20 posts categorized "Fantasy"

February 07, 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

Journey-2-the-mysterious-islandSliding By
Adventure Franchise Barely Passes Muster
By Cole Smithey

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)

December 05, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Treading Water
Not Even Michael Apted Can Save Narnia
By Cole Smithey

Chronicles-of-narnia-the-voyage-dawn-treader For the third Narnia franchise installment, veteran director Michael Apted takes over helming duties performed by Andrew Adamson on the first two films. Sadly Apted, the filmmaker famous for the hugely influential "7Up" documentary series, is confined by a script that is a mere sketch of C.S. Lewis's original novel. The result is a disposable children's adventure story that wears its well-worn primary narrative device like an afterthought. Instead of collecting five rings--ala the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, or seven horcruxes ala "Harry Potter," the characters here must track down seven ancient swords belonging to the lost (read deceased) Lords of Narnia in order to save a world of fantasy from some vaguely named threat. The opposing forces of evil may or may not affect the actual World War II reality from which our trio of young British protagonists temporarily escape. There isn't enough meat on the bones here to send potential readers in search of the novel that this disappointing movie is based. 

Youngest siblings of the Penvensie family, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), are joined by their thin-skinned cousin Eustace (played for laughs by Will Poulter). Poulter ("Son of Rambow") surprisingly steals the movie out from under its sporadically impressive special effects with his arching eyebrows and a grating voice that miraculously makes him the film's most endearing character. Eustace is selfish and has no interest in adventure. As such he has more to gain, if considerably less to lose, than his well-connected cousins.

Underage Edmund desperately wants to enlist in the British military. Lucy wants to be adored, like her older sister, for her natural beauty. Inside their not-so-safe European home the trio are swept off to the fantastic dimension of Narnia by a painting of a ship at sea. Thousands of gallons of ocean water fill up their bedroom and transport Edmund, Lucy, and Will to Prince Caspian's sailing ship the Dawn Treader. Ben Barnes reprises his role as the good-natured Prince who chaperones the visitors to his kingdom. Edmund and Lucy have the status of King and Queen of Narnia, but you wouldn't know it.

Onboard the ship we're reacquainted with Reepicheep, a chatty rat who thinks he's a mouse, and the minotaur whose presence is barely felt. Potentially dramatic events, like the trio being taken prisoner by slave-traders, come and pass like so much unnecessary narrative sea foam. Sensitive audiences concerned with the material's religious underpinnings have little to be concerned about. Although there is some soft-peddled Christian mysticism that comes at the end of the third act, "Dawn Treader" is primarily concerned with spectacle set pieces involving a truly gigantic eel-like sea monster and a fire-breathing dragon who has been transformed from his human form by way of a curse.

Vanity, ego, greed, and cowardice are the pernicious enemies that threaten to overpower our young adventurers. These internal forces rear their ugly heads just long enough for audiences to give them a passing thought before the themes are smoothed over with pomp and circumstance.

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is blandly enjoyable but never fun or gratifying. By the time the mighty lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) makes his obligatory appearance to expedite safe passage for the children back to their families, the best that can be said is that the special effects were good. It's a mantra film audiences seem doomed to repeat on a more frequent basis as Hollywood delves deeper into making films that are all surface and no substance. This is one time where you almost wish they'd pushed the religious allegories. At least then there might have been something to mull over.

 Rated PG. 112 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)


November 15, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Split Ends
Harry Potter Franchise Lurches Toward its Final Curtain
By Cole Smithey

Harry-potter A flawed decision to split the final installment of the Harry Potter books into two films results in a formless narrative that overstays its welcome. For as detailed as director David Yates attempts to be with slick visual effects that periodically invigorate the movie, the over-emphasized spectacle merely illustrates the film's lacking storyline. We understand that Harry is in grave danger but don't get any sense of his ability or 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, "You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide." Harry's latest birthday coincides with his teaming up with old pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to find and destroy a number of magic talismans called Horcruxes that contain pieces of Voldemort's ink-black soul, thereby killing him once and for all.

Without its familiar academic campus setting of Hogwarts to anchor its physical parameters, the movie meanders in and out of disconnected but visually impressive set pieces--as when Harry discovers and dramatically extracts the fabled sword of Gryffindor from its icy grave.

For much of the time Harry, Ron, and Hermione camp out in a patch of rural woods waiting for something to happen. The trio of protagonists are too passive to earn much respect beyond what they've accrued over the previous six films. They come across as clueless about how to accomplish their mission with any sense of urgency. They're like unsupervised kids in desperate need of a chaperone. Even as allegedly experienced young wizards, none of them exhibit much confidence when employing magic to escape their many pursuers, although Hermione does save the day on more than one occasion.

The idle sleepover subplot is not without its charms. The World War I-styled tent our trio uses for shelter mimics Hermione's magic bag that can invisibly carry a vast amount of stuff. Although the tent looks downright tiny from the outside, the area inside is open and spacious. Harry and Hermione share the film's most charming scene when they do an impromptu dance together to Nick Cave's "O Children." It's a lighthearted moment that allows the characters to share a momentary dream of romance that is far more tangible than the story's vague idea about Harry restoring social order by killing Voldemort before Voldemort kills him.

Prominently missing are the fruits of the previous films' coming-of-age bits that marked Harry, Ron, and Hermione as creatures of amorous desire. Any flashes of fireworks between Hermione and Ron are muted behind their grumpy exchanges. Instead we get stylistic overtures to horror--a former Hogwart's teacher becomes a meal for an especially large and hungry snake at a Ministry of Magic meeting. Later, Ron incurs a grotesque injury that might challenge young viewers. The overall dark look of the film inhabits a moody atmosphere of uncompromising death and decay.

At nearly two-and-a-half hours you get the sense that screenwriter Steve Kloves is dragging out the action with filler that should have been left on the cutting room floor. If the filmmakers' intention was to stay true to J.K. Rowlings's novel by including a wealth of narrative details and visual filigree then they have at least scratched the surface. However, what they haven't done is present a cohesive story with knowable and reliable characters. A stream of cameo appearances from the series' cannon of familiar faces, such as Brendan Gleeson's Mad-Eye Moody, Bonny Wright's Ginny Weasley, and even a poignant appearance from the miniature elf Dobby, fail to bridge a cold impasse created by a script that repeatedly stalls out. Harry can't even keep track of his magic wand and powerful sword. In such a climatic franchise movie, its would-be heroic characters should be in control as confident practitioners of the magic they've studied for so long. Instead, our geeky trio are still playing catch up. There isn't much room for character development here because David Yeats's Harry Potter machine tries too hard to be all things to all people. You get the feeling that a terrible mistake has been made.

Rated PG-13. 150 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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