Reel Opinions

Friday, January 31, 2014

Labor Day

Bad movies happen to talented filmmakers all the time.  But never did I imagine that the very talented Jason Reitman could strike out as severely as he does with Labor Day, a turgid and melancholy romantic melodrama that's dead almost on arrival.  Just what in the blazes possessed the maker of such fine films as Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult into thinking that this material was ready to go before the cameras?

The movie wants to be a wistful romantic fantasy, the kind that you usually see the name Nicholas Sparks attached to. (Although, this film is based on a novel by Joyce Maynard.) Even the movies based on Sparks' novels know that you need a reason for the two main characters to come together.  In Labor Day, we get two miserable people with sad pasts who get together, and well, basically seem miserable together.  We never get a sense that they are truly connecting, nor does the screenplay (also credited to Reitman) give them much to talk about.  Speaking of the dialogue, this is one of those movies where everyone recites their lines in hushed, self important tones.  Their voices barely register above a somber whisper at times as they talk like they're trapped in a bad melodrama, which they are.  The movie is painfully slow to begin with, and having everyone talk in such slow, quiet tones makes it downright interminable.

The plot takes place over the titular holiday weekend in 1987.  A lonely single mother named Adele (Kate Winslet) and her equally lonely 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), live in a ramshackle old house that looks like it's barely still standing.  Henry spends his days taking care of his mother, who is still so heartbroken over the fact that her husband left her a few years ago for another woman, that she has pretty much given up the will to live.  Her hands constantly shake, she never sees or talks to anyone, and the only time she sets foot outside of her house is to make a monthly run to the grocery store for food and supplies.  It's during one of those rare shopping trips that Adele and Henry are approached by a stranger by the name of Frank (Josh Brolin), who is bleeding, nervous, and insists that they give him a ride back to their home.

It turns out that Frank is a fugitive from the law who has recently made a daring escape from the police by throwing himself out a second story hospital window before he was set for an operation. (That's why he's bleeding.) He needs a place to lay low for a little while until he can catch a train out of town.  He does tie Adele to a chair shortly after they bring him home, but to prove that he's not such a bad guy, he cooks them his special recipe for chili, and even tenderly spoon feeds tiny bites of the stuff to Adele while she's tied up, in what must be one of the strangest seduction scenes in recent memory.  Turns out Frank is a wiz in the kitchen.  After he sets Adele free, he teaches her and the boy how to make a fresh peach pie.  We get a scene where Frank and Adele seductively caress the fruit filling with their hands together.  The whole thing brings to mind the clay pottery scene in Ghost, only even sillier.

This Frank is quite a guy.  Within hours of arriving at their home, he's repairing it, changing the oil in the car, fixing the squeaky door, teaching little Henry how to play baseball, cleaning the gutters, doing the laundry, and cooking up mouthwatering dishes in the kitchen.  Why can't every escaped convict who takes people hostage be this nice, sexy, and handy around the house?  Actually, the whole "escaped from prison" backstory is really just a hook.  Henry basically exists as a generic "perfect man" type, who may or may not have a shady past to give him a bit of an edge.  Since Adele and Frank barely share any words during their time together, and don't really talk about themselves, the connection has to be purely physical, and nothing else.  This makes it all the more questionable that, within a few days of meeting each other, they're ready to leave everything behind, run off to Canada, and start a life together.

Labor Day is so heavy-handed with its seriousness, the only way the movie could be possibly improved is to remake it as a parody.  From the corny romance novel-level dialogue, to the voice over narration by Tobey Maguire (as the adult Henry), which feels the need to spell out every single thing that the characters are thinking, this movie brings about more unintentional bad laughs than just about any other recent film I can think of.  It doesn't help that the characters are also incredibly dumb, with young Henry in particular doing things simply so that there can be some tension in the plot.  If you knew you were harboring a fugitive, would you just leave the front door hanging open?  And why is it that every time someone does leave the door open, snoopy neighbors and cops suddenly show up on the doorstep to ask if everything is all right?  It's like they descend upon the house the moment Henry is stupid enough not to close the door after walking back inside.  I started to have a mental image of the neighbors lurking in the bushes just outside, waiting for someone to make a wrong movie, so they could run right up to the door and ask for a favor, or drop something off.

To their credit, Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are professionals, and take their roles seriously.  And there are a couple nice scenes between Henry and a new girl in town that he strikes up a crush on.  It's too bad this plot ends up going nowhere, as the smart-mouthed girl is easily the most interesting character in the film, and the only thing resembling the usual intelligence and wit that Jason Reitman puts into his films.  These are shallow, simple characters, and despite their best efforts, the actors can't breathe life into them.  Adele is broken, shattered, and needs a man in her life to give her existence meaning.  Frank is kind and an all-around handyman, but troubled, and with a violent past.  The movie is supposed to be about how they fill what's missing in each other's lives, but they're so underwritten, we don't even have a good idea of what it is they're filling in the first place, other than a necessity to sleep with someone.

I'm certain that Jason Reitman will get over this error of judgement, and make a great movie again.  But Labor Day is a huge blotch on what has up to now been a blameless record.  If this film proves anything, it's that he doesn't belong anywhere near romantic cornball tripe such as this.  I could have told him that.

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

I, Frankenstein

It's been a long time since I've seen a movie as ugly, loud, and inept as I, Frankenstein.  Don't let the film's title trick you into thinking that it's an in-depth look into the mind of the famous mad scientist, or some kind of new spin on the classic tale by Mary Shelly.  Heck, the good Dr. Frankenstein is barely in the thing at all.  Rather, this is the story about his Monster, played here by Aaron Eckhart (usually a reliable actor, but here he gives a performance destined to be remembered at next year's Razzie Awards), and how he got sucked into a battle between gargoyles and demons.

As the film opens, we get a brief recap of the famous Frankenstein story, told from the point of view of the Monster.  We learn how the mad scientist spent his life hunting down his creation, until he eventually froze to death in the arctic.  The Monster buries his creator in the family cemetery, and mere seconds after this happens, a pack of demons suddenly attack the creature.  He manages to fight off some, but he eventually succumbs to his wounds and falls.  That's when some stone gargoyles come to life, and finish off the demons.  Once the battle is won, the gargoyles take the form of humans, and inspect the Monster's body, only to learn that he still lives.  And yes, one of the gargoyles actually says "It's Alive!  It's Alive!" at this discovery.

The gargoyles take the Monster to the cathedral that they call home, where they introduce him to their queen, Leonore (Miranda Otto), who fills him and us, the audience, on what's going on.  It seems that the gargoyles and demons have been waging a secret war amongst humans for centuries, though the reasons for said war are murky at best.  All we do know is that the gargoyles (who sometimes appear as lame CG stone monsters, but usually appear in human form to cut down on special effects) are the good guys, while the demons (who sometimes appear as human actors, but usually appear as human actors with rubber monster masks on over their heads) are trying to build an army of evil in order to destroy humanity.  Leonore gives the Monster the name of Adam, and invites him to join in their battle.

Flash forward some 200 years, and the battle still rages on, with Adam in the middle of it.  It's here that we learn that the Prince of the Demons, Naberius (Bill Nighy), is posing as a businessman of some sort, and has enlisted human scientists to help him reanimate dead lifeforms.  His scientists are currently working on reviving dead rats, but he has a whole basement full of dead bodies that he wants to experiment on, so he can bring them back to life and create an army of evil.  Adam befriends a pretty young scientist named Terra (Yvonne Strahovski), and convinces her to join him in trying to find the lost journal of Dr. Frankenstein, which holds the secret to reanimating the dead that Naberius is looking for.  The search for the journal consists of a lot of increasingly mindless action sequences, each one shot in such dark and murky colors, so that we often have no idea what is supposed to be happening.

I, Frankenstein is a grim and creatively bankrupt film from which no joy emanates.  Not even the actors seem to be enjoying themselves up on the screen.  There's a sense of gloom that hangs over this production, and not all of it is intentional.  It's the kind of gloom you sense when talented actors know they're trapped in a turkey.  So what are people like Eckhart, Nighy, and Otto doing here?  Oh, how I wish I knew.  The movie is deadly dull, takes itself far too seriously, and is frequently ugly to look at.  Writer-director Stuart Beattie draws some interest with his initial idea of Frankenstein's Monster still being alive all this time, but he refuses to take advantage of it, and instead throws us in the middle of a generic monster battle where we don't care about either side.  It's also hard to follow the story, thanks to some glaring editing, which makes it feel like whole chunks of the film have been removed.  Given the violent nature of the film, and the PG-13 rating, I imagine a lot has been left out.

Even in these dreary days of January, there are movies out there that are brighter, funnier, and more imaginative than this.  I, Frankenstein is the worst movie playing in cinemas right now.  And no, I have not forgotten that The Legend of Hercules and Devil's Due are still out there.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

August: Osage County

It's fitting that August: Osage County takes place in the middle of the sweltering heat.  At one point in the film, a digital temperature reading hits 108 degrees.  And most of the action is set in and around a massive home where the air conditioning doesn't work, and those inside it look like they're about to be driven mad from the heat.  Into this withering humidity is thrown a dysfunctional family who is forced to confront their past, present, and future.  This is a blistering and dark drama with one of the best cast ensembles of the year.

In adapting the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Broadway play, director John Wells (The Company Men) is wise to emphasize his cast and their performances, which really are what sell this material.  While the set up of the plot is simple enough, it holds more than enough surprises along the way, and the cast has to be ready to really dig into this dramatic material.  This is drama that needs to be big, without being bombastic, and for the most part, the movie and the cast within it hit that right note.  We've seen plenty of stories about dysfunctional families being forced to come together, but the original play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the film's script) was famous for its dialogue, brutal honesty, and acidic verbal barbs, all of which carry through here.  This is a wonderful adaptation, and even though it runs shorter than the stage version (The play was three hours with two intermissions.  The movie runs only two hours), it doesn't feel like it's been hacked to pieces, nor does any of the strength of the play feel like it's been lost.

At the center of all the family animosity is Violet (Meryl Streep), a chain smoking and pill popping mother who, despite slowly dying from mouth cancer, still has quite the acidic tongue on her.  Her alcoholic poet husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), has suddenly gone missing just days after hiring a live-in housekeeper to look after his wife.  Gathering at the home to comfort their mother and help look for their father are Violet's three daughters, Ivy (Julian Nicholson), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Barbara (Julia Roberts).  The homecoming is not a sweet one, with Violet immediately laying blame on daughter Barbara for destroying her husband with the way she left home years ago.  As the family struggles to cope with each other and their own personal secrets, they are struck by another blow when it is revealed that Beverly has killed himself.  Now the family must stay together even longer for the funeral, allowing even more old wounds to reveal themselves.

Into the growing emotional chaos comes more family members to mourn Beverly's passing, including Violet's sister, Maggie (Margo Martindale), who seems sweet at first, but we learn that she can be just as brutal and cruel as Violet, particularly when it comes to her awkward son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Maggie's husband, Charles (Chris Cooper), does what he can to keep the peace, but it gets harder as the film goes on, especially when their son announces that he is in love with somebody.  Adding to the overall bad feelings, Karen has brought her new fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney) along, and it's clear that he may have his eye on Barbara's 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin).  Also present is Barbara's husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), who is on the verge of leaving her.  All this, and I haven't even mentioned anything about the family secrets that threaten to tear the family apart during the week they spend together.

Whether it's on the stage or the screen, putting the different pieces of August: Osage County together must often feel like a complex balancing act, as you must balance a wide range of tones, which range from dark drama to equally dark comedy, as well as a diverse group of characters and actors.  The plot is often all over the place, as it cuts back and forth through multiple plot lines and relationships that must be kept in motion, so that they do not seem stagnant, and must run throughout the entire film.  The direction of the film is simple, focusing entirely on the actors, instead of giving us complex visual flair, which is for the best in this case.  John Wells does not want us to lose track of these multiple characters and plots, and so by planting his camera in the middle of it all, we can savor Letts' dialogue and complicated story arcs.

The movie is also wise to keep this large group of talented actors mainly working together as a group.  Yes, almost everybody in the cast gets their "big moment" in the film to stand out, but this is largely an ensemble piece.  Of the cast, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts get the meatiest roles, and they are both wonderful as they tackle this vicious material.  Roberts, in particular, has never given a better dramatic performance than this.  These are flashy dramatic performances, and they are expertly delivered.  And yet, the movie also has time for some quieter performances, mainly from the men in the film.  In particular, Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch are wonderful as an understanding father, and an adult son who has been broken down by life, respectively.  And even though he only has one scene in the film, Sam Shepard brings a quiet dignity to his role as the father whose disappearance kick starts this whole mess.

I can understand how some viewers can be turned off by August: Osage County.  It is relentlessly bleak, with only a few moments of dark humor to lighten the mood now and then.  The fact that the studio seems to be trying to sell it as a lighthearted comedy about a family coming together means they either missed the boat, or didn't even understand their own movie.  The only misstep the movie makes is with its final shot, which feels tacked on.  If the movie had ended at the exact moment the play did, it would have been perfect.  But, because of that last shot, what should be a devastating and powerful ending winds up being oddly hopeful.

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Ride Along

I will admit upfront that as an actor, Kevin Hart is a taste I have yet to acquire.  So, that probably hindered my enjoyment while watching Ride Along, which is his first leading role in a major Hollywood production.  If you're a fan, you might get more out of this than I did.  Or maybe not.  Outside of its lead star, nothing much stands out about this largely generic enterprise that seems to have been hammered out of the bits and pieces of other cop buddy comedies.

Hart plays Ben Barber, a goofy security guard at an Atlanta high school who has two dreams in his life.  The first is to be accepted into the police academy, and the other is to marry his long-time girlfriend, Angela (Tika Sumpter).  His first dream is on the verge of coming true, when he finally gets a letter informing him he's been accepted.  Now he wants to work on that second dream, which is harder, due to the fact that Angela has an overly protective and tough as nails older brother named James (Ice Cube), who has never liked Ben, and is determined to see that his sister does not marry him.  James is a hard-nosed cop who frequently breaks the rules, and has been spending the past few years chasing after a mysterious criminal mastermind named Omar who is so good at distancing himself from his crimes, no one has ever seen his face.  Now that Ben is on the verge of becoming a cop himself, he arranges to go on a ride along for one day with James, in the hopes that he can prove himself worthy of marrying Angela.

Just by reading that short synopsis, you probably already have a good idea how the rest of Ride Along plays out.  Ben and James start out their day by handling a few small time crimes, where Ben will try to take control of the situation in order to impress James, only to have things go wrong in various comical ways.  James will be on the verge of giving up on the guy, only to form a begrudging amount of respect for him when Ben happens to figure out a clue that might lead him to Omar's location.  James, being the lone wolf that he is, will try to get rid of Ben so that he can take on Omar alone, only to find out that he's in over his head.  Ben will show up and save him.  Then Omar will make one last ditch effort to get back at the two by kidnapping Angela, so that she can be worked back into the story, since the script has given her nothing to do up to this point.   

Am I really giving away the plot when it's pretty much predetermined when it comes to this genre?  Once all the plot points and characters are set up in the first 15 minutes, the audience feels like they are way ahead of the characters.  Will Ben and James start out hating each other, but end up as friends by the end?  Will most of the cops who are working on the Omar case alongside James end up being dirty and getting paid off by the villain?  Will James give Ben permission to marry her sister?  Will the sun rise in the East and set in the West tomorrow?  You already know the answers.  What amazes me is that it took four separate writers to work on this script.  I imagine most of their work involved diving in various dumpsters for old script pages, crossing off the old names and putting in the new ones, and maybe changing a line of dialogue or two.

The thing is, Hart proves himself a capable comedic actor here.  While I may not be a fan of his style of humor, I do have to admit that he is energetic here, and seems more than able of carrying a film.  He just needs to find a project that isn't cobbled together from other material.  He's obviously giving this script more effort than it deserves.  The other actors spend most of their time standing around, so that Hart can do his material.  They know that this is his movie.  I can only hope that if this does lead to more leading roles for the guy, that he chooses his future projects a bit more carefully.  A few more as generic as this, and I don't think his fans will be as eager to show up.

I have no doubt that Ride Along will have one big weekend, then pretty much fade from everyone's mind, as Kevin Hart goes on to do bigger and hopefully better things.  I'm pulling for the guy.  I want to like him.  He proves here that he has the energy to hold an audience's attention in a lead role.  Now he just has to find a real script tailored to his talents.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Nut Job

While it will never be mistaken for an animated classic, The Nut Job is pleasant enough for young children, and tolerable enough for accompanying adults.  In adapting his own 2005 animated short film, Surly Squirrel, to feature length, director and former Disney animator, Peter Lepeniotis, has given us a film with a cute premise, but not much imagination or originality.

The film's hero, Surly Squirrel (voice by Will Arnett), lives up to his name.  He's selfish, rude, and only thinks of himself.  He has a best friend, a rat named Buddy (who doesn't talk much, and has a striking resemblance to the character Remy from Pixar's Ratatouille), and lives amongst the other animals in a city park, but Surly is clearly out to only help himself.  While the other park animals are struggling to find enough food to last them during the upcoming winter, Surly is trying to figure out how to break into a nut store that's just opened up nearby so he can stuff himself silly.  His plans are eventually found out by some of the other animals, namely a lady squirrel named Andie (Katherine Heigl), and the leader of the park animals, the bombastic Raccoon (voiced by an equally bombastic Liam Neeson), who rules over the animals with an iron fist, and doesn't trust Surly.  Surly and the other animals are soon able to work out an uneasy alliance as they try to break into the store together.

In a somewhat clever angle, the nut store is actually a front for a gang of criminals who are planning to tunnel under the store to the vault in the bank next door.  The crooks are the dimwitted type, which is to be expected.  What I did not expect is how frequently they would pull guns and open fire, which is kind of a violent image for a kid's cartoon.  The criminals also have a "guard dog", a cute little pug named Precious (Maya Rudolph), who is easily the best character in the film.  Once she joins up with Surly and his animal friends, she ends up getting the best lines, and stealing every scene she's in thanks to Rudolph's lively voice over performance.  Outside of that bright spot, The Nut Job is pretty middle of the road.  It will keep the kids quiet, and the adults will smile from time to time, but it's pretty thin stuff compared to animated giants like Frozen.

The film is a joint effort between a Canadian and South Korean animation studio.  The South Korean influence certainly helps to explain the bizarre ending credit sequence, where an animated rendition of Korean pop star, Psy, suddenly shows up, and begins to sing his signature song, "Gangnam Style", while all the cartoon animals from the film dance alongside him.  Outside of that bit of insanity, there's very little to surprise here.  The film's premise of the animals trying to steal food from humans in order to survive brings to mind the Dreamworks animated film, Over the Hedge.  Oddly enough, that film's co-writer, Lorne Cameron, worked on this script, too.  Audiences, even little kids, will probably feel like they've seen everything the movie has to offer already.  But, the animation is nice to look at, and the film never offends.

The Nut Job is a step above recent animated duds like Free Birds or Walking with Dinosaurs, and does what it sets out to do.  The kids will get a kick out of it, but boy could this movie have been so much better given the talent. 

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Devil's Due

Audiences will walk into Devil's Due, hoping to be scared, and will walk out disappointed and angry.  That's almost a guarantee.  The movie is a vast 89 minutes of nothingness with no tension, no scares, and no atmosphere of any kind.  This is the kind of film that sends people out of the theater, murmuring angrily to themselves.  Even the most timid of audience members are likely to be bored.

Devil's Due is a lackluster example of the "found footage horror" genre.  The premise is always the same.  The hero decides to videotape every moment of their life right around the time some creepy, paranormal-related events start going on around them.  This time, our heroes are a young newlywed couple - Zach (Zach Gilford) and Samantha McCall (Allison Miller).  While honeymooning in the Dominican Republic, they make the bad decision to listen to a shady cab driver, who takes them to an even shadier underground bar and dance club.  At one point during the night, the young couple black out.  We then see brief glimpses of what appears to be Samantha taking part in some kind of ancient Satanic ritual.  They wake the next morning in their hotel room, with no memory of the events of the night before.  They fly home, ready to begin their lives together, only to quickly learn that Samantha has mysteriously gotten pregnant at some point during the trip.

As Zach videotapes every moment of the pregnancy for posterity, he begins to notice a change in the behavior of his new wife.  She's aggressive, violent, and has the ability to send people flying through the air as she emits an unearthly roar.  Also, despite being a vegetarian, she develops a taste for red meat.  So strong is her sudden desire for the stuff that, when shopping at a supermarket, she stops in front of a packet of raw meat, tears it open, and starts eating it right there in the aisle.  Oddly enough, despite this moment being captured on the store's security camera, nobody stops her or questions her.  This is actually a continuing problem throughout the film.  Samantha keeps on displaying her newly formed superhuman abilities in public, and nobody seems to care or notice.  Not even when she happens to murder three innocent teenagers who have the bad luck to come across her and, naturally, just happened to be videotaping everything that was happening to them for no apparent reason.

The ad campaign for the film has already given the plot away, so it's not much of a spoiler to say that Samantha is carrying the Antichrist.  There's an evil cult behind the pregnancy plot, who start staking out the young couple's home, and even place hidden cameras throughout the home, so they can watch their every move.  Because of this, we get to see a lot of video footage where nothing literally happens.  Characters fumble through the dark, calling out each other's names, until something usually jumps out in front of them, or there is some kind of loud noise on the soundtrack.  I couldn't help wondering why these people feel the need to videotape themselves walking down dark hallways, and never bothering to turn on a light when they enter a room.  The filmmakers seem to be under the mistaken impression that these moments are thrilling, given how often it happens during the course of the film.

Despite all the ominous signs and demonic rumblings in Devil's Due, nothing actually happens during the course of the film.  And by nothing, I mean nothing scary, original, or exciting.  Even the cheap jolts and jump scares elicited yawns from my audience, instead of nervous laughter or shrieks.  You know, I can understand the appeal of these found footage films for studios.  They cost very little to make, and usually make back their total costs in a single weekend.  All a movie like this needs to succeed is a catchy ad campaign.  And yet, I'm also sensing a kind of burn out on these kind of films, both from audiences, and the studios that make them.  The last couple Paranormal Activity films (the undisputed king of the recent found footage films) have underperformed at the box office.  And if this film is any indication, the studios just aren't putting any effort into them anymore.

It's always depressing to watch a movie that just isn't trying very hard.  It's even more depressing when you realize how little the movie cost to make in the first place, so at least you'd think they would try to stand out a little bit.  Devil's Due doesn't want to stand out.  It just wants to take our money and waste our time.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

It would seem that Chris Pine has become Hollywood's go-to guy when it wants to revive a dormant film franchise, and make it more appealing to a younger audience.  After playing Captain Kirk in the last two Star Trek films, Pine now gets to step into the shoes of Jack Ryan, the literary hero from Tom Clancy, who has previously been brought to life on the screen by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck.  Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit serves as a modernized origin story for the character, and as far as fast-paced thrillers go, it's pretty successful. 

Kenneth Branagh has the directing duties, and he shows a certain skill in staging some pretty elaborate action sequences.  Surprisingly, this is not even all that action-heavy of a movie.  But, even when the guns are not blazing or the cars are speeding down the highway, the movie creates a palpable amount of tension.  Pine plays Jack Ryan as a rookie, so he's far from the confident hero we've seen in past films, although we get to see glimpses of it.  As the film opens, Ryan is a student at a University in England who, after seeing the Twin Towers fall on 9/11, becomes inspired to serve his country and join the military.  After he is wounded in Afghanistan, he meets two important people during his time recovering. The first is the lovely Cathy (Kiera Knightley), who helps him recover from his injuries and eventually becomes his live-in girlfriend.  The other is Commander Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits Jack into the CIA, as an analyst and an undercover agent on Wall Street.

It's during his time on Wall Street that Ryan happens to uncover a possible plan being set up by the Russians to destroy the U.S. economy.  The villain behind the plot is Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), who has a personal vendetta against the Americans, and is setting up a massive terrorist attack to coincide with his plan.  Jack Ryan is sent off to Moscow to investigate, and quickly finds himself on the run from Russian agents who want him dead once he starts getting too close to the truth.  Cathy eventually follows him, under the suspicion that he is having an affair, and gets wrapped up in the whole situation also.  All of this is told with a certain amount of style.  As I mentioned, the action sequences are all well done, but more than that, the movie never once slows down, or feels like it is getting bogged down with too much information or jargon.  It has all the intensity of a summer blockbuster for adults, which is kind of welcoming in these dreary days of January.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit takes a little while to find its footing, but once it does, it becomes a confident and exciting film.  I would say the first half hour or so is probably the weakest half.  Once Ryan enters Moscow, the movie finds the right angle, and never looks back.  It constantly seems to be moving, but is not so frantic that we start begging for a quiet moment.  Like all good thrillers, it puts forth just enough information to keep us intrigued, while not giving all its cards away, so that we lose interest.  The screenplay by Adam Cozad and David Koepp rewards our interest by not only ratcheting up the suspense, but also by not getting too silly or over the top that we lose interest.  This is a movie that has been well thought out and executed all around.

I have to wonder, though, how Tom Clancy's fans will react to Chris Pine.  He plays a much younger and not as experienced Jack Ryan, and he comes across differently than he has in pas films.  Regardless, he is very good, and is more than capable of pulling off the stunts and action when called for.  And as casting himself as the lead villain, director Branagh gives a quiet performance that is more sad and chilling, than over the top.  And I really think Kevin Costner has found a great role playing Ryan's CIA mentor.  Should this film spin off into sequels, I hope they expand upon his character, and improve his relationship with Ryan, as I enjoyed a lot of the scenes he did with Pine.

As an attempt to reboot the Jack Ryan film franchise, and possibly spin it off into a new series, this is largely a success, and one that could get better with future sequels.  Even if the film is not based on a certain book, it does have an understanding of the characters, and shows a lot of hope that this new potential series is headed in the right direction.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Legend of Hercules

There are typically two kinds of movies that are released during the early weeks of January.  The first are the high profile December releases that are slowly expanding out of limited release.  Such recent films include Lone Survivor and Her.  The other kind are ones that the studio already knows are massive duds, and hope to sweep under the rug without anyone noticing.  I probably don't have to tell you which category The Legend of Hercules falls under.

This is a drab and witless movie that doesn't even have the decency to be so bad it's good.  It casts Hercules (played here by Kellan Lutz from the Twilight films), not as an awesome hero, but as a personality-deprived twerp who wins battles in a matter of seconds, and makes dreamy looks at his lady love.  Director and co-writer Renny Harlin (who once made movies like Die Hard 2, and is now stuck doing movies like this) flat out steals his images from other movies, perhaps in the hopes that his will be mistaken for a better one.  Some scenes look like they've come from 300, others look borrowed from Gladiator, and the whole movie pretty much resembles any sword and sandal epic you've ever seen.  If the movie at least seemed like it was having fun with itself, I could forgive this, but no.  I'm afraid the filmmakers thought they were making a real movie here.

As the film opens, Hercules' mother, Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee), has had enough of her brutish, war-obsessed husband, King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins), and decides to literally give her body to the gods.  While the Queen is lying in bed that night, the lightning cracks outside her open window, and an invisible man appears in her bed, throws off the sheets, and begins having its way with her.  This is supposed to represent Zeus impregnating her with her future half-god son.  The King walks in on this happening, and is so upset, he runs outside into a pouring rainstorm, throws his hands up to the heavens, and screams in rage.  Flash forward 20 years later, and the now young-adult Hercules spends his days diving off of cliffs in his underwear, and frolicking in the water with the woman he loves, Hebe (Gaia Weiss).  As the two embrace one another under a waterfall, Hercules' older brother, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), watches with envy.  Watching this scene, I couldn't tell if it was because Iphicles was in love with Hebe as well, or if he was jealous that Hercules got all the good looks in the family, while he kind of looks like the tragic love child of Mr. Bean and Moe Howard from The Three Stooges.

This love triangle drives the plot, as Hercules is sent off by the King to war, with the intent that he will not return, so that Iphicles can marry Hebe and be the future ruler of the kingdom.  Hercules and a small army of men head off to Egypt, where they are captured, sold into slavery, and Hercules becomes renown for his incredible strength in battle.  Why, he can even battle six of Greece's mightiest champions single handed, and do so in about 45 seconds, which kind of lessens the tension of what is supposed to be a major action sequence.  Eventually, Hercules wins his freedom, makes his way back home, and leads a rebellion against his tyrannical King and brother.  All of this is told and performed with as little passion as possible.  While I'm sure that Kellan Lutz in the title role will make the teen girls in the audience swoon with the way he fills out that armor, he doesn't bring much to his performance.

The Legend of Hercules is a plodding little epic that bizarrely decides to ignore most of the hero's greatest feats.  Instead of witnessing him do battle with the massive hydra, we instead get to see him wrestle with a fake-looking CG lion that looks so bad, it would have been right at home in After Earth.  Speaking of the battles, a lot of the major ones are shot either in almost total darkness, or at night, so we get to see as little as possible.  Oh, and to make sure the movie got a child-friendly PG-13 rating, all of the action has been rendered completely bloodless.  People are stabbed with various weapons, yet curiously never bleed at all.  And in one of the film's more mystifying moments, the lovely Hebe is stabbed through the heart with her own dagger, and appears to be on the verge of death.  And yet, the very next scene, there she is lying in bed with Hercules, perfectly fine and without a scratch or scar. 

Look, I knew walking in that this was going to be a dumb movie.  I just didn't expect it to be so dull.  There's one more odd thing I should point out about this film - In a lot of the action sequences, we see a group of 7 or 8 enemy soldiers rushing at Hercules to attack.  And yet, in the very next shot, the soldiers are approaching him one-by-one, so that he can pick them off easier.  How kind of them.  They must of read the script in advance, and knew that he was supposed to win.

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