occurs includes numerous decapitations and scenes of erotic sensuality that temporarily alleviate the bone-crushing violence on hand. Myth genre movies have come a long way since the Ray Harryhausen-designed stop motion effects of “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963). “Immortals” is a big-screen popcorn movie to send off 2011 with a bang. You can taste the fury.
Rated R. 110 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Three Musketeers
It's difficult to imagine a bigger waste of talent (Matthew Macgadyen, Mads Mikkelsen, and Christoph Waltz are squandered) or resources than Paul W.S. Anderson's snoozefest that serves as an open-hand insult to the famous work of Alexandre Dumas. Valuing spectacle over story, the movie catapults between a half-baked bit of espionage involving the theft of a blueprint for a air-boat war ship from Leonardo Da Vinci's secret vault to the burglary of the Queen of France's diamond necklace. Juno Temple gives a laughable performance in the role of Queen to King Louis (Freddie Fox). Unfortunate too is the King's much professed desire for his Queen which seems at odds with his openly expressed affection for D'Artagnan. The son of a former musketeer, D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman) takes leave of his peasant parents in the countryside to put blood on his blade in the city of Paris where he manages to insult Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz), and each of the Three Musketeer's--Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson), Aramis (Luke Evans). He invites all of them to a duel. Needless to say, this D'Artagnan doesn't garner much audience empathy. Orlando Bloom seems to have finally aged out of his terminal man-boy persuasion in an obligatory turn as the Duke of Buckingham. Doomed to be referenced as an example of everything wrong with 21st cinema, “The Three Musketeers” is like a banana split prepared with in a blender. It looks like vomit, and leaves a knot in your stomach.
Rated PG-13. 102 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Hugh Jackman breaks a serious sweat attempting to hold together this "Rock'em Sock'em Robots" kids' fantasy adventure movie. The surprising thing is that Jackman's hard-won efforts pay off. Even when he’s acting with a capitol “A,” Jackman’s sincerity and artfulness delivers enough drama to mask the clichés that inhibit the development of his character. Set in a not-too-distant-future Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former boxer traveling with a beat-up remote-controlled robot named "Ambush." Charlie pits his bot against a 2000-pound bull at a rodeo in San Leandro, California. The bull prevails and Charlie is left owing big money to one more fight promoter he can't afford to pay. Charlie, it turns out, is also a deadbeat in matters of the heart. So it's convenient when Deborah and Marvin Barnes (Hope Davis and James Rebhorn), the guardians of his long -forgotten 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo), strike a deal that puts $50,000 into Charlie's pocket and young Max temporarily in his custody. Naturally, Max gets a bot of his very own--named "Atom"--which father and son use to enter increasingly competitive battles against state-of-the-art electronic rivals. Bonding occurs. "Real Steel" is a laboratory-designed movie cobbled together from sport movie clichés. The film runs a good 15 minutes too long, but it’s the kind of movie 10-year-old boys will go ga-ga over even if the filmmakers lean more on the manufactured drama between father and son than on the film’s payoff robot battles. In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s cool watching robots knock one another’s blocks off.
Rated PG-13. 127 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
"Twilight" actor Taylor Lautner proves out of his element in his first, and possibly last, shot at a leading role. You know "Abduction" is in trouble from its opening scene. Lautner's 17-year-old beefcake character Nathan rides on the hood of his pal's truck as the vehicle hits speeds above 70 miles per hour. Clearly Nathan has a death wish, or simply isn't playing with a full deck. Either way he doesn’t engender much audience empathy. Nathan gets so drunk he passes out overnight on the front lawn of a party where his love-interest neighbor Karen (Lily Collins) is in attendance with a guy equal to Nathan's diminished IQ.
Plodding plot points grind through changes. At his sunny suburban home poppa Kevin (Jason Isaacs) likes to employ full-contact sparring as a way of preparing Nathan for a violent outside world that threatens to attack without notice. Mom Mara (Maria Bello) chooses probation as the best way to discipline an only child with a history of violence. Nathan's shrink Dr. Bennett (Sigourney Weaver) has made great strides with developing Nathan's skill-set for handling his wild temper if not his suicidal tendencies. The proverbial crap hits the fan after Nathan discovers, through some online research, his "parents" aren't his biological creators. This occurs on an eve of destruction executed by foreign baddies who wipe out Nathan's house and kill the people he has called mom and dad since he can remember. There's irony in the fact that no "abduction" actually occurs. The film's MacGuffin lies in a cell phone with coded names that Nathan stumbles upon. Filled with dialogue that hits the floor like syrup on a wet sponge, and chase scenes that barely register a pulse, "Abduction" is a less than disposable action thriller; it's pre-disposable.
Rated PG-13. 106 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)