Oz the Great and Powerful
While coming nowhere near the level of dynamic storytelling of the original 1939 “Wizard of Oz,” Sam Raimi’s prequel film has sufficient charms to temporarily rescue the ongoing draught of G and PG rated family films. James Franco is congenial, if not entirely suitable for the role of Oscar Diggs, a con man magician who gets spirited away by a tornado from his black-and-white earthbound reality to a magical (colorful) land in need of some leadership.
Seams show up early in the patchwork script — by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. Although the writers try as they might to establish Oscar as a worthy protagonist during the film’s extended introduction, the character doesn’t quite take. All ambition and greed, Oscar doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body. Not even Michelle Williams’s local Kansas girl Annie can distract Oscar from his mission to be as “great” as Thomas Edison. Forget that Oscar doesn’t exhibit much skill at anything other than your basic huckster magician routines.
Once plopped down in Oz, Oscar meets up with Theodora, The Wicked Witch of the West (Mila Kunis). Theodora plays her dark cards close to the vest, making Oscar believe that it is her sister Glinda (Michelle Williams) who is the bad witch in need of some retribution for terrorizing the citizens of Oz. Theodora is happy to pin Oscar with the presaged role of folktale hero, if she can make him do her bidding. Theodora’s more evil sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) has her own twisted agenda for the newly anointed Oz. It doesn’t take Oscar a.k.a. “Oz” long to understand that Glinda is indeed the “good” witch in the equation.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” misses a wide-open opportunity for nuanced social commentary that the Depression era “Wizard of Oz” so eloquently seized. An auteur such as Guillermo del Toro would likely have been a better choice to script such a potentially rich fantasy as rooted in the global pressures of modern day existence. Don’t go looking too hard for any message beyond how it’s better to be “good” than “great.” The filmmakers didn’t set their sights high enough, and it shows. Still, “Oz the Great and Wonderful” serves its modest purpose of entertaining little ones.
Rated PG. 127 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson has formally moved away from the artistic act of directing, and into the business of creating synthetic movie “product.” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is to cinema what “pink slime” is to food. Jackson’s unfathomable infatuation with a 48-frame-rate makes “The Hobbit” look like a bad HD soap opera. Has the once highly respected filmmaker has gone too far in the wrong direction to ever return to the potential he once held?
Doubtlessly feeling the pressure of carrying the weight of New Zealand’s version of Hollywood on his shoulders, Jackson has made a prequel movie — to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy — that effectively negates their existence.
Martin Freeman gives an empathetic if misspent performance as Bilbo Baggins, a “burgler” hobbit chosen by the wizard Gandalf (reliably played by Ian McKellen) to accompany he and his ragtag band of dwarves on a journey to regain their mountain home. A terrible fire-breathing dragon drove them out, and still resides there. Enter an interchangeable parade of dwarf characters — roughly 14 — to make a mess of Bilbo’s cozy earth-sheltered home. An hour goes by before anything happens. Once on their journey, it’s the same old dog and pony show. A series of battles with Orcs and various chase scenes lead our vista-loving travelers to a brief stay-over in Rivendell to seek the advice of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Saruman (Christopher Lee). Yawn. Audience eyes water uncontrollably behind 3D glasses. More yawning. Check your watch. Yawn again.
The film’s big moment finally arrives when Bilbo comes face to face with Gollum (Andy Serkis) for the first time. Except that this Gollum turns out to be much crazier than the one represented in the “Lord of the Rings” films. This time around, Gollum is off the bat-shit scale of loopy. No more eating of fish. This Gollum wants human flesh. Most bizarre is the complete lack of meaning or context given for the “precious” gold ring that the burglar Bilbo makes off with.
In the mindset of a paying audience member, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” would be enough to insure that I not return for the final two installments if this atrocity. However, as a critic, I will no doubt be called upon to set aside the prejudice this first chapter has earned.
Rated PG-13. 166 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer Play the Wrong Loops
“Cloud Atlas” wants to be more than it is. For a movie pitched as a Meta-Meta exploration linking all of humanity through the distant past to the recent past to the faraway future, it nosedives before getting out of the gate. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturges, Doona Bae, and Ben Whishaw take the hit. Recycling its primary cast members beneath various layers of make-up disguises as six different characters each, the six-plot movie looses inertia as it goes along. None of the story threads is strong enough on its own to effect much of an emotional connection with the audience. The incongruent narrative fragments seem like something emanating from the mind of an overachieving high school dramatist rather than from an accomplished author. “Cloud Atlas” might be based on David Mitchell’s novel, but you won’t likely be inspired to track down the book after seeing this collage film treatment from the collaborative writing-directing team of Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and the Wachowski siblings — Lana and Andy (“The Matrix Trilogy”).
More insipid global-melodrama than condensed world history-epiphany, the ostensibly dense narrative unpacks a story about Tom Hanks’s Zachry, a remote island native living with his farfetched tribe in the distant future. Zachary is a coward whose self-preservation during an attack by a rival clan haunts him.
Hanks also shows up in an 1850 sea tale about Adam Ewing (Jim Sturges). Onboard a ship sailing through the South Pacific, Dr. Henry Goose (Hanks) is slowly poisoning Ewing in order to steal his chest of riches.
In 1930 Cambridge, composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) hires the assistance of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a young gay amanuenses to rapidly transcribe Ayrs’s musical ideas. The ambitious Frobisher is concurrently working on his own symphony piece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Frobisher’s musical motifs hardly make a mark on the overall film, in spite of their ostensibly relevant potential to do so.
‘70s era San Francisco is the setting for Halle Berry’s hotshot newspaper reporter Luisa Rey to engage in a bit of hazardous investigative journalism regarding corporate corruption. Like a snippet set in 22rd century Korea — called “Neo Seoul” — the story is primarily an excuse for a series of television-quality chase sequences.
Such are the dramatically limp yarns that flip about like dying fish on a dry dock. Scene by scene, there’s never enough dramatic meat to evince more than a deliberate chuckle or blush of disapproval at the comic book moments on display.
“Cloud Atlas” is a cut-up anthology of stories that simply aren’t very good. The source material is too shallow to be placed under the magnifying scrutiny of a film. You end up staring down a large vessel at an artificially reflective — read meaningless — surface. It’s the opposite experience of a cinematic transformation of a short story by an author such as Philip K. Dick, whose loaded microcosm mini epics have been expanded into enormously gratifying cinematic experiences — see “Minority Report.” David Mitchell’s work isn’t anywhere near as fertile as that of Philip K. Dick.
As directors, the Wachowski siblings have fallen off the map since “The Matrix Trilogy” ended with a whimper rather than the promised bang the series seemed to indicate. “Speed Racer” (2008) was too much of a guilty pleasure for the under-ten-set. For all of the Wachowski’s innovative work on the film, “Speed Racer” registered as an embarrassment.
“Cloud Atlas” is a curiosity. Faint gestures pointing toward humanity’s powerless nature as changeable creatures emerging from the same steaming brine, hint at the sex-reassignment that Larry Wachowski — now Lana — went through.
If indeed humanity is doomed to implode by a death of a centillion cuts — as “Cloud Atlas” indicates — then the filmmakers here have done their part to make that demise all the more dreary.
Rated R. 163 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Snow White and the Huntsman
In spite of its many flaws — a script that lacks a narrative center, zero chemistry between its two miscast leads, and a senseless proclivity for incongruous battle sequences — “Snow White and the Huntsman” manages to entertain. Much of the credit for the film’s marginal success goes to Charlize Theron as the black-hearted Queen Ravenna. She eats the hearts of baby birds from the cradle of their tiny broken eggs. Theron doesn’t merely chew the scenery; she makes it levitate and shatter around her. So long as Theron is on-screen, the movie soars. When she is not, the film flags like a boat with a not-so-slow leak.
Coming fast on the heels of Tarsem Singh’s comically oriented version of the same story, newbie director Rupert Sanders’s broodingly violent adaptation sticks in the mud as much as it glides. A more experienced director was clearly called for, considering the film’s ambitious artistic scope. Kristen Stewart carries her agape-mouthed characterization from the “Twilight” movies too much with her here. A clunky attempt at posing Stewart’s Snow White as a Joan-of-Arc-knock-off sends the movie spinning out of control in the third act. Still, the worst bit of miscasting falls on Chris Hemsworth, whose Hollywood saturation level has past its due date. Let’s just say, Hemsworth is not the next Heath Ledger that casting agents imagine him to be.
The special effects team performs an admirable job of inventing compelling creatures and fantasy atmospheres. An especially neat trick involves shrinking down actors such as Ian McShane, Nick Frost, and Toby Jones to dwarf-size. Sadly, the script doesn’t take as much advantage of the “seven dwarves” opportunity as Tarsem Singh did for his lighthearted version.
The film’s triad committee of screenwriters, that includes “Drive’s” Hossein Amini, clearly want to pull the Snow White fairy tale into the realm of pure horror. Blood drops on white snow present a gothic vision straight out of a Hammer Horror film of the ‘60s. Queen Ravena’s dark shenanigans spray an inky black splatter wherever she directs her attention. Nonetheless, unintentional plot devices — such as a white horse that appears on a desolate beach — jar the viewer with unintended humor. There’s a lot to appreciate, and a lot to ignore in a movie that needed a more experienced director to properly pull off.
Rated PG-13. 127 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Director Tarsem Singh takes ample advantage of the chance to reinvigorate the Grimm Brothers’ popular fairy tale “Snow White” with a visually lush live-action adaptation that brilliantly captures the imagination. These images sing. Lilly Collins (daughter of musician Phil Collins) embodies Snow White, who watches her 18th birthday pass without a celebration. Collins’s poised performance is a revelation. With Julia Roberts’s gleefully cunning Evil Queen Clementianna in charge of the castle, Snow White needs all the help she can get from a band of midget bandits. The helpful brigands live in the forest between the castle and an impoverished town the Evil Queen has bilked of its economic recourses. Screenwriters Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller make no bones about smuggling their topical social message into the text. Discontent among the peasants percolates with rebellion.
Visual fascination gives way to episodes of slapstick humor—some involving the wicked Queen’s foolish servant Brighton (Nathan Lane). Armie Hammer’s Prince Alcott is an affable fall guy for the film’s carefully crafted jokes, which focus upon him as an object of desire to be fought over between the Evil Queen and Snow White—the kingdom’s lawful Queen.
Energized by Tarsem Singh’s signature eye for fantasy landscapes (see “The Cell”), “Mirror Mirror” lights up like the Aurora Borealis: the castle and its surroundings are breathtaking. Elko Ishioka’s masterful costume designs go a long way toward fulfilling the sense of grandeur Singh incorporates into his regal interpretation. Such dynamic sophistication for an adaptation of a childhood fantasy might sound like an iconoclastic idea, but it works like a charm. Similarly, if a Bollywood-styled ensemble song-and-dance celebration seems an unlikely coda, stay through the closing credits.
Over the course of 11 years, and just four films, Tarsem Singh has created a cinematic vernacular as fertile as fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro. While not as prolific as del Toro, the India-born Singh is equally predisposed to thickly layered tales of provocative fantasy. Singh’s 2006 adaptation of Valeri Petrov’s “The Fall” has earned a loyal cult following for its surrealist landscapes, inventive costumes, and bold compositions. Most recently, Singh liberated “Immortals” from the camp confines of its dubious predecessor “300.”
At a time when animation rules children’s cinema, it’s refreshing to see a live-action fantasy film imbued with such vibrant imagination. Kids’ fantasy movies have to stand up to many repeated viewings without indoctrinating young ones into questionable behavior. Indeed, “Mirror Mirror” goes to great pains to keep every plot movement and line of dialogue true to an ethical backbone. Lily Collins crafts a graceful portrayal of a postmodern feminist heroine. Delicate but not frail by any means, Collins’s Snow White is a redoubtable icon for little ones to marvel at.
Rated PG. 95 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 1
Author Stephenie Meyer keeps plugging those Mormon "teachable moments" in this dismal continuation of the soft soap melodrama series which, like its vampire hero, refuses to die. With the glow of the franchise considerably on the wane director Bill Condon performs mercenary by-the-book helming duties. Condon’s efforts do little to energize the material's "afterschool special" television trappings. No matter how ordained-by-marriage their union might be, human Bella and vampire Edward evidently have no business getting conjugal together. That's the overriding message that arrives when the sleep-inducing drama surrounding the lovers' big moment of pent-up sexual release finally comes around. In keeping with the franchise’s former installments the CGI werewolves still look like crap, and the romance is still oh so tortured even as the actors shed all resemblance to the teenage culture to which the films are pitched. In the context of America's continued puritanical obsession with sexual repression, the "Twilight" movies come across as so much Kool-aid propaganda. Now that Bella is giving birth to an evil spawn, she's bound to regret not using birth control on her wedding night. Psych.
Rated PG-13. 117 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
I was working at the Campus Drive-In in San Diego in 1982 when Steven Lisberger's "Tron" opened up the computer "game grid" to allow for what was then a fairly dazzling display of special effects. At the time I didn't so much care that the story was severely lacking because the visuals were so unlike anything I'd seen before. The drive-in's gigantic screen served as a great canvas for the spectacle to mask the film's narrative shortcomings. Steven Lisberger ("Slipstream") did not go on to enjoy a notable career.
Nearly 30 years later audiences get a belated sequel that measures up to the original film inasmuch as it falls prey to the same priority of flash over substance. Enter Garrett Hedlund as 27-year-old Sam. He's the grown-up son of "Tron's" vanished hero Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Sam has a thing for riding his Ducati motorcycle at high speeds, especially if it involves escaping motorcycle cops. As primary share-holder in his dad's company ENCOM (think ENRON) Sam is finally coming around to the idea of taking some responsibility for the company's less than ethical business practices.
Cut to Sam popping up inside the game grid where he survives a few rounds of death Frisbee before getting into a high-tech motorcycle game more suited to his testosterone-juiced skills. Sam meets up with dad. Jeff Bridges's Kevin Flynn comes across as a Lebowski-inspired hippie who likes to call his son "man" and drop references to his "Zen" philosophy when he isn't waxing philosophical about "radical biodigital jazz." But Kevin is trapped inside the grid by CLU, an alter-ego evil twin he created who now rules the roost as a ruthless fascist dictator. Michael Sheen injects some rock star theatrics ala David Bowie as a white-haired party maestro named Zeus. As one of CLU's loyal subjects Zeus is not a trustworthy fellow. A ticking-clock plot device means that Sam has just eight-hours to extract his dad from the grid. Help from a super sexy Olivia Wilde as machine-girl Quorra promises to advance Sam's escape plan if only they can foil the do-it-all-villain CLU. If you're young and easily impressed, then "Tron: Legacy" won't feel like a rip off. As for the film's non-window-breaking 3D effects, you'll be left to scratch your head about why the filmmakers even bothered.
Rated PG. 127 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Nutcracker in 3D
With a trashy narrative that barely resembles E. T. A. Hoffmann's original "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," upon which Tchaikovsky's classic ballet is adapted, director/co-writer Andrey Konchalovskiy botches history. Nowhere here are the Saut de chats of ballet dancers flying through the air. There's barely a nod to the traditional storyline as Mary (Elle Fanning) and her new best friend, the Nutcracker Prince, are swept up in an epic war against an evil Rat King (John Turturro) and his sci-fi themed giant rodent soldiers. They fly around with mechanical wings scaring people. The Rat King has some warped fascistic idea about ruling the world by confiscating children's toys. He turns them into permanent black smoke clouds. Doesn't that sound Christmassy? Throw "Nutcracker 3D" on the pile of all of 2010's crappy 3D films. We're already at the point where any film branded with "3D" is reason enough to skip it outright. Anything you do, don't waste your time or money taking your kids to see this turkey. Better to take them to a local ballet performance of the real "Nutcracker." Now that's culture.
Rated PG. 110 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
A flawed decision to split the final installment of the Harry Potter adaptations into two releases results in a formless narrative that overstays its welcome. No matter how much detail director David Yates attempts to insert using slick visual effects that periodically invigorate the movie, this over-emphasized spectacle merely highlights the film's underwhelming storyline. We get that Harry is in grave danger, but don't get any sense of his abilities or his inclination to rescue the human and underground magic worlds from sinister forces if he survives to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. Reigning over the darkest of times Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters rally forces with Rufus Scrimgeour's (Bill Nighy) Ministry of Magic to track down and kill Harry Potter. A Nazi-era social climate of fascistic dictatorship rules with public announcements, informing Europe's citizenry that" You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide." Harry's latest birthday coincides with his reunion with old pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). They find and destroy a number of magic talismans called Horcruxes that contain pieces of Voldemort's ink-black soul. Because Yeats's Harry Potter machine tries too hard to be all things to all people, there isn't much room for character development. This is not a good way to wrap up the franchise.
Rated PG-13. 150 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
The latest installment of the Twilight franchise's teeny-bopper-vampire-werewolf-melodrama comes the closest so far to presenting an entertaining cinematic experience but still not close enough for uninitiated audiences. Meandering subplots, miscalculated segues, and inexcusable flash-back sequences represent 20-minutes of footage that should have been left on the editing room floor. Fickle Bella (Kristen Stewart) is still trying to choose between vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and wolfboy Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), the two hunky representatives of opposing monster worlds. High school graduation is approaching for Bella, and Edward is intent on getting her to marry him, while Bella is more concerned with losing her virginity. Big vampire trouble brews at the will of red-haired vamp goddess Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), who's busy orchestrating a small scale war between a Newborn army of vampires and Edward's tight knit clan. Director David Slade ("Hard Candy") elevates Melissa Rosenberg's unwieldy script, but can't excise enough of the eye-blinking filler that barely masks a bare bones story. The CGI werewolves still leave much to be desired, and Taylor Lautner needs to put on a shirt, but the franchise seems to be on the brink of competency.
Rated PG-13. 121 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Cinderella Story
This war-horse fairytale gets dragged out again, this time for Hillary Duff (“Agent Cody Banks”) to pout around as a Los Angeles high school student persecuted by her cruel step-mom (Jennifer Coolidge) and jealous step-sisters, while she prances closer to the romantic flame of jock king Austin (Chad Michael Murphy). Unbearably packed with every ditzy cliché of teen girl fantasy, “A Cinderella Story” wallows in the saccharine sweetness of an insipid fantasy narrative that goes nowhere. The movie will wash over adolescent female audiences who don’t know any better like melted Brie on 110-degree asphalt, but for the rest of us it’s a grueling waste of time.
Rated PG. 97 mins. (D-) (Zero Stars)
Alice in Wonderland
Relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska is ideal as the ever-curious Alice Kingsleigh in Tim Burton's thematically juiced up adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.” Presented in 3D, Burton's prodigious aptitude for filigree filled fantasy takes center stage after 19-year-old Alice steps away from a 19th century garden party marriage proposal by an unfit suitor named Hamish. The lass who likes to boast that she can imagine "six impossible things before breakfast," follows a waist coated white rabbit down a giant hole to an extraordinary location called Underland. Size being an issue in Underland, it takes a few tries before Alice is able to shrink and expand to a scale that will accommodate the surreal universe of her imaginings. An especially unhelpful dormouse, a blue-striped Cheshire cat, and a doubting caterpillar named Absolim question Alice's identity as the real Alice. But our headstrong freethinker takes solace in the nature of her dream state as a path that she designs. A messy tea party with Johnny Depp's schizophrenic Mad Hatter leads Alice on a journey inside the gates of the Red Queen's castle where Helena Bonham Carter's cranially challenged Queen reigns with the frequently repeated command, "Off with his head." Crispin Glover chews up scenery as Stayne-Knave of Hearts, the Queen's evil-doing knight, and Anne Hathaway adds kooky charm to the Red Queen's kinder sibling counterpart, the White Queen. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton keeps the thematic emphasis on Alice's potential for ignoring the demands of social convention and independently facing up to the imminent challenge that awaits her, namely a giant winged monster called the Jabberwocky. It's difficult to imagine another modern filmmaker doing this degree of justice to this well-worn but deserving children's tale. Tim Burton has created a classic for generations to come.
Rated PG. 109 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of 5/no halves)
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightening Thief
Aside from some non-PG-rated emphasis on an abusive home life and a lot of underwhelming CGI, "Percy Jackson" is a well-paced kids' action picture that flirts with Greek mythology to create its otherworldly spectacle. Rising child star Logan Lerman plays Percy, a Manhattan teenager living with his mom Sally (Catherine Keener) and her less-than-desirable boyfriend Gabe (Joe Pantoliano). During a school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Percy discovers that he is the demi-god son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). It seems that the Lord of the Seas had a fling with Percy's mortal mother. Someone has made off with the lightening rod that Zeus uses to control the heavens. Needless to say, the King of Olympus is plenty steamed about it. Believing Percy to be the thief, Zeus dictates that the bolt must be returned before the approaching solstice if an apocalyptic war with Hades (Steve Coogan) is to be avoided. Percy's wheelchair-bound teacher Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) accompanies him to a camp for demi-gods where Percy hones his fighting skills. With fellow demi-gods Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, and his half-goat protector Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) Percy sets off to rescue his kidnapped mother from Hades and return Zeus's purloined lightening rod. Uma Thurman makes the most of her limited screen time as a sunglass-wearing Medusa who takes off the shades when visitors are around. The gorgon with snakes for hair performs her famous trick--turning anyone who gazes upon her to stone before Percy and his heavenly-blessed pals make their way to Hades' hellish hole. "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightening Thief" is a fair movie, but it's no "Jason and the Argonauts."
Rated PG. 120 mins. (B-) (Three Stars)
Quentin Tarantino has matured as an auteur even if he's as prone as
ever to creating funny-ha-ha sequences of joyous cinematic revelry just
for the sport of it. Tarantino deploys virtuosic use of character,
dialogue, suspense, and surprise in each of this film's five chapters.
A tense opening sequence titled "Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied
France" sets the filmmaker's darkly comic yet heavily dramatic tone
with Nazi Colonel Hans Landa's (diabolically played by the incomparable
Christoph Waltz who won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance)—and
his small group of soldiers— visit to a remote farmhouse inhabited by
dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) and his three daughters.
The objective, naturally, is to search for Jews whom LaPadite may be
hiding. A polite battle of wits and willpower between the two
adversaries plays out with a savory drama that is astounding for its
layers of subtext, precise execution, and originality. The following
chapter introduces Tennessee-born Lt. Aldo Raine (played with gusto by
Brad Pitt), who indoctrinates his elite squad of Nazi scalpers (Aldo is
part Apache Indian) with a speech spun of richly-humored narrative
gold. The remaining chapters--each reflecting a different film genre--
build on one another toward a new kind of World War II fantasy climax
that is cathartic as it is bittersweet for its inevitable collateral
Rated R. 152 mins. (A+) (Five Stars)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Terry Gilliam is popularly considered the victim of a terrible curse that brings disaster down on his nearly every film. Gilliam's editing battles over his masterpiece "Brazil" are the stuff of legend. So hellacious were the director's attempts at making "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," with Johnny Depp in the title role, that a documentary ("Lost in La Mancha") was made as a sad document of that film's doomed fate.
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" automatically receives the status of a notable film as the late Heath Ledger's final performance. That this trippy movie opens with Ledger's character hanging by a noose from a London bridge inevitably lends a ghostly air to the proceedings. Ledger's character Tony Shepherd is on the run. Some angry men want to kill him, which is understandable since his work overseeing a children's charity was conducted in less than savory ways. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the aged leader of a small traveling performance troupe that includes his nearly-of-age daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and Anton (Andrew Garfield), Parnassus's assistant. Anton is hopelessly smitten with Valentina. The troupe doesn't know that Tony (Ledger) has perfected faking his own suicide when they "rescue" him from the aforementioned bridge. Doctor Parnassus is a gambling addict and devout Buddhist monk who makes bets with the Devil, a.k.a. Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). Mr. Nick being Mr. Nick, lures Parnassus into a pernicious bet with Valentina as the unwitting prize. The first bettor to collect five souls wins. With Tony's help, the Imaginarium attracts four unsuspecting women to enter a surreal land through a magic mirror. It's in this abstract dimension that souls are claimed, and where Ledger's character takes on different qualities as performed alternately by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law. For the first time in a decade, since 1998's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Terry Gilliam has made a film that delivers on his reputation as a master of cinematic fantasy. While he hasn't made a flawless film, Gilliam manages to preserve the memory of Heath Ledger in an appropriate and inspired way. He takes us on a journey we're happy to take for every surprise--large and small--that the film has in store.
Rated PG-13. 122 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Teen desire and romance hits Hogwarts in the sixth Harry Potter film, and goes a long way to providing contrast to the skullduggery being perpetrated by Severus Snape, Draco Malfoy, and three Death Eaters that swirl around the story like exterminating angels. The actors have all aged well into their familiar roles, with Daniel Radcliffe showing evermore confidence in playing the "Chosen One" with a reserve of humor and restrained emotion. Hermione's amorous preoccupation with Ron gets lift during a couple of very well executed Quidditch sequences that lend harmless excitement to some of the film's otherwise darker set pieces. The ever-perfect Michael Gambon is a delight as Dumbledore, whose objective of undermining the evil Lord Voldemort with Harry's prodigious help sets the film's tempo. David Yates returns after directing the last Potter film with a determinedly Gothic vision that allows emotional and visual color to emanate from JK Rowling's collection of lively protagonists. Jim Broadbent adds particular energy as Professor Horace Slughorn, who Dumbledore convinces to return to teaching magic potions at Hogwarts. Slughorn's repressed memories of a student named Tom Riddle--later to become Lord Voldemort--provide essential insight into the nature of the beast that Harry must face in the next installment. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is the most balanced Harry Potter film to come along, perhaps because the right combination of screenwriter (Steve Kloves) and director has been established, along with the appropriate team of special effects wizards and talented production crew. Of course it's the actors that make the magic happen and every one, from Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane to Emma Watson and Bonnie Wright, cast a memorable spell.
(Warner Brothers) Rated PG. 153 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Michael Bay's soul-sucking extravaganza of metal machine warfare is remarkable for the lethargy with which the clunky story drags from one silly sequence to another. Shia LaBeouf returns as Sam Witwicky, now a college freshman distracted by his oh-so-hot long distance girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) when it becomes clear that he holds the key to defeating the Decepticons. What little there is of a story teeters between frothy sexed-up humor, ghost-in-the-machine narration from Autobot leader Optimus Prime, and souped-up CGI of giant robots. The filmmakers give an elderly robot a cane to signify his elderly state--hello, he's a robot--while having a couple of Autobots talk in ghetto speak. The script's desperate grab for any kind of attention--negative or otherwise--is sure to leave intelligent audience members feeling insulted and cheated. The spectacle on display isn't even all that impressive. You might make it out of the movie with your soul barely intact, but the actors in the film don't fare so well.
Rated PG-13. 144 mins. (D) (One Star)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Although it wears out some of its welcome with an extended ending that ineffectively introduces a slew of imprisoned mutants and a ghost-in-the-machine appearance by Professor Charles Xavier, the movie is a super-action extravaganza made engrossing by dynamic performances from Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber as sibling uber rivals. An epic fast twitch credit sequence encompasses decades of brutal wartime participation from the good-hearted Logan AKA Wolverine (Jackman) and his cold-blooded brother Victor Creed AKA Sabertooth (Schreiber) who each possess mutant qualities that make them somewhat immortal. A covert military mission in Nigeria, under a corrupt Colonel Stryker (Danny Houston), divides the brothers, with Logan choosing a remote logging existence in the Canadian mountains with his girl friend Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), who has mutant powers of her own. A malicious visit from Sabertooth sets Logan up to participate in Colonel Stryker's latest military experiment that will make Wolverine indestructible by painfully transforming his skeleton with a material called adamantium. Stryker's plan backfires inasmuch as it insures the effectiveness of Wolverine's revenge.
Rated PG-13. 107 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
Dave Gibbons' hardboiled superhero graphic novel is brought to stunning
visual life by director Zach Snyder in a convoluted adult fantasy that
provides an off-key political tone to its alternate reality of 1985
America where Richard Nixon is still President and the Doomsday Clock
forever sits at five minutes to the hour of imminent apocalypse thanks
to a Soviet nuclear threat. Put out of work by Nixon's decree outlawing
masked avengers, unless they work for the government, a group of former
superheroes known as the Watchmen variously reconnect after the violent
murder of their macho former member the Comedian AKA Edward Blake
(Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose demise implies a similar fate for the rest
of the group. Rorschach (devilishly played by Jackie Earle Haley), in
his ever-morphing inkblot mask and raspy voice, narrates the complex
mystery that plays out with richly designed flashbacks that reveal the
personal histories of the likes of Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) and
her atomically transmogrified yet anatomically correct love interest
Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Outrageous sexual elements and extreme
violence give "Watchmen" its well-deserved hard R rating. Opposed to
its child-friendly poster, this is not your run-of-the-mill
action/adventure movie for the kids. At over two and a half hours,
"Watchman" is a full-frontal adult sci-fi satire that's as enjoyable as
it is thematically confounding. There's something here to make every
member of the audience squirm.
(Warner Brothers) Rated R. 160 mins. (B) (Four Stars)
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
C.S. Lewis classic work of children’s literature is brought to exuberant life with enticing visuals and bright performances under the guidance of director/co-screenwriter Andrew Adamson (“Shrek” 1 & 2) and the aid highly skilled animators, production designers and crew. Four young British siblings, living under the duress of WW II, take refuge in the country mansion of a kindly professor (Jim Broadbent) where they discover a passage to a fantastical wintry land via an old wardrobe. The children learn important lessons regarding betrayal, leadership and overcoming fear from a mystical ruler lion named Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) as they are plunged into a war against Jadis, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). The movie features a cornucopia of talking creatures including centaurs, minotaurs and fauns that do battle in the film’s surprisingly violent climax to liberate Narnia from Jadis’ wintry curse.
Rated PG. 132 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Peter Jackson’s spectacular finale to the Lord of the Rings film trilogy seals up J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythic stories with banner performances by a cast that has become like family to fans who have faithfully followed the series. Jackson’s decision to leave Saruman (Christopher Lee) on the cutting room floor, to be seen only on the DVD, haunts the movie as to the whereabouts of Lee’s agile villain, but the film’s opening flashback sequence reveals Smeagol’s (Andy Serkis) former hobbit aspect before he became Gollum. The Lord of the Rings movies are the anti-Harry Potter of fantasy films that separate the men from the boys and, in so doing, unite hobbits, dwarves, men and women alike. All hail to the King.
Rated PG-13. 3 hrs. 20 mins. (A) (Five Stars)