HERCULES

hercules (rock)Watching this, I laughed every time the kingdom of Thrace was mentioned, thinking of Zero Mostel’s famous movie gag line (“He raped Thrace thrice?”). And when an entire army starts chanting the hero’s name (“Hercules! Hercules!”) I laughed thinking of Eddie Murphy in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. But laughing didn’t spoil anything, because the movie itself has a lot of good humor, thanks mainly to Ian McShane’s bang-up performance as a sardonic seer and fighting member of Hercules’ inner circle. For me, the fighting scenes were the least interesting part, but clearly they are meant to be the draw, in the same way as the “300” movies. The recreation of an ancient city, the palace, the banquets with the dancing girls, the statue of the goddess who cries poisonous snakes, the (brief, at the beginning) recounting of some of Hercules’ mythical labors, the monsters (Hydra, Cerberus, the Erymanthian boar) — those are the parts I most enjoyed. Dwayne Johnson is very good in an appropriate understated way; he’s the strong, not-quite-silent type. A nod as well to Joseph Fiennes, whose looks here are as evil as his deeds. In fact, credit to all the cast for playing it straight, but not taking themselves too seriously. — Jeff Schultz

 

LUCY

lucyOn the heels of her alien-with-an-attitude snorefest UNDER THE SKIN, ScarJo’s back with a new piece of sci-fi hokum. What starts out suggesting it might take be like Cliff Robertson’s CHARLY reimagined as a thriller instead turns Johansson into a shoot-em-up action heroine whose brain power has exploded after ingestion of a super-drug. This gives her powers that range from the impressive to the ridiculous. She can memorize 6,000 pages of reading almost at a glance. She’s never driven a car but can navigate a race down the streets (and sidewalks) of Paris at breakneck speed. She’s clairvoyant. And telekinetic. Every shot she fires hits its target. And on and on as title cards keep announcing her current level of brain use (40%…70%…99%…). But the race-against-time plot loses a lot of its suspense because of Johansson’s trademark I-don’t-give-a-shit mien. She’s the same in every picture, almost daring us not to waste her time. Too, Morgan Freeman has seldom looked so uncomfortable. When he stammers to Scarlett “I don’t know what to say”, he seems to be asking himself how he got involved in this project. I did not love LUCY. — Jeff Schultz

I saw LUCY about a week ago. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Is it supposed to be a parody? Is it a serious SciFi film that raises questions about human potential? Is it simply a complete mess that cannot be understood? I’m leaning toward the latter. Jeff detailed the plot (if that’s what you would like to call it). The beginning plays like a mash-up of a thriller and director Geoffrey Reggio’s mind bending 1982 photographic documentary Koyaanisqatsi. Only it’s less interesting. The images of earth flash by at break neck speed. Animals, people, cities. What the hell am I supposed to be looking at. It plays like a lazy exposition. “Hey, this will be arty, lets use images of human and earth development instead of explaining anything.” Luc Besson, you have disappointed me. This is mind numbingly odd. Don’t make me work so hard. There are some funny parts. Scarlett Johansson has a few good deadpan lines. Before she takes the drug she is what, a disinterested American tourist? Then after she ingests it, she seems to be a female version of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Only far less interesting, without the innocent desire to become more human. Instead she seems to toss off the fact that she’s losing her humanity like a discarded sweater. I actually liked the shoot-em-up scenes and the chase through Paris. It was at least visually interesting. More than I can say for the rest of this. One more thing, she is now “everywhere”, yet all her accumulated knowledge fits on a thumb drive? Sigh. Disappointing on so many levels. This Lucy is most akin to Charlie Brown’s friend, pulling the football away from us as we try to enjoy some time at the theater.  — Alan Yudman

 

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT

magic in the moonlightWhy do I do it? Every year or so Woody Allen releases a new movie, and every year or so I go hoping it’ll be better than the previous one, and every year it’s not. To say that Allen repeats himself is to say that Louboutin shoes have red soles. But at least Christian builds on his familiar foundation with interesting uppers. Woody just assembles the usual from his shopworn toolbox of wealthy white protagonists with time on their hands and the desire to spend it talking. The one difference is that now that he’s got a yen for travel outside Manhattan, his carbon copies play out in foreign luxury playgrounds. So here we find his characters in the south of France. The setup is promising: a famous magician and debunker of the “spiritual world” (Colin Firth) is asked to expose a young woman (Emma Stone, charming) whose clairvoyance dazzles all who experience it. But as it plays out, the film falls prey to Allen’s worst shortcoming: his penchant for “philosophical” debate, which grows increasingly declarative and non-conversational, even as we roll our eyes at issues being examined at the level of a college dorm all-nighter. I’ve never really “gotten” Firth; like Clive Owen, the actor’s bland good looks and disengaged affect are bloodless on screen. Allen knows how to work with his cinematographers to get the visual effects he wants; here, the French Riviera is a sun-dappled Eden. But for someone with usually sure comic timing, he throws away punch lines or shoots them from a distance that loses their punch. And his musical choices are also wobbly: while limning Firth’s stage career at the beginning showing his various magic tricks, it makes sense to use warhorse classical pieces that would be a logical choice for performers of the day. But later on, to highlight Firth’s agitated state of mind, Allen picks one of the tiredest chestnuts of all: the Scherzo from Beethoven’s 9th. Even for Woody, that’s a middlebrow mistake. Later still, there is underscoring that would not be out of place in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Plus, by the end, you’ll never want to hear “You Do Something To Me” again. Not since SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME has a song been so overused. — Jeff Schultz

 

THE PURGE: ANARCHY

purge anarchyWith a budget only slightly higher than the first picture (and even that less than $10M) what’s still missing is a sense of national anarchy — that this orgiastic violence is taking place throughout the nation, in ways perhaps specific to each region. But that’s to unfairly criticize the movie for what it might have been. As it is, we do get a much more political take on the rationale behind the Purge — and a key subplot that explores the ethical questions raised by the New Founding Fathers’ policy. That subplot leads to the movie going terribly soft at the end (admittedly, amidst an ocean of death and blood). But as we’re informed in the final moment, it’s 364 days until the next Purge and thus presumably the next installment. (Full theatre, applause at the end, can there be any doubt this is now a franchise?) Curiously un-suspenseful save for a scene at a house party where the main victims have taken rescue, the problem may be in the casting. There are no standout performances — from either predators or prey — that might make us care who gets it or who survives. Sloppy editing meant to heighten the tension instead makes us wonder why cars driven at breakneck speed toward their far slower targets on foot never reach them — or if they do, despite having machine guns with endless ammo, never seem to land a shot. I laughed out loud at two especially silly lines of dialogue. And why are people whose lives are in danger from snipers who could be anywhere running down the middle of the street? I mean, those folks deserve to die, no? — Jeff Schultz

 

SNOWPIERCER

snowpiercer posterWhen an attempt to combat global warming accidentally leads to a deep freeze that kills virtually all life on earth, the remnants of humanity live on an enormous train in a well-demarcated, military-enforced division between the 99 percent, including our hero rebels, and the privileged class. The poor and downtrodden ride in the rear cars, the 1% in the cars farther front. The movie follows the rebels as they work their way car by car toward the “sacred engine” and its genocidal, dictatorial creator, whom they mean to kill, but without whose invention running everyone must surely die. The premise is clever enough, but it steps close to silly when we realize just how big this train really is — not just packed with hordes of maltreated peasants, but an army of troops as well, and, for the benefit of the rich, such things as an insanely high-tech aquarium, an orchard, a disco, a two-story lounge, a spa with hot tubs; it’s Supertrain. And it literally runs nonstop around the entire world including over oceans on a single loop of track that spans continents. I mean, you really really have to suspend disbelief. An almost unrecognizable Chris Evans leads the insurgents, who include wisecracking hothead Jamie Bell. John Hurt is their elder statesman. Octavia Spencer is the black character. And there’s a strenuous, over-dramatic Tilda Swinton performance that makes you wish they had cast someone else. Late in the picture, Ed Harris appears and does what he can. But as for the resolution? Well, let’s just say it didn’t melt my heart. — Jeff Schultz

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

dawn_of_the_planet_of_the_apes_poster_a_pThis completes a hat trick for the hugely talented director Matt Reeves, a 1-2-3 punch from CLOVERFIELD to LET ME IN and now the second installment of the latest APES reboot. Extravagantly sentimental, DAWN’s triumph is to successfully give so many of the animals not just physical identifiers (one has a triple scratch, another a bad eye, etc.) but also complete personalities that play out through the actors’ eyes and movements, as encased in the CGI “monkey suits”. You’re always aware of which ape is talking or signing and why they’re angry or remorseful or torn. Andy Serkis brings to Alpha Ape Caesar a gravity and command that gives him true star quality. In part, this is heightened by the casting of human leads whose blandness pales (pun intended) compared to their simian counterparts. (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell don’t exactly set fire to the screen; and neither, here, does Kodi Smit-McPhee, the lonely boy in LET ME IN.) But for all the heart-tugging — a sick mom, a son’s near-betrayal, a fallen chief — you don’t find yourself rooting for one or the other side to win, because both are responsible for the violence. As Caesar puts it, speaking to a human: “We started it, and you won’t forgive.” There are political parallels to be made, if one likes, but that’s left up to the viewer; there are no soapbox monologues. Perhaps the message is as simple as: hotheads ruin it for everyone. Mostly, you’ll be engrossed by the storytelling despite a handful of spots where it loses momentum and slows way down. (Most of these spots are in the beginning.) I have to admit, the plot took me by surprise, because it was not at all what I expected from the end of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES — when the apes, having escaped and developed their intelligence, crossed the Golden Gate bridge en masse, as the camera panned over the landscape and stopped, looking East. To me, that meant they were on their way to colonizing (and destroying) America and would end up in New York, setting the stage for the Heston “sequel”, which of course was the very first, 1968 version. Instead, the movie remains rooted in the Bay Area. Go figure. — Jeff Schultz

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES had to be superior to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES for no other reason than James Franco is not starring in the movie. The only “name” stars in this film are Keri Russell and Gary Oldman. DAWN picks up several years after RISE ends. The worlds population has all but been wiped out by the Simeon Virus. While a ragtag band of humans tries to rebuild society in San Francisco, the Apes have created their own community in the woods of what appears to be current-day Marin County. The humans explore those woods in search of a dam that could provide electricity to San Francisco. During their exploration, one of them comes across the Apes– a confrontation that results in one Ape being shot. What plays out is a parallel of international conflict. Neither side completely trusts the other. Someone has to make a grand gesture on both sides to break through prejudice. But, they are thwarted by fear mongers and those with deep prejudices. Draw your own comparisons, there are plenty out there. Some of these characters are fairly standard villain archetypes, the difference is that some are cloaked in CGI ape garb. That is what makes this film so remarkable. At some point I stopped looking at the Apes with that “gee, how did they make them do that” and just bought in to the whole thing. The credit goes to director Matt Reeves and the actors who portray the apes. Andy Serkis has either created a whole new style of acting, or brought the craft back to its roots. He says more with his eyes, facial expressions and movement than some actors could with six pages of dialogue. He seems to have taught his fellow “Apes” the technique, because they are all fantastic. But Serkis as Caesar is the master. He speaks more than the others, but even his few words delivered in a strained growl are vital to the story and performance. Serkis has done this before in King Kong and The Lord of the Rings trilogy most notably. The Academy needs to put aside its prejudice and recognize Serkis for what he is.. a groundbreaking talent. That talent and the skilled hand of Reeves are what elevate this above the usual summer blockbuster. It’s more than just a collection of set pieces and CGI wizardry. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is worth your time and money. — Alan Yudman

 

 

BLENDED

blended posterWith the exception of Grown Ups 2, Adam Sandler has a formula that completely works IF you are a fan. Blended looked absolutely horrible from the trailer but it ended up being a very funny and cute Sandler picture. Unlike other comedies (I’m talking to YOU Seth MacFarlane ), Sandler manages to squeeze in bits of seriousness without changing the entire tone (I’m also talking to YOU Seth Rogen!). Sight gags, jokes using music, Kevin Nealon stealing every scene he’s in, and the chemistry between Sandler and Drew Barrymore make this flick one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer.

Stormy Curry

 

DELIVER US FROM EVIL

deliver us from evil posterDeliver us from claptrap is more like it. A lame-o entry in the Possession/Exorcism subcategory, it brings no new thrills to the screen. The story inches forward without anticipation and with no genuine scares or even creepy atmosphere. Just stuff you’ve seen before. Bumps in the cellar. A devil voice coming out of a little girl’s mouth. Your basic bogeyman in stage makeup. A demon-inhabited “madwoman” whose literal scenery chewing (actually, it’s an actor’s arm) is topped by her overacting. Limited, unambitious effects. Eric Bana has never been the most exciting actor, but he’s especially dull here. And he doesn’t have the chops to deliver on the character he’s supposed to be: an embittered, cynical detective whose investigations of child abuse and murder have left him unhinged. (McConaughey got there first, and it’s no contest.) When the movie is over, tell me if you don’t sit up and say to your friends, “That’s it??” — Jeff Schultz

 

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

girl on the trainAlternate title: THE POSTMAN NEVER RINGS TWICE For THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Whose BODY HEAT Attracts STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. This noir wannabe is an indie thriller that I had hoped would be a giddy surprise (the movie showed up out of nowhere; there was one other person in the theater) along the lines of John Dahl’s RED ROCK WEST and THE LAST SEDUCTION. Instead, it’s pretentiously talky and un-memorably acted with a plot whose two big “twists” are hardly surprises. The movie purports to be a clever mind game about truth vs fiction, fantasy vs reality, idealized love vs warts-and-all romance — wrapped up in twin storylines, one an extended monologue about the Holocaust as recorded by a documentary filmmaker, the other about the filmmaker’s hard fall for a femme fatale, which leads to murder. But it comes off as t-v crime drama, with the wordiness of a novel. Stephen Lang (the mean Colonel in AVATAR) and David Margulies juice up their scenes a bit, but the two leads are blanks. Leave this TRAIN at the station. — Jeff Schultz

BEGIN AGAIN

begin_again_xxlgIn 2006 John Carney had enormous success with the movie ONCE. It was a musical that told the story of two people meeting and falling in love all in the space of one week. The music was so good it won an Oscar and spawned a Broadway production of the movie. That movie featured two musicians in the starring roles of the guy and the girl (Glen Hansard and Marteka Irglova). So could Carney pull it off again, only this time using accomplished actors rather than musicians. That enormously successful follow-up is BEGIN AGAIN. Rather than falling in love over a common love of music, two people are ripped apart by fame and success that music has brought one of them. The couple in this case are Keira Knightley and Adam Levine (ok, I know he’s a musician, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Levine is a hot artist who goes to New York from London with his girlfriend and writing partner Knightley. But there is more to this story than the end of a love affair. It also features Mark Ruffalo as a once successful record label owner who’s career and life are in the toilet. He is divorced (or separated, it’s not really clear) from Catherine Keener. Hailee Steinfeld is their 14 (or 15)-year-old daughter. He’s drowning his sorrows in bourbon when he hears Knightley perform an original song at an open mic night. His once keen ears hear something special and that’s when the movie really hits its stride. Ruffalo offers to sign Knightley to the record label that just fired him. The rest of the film follows Knightley and Ruffalo as they discover more about each other and themselves through the course of recording her songs, outdoors all over New York. The songs are about heartbreak, love and finding your true self. They are sprinkled at key moments throughout the movie (Mr. Eastwood, pay close attention here. This is what should have been done with JERSEY BOYS). They help propel the story and reveal something about Knightley and her relationship. BEGIN AGAIN also takes a not so subtle dig at the music industry and it’s obsession with doing everything but producing quality music. Knightley is true to herself to the end. The performances are first rate, especially from Knightley and Ruffalo. But the real surprise here is Knightley’s singing voice. Yes, she sings all the songs herself and she has a lovely voice. If this acting thing doesn’t work out…. nah, she’ll be fine on that score. But she does have some real vocal talent. Levine also shows some crossover ability. He’s solid as Knightley’s suddenly famous and douchey boyfriend. The music is singer-songwriter style pop. There’s not much depth there, but they do the trick and there are a couple of pretty good tunes. The same could be said of the whole movie. There’s not a ton of depth here, but it is entertaining and flawlessly executed. If you want a break from robots, destruction and rampaging apes, BEGIN AGAIN is precisely the type of movie with which to cleanse your palate. — Alan Yudman

 

And here’s Keira Knightley’s version of Lost Stars from the Soundtrack: