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Rings (2017)
It would be best to toss these Rings
11 June 2017
Horror sequels are a tricky thing. By their very nature, horror films are supposed to shock and surprise, yet a sequel's nature often is to give you more of what was provided by the first round. The outcome is that usually a horror sequel is at best a watered down rehash of what came before, and at worst a disaster that makes the original film feel worse than it was when you watched it the first time. Rings isn't quite the latter, but at times it comes close.

At the opening of Rings we are treated to a sequence in which an individual who had viewed the infamous video of antagonist Samara is traveling by airplane and believing being in a public space will keep him safe from harm since his 7 days are up. Oh, so wrong, for him and his fellow passengers. Next, the film introduces the leads, Julia (Matilda Lutz) and boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe) as he is headed off to college in a distant city. At first they keep in touch by Skype, but Holt first acts weird and then is unresponsive to Julia's attempts to reach him. Concerned, she drives to his school and via some sleuthing, discovers that Holt has fallen under the sway of a professor (Johnny Galecki, who just can't seem to break away from an academic setting) who has created a cult of sorts around the Samara video and is trying to research it to accomplish . . . something (there is some dialogue alluding to the professor's goals, but frankly it's all just rubbish).

When Holt, who has seen the video, is fast approaching his seven day deadline, Julia takes the hit of watching the video, starting a new cycle. But this time something odd has happened when copying the video and visions that Julia keeps seeing leads her and Holt to a small city where Samara once lived believing this will help find the key to Julia's salvation.

Despite a moment or two of off kilter imagery, Rings is not the least bit scary. Perhaps some of the reason for that is because the proverbial cat has been let out of the bag regarding the story's key "hook" (watch disturbing video, seven days later you meet a gruesome demise) and that all the original film's power to scare is gone and we are left with lukewarm leftovers. But the simple fact is, director F. Javier Gutierrez and screenwriters David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman just don't seem to be trying. Rings feels less like an out and out horror film and more like an occasionally creepy mystery drama, and isn't helped by the fact that the mystery aspects of the film aren't engaging. At least one "twist" is so obviously telegraphed that you wonder if any audience member would be surprised by it, which represents about all this tepid film can produce.

The acting is generally middle of the road. Lutz and Roe fill the typical slots of fresh meat for the grinder, not generating much interest of likability. The screenplay wants us to root for them, but it's a forced affection. Johnny Galecki is briefly vacating his Big Bang Theory sitcom cocoon, and his character has a bit of intrigue to him, but there isn't that much for him to work with. Vincent D'Onofrio makes a late film appearance as a local priest, and while he always brings something to pretty much any role he takes, there is nothing particularly remarkable here to make him stand out aside from being one of the few recognizable names in the cast.

Rings exists because, as has been common in filmmaking in recent years, this is a recognizable and familiar franchise that Paramount owns the rights to and can churn out another entry on the cheap and hopefully make a few bucks on. It is a rather depressing state of affairs that that is all that is necessary to warrant a film from a major Hollywood studio be produced these days, and that might be the most horrifying thing about Rings.
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The Mummy (2017)
Don't unwrap this Mummy
10 June 2017
In Hollywood's current insatiable drive to build "franchises" and therefore guarantee some degree of repeat box office success by plumbing the wallets of ravenous fanboys (and girls), Universal has joined the derby that Disney, with it's Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars, and Warner Bros., with the DC Extended Universe, has been dominating thus far (although Disney has quite the leg up on Warners). Universal's answer is what they are calling the "Dark Universe", an intertwined conglomeration of their famous movie monsters that were first birthed in the 1930s. The inaugural entry to kick off this franchise is a new version of The Mummy, and if this film is any indication of what is to follow, the Dark Universe may be in trouble.

Unlike previous iterations of The Mummy, this one doesn't just have the obligatory backstory set in ancient Egypt, but throws other, somewhat inexplicable, elements into the screenplay blender involving Knights of the Crusade entombed beneath London. Their last resting place contains a jewel that, when combined with a specific dagger, will allow the God of death, Set, to possess a human body (why are ancient curses like cake recipes: leave out one crucial ingredient and your dead won't rise). We are also introduced to Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) who thousands of years ago decides to commit patricide and infanticide against her father and brother (step-brother I think, but the screenplay is a little fuzzy on that) because she wasn't going to be the "rightful" heir to the Egyptian throne. For her crimes she is mummified alive and condemned to an underground prison in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) because the Egyptians decided they didn't want to throw out their trash in their own backyard. Cut to modern day and Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a long range reconnaissance officer who uses his role to also procure rare antiquities, he claims to rescue them from destruction, but more accurately to line his pockets. With his partner in crime, Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), they unwittingly discover Ahmanet's prison. Along with archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis), whom Nick had a one night stand with, they retrieve Ahmanet's remains and airlift them to London.

En route, a flock of crazed birds assault their plane, leading to its crash in the English countryside, but even though Jenny was the only one to parachute to safety, Nick isn't dead. He is revealed to now Ahmanet's "chosen" that she will use the aforementioned dagger and jewel on to bring Set to corporeal life. Nick learns this with the help of one Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), the head of the mysterious organization that Jenny works for, who in addition to keeping Ahmanet under control has his hands full submerging his dark side. Needless to say, Ahmanet doesn't go quietly, and various degrees of chaos ensues, including zombies and sandstorms as she pursues both Nick and the jewel for her dagger.

The Mummy is Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking on pure autopilot: grab an A-list star (although, outside of the Mission: Impossible entries, Cruise is no longer the guaranteed draw he once was), throw in a striking villain, a respected thespian in a supporting role, a sexy love interest, some occasional one-liners and a bunch of elaborate computer enhanced action sequences, and viola, a movie is given life. But just as when something mass-produced misses the touch of craftsmanship, The Mummy lacks any real reason for being than the hope that the pre-sold notion of a title and promise of future entries will put butts in seats. The script also lacks internal logic often, with certain events occurring that seem inexplicable if you were to follow what was stated earlier in the film.

It doesn't help that there are very few endearing character elements in place in The Mummy. Cruise flashes his famous smile, but his Nick is so self-involved and unlikeable that Cruise's usual charm comes across as more like smarm this time. His "romance" with Wallis' Jenny is completely dead on arrival, neither actor selling any degree of chemistry or real affection, so that when dialogue and actions suggest a devotion to each other later in the film, it comes across as patently false. Boutella, who made a distinct impression as the murderous henchwoman in Kingsman: The Secret Service and as Jaylah in last summer's Star Trek Beyond, is given little of note to do here than slink around in limited clothing and look menacing (it would have been a nice break from the norm for the standard prologues to flesh her out a bit, but alas, no such luck). The one bright spot is when Crowe temporarily lets his Mr. Hyde out and brandishes a thick Cockney accent and revels in chewing the scenery. The visual and makeup effects for the transformation underwhelm (he primarily just turns . . . purple), but Crowe seems to be enjoying himself.

Perhaps most disappointed will be audience members coming in search of an actual horror film, since that is what all these creatures were originally featured in during their heyday at Universal. Those films were pieces of mood, atmosphere and lighting, awash in elements of German expressionism. Aside from a few tepid shock scares, the only thing terrifying here is that respected screenwriters David Koepp and Christopher McQuarrie have their names attached to what will be a lackluster entry on their resumes (hopefully the payday was worth it). To produce something actually scary would have potentially affected box offices grosses, so that would be a distinct no-no.

There are a few things here and there that are decent about The Mummy, some of the action sequences are well staged, Brian Tyler's orchestral score is engaging as usual, but overall we are treated to a movie as product, where quality is sacrificed to hear the sound of cash registers ringing. The sad reality is, by putting out such a second rate film, Universal execs will most likely hear that ringing less than they could have.
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Sabotage (2014)
Sabotage of good movie making
29 March 2014
One thing is for certain, Sabotage will not be winning any awards for "feel good" movie of the year. Co-written and directed by David Ayer, Sabotage is a dark, at times practically nihilistic police thriller that proves to be the most downbeat film Arnold Schwarzenegger has been associated with in most of his acting career. In general, dark films don't immediately turn me off, but Sabotage is such a dour affair, with a limited amount of attention to character and a script that seems to be a bit confused at times that it leaves you wanting more from this film.

Sabotage focuses on "Breacher" (Schwarzenegger), the head of an elite DEA tactical team that is made up of a number of proverbial "bad boys" and one "bad girl": Monster (Sam Worthington), Sugar (Terrence Howard), Pyro (Max Martini), Grinder (Joe Mangeniello), Neck (Josh Holloway), Tripod (Kevin Vance), Smoke (Mark Schlegel) and Lizzie (Mirelle Enos). Tattooed, grungy and seemingly perpetually intoxicated, the team is called into action to take down a load of money belonging to a drug lord, but in the process appropriates $10 million for themselves. When the team returns to retrieve the money later, they find it missing. After an intensive interrogation and investigation by the DEA where no evidence can be located, Breacher and his team return to their routine. However, shortly thereafter, the team members begin getting picked off one by one in some rather gruesome ways. Homicide detective Caroline (Olivia Williams) begins investigating the murders, but deduces there is more than meets the eye to these crimes.

Sabotage represents a departure of sorts for Schwarzenegger. While he has at times been involved in the past in films with darker premises, such as Collateral Damage and End of Days, Sabotage is easily the grittiest role he has taken on in a long time, perhaps ever. Breacher is a morally ambiguous, complex character and while Schwarzenegger will probably never be able to completely overcome his acting limitations, with Breacher he is at least stretching beyond his normal boundaries.

However, Sabotage's problems aren't with Schwarzenegger, but the script and, to a certain extent, the film's direction. Intended as a whodunnit when the characters start dropping off, Sabotage runs afoul of a number of issues, primarily the fact that the characters are so underdeveloped that we are left watching a film where many of the individuals are no better than passing faces and the few that are given some depth are generally unpleasant. Aside from Breacher, almost all the leads aren't given much to work with, leaving actors such as Terrence Howard rather underutilized in their roles. The one exception is Lizzie, the drug addled female member of the squad, but the problem with her is that, in an attempt to make her a "warrior woman" Ayer and actress Enos stretch too far. Lizzie is about as over the top as you can get, pushing the limits of her character and transforming her into a caricature rather than a three dimensional human being. I'm sure Enos revelled in the opportunity to sink her teeth into a role that many women performers don't get, but she simply ends up as a distraction at times.

For the most part, Sabotage doesn't represent anything really new for director Ayer, who has largely made his career out of dark police procedural films, but even with a number of outings under his belt, Sabotage at times feels almost amateurish. Perhaps it is a combination of the hand held, high def video camera work (which still at times can't match the look of real film) combined with some rather outlandish dialogue that makes it often feel that Sabotage is being made by a bunch of guys with a camcorder who revel in overripe profanity as a stunt to fill their free time. Also, as the film starts winding down, the narrative takes a number of turns that make what came before more and more confused and almost pointless. Add to that the thin characterization, and, in the end, you are left with a rather unpalatable concoction.
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Pacific Rim (2013)
What summer blockbusters should be more like
28 July 2013
Pacific Rim is a film that doesn't try to hide what it is. An updating of Japanese giant monster movies that first were all the rage in the 1950s, Pacific Rim tells a similar story with the benefit of much higher-end visual effects than was possible on the lower budgeted events of eras past. However, Pacific Rim, unlike many Hollywood summer blockbusters, doesn't really skimp on other elements that make for a good film, with attention to character and story along the way. No one will mistake Pacific Rim as a masterpiece, but no one ever said being a blockbuster meant you had to be a bad film.

Set in the near future, the Earth has been under constant attack by giant monsters, named Kaiju, that are emerging from a dimensional rift on the floor of the Pacific ocean. To combat the Kaiju, the governments of the world have built the Jaegers, giant, multi-story robots, controlled by two pilots who have melded their minds to prevent the mental strain of manning the Jaegers from turning their brains to mush. One Jaeger pilot, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) gave up the program years earlier when his brother, who was his Jaeger co-pilot, had been killed in a confrontation with a Kaiju. However, since then, the Kaiju have become more dangerous, and the various world leaders have decided to put all their energy into building a giant wall to surround the coastlines of the Pacific from the Kaiju. Marshall Pentecost (Idris Elba) does not believe that will prevent the Kaiju from destroying the planet, so he and the four remaining Jaegers are assembled at Hong Kong to lead a final charge against the Kaiju to stop them once and for all. To man one of the Jaegers, Pentecost has brought Raleigh back into the fold, teaming him up with Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) to help lead the battle, but Raleigh's troubled past, and emotional scars of Mako's own, make the success of the mission seem dubious.

Pacific Rim's screenplay written by Travis Beacham and the film's director, Guillermo del Toro, assembles elements that have been well worn in countless other movies. The earth under attack from menacing alien forces, the reluctant hero, the final desperate charge of a rag tag band of survivors, there isn't hardly any aspect that hasn't been lifted from somewhere else. So, while Pacific Rim won't get an A for originality, del Toro and Beacham do an impressive job of assembling the pieces into an entertaining, engaging whole. One key thing del Toro does right is to not transform Pacific Rim into an action orgy, like the recent Transformers films. While you can't accuse Pacific Rim of being without action, the film isn't a constant slog through an endless cycle of action sequences. There is attention given to setting up the plot, and also to establishing the characters and their relationships to one another. Pacific Rim's strongest example of this is the development of Raleigh and Mako's partnership, with more than a hint of romance lurking beneath. The two actors have a distinct chemistry, and that comes across in their scenes together. Like most good movies, Pacific Rim knows that without strong characters, everything else is just a lot of empty sound and images.

When the film does provide its action sequences, Pacific Rim largely delivers. It's prime set piece is a large scene about half-way through set in Hong Kong and the surrounding bay. The action is exciting, well staged, and full of energy. del Toro crafts this sequence to maximum effect, getting the adrenaline pumping. Filmmakers that want to see how to stage large scale action should look no further than this major scene. Pacific Rim isn't exactly perfect, though. Two scientist characters, portrayed by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, are intended to be comic relief, but their performances are so shrill and over the top, they quickly become annoying and off putting. del Toro also gives a small role to one of his regulars, Ron Perlman, as a Kaiju organ black marketeer, and while I always enjoy seeing Perlman pop up in anything, here he is largely filer, his character producing a smile at first, but, in the long run, not a very interesting role. Pacific Rim's ending is a bit underwhelming also, as the obvious parallels to other films robs the end of some of its energy. It doesn't ruin the movie, but a fresher conclusion would have been beneficial.

Pacific Rim is the blockbuster Summer popcorn film that you generally wish more summer blockbusters would emulate rather than brain dead junk such as Transformers. By working in some nice character material, and allowing the film to breathe between action sequences, Pacific Rim manages to deliver a generally entertaining two hours at the movies. Its not groundbreaking or particularly deep, but for what it is, it delivers the goods.
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Evil Dead (2013)
Remake that doesn't quite make the cut
28 July 2013
There are two things for certain regarding the 2013 remake of 1981's The Evil Dead. First, the film's advertising tagline "The Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience." is, not surprisingly, a lie. Second, if you have no tolerance for blood, gore and accompanying viscera, then you would do well to avoid Evil Dead. That being said, Evil Dead is not a horror film to be trifled with, that's for sure, although while it has it's moments of unease and shock, the underlying sense of terror and suspense is largely missing. Evil Dead is designed as an endurance test, can you make it past the next major set piece without turning it off, and on that front Evil Dead certainly makes an impression.

Five friends, Mia (Jane Levy), her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Eric (Lou Pucci) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) are at David's family cabin in the woods to engage in an intervention for Mia who is a recovering heroin addict. In the basement of the cabin, the group discovers a book that is full of satanic imagery and Eric reads a passage from the book, resulting in demon spirits being unleashed. The spirits possess Mia and one by one the possession begins to spread to the others who then engage in attempts to dispatch the still human survivors in rather violent, gruesome ways. Trapped by a washed out bridge, the group must try to find a way to stop the onslaught from the possessed souls, even as their number dwindles.

The original Evil Dead has earned a place in the popular zeitgeist, partially for introducing the character of Ash, portrayed by Bruce Campbell, to the general American audience, and for spawning a number of increasingly comedy oriented sequels. But, it's easy to forget that the first Evil Dead was largely a straightforward horror film, and a fairly scary one, in my opinion. There is certainly no trace of goofiness in the remake. It is a solid, no holds barred serious horror film, although there is a moment or two that does elicit a chuckle every now and then. Directed by first time filmmaker Fede Alvarez and co-written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, Evil Dead pulls no punches in it's attempts to shock. From copious vomiting, people being attacked by nail guns, crow bars, shards of mirror and various electrical power tools, Evil Dead is intent on pushing the envelope of violence, leaving no stone unturned in its search for gory scenes intended to test the audience's willingness to keep watching.

However, the reliance on violence proves one of the film's downfalls. It is so wrapped up in assaulting us with its gore that it doesn't put enough effort into the other elements of what makes a good horror film, such as suspense. Evil Dead isn't without it's moments of making us feel uncomfortable or uncertain of what comes next, but those are fewer and far between than the gore. Evil Dead is trying to make us feel terrified, but it succeeds more often in just making us feel uncomfortable as limbs and other body parts are hacked off.

This remake does not directly rehash characters from the original film and manages to provide a slightly different setup for the story. The character of Mia takes on an unusual position of serving as, at times, both protagonist and antagonist, being both the lead character and the first to be possessed by the demon's of the title. By introducing the plot thread that Mia is a recovering heroin addict going through withdrawal, the screenplay attempts to play with the idea that the things Mia sees at first are all in her head, but that is quickly dropped because you can only explain so much from the concept that she is going through a bad withdrawal, and speaking in demonic voices and causing your housemates to start slicing off their own flesh doesn't really fall into that category. Lead actress Jane Levy provides a good performance as Mia, both as the tortured former addict trying to get herself clean, and then as the chilling demonic version, taunting the others both physically and verbally. Shiloh Fernandez is solid as her brother, trying to make sense of the world that is rapid crashing around him as strange things keep happening. Lou Pucci gives a bit of comic relief and also serves as the film's token "geek" who seems to be the only one understanding what is going on and coming up with answers on how to escape. The other two female roles are fairly underdeveloped and the characters fail to register much with us.

Evil Dead missteps in it's last act, with an ending that fails to really provide any significant payoff to what has come before and that also seems to be something of a head scratcher in terms of the film's internal logic. Needless to say, being a remake of a horror film that launched a franchise, there is room left open for a sequel (look, its the Evil Dead, you can more or less count on them being available for another round, right). So, when all is said and done, is this Evil Dead remake successful? Yes and no. The filmmakers were certainly trying their best to take the series back to its horror roots, and if you are looking for a hard core gore fest, you can't do much better than this. Where Evil Dead falls a bit flat is in making the whole experience scary and affecting. It gives it a shot, but doesn't quite grasp the brass ring. You can do worse for remakes, but you can also do better.
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Horror turned to humor
27 July 2013
When a formerly straight, serious horror film franchise begins turning to camp, it is typically a sign that the creators are running out of gas. That would seem to be the case with the Child's Play series based on the fourth entry, Bride of Chucky. After 3 previously straightforward films, Bride of Chucky disposes of any pretense that you should find anything here, well, horrific. Instead, we are treated to black comedy, one that isn't without it's moments, but on the whole a sign that perhaps it's time, like toys we have outgrown, Chucky should be put away.

Set years after the previous entry, Chucky's damaged remains are rescued from an evidence room by Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), who had been the girlfriend of Chucky's original human form, Charles Lee Ray. After performing a voodoo ritual, Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) returns to life, but Tiffany quickly realizes that her hopes of the two of them settling down seem iffy. Chucky doesn't take kindly to being treated like a plaything, so he offs Tiffany and transfers her soul into a female doll. Both then decide to return themselves to their human bodies, so they hitch a ride with eloping lovers Jesse (Nick Stabile) and Jade (a pre-Grey's Anatomy Katherine Heigl) who are headed to New Jersey, where Chucky and Tiffany have plans for the young couple.

Bride of Chucky, written by series creator Don Mancini, realizes that Chucky as a typical horror icon has past his sell by date, so instead elects to, a la Freddy Kruger, transform him into something of an anti- hero here, giving him, and Tiffany, a cadre of one liners to make him the star attraction of this entry. It wouldn't really take much, the plot involving the human characters of Jesse and Jade is about as limp and tacked on as you can get. Their framing device, and the ongoing plot thread that the killings being perpetrated by Chucky and Tiffany are believed to be performed by Jesse and Jade, are here because the filmmakers felt that they needed some kind of normal protagonists to play off Chucky. Stabile and Heigl get the job done, but nothing about Jesse or Jade is interesting, involving or memorable. When the film chooses to focus on them, it more or less grinds to a halt. All the good stuff is reserved for Chucky and Tiffany.

The film contains the usual material you would expect from a slasher film, with a host of gruesome, creative deaths that are fairly graphic. That doesn't translate to anything being scary, however. There isn't much in the way of suspense in Bride of Chucky, and because the lead human characters are so lifeless, we aren't really finding ourselves biting our nails as to what is going to happen to them next. The screenplay also surrounds the leads with some enormously goofy characters, from Jade's overprotective police officer uncle, played by John Ritter as if he was in one of his many sitcom roles, to a Marilyn Manson look-a-like with the rather tongue-in-cheek moniker Damien (Alexis Arquette) who lusts after Tiffany.

Bride of Chucky isn't exactly unenjoyable. Many of the moments involving Chucky and Tiffany are funny, and the film pokes fun both at itself and other horror films more than once. Mancini obviously knew what he was doing when he wrote Bride of Chucky, nothing here seems unintentional, so on the one hand I have to give him a degree of credit for going for the gusto with some of the humorous elements of Bride of Chucky. That doesn't translate to good movie, horror, comedy, or otherwise, perhaps a passable one, but nothing I would see myself revisiting in the future. While Hollywood is always good at continuously mining properties, Chucky is one that, this time, should probably stay buried.
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Man of Steel (2013)
Superman film that isn't quite "super"
14 July 2013
With box-office success and near universal acclaim of the recent Dark Knight reboot trilogy of films featuring Batman, it's not surprising that Warner Bros. would hand the reins of their other major tentpole superhero, Superman, to Christopher Nolan, the co-writer and director of the Dark Knight films. Nolan elected to serve as a producer and story writer, not director, for the film that has emerged, Man of Steel, and it's uncertain how much involvement he had, but one thing is certain, Man of Steel will most likely not have the lasting impact of the Dark Knight films. Directed by Zack Snyder and written by David Goyer, Man of Steel is very much a mixed bag, dealing in some interesting material concerning Superman's place in the modern world and in America today, but a lot of the film's strength is undercut by its later section, where it devolves into a seemingly endless string of overwrought action sequences that sap most of the entertainment out of the proceedings.

The film revisits Superman's origin in it's opening scenes: Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zuer) give birth to Kal-El, the first natural birth the planet of Krypton has seen in over a millenia, where the population is engineered, not born through standard procreation. Kal-El's birth comes on the cusp of Krypton being destroyed by it's population over harvesting the planet's natural resources. At the same time, Krypton's military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon), has decided to engage in a coup to wrestle control of the planet from it's leaders that Zod views as inept. Zod is put down, but not before Jor-El launches his son for Earth to escape Krypton's fate.

On Earth, Kal-El is raised by a Kansas farmer and his wife, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, respectively). Jonathan tries to convince Kal-El, named Clark Kent, to keep his powers hidden from the world for fear of how the populace of Earth would react to knowing that an alien was in their midst. Clark grows up (portrayed by Henry Cavill as an adult) and begins wandering the world, uncertain of his place, but also managing to occasionally tip his hard regarding his abilities. Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) begins investigating the stories of Clark following an encounter with him at a dig site of an ancient alien ship that had arrived from Krypton many centuries earlier. On board that ship, Clark discovers the truth about his past from a projection of his father, and he dons his familiar blue and red suit. As Lois begins to close in on Clark's identity, an alien object appears in orbit and turns out to be General Zod and his followers who have managed to survive Krypton's destruction and come to Earth with plans to change the planet, plans that Clark has every intention of stopping.

While Man of Steel does find itself in the unenviable position of revisiting the origin of Superman, Goyer and Snyder do a decent job of not repeating the same path as the original 1978 Superman film. Instead, following the prologue on Krypton, much of the material of Superman's formative years is presented in flashback after Clark has already reached maturity. To their credit, this decision makes the narrative a little more unpredictable. The flashbacks actually provide some of Man of Steel's best moments, as the characters of Jonathan and Martha Kent are given some of the strongest emotional material to work with for the film. Several of the scenes in which Clark finally discovers more about his past from the projection of his father are also engaging as we see Clark learn his past and begin to try to embrace who he is.

However, as Man of Steel progresses, it fails to really dive into it's most interesting aspects with any depth. The film introduces the concept that, unlike most previous versions of the Superman story, the revelation of an otherworldly being living amongst us with super powers would not be welcomed with open arms, but distrust and fear. This approach, and Clark's isolation because of it, are ideas pregnant with possibility, but Man of Steel doesn't do a lot with them. Instead, once Zod and his minions are on Earth, Man of Steel transforms into wall to wall carnage, as we witness Clark and Zod face off in a number of environs where cities, trains, small towns, vehicles, you name it are decimated in an unending orgy of action that quickly wears out it's welcome. No one expects a super hero film to be without action, but Man of Steel cranks everything up to 11 and squelches the narrative underneath.

Most of the characters suffer as a result of Man of Steel's transition to full-bore action film. Lois Lane is presented as a modern investigative reporter who begins to develop some affection for Clark as she unravels his past, but her relationship with him is largely stillborn, resulting in little emotional involvement to their growing affection. Michael Shannon's Zod has some interesting elements to his backstory, but he isn't fleshed out enough for us to really work up any significant distaste for him. Henry Cavill gives a good performance as Clark, and if given more opportunity to delve into the character in future films, he may prove a strong presence, but here there are only hints to some of the potential of this version of Superman. Almost all the other supporting characters aren't given enough screen time to be anything more than passing faces for the most part.

It would be inaccurate to describe Man of Steel as a failure, there is good material here, the film simply transforms into too much action and not enough of anything else to truly soar. If Man of Steel is successful enough for a second film, with any luck the filmmakers will learn from their mistakes and create a truly stellar Superman film.
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Now You See Me (I) (2013)
Caper film that is a little too dependent on surprises
31 May 2013
Now You See Me is a film that is all about obfuscation. Focusing on four magicians that perform feats of wonder first separately and later together, from the first frame on, the film engages in cinematic sleight of hand. However, that formula backfires on the film: by constantly trying to engage in trickery, the audience finds itself always on the lookout for it, and by the time it starts winding down, most of the potential surprises are rendered moot by the fact that we were looking for and expecting said surprises. Thus, while Now You See Me is fun and engaging at times, as a twist-filled surprise machine, it falls flat on it's face.

As the film opens, we are introduced to four illusionists: fast talking street-level card sharp Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), "mentalist" and small-time con man Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson), spoon-bending junior magician Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and show-stopping high-thrills Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher). All of them are given a special card with an address and time on it, and when they all show up at the prescribed time and place, a small apartment in New York, they discover what appears to be a quite elaborate set of plans. Flash forward one year later, and the four magicians are performing as a single act under the moniker The Four Horsemen and are being bankrolled by millionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) During their debut performance in Las Vegas, they close their act with a rather spectacular accomplishment: they transport a French audience member to his bank in France and proceed to steal several billion dollars from it and magically transport it back to the Las Vegas auditorium where they pour it onto the audience.

Unsurprisingly, this gets the attention of the FBI, and agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to the case. He teams up with Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) and interrogates the Four Horsemen, but with nothing to pin on them, is forced to let them walk. Rhodes seeks the counsel of former magician Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who now spends his time debunking magicians, revealing what is "behind the curtain". With Bradley's help, Rhodes is able to unravel what happened at the first performance, but the Four Horsemen are already moving on to New Orleans for their next show and Rhodes and Dray are trying to stay one step ahead of them.

Now You See Me is a film that is intended to keep us on our toes, to leave the audience guessing and wondering what the next revelation is going to be. Sometimes these kind of films can work well, engaging in misdirection and providing red herrings and dead ends for us to believe in before showing us what is really going on. Where Now You See Me missteps is that, from very early in the proceedings, the film telegraphs its intentions so loudly that most of the enjoyment of being caught up in twists is lost. That the twists are such a central part of the film is obvious from the start and makes them less engaging than if they evolved more naturally out of the narrative. Now You See Me is designed and built almost exclusively to keep us guessing but by focusing almost exclusively on that, it overreaches.

Now You See Me isn't helped by the fact that the main characters are, save for some quickly introduced character moments and a few exchanges of witty dialogue, almost completely ciphers. Atlas, McKinnney, Wilder and Reeves are barely developed at all, and frankly, excepting for the moments they are performing their stage acts, are not even afforded that much screen time. The screenplay does play a bit with the intentions of the characters, but it is obvious that we are supposed to be rooting for them at times, and it makes it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for them when we barely know them. More screen time is afforded to Rhodes and Dray, and the two develop a romantic chemistry that is palpable at times, but, much like the other characters, they are largely pawns of the screenplay, but they are at least given more to work with than the magicians.

Director Louis Leterrier films Now You See Me in Michael Bay mode: the camera rarely stops moving for more than a few seconds. During the magic acts, especially the first one in Vegas, this does bring a degree of style to the proceedings but at times the over reliance on an endlessly moving camera can prove distracting. However, Leterrier does keep the pace brisk and the energy level high. Now You See Me certainly can't be called boring.

If Now You See Me succeeds anywhere, it is in the casting. Leterrier has pulled together a strong set of performers and, especially regarding the Four Horsemen, what is sometimes lacking in the screenplay is made up for by likable actors. Eisenberg makes Atlas a fast talking smart alec with a nice streak of charisma, Harrelson gives some fun wisecracks and Fisher is, once again, a strong sensual presence with a degree of toughness. Morgan Freeman can't help but class up anything he appears in and his turn here is no different, his Bradley is nice mix of arrogance and charm. Ruffalo is also at his dependable best, a man fighting to stay with his fugitives while barely managing to stay on top of their capers.

It may sound like I am down on Now You See Me, but that isn't completely true. By the time the film was over, I found myself pleasantly engaged and entertained at times, but so much is wrapped up in the film's obvious Rube Goldberg plotting that you can't but help feel disappointed when the film doesn't really deviate from where you expect. Now You See Me is like sneaking a peek at your Christmas gifts: knowing what is coming isn't as much fun as not knowing.
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Shallow drama that shortchanges good material
13 February 2013
The "Bang-Bang Club" was a moniker given to a group of primarily four South African photographers who gained notoriety for consistently putting themselves in harm's way to obtain photographs of the "silent war" between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha that raged from 1990 to 1994, leading up to the first free elections in South Africa that resulted in Nelson Mandela becoming President. The Bang Bang Club is a film version of those years, focusing on the primary members of this group, Greg Marinovich, Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva. Unfortunately, after watching The Bang Bang Club, the viewer will walk away from the film with a small degree of empathy for some of the people caught in the conflict, but mostly boredom and apathy towards the photographers as The Bang Bang Club fails to tell a compelling and involving story.

As the film opens, we are introduced to Greg (Ryan Phillippe), a freelance photographer who shows up at a skirmish between the ANC and Inkatha where Kevin (Taylor Kitsch), Ken (Frank Rautenbach) and Joao (Neels Van Jaarsveld) are already in the midst of the action. Greg enters a nearby village, considered a foolhardy move by the other photographers, and manages to get some good photos and talks with the Inkatha warriors. Visiting the local newspaper, The Star, Greg impresses the others with this feat of daring and also manages to catch the eye of the photo editor of the paper, Robin (Malin Akerman). Greg starts joining the others as they go out each day, hoping to find action to photograph, constantly embroiling themselves in harrowing circumstances, surrounded by gunfire and potential bodily harm as the two warring sides face off. In the evenings, the members of the "Bang- Bang Club" drown their adrenaline in drink and engage in trysts with women. However, as the conflict carries on over the years, the members of the Club are finding themselves becoming more detached and desensitized to the ongoing stream of violence and this also leads to breakdowns in their relationships with others who aren't there to witness the acts that they face daily.

The Bang Bang Club deals in some heady material: the waning days of apartheid in South Africa, and how one side, the Inkatha, had a different, more complicated point of view of the situation in the country than the simple argument of wrong vs right. When The Bang Bang Club addresses these issues, it manages to provide some stimulating moments. However, the problem is that, for the most part, The Bang Bang Club doesn't direct its attention on those aspects of the story. Instead, it largely focuses on the photographers who make up the Bang Bang Club and that proves to be very shallow, conventional material too often. There is the potential of a terrific movie in the story of these men jumping into the fight to documenting it, but what is on display here falls short of delivering a powerful story.

The Bang Bang Club puts Marinovich and Carter at the forefront of the narrative, with Oosterbroek and Silva largely in the background as supporting characters, but the film fails to make any of these men tremendously interesting. We see them dodging bullets on the battlefield, but there isn't any significant depth to them. They shoot photos, they drink, they sleep with women, and for much of the running time, that is about it. The only romantic relationship that gets any significant screen time is the one between Marinovich and Robin, but it is lacking in any interest or passion. There is no chemistry between the two, they get together because the screenplay wants them to, not because we feel any attraction between the two. An element of the plot that is given some exploration is the idea that these men are losing their humanity to the constant chase of the next great shot, and in one scene, in which Marinovich is called to a man's home after his wife and son have been killed by police officials to document the events does give a strong emotional undercurrent to how Marinovich has put aside his involvement in the events around him to make sure the photos are good. However, another scene in which Carter is confronted by journalists after a photo he took of a vulture stalking a small child outside a feeding station wins a Pulitzer Prize comes across as forced and obvious. Carter tries to answer questions about why he only took the photo and not help the child, and it is a considerable issue to confront, but it is handled in such a manipulative way that the scene loses its power.

Phillipe and Kitsch, in the roles of Marinovich and Carter, are both OK in their parts, but neither are delivering stellar work. Of the two, Kitsch receives a juicier role as Carter, who is the more psychologically unstable of them, and at times manages to tap into some of the mental anguish that Carter experiences, but still, he proves a limited character. Phillipe does a good job of showing us how detached Marinovich is from the basic human emotions being stirred by those around him as he focuses on getting the right framing or lighting, but Marinovich is still often a blank slate. Akerman gets the thankless role of love interest, as the film doesn't give her much depth beyond that. She's easy on the eyes, but there isn't a lot for her to do.

The Bang Bang Club was directed by Steven Silver, who has a background in documentary filmmaking, and it shows at times. Many of the scenes are filmed in a hand-held "you are there" style which can make the audience feel it is part of the proceedings, but style isn't really The Bang Bang Club's problems. It's inability to make these men's situation involving and to not give the greater conflict its due at times is ultimately The Bang Bang Club's undoing.
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Schwarzenegger back in form with this fun action picture
2 February 2013
When he entered the California Governor's mansion a decade ago, I frankly expected that was the end of the acting career of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Considering most of his biggest successes were action films, and he was moving past the years that it would be reasonable to expect him to land leading man action roles, it wouldn't have surprised anyone if he hung up his acting duds permanently. However, with his stint in California politics over, Arnold Schwarzenegger is right back in the acting saddle, complete with an action film, The Last Stand. While trailers and synopses make The Last Stand seem like nothing special, which, deep down, it really isn't, it still manages to be a fun and energetic throw back to the 80s actioners that Schwarzenegger made his name with.

The plot of The Last Stand is hardly involved: drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noreiga) has been busted out of federal custody in Las Vegas and is now driving a souped up Corvette at high speed to the U.S.-Mexico border, where he plans to cross within a few miles of the town of Sommerton, assisted by hired thug Burrell (Peter Stormare). However, what Cortez doesn't know is that Sommerton's sheriff is former L.A. drug task force officer Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) who fled the big city for the sleepy environs of Sommerton after some particularly nasty experiences in L.A. With his deputies Mike Figuerola (Luis Guzman), Sarah Torrence (Jaimie Alexander), Jerry Bailey (Zach Gilford), local gun collector Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) and former soldier Frank Martinez (Rodrigo Santoro) to assist, Ray is determined to stop Cortez from reaching Mexico, even as federal agent John Bannister (Forest Whittaker) tries to disuade him from taking on Cortez from afar.

The Last Stand isn't really going to tax anyone's brain power throughout it's running time. It is a straightforward affair, there aren't much in the way of any twists and turns to the narrative, no serious moral or ethical quandaries (unless you consider the age old movie battle of good vs evil in about as uncomplicated a form as it gets) and just enough character development for you to get an inkling as to who the players are and a little of their background. The Last Stand isn't setting it's sights high, but frankly, that's not a bad thing. Like so many B-movies of old, The Last Stand knows what it is and doesn't ascribe to be much else.

The Last Stand has more than a few well-shot and edited action sequences, from the villain's escape from custody near the opening of the film, to the eventual battle of good guys against bad guys as the film winds down, The Last Stand delivers the action film goods. This is nothing revolutionary, but it is assembled into a slick, engaging package that keeps the pace moving along briskly without resorting to the over-edited, shaky cam action messes we have been exposed to in recent years. Korean director Jee-woon Kim knows how to put his action set-pieces together to keep you involved.

The Last Stand has some of the typical low-key comedy that was often the stable of Schwarzenegger's earlier films. There are a few nice one- liners here and there for him to chew on, and it's obvious that Knoxville has been retained to bring some levity to the proceedings. While The Last Stand has it's serious moments, one of the things that makes it enjoyable to watch is the lighter touch the film has. Yes, it hits many of the staples of this kind of film, the underdog heroes banding together to fight off the bad guy, complete with a montage sequence showing them readying for battle, but it still proves to be like a cinematic warm blanket: comfortable enough for you to enjoy the familiarity.

The Last Stand also recognizes that Schwarzenegger is a little older than your typical action film star and mines some decent moments here and there. Several scenes relate the typical "getting old" jokes you expect from this type of material, so the filmmakers and Schwarzenegger are approaching that aspect of the film dead on, while still providing what we expect from an action film. At time credulity is strained that the average man in his mid 60s would be able to pull off some of the things that Ray does in the film, but I wasn't expecting a true to life experience from The Last Stand when I walked in.

Schwarzenegger won't win any particular accolades for his performance in The Last Stand, but he is back in his usual, dependable form in this first starring role in a decade. His character has been tempered to match the actor's age. Ray seems interested in keeping things quiet and easy in his life, but knows how to kick-ass when the time comes. Luis Guzman delivers a nice mix of charm and light comic relief as his top deputy, Knoxville does his usual schtick but doesn't really wear out his welcome. As the villain, Noriega is appropriately dastardly, shooting a cop early in the proceedings after reminding him of his family, and he wants to drive the Corvette to freedom because, well, its just sounds like fun. Stormare is also appropriately seedy as Burrell, Noriega's henchman, giving us a reasonably hissable foe to root against. Whittaker does the best he can with a mostly thankless role, but provides his usual capable performance.

The Last Stand won't go down as something people will remember fondly as any kind of ground-breaking film achievement, but it is hardly one that will leave you walking out of the theater hanging your head in disappointment. The Last Stand does what it was designed to do, does it well, and provides a nice slice of popcorn munching movie entertainment. As Schwarzenegger's vehicle to return to Hollywood stardom, he could have done a lot worse.
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A strong fact-based thriller
29 January 2013
With the success of 2008's Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker under their belts, it shouldn't have been tremendously surprising that director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal would chose to make a film chronicling the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden that culminated in his death at the hands of Navy Seals in May of 2011. The resulting production, Zero Dark Thirty, is a strong, at times involving, story of obsession and the, at times, monotonous and detail oriented search for Bin Laden that largely revolves around a single, dedicated individual.

Zero Dark Thirty begins with audio clips of the assault on the Twin Towers of September 11, 2001 and then jumps forward a few years later, where we see the rough interrogation techniques being applied by the CIA to Al Qaeda members to attempt to glean the location of Bin Laden. The early scenes largely focus on fresh CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) a more grizzled veteran of relentless torture of the various detainees. The two of them, overseen by the Pakistan chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), utilize a wide variety of approaches to break the men down, getting various references to a shadowy courier of information for Bin Laden, Abu Ahmed. As the years stretch on, various incidents of bombings, including one in London, another in Pakistan, and a devastating attack on a U.S. base in Afghanistan, lead the various CIA superiors to begin questioning the search for Bin Laden, but Maya, who has devoted her every waking moment to the hunt, refuses to give in. When a happenstance of information crosses her attention, she is able to eventually determine, with the help of a military operative, Larry (Edgar Ramirez), what she believes is the location of Bin Laden at a heavily fortified compound in Pakistan. She must then convince the CIA that Bin Laden is there so they can move forward with a plan to take him out.

Zero Dark Thirty is a film that is driven almost exclusively by plot, recounting the various major events of the years since 2001 to the eventual raid on Bin Laden's compound in 2011. Various characters come and go in the course of the story, but few are given much of an opportunity to grow beyond the technical dialogue they are given to recite. The exception, for the most part, is Jessica Chastain's Maya. We still learn very little about her beyond a few details here and there, but some of that is one of the film's central points: Maya has allowed herself to be all consumed by the search for Bin Laden that she has let it subsume the rest of her life. In one scene, a co-worker of Maya asks her about her friends and a boyfriend, and she cannot respond in the positive to either question. What character driven aspects there are to Zero Dark Thirty are almost exclusively derived from Maya's story.

The early scenes of Zero Dark Thirty can prove a bit disorienting to watch at times. The filmmakers throw a lot of acronyms, technical jargon and half explained dialogue at the audience, and it is up to us to try and see if we can keep up. On the one hand, I appreciate the filmmaker's willingness to not dumb down the material to keep it extra accessible for the general movie-going public, but on the other hand, by constantly trying to scratch out some semblance of what is going on, the film does lose of some of it's draw. Eventually, the details begin to coalesce into a story you can generally follow, but at times it feels like we are one step behind the details being unspooled on the screen.

Some have criticized Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of torture by the CIA operatives on the various Al Qaeda members, and it even seems to take a neutral stance on the use of those techniques. Many of the torture scenes are harrowing to watch, as human beings are treated as animals by the agents trying to glean information from their prisoners. Zero Dark Thirty isn't a meditation on the ethics and morality of the use of torture, however, it is simply telling a story of what happened, and the filmmakers choose not to shy away from the darker aspects of that hunt.

Bigelow and Boal do an exceptional job of building suspense at key moments in the film. More than once, the film will jump to a specific moment in time to correspond to a particular event that occurred over the course of the last 10 years, and the build of tension until a seemingly unavoidable moment of violence unfolds is effective and palpable. Other moments are without warning, as the films forward momentum is suddenly punctuated by an unexpected jolt. Both techniques work well and keep you riveted and involved in the film. The only time this fails to deliver is a late action scene involving Maya outside her home in Pakistan as the film careens towards a rather expected development. It doesn't rob it of power, but it still seems more and more certain before it arrives.

Zero Dark Thirty's cornerstone is the final raid on the Bin Laden compound. It unfolds without music, in a very matter of fact fashion, lacking the sensationalism of most thrillers or action films. Zero Dark Thirty lives up to its perception of being true to events as they happened. Nevertheless, this sequence provides an at times moving climax as the events of the previous two hours finally lead to a resolution.

Zero Dark Thirty isn't perfect, its early scenes can prove disorienting, and the film's lack of emotional depth can keep us at arm's lengths to the proceedings on the screen at times, but nonetheless, it is an effective thriller that delivers an at times powerful tale of one woman's unwavering dedication to complete her mission, moving all obstacles in her path.
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Faust (2000)
A bloody and kinky mess
27 January 2013
If you have a fetishistic love of gore or weird sexuality, then Faust: Love of the Damned is the movie for you. If, however, you appreciate coherent plotting, passable acting and some semblance of purpose other than to showcase gore and weird sexuality, then Faust: Love of the Damned may not be your cup of tea. I find I generally fall in the latter camp, as Faust: Love of the Damned proved a rather wearisome viewing experience for me.

I could explain the plot for Faust: Love of the Damned, but that would require the film to have much of a plot and for me to understand it, and, frankly, Faust comes up short on both fronts. Theoretically, Faust is the story of John Jaspers (Mark Frost), a painter who watches his girlfriend savagely murdered by some local toughs she owes money too, who is so consumed with revenge that he makes a deal with M (Andrew Divoff) for the power to exact his revenge in return for John's eternal soul. As far as the film shows us, though, he made a rather lousy deal, because M just puts some fancy razors on John's arms, and then he proceeds to slice up the responsible parties with them, failing to realize that, well, he didn't really need M's deal to do that. No matter, there wouldn't be a film without said deal, and in addition to signing over his soul, M uses John as his tool to lay waste to a Chinese consulate because, well, the film isn't very clear on that. After the scene at the consulate, John is sentenced to a mental ward, where the fetching Jade de Camp (Isabel Brook) tries to get through to him with her "music therapy". Meanwhile, police Lieutenant Margolies (Jeffery Combs) thinks something is fishy with the whole consulate killings, and begins an investigation.

After the above, Faust devolves into a meandering mess that is one part horror film, one part offbeat comedy and one part superhero film. However, nothing in the film really makes sense. M is trapped in a human body he wants to escape from, and is trying to resurrect Hommunculus, an ancient demon, for which a ritual is fast approaching. Who is M, really, you ask? The devil? Maybe, maybe Hommunculus is, I'm not sure. What did signing over John's soul and giving him powers do? I'm also not sure, but it turns out to be a bad move, because John manages to start using his new powers to attempt to thwart M by transforming into a creature that looks like a demon, but with a webby membrane of wings that looks suspiciously like a cape. Meanwhile, one of M's henchmen, Claire (Monica Van Campen) seduces John and most every other character she comes in contact with and engages in rough sex with them, often culminating in some bloody display of murder or torture after that. And Margolies is searching for some information about what is going on, but I'm not entirely sure what that information is, or what he plans to do with it.

Basically, Faust is a mess, scenes punctuated by vicious bloodletting or kinky sex, including one rather amusing, and head scratching, scene in which M tortures Claire for plotting against him by making her breasts and buttocks expand exponentially until she basically is a blob of over-sized flesh on the floor. The moments when John transforms into his demon/superhero alter-ego are rather ridiculous, thanks in part to the silly make-up effects for the demon, complete with the aforementioned cape that just flops around when it looks like it should be taut wings. It also doesn't help that most of those scenes are scored by an annoying heavy metal soundtrack that robs the film of any creepy atmosphere. The acting ranges from acceptable, in the form of Combs and Divoff, to astonishingly bad with Frost. Most of the scenes where is supposed to be displaying rage are just him pursing his lips and pouting at camera. Isabel Brook is somewhere in the middle, and Van Campen is just over the top silliness all the time. Most of the actors are probably doing the best they can considering they are delivering inane dialogue to support a nonsensical plot.

Faust is directed by Brian Yuzna, a longtime producer/director of low- budget horror films that started off with him producing some of the seminal mid-80s movies of Stuart Gordon, including Re-Animator and From Beyond. Those films, along with the productions Yuzna would later start directing himself, were often weird affairs, displaying a mix of humor, horror and sexuality, so Faust isn't really that far off from Yuzna's typical material, but many of those earlier films had some degree of story and purpose, and also contained some good humor or scares. Faust does have the sex and the blood, but it lacks almost anything else you would expect from a good film, even a low-budget genre piece such as this. Faust is just out and out bad, occasionally amusing or titillating, yes, but nothing more than that.
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Joe Kidd (1972)
Standard and unimpressive Eastwood western
24 January 2013
There was a time when Clint Eastwood was almost exclusively known as a Western star. From his first major success, the TV series Rawhide, to the Sergio Leone directed Man With No Name trilogy of films, the Western genre was Eastwood's bread and butter into the 1970s. With his marquee name, well respected director John Sturges at the helm, and novelist Elmore Leonard scripting, the 1972 release Joe Kidd would seem likely to be another feather in Eastwood's Western cap. However, even with the best cooks in the kitchen, sometimes you can't quite make a top caliber meal, and that sums up Joe Kidd well, falling short of being a great, or frankly, even good Western.

As Joe Kidd opens, the titular hero (Eastwood), is sleeping off a drunk and disorderly arrest in the town jail. When he is hauled in front of the Judge to have sentence passed the proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of Luis Chalma (John Saxon), a Mexican landowner who is fed up with the U.S. government failing to recognize his and his compatriots land claims from when the Spanish ruled the land. Chalma attempts to kidnapped the Judge but Joe foils the plot. Soon, land baron Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) arrives and offers Kidd a deal: he will pay him $500 to help him hunt down and kill Chalma to stop him from raising questions about the land. At first Joe declines, but when he returns home to find friends assaulted by Chalma as he left the area, Joe changes his find and joins the hunt for Chalma with Harlan and his henchmen, but Joe soon realizes that may have been a mistake.

Joe Kidd is the Western genre largely on autopilot. Many elements from countless other westerns are there with little deviation from the norm: a small, one street town, a gruff hero with little penchant for words and a ruthless, money grubbing villain interested in keeping the small man down. As the film unfolds, there is little about the proceedings that stretch the genre much at all. Leonard tries to introduce a small variation by suggesting the possibility that Chalma, who more or less fills the standard role of the heavy early on, is actually in the right with his desire to have his land claims observed, but Joe Kidd does little to flesh this out, it merely serves as a plot device when the script requires one. Joe Kidd doesn't push any boundaries or stretch any horizons, staying very firmly on well tread territory.

Eastwood portrays his rather typical role as Joe Kidd, a man of few words. Eastwood could essay this role in his sleep by this point in his career, and there is little in Joe Kidd that would cause him to move beyond his comfort zone. Robert Duvall plays a at times slimy villain, but there is really little about Harlan that makes him stand out from the normal pack of Western villains. He's greedy, mean and nasty, but that is about all we learn about him. John Saxon takes on a similar type of role that other actors such as Eli Wallach had realized before: a white American actor cast in the role of a Hispanic Mexican. He gives a capable performance as Chalma, but nothing exemplary. Like the other leads, Saxon is held back by the thin script, there isn't a lot of meat on the bones of Chalma for him to sink his teeth into.

Standardized genre films can sometimes provide reasonably entertaining vehicles, but Joe Kidd is so lackluster and rote, and also lacking much in the way of suspense or action, that it can't really manage to summon up enough entertainment value to help transcend it's boilerplate plotting and characters to make it stand out. It is unfortunate with such a roster of talent behind and in front of the camera that something better couldn't have been created, but alas Joe Kidd is a much lesser entry in Eastwood's Western canon.
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Lost Highway (1997)
Visually stunning but lacking a solid core
21 January 2013
For many people, I imagine, David Lynch's films are love them or hate them affairs. But, frankly, I seem to fall somewhere in the middle. I recognize that Lynch has a strong visual style, and at times can create mesmerizing moments in his films. But then, he offsets those positive attributes with one-dimensional characters, indecipherable plots and, often, weirdness, it seems, for weirdness sake. Someone has described Lynch as the first popular surrealist, and that sounds a fitting description, although I would debate the "popular" statement, as most of Lynch's films are not box-office hits and have generated cult followings at best. Lost Highway fits right into this model: it features some absorbing imagery, a strong soundtrack at times, and some engrossing moments, but then, when all is said and done, does it really add up to anything?

The plot of Lost Highway, what there is of one, focuses on Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) a saxophonist whose wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), seems to be drifting away from him. Fred suspects she might be having an affair, but he can't be sure. One morning, Renee finds a videotape on the front steps that contains a black and white image of their home. The following day, another tape is found, this one following up the original imagery with an intruder, it would appear, videotaping Fred and Renee asleep in bed. At a party later, Fred is confronted by a chalk white skinned individual (Robert Blake, in what is, so far, his last role to date) who informs him he knows him, and that he is also at his home right then, which is corroborated by Fred phoning his home only to speak to the mystery man while he also stands in front of him. Shortly thereafter, Fred suddenly finds himself in jail, Renee dead, and the police believing he is responsible.

Lost Highway then switches gears, and we are introduced to Pete (Balthazar Getty), a mechanic who is the favorite of a sadistic mob boss, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who has a stunning blonde girlfriend, Alice (also Patricia Arquette). Pete and Alice begin to have an affair and make plans to run away together, but Pete is troubled by strange memories of things that happened a few nights ago that he can't fully remember and unnerving dreams.

Lost Highway, like Lynch's 2001 film Mulholland Drive, deals in elements of identity, memory, and guilt. Upon watching the whole film, you can kind of see what Lynch is trying for, and there are elements that seem to fit together, but nothing you can concretely say makes much sense if you follow your ideas through. The film has a very non-linear, dreamlike quality that, as mentioned above, Lynch would revisit in Mulholland Drive, but this very much seems to be a dress rehearsal for that later, better received film.

However, while some can content themselves by calling Lynch a visual stylist and surrealist and forgiving him his trespasses, the rest of us who are looking for something in a film beyond a string of stunning images are, frankly, largely out of luck. In the end, the real problem with Lost Highway is not so much its convoluted narrative, but its lack of character development. The way Lynch directs his actors (and considering they all perform about the same, I find it difficult to believe it isn't Lynch calling the shots on this) much of the dialogue is delivered in a short, clipped and detached manner, as if the need to include words was an afterthought to Lynch who doesn't quite want to make a silent film. We learn little to nothing about the characters, there is no background, no insight into them as people, they are merely pawns for Lynch's visually driven plot machinations, not people. It doesn't help that the narrative suddenly changes focus at midpoint, and we are left dealing with a new set of characters and story that may or may not be connected to the earlier scenes. Again, these characters are thinly drawn, more types than three dimensional humans.

Lost Highway displays Lynch's typical fascination with the 1950's. Both of the characters Arquette essays are traditional femme fatales, steeped in noir filmmaking, and most of the characters wear leather jackets, drive 50s cars or motorcycles and smoke rather ceaselessly. Loggia's performance as Mr. Eddy feels like a mid-Century mob boss and Pullman seems to channel a Beat-era avant garde musician. Again, it is all about Lynch assembling the imagery that intrigues him, less about telling a coherent story.

With all that being said, Lost Highway can still draw you in at times. Many of the encounters involving Pete and Alice have an undeniable erotic charge to them and a flashback scene revealing how Alice and Mr. Eddy first met is a potent mix of sex and danger that is engrossing. The early scenes that introduce the mystery elements are also at times hypnotizing, but as the film draws to a close, and things don't really start adding up, and we are dealing with characters we don't really care about, Lost Highway begins deflating and we are left scratching our heads about what it all might mean.

Lost Highway was one of Lynch's last gasps of popular success. He followed it up with The Straight Story, a very traditional drama that proved he could make a "normal" film, then Mulholland Drive which fit squarely in the Lynchian typical style that received a lot of critical acclaim but again suffered from the same issues that plague Lost Highway. Since then, Lynch has made only one full-length feature, 2006's little seen Inland Empire. Lynch is definitely not for everyone, I might tolerate him better than many, but Lost Highway is a typical sample of what you can usually expect from the director: gorgeous imagery, glossing over a somewhat vacant, at times frustrating, core. I wouldn't be surprised if he wouldn't want it any other way.
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A decent series reboot
23 December 2012
It was only ten years ago that Spider-Man, the first cinematic adaptation of one of Marvel's crown jewel characters, was released to generally strong critical notices and boffo box-office. After two additional entries, the 2nd being another hit, the 3rd dropping a bit in quality, Sony Pictures and original helmer Sam Raimi couldn't see eye to eye on future entries, so Raimi walked away, and Sony elected to follow in the footsteps of James Bond and Batman and "reboot" the franchise only five years since the last entry. This would prove to be a controversial choice with many (I have at least one friend who said he had no interest in seeing the reboot), but I was willing to give this new entry the benefit of the doubt. In general, I can say I was glad I did. The new entry, titled The Amazing Spider-Man, is a fairly strong film for the most part. Sporting a good turn in the lead by Andrew Garfield and an expanded focus on the relationship between Peter and his first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, The Amazing Spider-Man manages to vindicate itself from those who might doubt it.

The Amazing Spider-Man does re-hash the origin story that most are probably familiar with at this point, albeit with some new twists on the material. In this incarnation, Peter Parker is left with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) under mysterious circumstances by his parents in the middle of the night in the opening scenes of the film. When the narrative jumps forward to the present, Peter is a gawky outsider, imagined as both a science nerd but also a bit of a teenage rebel, riding a skateboard and slightly flaunting authority. When he discovers a briefcase of his father's in the basement, Peter begins asking questions about his father's work, which leads him to Oscorp, the company his father worked for. There, he encounters Dr. Chuck Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father's former partner, and the two begin working to complete Peter's father's work. However, the research into genetic regeneration has a dark side, as it would appear that it is intended to be used by Norman Osborne, the unseen head of the company, as a tool to help save his life, and who seems to know something about the reason Peter's parents disappeared.

Upon his first visit to Oscorp, Peter happens into a room where testing is being performed on spiders, and one manages to bite him. The result, of course, is that the spider bite imbues him with extraordinary powers: strength, speed and a remarkable ability to scale buildings as if his hands and feet had tape bonded to them. After Uncle Ben is killed in an accidental shooting, Peter begins to use these abilities, along with a formula for advanced webbing his father developed, to search out the criminal responsible for Ben's death. Peter begins to expand his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a classmate who is also an intern at Oscorp. He also begins to wonder about Dr. Connors, who is acting strangely and, when faced with the shutdown of his research, injects himself with the genetic formula, transforming himself into a creature that becomes known as the Lizard, and this experience sends him on a path to madness that Peter must try to stop.

The biggest weaknesses of The Amazing Spider-Man are, unsurprisingly, the revisiting of the same material that was brought to life 10 years ago. Most audience members are familiar with the spider bite, the moments of Peter discovering his powers, and his hunt for Ben's killer. It also doesn't help that in the years since the release of the first Spider-Man, countless other super hero film adaptations have seen the light of day and mined similar material. At this juncture, the origin story plot has really started to show both its age and its overexposure. That being said, The Amazing Spider-Man does approach most of these moments in a different vein than the prior entry. A key difference is to focus on Peter's budding relationship with Gwen Stacy, Peter's first girlfriend in the comics but a character that was relegated to cameo status in Spider-Man 3. Garfield and Stone bring a degree of chemistry and involvement to the relationship and this element of the film feels stronger than the Peter/Mary Jane pairing in the earlier films.

Garfield also proves a capable lead in the role of Peter. While Tobey Maguire largely focused on portraying Peter as a somewhat shy nerd, for lack of a better term, Garfield's performance enhances Peter's nervousness and captures the awkwardness of the teenage years, stammering in his dialogue at times and giving Peter a degree of uncertainty in his moments with Gwen. It isn't necessarily better than Maguire's turn, but it is sufficiently different to not feel like a rehash. Stone proves a bit more fetching and strong willed than Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane, and her realization of Gwen is certainly the stronger female presence when compared to Dunst.

The Amazing Spider-Man also excels on the technical front. The visual effects that bring the action sequences to life are impressive, to say the least, and the film benefits from the decade of development in technology since the first Spider-Man. The moments in which Spider-Man soars through the city and faces off against the Lizard are eye-opening, and prove viscerally involving. James Horner's music score is also a standout, providing a fairly traditional symphonic score in a day and age where so many films are moving towards a sound design influenced musical environment.

There is no denying that The Amazing Spider-Man arrives with quite a bit of baggage attached, and it isn't completely successful at slaying all of the downfalls of revisiting this material, but for the most part, this entry works, and proves, like 1998's The Incredible Hulk, that there is more than one decent modern interpretation of a traditional comic book hero.
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Battle Royale (2000)
Controversial film that is neither disaster nor masterpiece
21 November 2012
Released in Japan more than a decade ago, Battle Royale unsurprisingly developed a rather notorious reputation. Based on a manga of the same name, Battle Royale tells a tale of a near future in which juvenile crime is growing out of control, so as a deterrent, the Japanese government passes a law that one middle school class each year will be sequestered on an uninhabited island and the class members will have to fight one another to the death until only one is left. Battle Royale touches upon a number of social issues satirically, from modern youth culture that no longer respects its elders and society in general, to the idea that violence prevents more violence, but, while Battle Royale isn't without it's strong points, the film is a bit overrated by those who worship at it's altar, from my point of view.

Battle Royale introduces us to Class B, students who are released onto the island with a bag of supplies, a weapon, and have an explosive collar affixed to their neck. Throughout the three days of the contest, various locations on the island are identified as danger zones, and if you are in a zone during a particular time, the collar will explode. If more than one person is left alive at the end of the three days, all the remaining collars will explode, killing all surviving students. The narrative eventually focuses on four main characters, Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), Noriko (Aki Maeda), the girl whom Shuya has feelings for, Shogo (Taro Yamamoto),a "transfer" student who has survived Battle Royale once before at a grave personal cost, and Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) their former teacher who is now overseeing the game. Shuya, Noriko and Shogo form an alliance to try and escape the island, while other classmates alternate between forming similar partnerships or engaging in the bloodthirsty slaughter of everyone who stands between them and victory. Of particular threat is another "transfer", Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), who had volunteered to participate due to his predilection for murder, which he carries out with reckless abandon on any who cross his path.

Whatever you may or may not think of the quality of the production, Battle Royale is sure to cause some significant debate as to its moral and ethical qualities. The very premise, schoolchildren forced to brutally kill one another until only one is left standing, certainly will raise emotions in some viewers, without a doubt. Whenever violence involving children is dealt with, the stakes of a film are raised automatically, and much of the controversy over Battle Royale in the last decade is due to this basic idea. While the twist of focusing on children is a new direction for this type of material, the basic concept is hardly original. In literature, from The Most Dangerous Game to The Running Man, in film from Rollerball to Death Race 2000 and beyond, humans pitted against one another for reasons of sport and entertainment to social control, as in this film, has been addressed before. By involving children, Battle Royale does put a different spin on it. These adolescents are dealing with not only the shock that their guardians, adults, would put them in this position, but also their changing emotions, dealing with the emergence of romantic love and standard torment of childhood bullying, which plays a significant role in the story. Some of these characters are transferring their normal reactions to the events of their teen years to a battleground in which the stakes no longer are hurt feelings or scorned lovers, but the end of a human life.

While the ideas of Battle Royale's premise are intriguing, the film is hampered by its style at times. Director Kinji Fukasaku stages much of the film like a live action version of a Japanese anime. The various characters often overact to the hilt, and the over-the-top, hyper- melodramatic nature of anime is constantly on display. The various actors gasp, giggle, and react to violence with bug-eyed stares. It is difficult to believe that these choices weren't intentional, I wonder if Fukasaku elected to approach such horrific material this way to take a degree of edge off the proceedings. The film also suffers from the fact that with in excess of 40 students at the start, most of the them will not be given much development at all. The early deaths lack emotional punch because the people being killed don't mean anything to us. The film's primary villain, Kazuo, is also all style and visual menace. While he has a palpable threat to him, he represents death largely from a symbolic nature, not one of character identification. Kazuo exists to serve as a plot device, an effective one at times, but a plot device nonetheless.

As the film moves along, the core group of Shuya, Noriko and Shogo come to the forefront, and as the story balances between them and a few key antagonists, the emotional resonance of the film becomes stronger. Kitano also is revealed to be less of a villain than a man who still holds out some degree of hope for a few of his former students, torn between his affection for them and his seeming belief that the Battle Royale act is a necessary one. While no one will mistake Battle Royale for a character drama, as the character count reduces and we can focus in on the main players, the film is stronger.

Battle Royale is certainly worthy of it's notorious place in recent film history, you can't play with these kind of ideas without pushing some buttons, and while I would hardly describe it as a despicable piece of cinematic filth, I don't think I would side with those who have proclaimed it a masterpiece. The reality, as so often, is somewhere in between, but nevertheless, as with anything, the buyer must beware when it comes to entering into the world of Battle Royale. You might get more than you bargained for.
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Another Earth (2011)
Small drama with big ideas underneath
21 November 2012
In science fiction, the idea of a "mirror" Earth is an old troupe. From various stories and novels to no less than 2 episodes of the original Star Trek, the "what if" scenario of a Earth just like ours, but yet a little different, is well mined. Nonetheless, director Mike Cahill and his co-screenwriter, Britt Marling, have used this concept as a backdrop to their film Another Earth, which, despite it's title and science fiction underpinnings, is actually a sobering drama about mistakes made and the infinite possibilities of the universe. Heady stuff, to be sure, and while Another Earth is hardly perfect, it eschews what you would normally expect from a film of it's title to deal with very down to Earth matters.

17 year old Rhoda Williams (Marling, engaging in double duty as writer and star), who is fascinated by astronomy, has just been accepted into MIT and has been celebrating at a party with friends. On her way home, drunk and distracted by the news on the radio of a second, Earth like planet that has appeared in the sky, causes an auto accident. In the second car is music professor John Burroughs (William Mapother), his pregnant wife and young son. Both the son and wife are killed in the accident, Burroughs ends up in a coma, and Rhoda spends the next four years in prison. After being released, she asks to be placed in a job that keeps her interaction with people to a minimum, and so ends up as a janitor at a local high school. Wracked with guilt at her part in the accident, she decides to visit Burroughs, who has turned to alcohol in the intervening years since awakening from his coma, but cannot bring herself to reveal the truth to him, and ends up pretending to be from a cleaning service and thus begins helping him put his home, and to some extent, his life back together.

In the time since the evening of the accident, the new planet has drawn closer to our Earth, and it is revealed to be an almost exact duplicate of Earth, with the same continents, and, as revealed on a news broadcast where radio transmission to the planet is attempted, possibly the exact same people. Rhoda, desperate to take hold of all that was lost from her participation in the accident, writes an essay to attempt to join the crew of the first planned expedition to the second Earth, while at the same time, her relationship with Burroughs, who does not know who she is, begins to grow.

Another Earth focuses its attention on Rhoda, who, in a moment of stupidity and selfishness, caused the irrevocable destruction of John Burroughs world as he knew it, and has been consumed by the results of her actions. Another Earth approaches her in a more realistic manner than many other dramas have, showing how that unfortunate mistake has transformed her world. Another Earth delves into her situation, affected by her guilt in her participation in the terrible tragedy and potentially unable to move on with her life. Another Earth delivers much of this often without long bouts of dialogue, relying largely on Marling's performance to deliver the emotional core of this character, and she proves up to the task. Marling unveils Rhoda to us through body language and sobering looks, and we can feel how so much of her was transformed that night. Another Earth doesn't specifically make us feel sorry for her, she accepts her responsibility in the tragedy, but it also does paint a picture of a human who, do to how society treats those who commit acts like this, even if accidental, seems to have fewer options available.

Burroughs, while not ignored, lacks the same degree of development, and we largely view him through Rhoda's gaze. He has crawled inside a bottle to salve his wounds and stayed there. When Rhoda enters his house, she seems to be the first significant human contact Burroughs has had in some time, and he opens up the closed gates of his world to her, first a little, but gradually much more. We can feel his pain and understand his helplessness as he continues on after so much has been taken from him, but he doesn't quite reach the same level of depth as Rhoda, however he is hardly a cipher.

If Another Earth missteps, it comes late in the film, where certain decisions are made that are arguably too manufactured, too melodramatic for this film that seems mostly interested in not working in the standard trumped up events of similar material, and while it certainly doesn't ruin Another Earth, it does seem a bit overdone, where a subtler, more realistic choice might have been better.

Against the story of these two characters, the revelation of the second Earth plays as a backdrop, but at key moments this plot thread delivers interesting material that allows Another Earth to move beyond the standard for a drama of this type. The idea of how this second Earth is similar, but also different, from our own is touched upon, but then becomes a greater piece of the narrative, allowing it to move in somewhat unique directions. Another Earth uses the science fiction conceit of the second Earth as a catalyst for story and character development, not as thin excuse to throw a bunch of special effects on the screen.

Another Earth is a small, somewhat slow piece that deals less in the fantastical nature of it's title and subplot, but more in the isolated world of two people who were changed by one terrible event. With Marling's strong performance and the film's focus on the characters and their coping with a horrible event, Another Earth proves to have it's aim set on a more precise and personal target than you might think.
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Decent but unspectacular YA adaptation
11 November 2012
With the Harry Potter films over and Twilight concluding soon, Hollywood has filled the financially lucrative void with its latest Young Adult series adaptation, The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games is a stronger than the first Harry Potter film, but is still only a decent but unspectacular film, with a lot of ideas at the core, but not quite mining them all to success.

The film opens at some point in the future, where society has collapsed and the country is split into 12 impoverished districts while the control is located in the resplendent Capitol. In the past, the Districts had rose up against the Capitol, but had been put down, and as punishment The Hunger Games was born: a televised competition where one boy and one girl from each district are chosen annually to fight one another in a bloody tournament where only one survivor can go home. From District 12, Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected, but her older and tougher sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. Also selected from District 12 is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who holds a secret crush for Katniss.

At the Capitol, they participate in a series of training exercises and public ceremonies leading up to the games, groomed by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) to create a memorable impression on the crowds whom they will rely on as potential sponsors for weapons and supplies during the games. They are also given survival guidance by Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the last winner from District 12 who is now a lush, using his position largely as an opportunity to avail himself of food and drink. Katniss quickly proves an impressive find, and gamemaster Seneca (Wes Bentley) tries to influence President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to make a few adjustments to the games due to her, but Snow is not so taken, seeing her strength and willpower as dangerous. When the games are finally underway, in a wooded landscape, Katniss must summon all her strength and resourcefulness to survive the elements and her fellow players.

You would have to have been living under a rock for the last decade or so to not recognize the Hunger Games is a cautionary tale about modern reality TV taken to the Nth degree. It is most successful when the characters are being featured on a talk show, hosted by an over-the-top Stanley Tucci, which resembles today's fluff interview programs such as The Tonight Show and Entertainment Weekly, biting satire which hits the mark. Tucci and his co-anchor, portrayed by Toby Jones, commentate and reflect on the games as if people's lives weren't in the balance, giving us a glimpse at what could, unfortunately, be our future. Unfortunately, the background of the dystopian world the characters live in is underdeveloped, leaving a lot of questions concerning how the Capitol maintains control of the people unexplored.

The Hunger Games doesn't really tread any ground that hasn't already been well-worn by other works, including The Running Man, Battle Royale and more. The idea of man's inhumanity to man being treated as entertainment is certainly not groundbreaking, but in the world of YA literature, it seems, everything old is new again. However, the decision to go for a PG-13 rating dulls the film's potential edge. While it doesn't completely shy away from the violence inherent in the story, shaky camera motion and quick edits keep the audience at arm's length from the true viciousness of the concept that is really worth exploring.

The film also suffers from a bit too much from archetypal characters. Katniss and Peeta are both somewhat naive, innocent and inherently "good" individuals. Aside from a young girl named Roo (Amandla Stenberg) who is befriended by Katniss, almost all the rest of the participants in the games are bloodthirsty jackals, reveling in the murder of the others. Most of them are merely fodder for the story's eventual parade of death, but the few that stand out are "evil". We can't help but root for our heroes, they are among the only relatable people in the story. As with other stories targeted at a teen female audience, there is the seemingly inevitable love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and another boy from District 12, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). For the most part, though, this is just window dressing to the film, a storyline that may have more meat in the source novel, but here lacks depth. Gale and Katniss relationship doesn't have any chemistry to it, and Hemsworth's scenes are minimal. Katniss and Peeta's relationship isn't any deeper, and several of the scenes where they begin to connect romantically are manipulative and ineffective. The two don't come across as being attracted to each other, but merely going through the motions the screenplay has laid out for them.

Jennifer Lawrence, who came to notice from her work in Winter's Bone, impresses as Katniss. She provides us with a girl who is alternately strong, scared and thoughtful. She is the film's anchor, and when the Hunger Games works in its second half, it is often due to her performance. Surprisingly, the most engaging relationship in the film is between Katniss and Cinna, with their parting scene one of the emotional high points. Josh Hutcherson does give Peeta a nice dose of naivete, but he proves a tad underwhelming in the role. Stanley Tucci chews the scenery with great aplomb in his moments, Wes Bentley comes across as a man who is a bit too easily manipulated for his own good, and Donald Sutherland gives President Snow and quiet degree of menace.

I give credit to The Hunger Games for addressing ideas and issues relevant to the current state of society, but the package that it is delivered in ultimately proves a bit underwhelming. With the ground- work laid, perhaps the next installment will be a stronger film and build on the base of The Hunger Games.
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Stephen King adaptation at its worst
10 November 2012
Stephen King and Hollywood has always had an unsteady relationship. For every good to decent film produced from the prolific horror-meister's works (Misery,Pet Semetary,Stand By Me) there have been several more middling to downright awful ones (Children of the Corn,The Lawnmower Man,The Dark Half). Graveyard Shift, a 1990 adaptation of King's same named short story, is absolutely in the latter category. Graveyard Shift is a complete waste of time and celluloid, devoid of any scares, laughs or any other redeeming quality. If you want a bottom of the barrel Stephen King film, look no further than this travesty.

Set in a cotton mill in what I guess is supposed to be Maine (one character references Castle Rock, King's well known fictional Maine town), Graveyard Shift begins with a character who likes to shoot rats with rocks being attacked by . . . something . . . and then dying in the cotton picker. Into town walks John Hall (Dave Andrews) a drifter looking for work, who lands a job at the mill, under the direction of the rather unkind, and potentially unhinged, foreman, Warwick (Stephen Macht). Warwick is a rather despicable character, using the female employees to fulfill his sexual needs while trying to cut a few bucks here and there in regards to worker safety. When he is ordered to clean up the basement or be shut down, he recruits several of the plant workers for the job, but they quickly realize that there is . . . something . . . down there in the basement with them.

Graveyard Shift is the kind of film that used to be cranked out in the 1970s and 80s by major studios, I suspect, because they were cheap to make and even with a lower than average box office compared to major films, they still managed to turn a decent profit for the studio. Because it is almost certain no one was greenlighting Graveyard Shift because it promised to be a good movie. And a good movie is definitely not what director Ralph S. Singleton and screenwriter Jon Esposito have supplied. There is nothing of value in Graveyard Shift. The characters are almost exclusively ciphers, existing for no other reason than to be picked off one by one by the film's creature that lives in the mill. Main character John Hall has no development to speak of, and the attempt by the filmmakers to create a relationship between him and female worker Jane (Kelly Wolf) is dead on arrival. Neither character is interesting, or heck, even really present, other than to serve as something for the camera to be focused on most of the time.

Stephen Macht provides a seemingly hissable villain in the form of Warwick, but he is almost completely a caricature, a creation of the screenplay to give us someone to root against, not a three dimensional character. When he goes off his rocker towards the end of the film, it is completely out of left field, not something that has been building throughout the narrative. The only character who is even vaguely interesting is the exterminator called in to deal with the rat problem at the mill, played by Brad Dourif. His exterminator holds a personal vendetta against rats due to their use in torture when he was in Vietnam (and I wonder if some material intended for his character was transplanted to Warwick at some point in the re-write stage of development). But slightly interesting doesn't equal necessary, and Dourif's character is even given the weakest, most pointless send-off of any of the film's characters.

The makeup effects of the creature are acceptable, I guess, but we are never given much of a good look at it. But, for the most part, the film's gore quotient, one of the reasons people would show up to these films, is pretty limited. And there is certainly no tension, scares or suspense to speak of. Never once was I concerned for anyone on screen, and there is a jump scare or two, but nothing remarkable, and many of them are predictable.

Graveyard Shift was released in 1990, at the end of the horror film era of the previous two decades, before the genre would go into remission for a few years before being re-born with the self referential Scream series followed by Hollywood's brief dalliance with J-Horror. And frankly, if Graveyard Shift is representative of what the genre brought to the table, then it was deserving of being buried.
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Skyfall (2012)
A solid Bond entry
10 November 2012
50 years after the release of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, the world's best known spy returns for his 23rd official screen outing, and the third with Daniel Craig in the role, with Skyfall. The good news is that Skyfall is a strong entry in the Bond canon, exploring character and story material never before considered in a Bond film. The less good news is that Skyfall still manages to fall a little short of greatness, partially due to an inflated running time and saggy midsection.

Skyfall opens, in standard Bond tradition, with a rousing pre-title sequence in which Bond and partner Eve (Naomie Harris) attempt to stop a list containing the identities of the British Secret Service's deep cover agents in terrorist agents from falling into the wrong hands. At the end of an energetic chase through Istanbul, Bond is accidentally shot by Eve and believed dead. He isn't, of course (now, THAT would be a real departure for a Bond film), but decides to engage in an unplanned vacation. However, when MI6 headquarters is bombed, and head M (Judi Dench) receives some ominous electronic threats, Bond returns from self- imposed exile to try to find the parties responsible. However, age and his recent injuries make his fitness for the job questionable, with Garreth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), questioning whether it is time for Bond to retire for real.

With M's backing, Bond heads to Shanghai to locate the hired killer who stole the list, and the trail leads to Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent who was turned over to the Chinese authorities by M in the past due to him operating outside of protocol, and Silva hasn't taken that lightly, leading him to engage in a personal vendetta against M. Bond must try to outwit Silva, who proves a formidable adversary on a variety of fronts, and keep him from fulfilling his mission of revenge against M.

Skyfall is not your typical Bond film in a number of ways. Instead of the usual globe-trotting antics of many Bond entries, much of Skyfall unfolds in London and the countryside of the UK and the immediate neighbors. Sure there are some detours to China and Turkey, but this is the most a Bond film has been set in it's home base than I can ever remember. Skyfall also elects to engage in much more character development of Bond than most of the series. Bond finds himself put through an emotional and physical wringer, dealing with both the onset of age and the wounds generated in the line of duty. Skyfall is the first Bond outing that seems to truly exist in a post-9/11 world, with the nature of espionage and whether the decisions the leaders of those organizations have made are correct in the world as it currently is. Skyfall isn't content to just rehash the standard Bond formula, but engage in a degree of self-deconstruction of that formula as to whether it is still viable.

Back in the lead for his third time, Craig brings a degree of world- weariness to the role of Bond. With a multi-day growth of greying stubble for the first half of the film, and sporting a shoulder wound from a tussle with a enemy operative, Craig truly makes it appear at the outset that Bond is ready to be put out to pasture. Once again, despite a few brief encounters with some secondary characters, Craig's Bond is also less interested in bedding the ladies than he is in taking on the bad guys in his current incarnation. In Craig's hands, Bond is largely a man of vertical, not horizontal, action.

As Silva, Javier Bardem gives Skyfall the most memorable and formidable villain the series has seen in some outings. Sporting a blond wig, a number of effeminate traits (in one scene he is practically seducing Bond) and skill at verbal jousting to rival Hannibal Lecter, Bardem largely commands the screen when he is around. Silva also is a villain who isn't without a degree of method to his madness, as he challenges the modern, corrupt world we live in, introducing the idea that perhaps it is time for individuals to take matters into their own hands.

Judi Dench is handed the largest role the character of M has ever received, and she makes M less of a plot device and more of a central person in Bond's world. Over Craig's entries in the series, M has been given more of a presence than in the earlier films, and her part in Skyfall represents the character at it's pinnacle. M, much like Bond, is studied with a critical eye here, forced to deal with questions of her organizations relevance in the modern world.

Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes, helming his first full on action film, proves strong at staging the usual set pieces of the Bond universe, and he and cinematographer Roger Deakins craft a visually arresting look for Skyfall. At times almost monochromatic in color, Skyfall oozes craftsmanship in many of its moments. The title song, performed by Adele, is also one that hearkens back to the days of Shirley Bassey during the Connery era.

Skyfall does have weaknesses, largely due to an excessive running time. Bond films have never been brief affairs, but Skyfall seems a bit padded at times, especially in it's middle to late 3rd, where the narrative slows a bit too much. And also, despite plumbing some new depths of character, Skyfall still manages to fall a little short of true emotional resonance at times, displaying all the right trappings, but still feeling a little empty.

That being said, Skyfall is certainly a solid entry for James Bond, and one can only hope that whomever takes the creative reins next will build upon the strong foundations of Skyfall and make the next film truly soar.
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Prometheus (I) (2012)
Prometheus a solid, if not great, film
10 June 2012
Over the last year or so, fandom has been awash in hope and desire that Prometheus, the new film from Ridley Scott, and his return, if perhaps somewhat peripherally, to the Alien franchise he began in 1979 would be a welcome return to form for that series after a spiraling set of latter sequels and the infantile spinoffs in the form of the odious Alien vs. Predator films. Well fans, rejoice to some extent: Prometheus is certainly a fair sight better than the above mentioned films. It, however, will leave those who are expecting both a horror film and a very Alien-centric picture disappointed to a large extent, as Prometheus uses only the framework of the Alien universe to tell a wholly new tale, one that is more interested in asking questions than in giving you shocks.

Opening in 2089 on Earth in Scotland, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered a similar pictorial representation of a star system at multiple scientific digs. Using this information, they have convinced aging wealthy industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund an expedition to the star system depicted in the images in the hopes of making contact with what Shaw and Holloway refer to as the "Engineers", aliens they think may have helped engineer the beginnings of life on Earth. Once they arrive on the planet, the team discovers large structures that contain various chambers and artifacts, mostly small canisters, as well as one decapitated alien body. In the course of engaging in their research and exploration, they find themselves hampered at times by the limitations placed on them by their corporate boss, Vickers (Charlize Theron), and are also helped by android David (Michael Fassbender). But, as things unfold, the motivations of some of the crew begin to come into question, and the things they discover on the planet make them begin to wonder if it was a trip that was wrong to make.

Prometheus is very interested in tackling some "big" issues: the origin of mankind, the mix of faith and science and the search for immortality. Unlike many other modern science-fiction films, it isn't all slam-bang, hyper edited action. In fact, much of Prometheus is comprised of scenes of dialogue and moments of characters pondering what they have discovered. Science fiction movies with a degree of wonder and introspection are a rare creature these days, so the fact that Prometheus seems genuinely interested in exploring some of these themes is impressive in and of itself.

Prometheus doesn't completely skimp on the scare quotient. While I would hardly describe it as a full on horror film, Prometheus has more than its share of jumps, tension and squirms, albeit these moments are often secondary to other elements in the film, but they deliver when necessary. Prometheus definitely benefits from impressive visual design and cinematography from Arthur Max and Darius Wolski, respectively. It also does an exceptional job of revisiting the designs of H.R. Giger that were originally crafted for Alien. While there isn't much new design material here from Giger, seeing his ideas on screen again reminds you of what a unique and interesting designer he truly is.

Where Prometheus falls down, largely, is in the character department. Almost none of the main characters are really developed or given more than a cursory amount of personality. They are not neglected completely, but the audience doesn't really connect with them. Most of the development is given to Shaw and her search for answers about man's creation, but almost all the rest are provided with enough dialogue to serve the plot, and not a lot else. One of the most interesting characters in the film is actually the android David, who vacillates between being a helpful assistant to some of the humans to also having ulterior motives that may or may not be in the best interest of the crew. Fassbender does an exceptional job of making David have the outer appearance of warmth and congeniality, while hiding a cold, calculating core beneath the surface. David is a fascinating at times, and proves one of the more memorable elements in the film.

For those who are looking for Prometheus to give them some Alien action, they will have to make do with the suggestion of the film setting up some of the material of the first entry in that franchise. Prometheus does borrow some of the feel of the first Alien at times, especially in some middle scenes involving secondary crew members whose curiosity gets the best of them, but this film is not really an Alien movie, but a prequel in the truest sense of the word: it sets the table, but leaves before the meal is served.

Prometheus is a good, if unspectacular, science fiction film from director Scott that wants to play in the field of ideas and not just the space fantasy that many other films seem to be only interested in doing. While the lack of depth to the characters can at times keep the viewer at arm's length, in terms of look and feel, Prometheus delivers the goods. May Ridley Scott not wait another 30 years to re-enter the science fiction realm.
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The Crow (1994)
An overrated "classic"
5 April 2012
When first released in 1994, The Crow came with a lot of baggage attached. Star Brandon Lee, son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, had died during the production of the film due to a mishap with a prop firearm. The producers and director Alex Proyas, who had largely finished the film, elected to reshoot a small amount and utilize emerging digital technology to composite Brandon Lee into a select number of scenes as well as using a body double in some cases. When it hit screens in May, critical reception was largely warm. From then until now, I have stood as one of the seemingly small cadre of individuals who found The Crow, Brandon Lee's tragic passing notwithstanding, to be considerably overrated, full of style, but largely hollow at the core.

For the most part, The Crow is a revenge film dressed up with mystical elements. One year after Eric Draven (Lee) and fiancé Shelly (Sofia Shinas) were killed in a violent home invasion, Draven is resurrected from his grave by the presence of a crow, which has seemingly returned his soul to him to avenge his and Shelly's murder. Draven runs into former friends along the way, including largely ignored young girl Sarah (Rochelle Davis) and police officer Albrecht (Ernie Hudson), whom he occasionally ponders life and death with. Draven's targets are a small group of criminals, led by T-Bird (David Patrick Kelley), who works for Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), the crime boss of Detroit. Draven begins working through T-Bird's crew to reach Top Dollar, but Dollar's girlfriend, Myca (Bai Ling), realizes the source of Draven's power is the crow, and Top Dollar plots to take Draven down.

The Crow's key weakness is the shallowness of the characters. While it is hard to know whether some aspects of the film were affected by Lee's death and subsequent re-editing, but both Eric and Shelly are largely ciphers, revealed to us only via very limited flashbacks, but not given much depth or development. We are supposed to feel for them because the screenplay requires it, not because of any genuine interest in them. Without this identification with the victims, it is almost impossible to be involved in the film on a visceral level. There are moments when their plight is moving, but those are few and far between. The rest of the time, The Crow is not really anything special. Draven, seeking retribution for his death and loss, mows down each one of T-Bird's henchmen, using their particular vices or skills to make for stylish deaths (One is impaled on a half-dozen knives, another overdosed on a plethora of hypodermic needles filled with drugs). Some of the action sequences are well staged, but rarely are they exciting or involving.

The film's villains are also a bit underwhelming. Wincott, as Top Dollar, has a terrific raspy voice that gives Top Dollar a degree of menace, but still comes up wanting as a memorable screen heavy. T-Bird and his co-horts are barely on screen enough to register, and since they are largely drug addicts, some of them flail about wildly and are almost caricatures, not characters. The film does provide some interesting moments as Eric reconnects with friends from a prior life, but those are just glimpses of a film that is more interested in sweeping camera shots and violent death scenes.

The Crow is also not exactly an upbeat film. It was based on a comic series by author James O'Barr who tragically lost his family, and The Crow was an attempt by him to provide some catharsis to those events. The Crow mediates on life and death at times, but the oppressiveness of the narrative occasionally threatens to swallow it. I am hardly one to shy away from films with downbeat material, to be sure, but without the character foundation to provide support, the darkness of The Crow sometimes seems a bit much.

Many gave Brandon Lee positive notices for his last performance in this film, and he is fairly accomplished in the role. While he isn't given a lot to work with, what moments of pathos The Crow offers are in many cases due to Lee's work. It was a shame and tragedy that he died so young, on the cusp of attaining stardom. The Crow was also the film that brought director Alex Proyas to the attention of American audiences, lensing the film in largely dark and dank environments, crafting an decaying urban environment that fits the narrative. Not many years after Batman, The Crow certainly appears to offer some degree of homage to the design of Tim Burton's breakthrough success. The Crow is a very stylish affair, but good looks without a strong narrative are nothing but pretty pictures.

The Crow is not a meritless film, and some moments work, but for the most part it smacks of a film that attracted a great deal of attention due to the controversy surrounding it than for its substance. The Crow would go on to be followed by one theatrical sequel, The Crow: City of Angels, which would prove abysmal, and then two other, direct to video sequels that few people probably realize ever existed. The original film is the crown jewel in that franchise, but the praise is misplaced from my point of view, affection for a film that didn't really deserve it, while its lead actor actually did. The Crow is an unfortunate end to a career, and life, cut far too short.
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Hatchet (2006)
Lowest common denominator horror
16 March 2012
When it made the rounds in various film festivals in 2006 and 2007, Hatchet was met with a degree of warmth from the genre press. Directed by Adam Green, it was hailed as a successful throwback to the slasher film era of the 1980s, albeit with its tongue planted in its cheek. It garnered enough success to even spawn a sequel which was infamously released into AMC theaters nationwide unrated and then yanked only a day later after complaints of the violence and gore. With all this hullaballoo, Hatchet piqued my interest as something that I would be willing to give a spin to. Unfortunately, I was very mistaken in my belief that it was worth the 1 hour and a half of my life that was consumed to watch Hatchet. Repetitive, silly, and completely lacking in suspense are what comes to my mind when I think of Hatchet, and that is being relatively kind to it.

I was a horror film fan in the 1980s, and readily watched various entries in the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, among others. While I would not consider any of them exemplary films by my current standards of quality, they still hold a special place in my memory as films that I enjoyed in my youth, perhaps for questionable reasons, but we are all adolescents at one point in our life. As I remember this period of filmmaking well, I can certainly recognize where Adam Green drew inspiration for Hatchet, but, frankly, he has assembled a film that is far more inept and valueless than even some of the worst 80s slasher films.

The plot, of which there is little, goes as follows: Ben (Joel David Moore) and his friend Marcus (Deon Richmond) are visiting Mardi Gras in New Orleans to help Ben take his mind off a recent bad breakup. Ben grows weary of the endless stream of booze and topless women that the French Quarter has to offer up and convinces Marcus to join him on a "Haunted Swamp" tour. The tour is run by shady guide Shawn (Parry Shen), and includes an older couple (Richard Riehle, Patricia Darbo), a porn movie director (Joel Murray), his two "actresses" (Mercedes McNabb, Joleigh Fioravanti) who are often sans shirts, and one quiet withdrawn young woman, Marybeth (Tamara Feldman). They all pile in a boat on the edge of the swamp, venture in, the boat wrecks on some rocks and then when they have to evacuate, Marybeth reveals that the swamp is the hunting ground of Victor Crowley, the ghost of a young deformed boy who was accidentally killed by his loving father when he was a child. Shockingly, Victor Crowley (or his ghost) is not exactly child sized any more, and possesses enough brute strength to off anyone who enters his woods in various gruesome ways. It becomes a race against time for the various shipwrecked individuals to make their way back to civilization with all body parts intact.

If you are interested in watching a film put forth a great deal of effort to create some of the goriest, most over the top, no holds barred violent death scenes in recent memory, then pop Hatchet in the DVD player, sit back and enjoy. Hatchet is a gorehound's wet dream, with each death more outrageous than the last, often intercut with shots of blood and viscera splashing onto nearby trees. However, if you like suspense, tension, vaguely interesting characters or most of the other elements that make up a good movie, then keep on moving, nothing to see here. Hatchet accomplishes the quite amazing feat of becoming monotonous within the first 20 minutes, as we are treated to the film's shoddy attempts to set up the characters with some jokey humor, and while there are a few chuckles here and there, most of it falls flat on its face. Once the film reaches the swamp, you can be forgiven for at least thinking there would be lip service paid to providing a few scares to go along with the copious bloodletting, but aside from one or two "Boo" moments, Hatchet manages to completely fail in that department as well.

What's worse is that even when Hatchet is aping some of the cornerstone elements of slasher films, what ends up on the screen is amateurish at best. The token flashback scene to Victor's youth and tragic accident comes off as if it was filmed by some teenagers making their own horror film in their backyard, and once Victor Crowley is revealed, he more or less just repeatedly jumps out of bushes and eviscerates the nearest victim. No buildup, no sense of dread, just a big guy in a bunch of latex making fast work of the cast one by one. There is no moment of concern for any of the characters, they are more or less types, and nothing about them proves interesting or endearing in the slightest. They exist to provide raw material for the film's violence, nothing more.

The actors are generally competent, there are a few cameos that will make horror film aficionados chuckle to themselves, the special makeup effects are impressive at times and the camera work doesn't descend into the shaky cam trend that has become the norm in some horror films, but that is about all I can say positive about Hatchet. Unless you are there to see the buckets of gore, it provides nothing of value to the audience, except for the realization at the end that perhaps you might not see a movie as bad as Hatchet again any time soon.
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John Carter (2012)
John Carter is both familiar and boring
9 March 2012
By various accounts, there have been attempts to bring Edgar Rice Burrough's second most well known character, planet hopping John Carter, to the screen as far back as the 1930s. However, it has taken until 2012, the centenary of the publication of A Princess of Mars, the first John Carter tale, for those efforts to finally bear fruit. Disney's John Carter is full of what you would expect from epic pulp science fiction: multi-limbed, green-skinned aliens, a square jawed hero and a beautiful woman for him to alternately save and fall in love with. The problem, however, is all these elements are in service to a seemingly endless slog through a pastiche of familiar components without a compelling reason to exist.

The film opens with a fast as lightning narration that will possibly leave the uninitiated scratching their heads as the scene is set: on the planet of Mars, known as Barsoom to its indigenous inhabitants, the Zondangans are attempting to strip mine the planet of its resources (I think). Opposing them are the people of Helium, led by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), against the evil Zodangan leader, Sab Than (Dominic West). However, Sab has formed an alliance with a group of creatures that the people of Barsoom view as assistance to their great goddess, Isis, named Therns. The Therns, primarily represented by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), have given Sab a powerful weapon that he is using to subdue the people of Helium so that they can engage in a nefarious plot. Meanwhile, on Earth in the late 1800s, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Confederate soldier, is prospecting for Gold in the Arizona territory when he accidentally encounters a Thern in a cave and is teleported to Mars, where the difference in gravity and the density of his body gives him the ability to leap through the air as if the whole planet was a giant trampoline.

Shortly after arriving on Mars, John is captured by Tharks, the previously mentioned aliens, whose leader, Tars Tarkas (the voice of Willem Dafoe and some decent computer animation for the visual appearance), takes a liking to Carter. Through various plot machinations, John ends up saving the Helium princess Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins) from the clutches of Sab, who desires to marry her so he can gain power on Mars. Deja convinces Carter she can get him back to Earth, but hopes to convince him to take up the cause against the Zondangans to save Mars.

The John Carter of Mars series of books have long been favorites of authors and filmmakers who would shape science fiction throughout the 20th century, including such luminaries as Ray Bradbury and George Lucas. Over the years, elements of the John Carter stories have been cherry picked and utilized in so many other works that, now that the "original" material is finally being adapted, frankly, it manages to look derivative and old hat. I am aware of the historical significance of Burrough's work, so while I can reconcile the fact that John Carter feels like it is ripping off other films that actually ripped their elements off from the John Carter stories, it doesn't change the fact that this film is late to the party compared to so many others, and looks it. Many familiar elements to modern audiences are on display, such as a princess in danger, megalomaniacal villains who desire world domination, alien beings with strong, instilled senses of honor, so on and so forth. John Carter cannot help the fact it looks like it is robbing other, better films.

Much of this could be forgiven if John Carter was a rousing tale, but alas, it is not. The film spends an interminable amount of time setting up its story, introducing characters who prove one-dimensional, and moving slowly through familiar paces, that it quickly wears out its welcome. John Carter also unveils its narrative in a rather haphazard manner, leading to an extensive learning curve for audience members who are not well versed in the stories on which the film is based. Once the narrative is going it doesn't prove impenetrable, but it also feels as if big chunks of explanation have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Carter is given a tragic backstory, and at one point it does provide a degree of pathos to him, but aside from that, these are people we don't really care about. Carter and Deja are supposed to be smitten for one another, but there is no legitimate chemistry, just a screenplay mandated romance. The villains are rather limp as well, with Dominic West providing his best dastardly villain turn but proving somewhat cheesy and obvious, and Mark Strong plays his character with very little energy, not giving the audience someone to root against.

Kitsch certainly looks the role as a hero, but the screenplay gives him little to do that endears John Carter to us. Lynn Collins, with reddened skin and tattoos, projects a degree of exotic beauty that makes her a good choice for Deja Thoris, and her character is endowed with a little more material to work with. Ciaran Hinds is here to look important and collect a paycheck, James Purefoy is here to provide an offbeat, playful guard to Deja and collect a paycheck and the most endearing character proves to be a computer generated, six legged, fast- as-The-Flash dog creature that you can't help but find cute.

John Carter has an impressive filmmaking pedigree behind it, including director Andrew Stanton who previously helmed the Pixar films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, and award winning novelist Michael Chabon who is an admitted Burroughs fan. It is unfortunate that such talent serve up something so lackluster, but John Carter proves an underwhelming affair that will most likely have audience members shifting in their seats well before the running time is half over. Edgar Rice Burrough's character deserves better.
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Surprisingly strong fourth entry
29 January 2012
After Tom Cruise had a falling out with Paramount following his controversial behavior in mid 2000s from his ranting about psychiatrists and promotion of Scientology, it seemed somewhat unlikely that another Mission: Impossible film would be in the offing starring him. But in Hollywood, time heals all wounds, at least where there is money to be made. So, several years later, here is the fourth entry in the Mission: Impossible film franchise, subtitled Ghost Protocol. And, most interestingly, it is one of the better entries in the series, featuring some strong action set pieces that keep the audience on the edge of their seat at several key points in the proceedings.

Ghost Protocol finds Ethan Hunt (Cruise) in prison in Russia at the opening under mysterious circumstances. Sprung by IMF agents in a sequence that brings to mind the opening of a James Bond film, we quickly learn that Ethan is needed to help locate and stop a former Russian politician named Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) who believes that the only way to achieve global peace is to start a nuclear war and let the survivors sort out the mess. Joined by Jane Carter (Paula Patton), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and a somewhat unwilling analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who has been forced by circumstances to work with the team, Ethan finds that, after the Kremlin is bombed, that the President has "disavowed" the entire IMF by declaring Ghost Protocol, and they must work outside of official sanction to stop Hendricks from detonating a nuclear weapon with stolen launch codes. The trail for him takes them from Russia to Dubai and finally Mumbai as they race against the clock.

At first glance, you might find yourself wondering how three of the four Mission: Impossible films finds the team outside of their support system and being treated as terrorists; haven't the writers seen the other films and don't they get a little beat of wandering down the same road so many times. But, frankly, as with the ever ongoing Bond films, Mission: Impossible is less about plot and more about its action sequences, and this time the film has delivered in spades. Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol features the live-action debut of animation director Brad Bird, who helmed Pixar's hit The Incredibles, and he does a good job of assembling strong, involving set pieces that keep the audience on the edge of its seat. The standout is the middle portion, set in Dubai, where script contrivances lead Ethan to need to scale the exterior of Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. Bird stages these scenes stunningly, really ramping up the vertigo and tension as Hunt uses glue-like gloves to climb the side of the glass windowed tower. Other set pieces in Russia and Mumbai also have zip to them, keeping the suspense solid throughout.

If Ghost Protocol has weaknesses, they are largely in the development of the villains. Hendricks and his henchman Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann) have the basic makings of some nice megalomaniacal villains, but suffer from limited screen time and some very limited depth. They serve the plot's basic need for villains, but don't really come across as the kind of visceral bad guys you love to hate. As much as the nuclear launch codes Ethan and team are chasing, they fill the standard Hitchcock position of the MacGuffin, and don't make a lasting impression on the audience.

Back for his fourth turn as Ethan, Cruise is dependable as always, giving Hunt that reserved, slightly above it all attitude that keeps him largely cool under fire, but he does have his moments when the guard is lowered and you can see him concerned about the stakes they are fighting for. Paula Patton is attractive in the role of Jane, who the script gives some more personal drive in the search for Hendricks and his cronies, Pegg delivers some welcome comic relief in the role of Benji and Renner, who has been rumored to be groomed for future Mission: Impossible films if Cruise steps down, holds his own in the action sequences, as well as providing the audience with a semi-outsider to empathize with as the circumstances consistently get higher and higher for the characters past what he is used to dealing with in his role as an analyst thrown into the action.

For the most part, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol delivers a strong, fast, popcorn munching action film that provides thrills without turning into an over-edited explosion fest that you often get from a film directed by Michael Bay. If this is what the Mission: Impossible franchise can deliver on its fourth outing, then it may have plenty of entries for years to come.
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