Hercules (PG-13)

9 Stars

I cried.

Go ahead. Laugh it up.

Greek minstrels sang tales of his twelve labors. Roman historians like Tacitus and Plutarch inked record of his deeds.

Most recently he was the protagonist of the 1997 Disney animated feature. Which is good, but on the lower end of the classic spectrum.

The demi-god makes a cameo in Homer’s Odyssey, for Pete’s sake!

My point being: We’re due for another dose.

This weekend Hercules lost in the box office to Lucy, despite a superior score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Lucy pulled in almost $44M, earning back its $40M budget. It’s now at 58%, certifiably rotten and deservedly so. My displeasure with Lucy’s deceptive trailer has increased considerably since reviewing it.

Starkly contrasting the experience with Hercules, which made only $30M and cost $100M. It now clings to ‘Fresh’ status with 62%.

Based on a Radical Comics series “Hercules” by Steve Moore, director Brett Ratner offers a revisionist take on the classic tale.

A recent trend in PG-13 is to parade the rating throughout. Two summer blockbusters are guilty of this: Godzilla and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. DotPotA is particularly at fault for feeling like a franchise vehicle.

IMDB and Rotten ‘Matoes should include another statistic: Number of submissions to the ratings board.

Hercules has admirably high stakes. If one’s looking, there are moments you can pinpoint when the footage is cut to ‘earn’ the stamp of approval. Either way, I’m nearly certain this one pushes the limit. The battles feel real and characters die on-screen.

In order to acquire a PG-13 rating, one of the criteria limits the number of ‘F-Bombs’. If the curse word is uttered more than once, the movie can’t be released with anything less than an ‘R.’

Like last year’s All is Lost, Hercules puts its one ‘fuck’ to good use.

Perusing various reviews, one quickly recognizes the vitriol toward Ratner. One critical reviewer mentions how the director, ‘nearly ruined Hannibal Lector and the X-Men.’

Hannibal, really? Who cares?

In regards to the X-Men, we can agree he made mistakes.

I don’t believe his goal was to lessen their integrity, and try to avoid schlepping hurt feelings between franchises.

Speaking of which, I’d much prefer a sequel to Hercules in exchange for the next Apes flick.

Fans of that series need to settle down. The Apes movies are cool, okay? Can we please move on?

Anywho.

What really makes Herc shine is the casting.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is perfect for the role.

In Roman mosaics Hercules’s image is shown tanned bronze for symbolic reasons. The same goes for the Etruscans who cast his deeds onto bronze mirrors.

Therefore Dwayne’s skin tone is appropriately dark – on a symbolic level, no less.

Plus he’s an excellent actor. He’s charismatic and lovable. Some might associate him with the ‘good guy’ role, when he’s nailed it as the antagonist twice: In Doom as the corrupted honorable leader, and in Get Smart as a charming double agent.

More importantly, he’s prolific.

Most importantly, he never mails it in.

For that we thank him. Good on ya D.J.

The value of Ratner’s version is bolstered largely by the supporting cast.

Ingrid Bolso Berdal is a Norwegian actress and plays the orphaned Amazon, Atalanta.

Her badass bow-slinging performance is worthy of esteem. Warrior women are always physical roles, and I think directors hesitate to craft intricate female fight sequences.

The majority of the credit’s due to Ingrid’s acting, however. Not many could pull off Atalanta, and most wouldn’t be brave enough to take it in the first place.

Especially considering the two-piece armor she wears in every scene.

Before quibbling, someone should compare the percentages of bare skin between Ingrid and Dwayne. I can almost guarantee he’s more naked.

To the point: Hopefully Ingrid pops up more often.

The movie opens and closes with Ian McShane doing voiceover as Amphiaraus. You might recognize him from the HBO series Deadwood, in which he plays one of the greatest sympathetic villains ever. Or his more recent role in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman.

McShane’s terrific regardless, and his character is reminiscent of Vitruvius, the unreliable prophet (voiced by Morgan Freeman) in The Lego Movie.

Rufus Sewell plays Autolycus, and delivers a performance in which he must navigate some clichés. He’s a tremendous actor, because he quietly softens their impact.

You may recognize him as the lead role in a great movie: John Murdoch from 1998’s Dark City.

As a final note, Hercules ends with one of the best credits sequences released this year. It’s noteworthy because it’s brilliantly animated, and contributes to the narrative.

If you haven’t seen Ratner’s revisionist take, I’d suggest catching it in IMAX 3D. People love to hate on the new movie-going experience.

It’s bigger. From a technical standpoint it’s better.

Try not worry about the price to visual improvement ratio when you can be enjoying the film.

All in all, in a summer sea of PG-13, Hercules is a cut above the rest.

With its riveting story, a strong cast of diverse characters and plenty of fighting to go around, something’s bound to catch your eye.

The Descendants (R)

6 Stars

Alexander Payne doesn’t direct movies for me.

Much like Wes Anderson’s work, I appreciate the look, about 25% of the humor and the smart writing. I also applaud the directors for having a distinct visual style to their films.

After The Descendants I feel the same way I did after watching Nebraska; somewhat disappointed, pretty bored, and uninspired.

The only other Payne flick I’ve ogled is About Schmidt, which I found even more underwhelming than his two most recent works.

What’s good about this movie is it’s subtle, but it’s a long wait and a lot of Hawaiian soundtrack in between each nuance. I think more of the humor is supposed to hit home.

George Clooney’s the best part of this movie.

At the same time, it’s my least favorite film starring the Cloondogger.

This is at least his second time in the starring role where the movie opens with his voiceover. Up in the Air is another.

That Shailene Woodley’s a solid young actress. I dig this chick; she seems very promising.

Shailene delivers just as excellently in The Spectacular Now where she plays a lovable sweetheart. (A great movie by the way.)

Judy Greer is the type of actress you’ve seen all over the place. She plays a hysterical character in Arrested Development, and is all-around tremendous. Hopefully we see more of her in the future.

Payne’s clearly a fan of reversals and double reversals. He likes to build a swell of emotion, rinse it away with a wave of disappointment, and then provide a glimmer of hope through an unexpected and unprecedented character’s behavior.

For example, in Nebraska, against all odds, Will Forte finds Bruce Dern’s dentures lost in abandoned train tracks. When he shows them to his father, Dern claims they don’t belong to him. Eventually, grabbing them, he says, “Of course they’re my teeth.” Up until that moment, we’re given no hint Dern’s character has a sense of humor. A similar exchange takes place when they steal the wrong air compressor.

This type of character interaction recurs throughout The Descendants. For example, Alex’s friend Sid (played by Nick Krause) seems like an oblivious moron. He says something inappropriate to Matt, causing him to pull over the car.

Matt: [to Alex] Your friend is completely retarded, you know that?

Sid: Hey man, I’ve got a little brother who’s retarded. Don’t use that word in derogatory fashion.

Matt: Oh.

Sid: [laughing] Psych! No I don’t have a retarded brother.

Ultimately, I come out of these moments feeling disappointed and unfulfilled. Sure the exchange catches me off guard but that jolt seems to be the end to the means. It happens four or five times. I guess that and the stilted humor are what I essentially disagree with. The shocking reversals and muted humor don’t add up to a great film. (Despite such potential in the story’s framework.)

Krause turns in a solid performance as well, but the scene in which he laughs at ‘Tu-Tu’ feels off.

The character of Scottie (played by Amara Miller) is painful. It reminds me of how I feel about Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, another quirkedy with an annoying little girl. I don’t understand the appeal in these types of characters.

When Scottie flicks off the well-meaning guy in the restaurant, is that supposed to be funny? The ‘twat’ scene, the cursing and stupidity? When she’s wearing her sister’s lingerie and dancing poolside? When they have the conversation about the sand in her bikini top?

Are all of those moments supposed to make us laugh? They’re neither funny nor cute and detract greatly from the overall film.

Look. I know every feminist shakes her head at me and replies with some dismissive comment like, “Oh just get over it,” or “Well then look forward to parenthood buddy.” But my criticism is the exact same as it was after Moonrise Kingdom (a Wes Anderson film ironically enough):

It does the male audience a great disservice by having an excess of screen time featuring scantily clad little girls.

Not because of some gross proclivity.

It’s the same aversion I feel to images of male genitalia. Every second it remains onscreen, I cringe into the seat cushion a little bit further.

And I only bring up this natural feeling of discomfort because I think that’s what Payne’s trying to ‘challenge’ (so to speak, I’m using that word loosely). Or he thinks she’s adorable and funny. Either way, I don’t think anything is gained through Scottie’s character.

It’s illustrative of a pattern I’ve recognized in A. Payne’s recent filmography. Going back to the reversals thing, he likes to have women in the polar extremes of age exploring sexual and explicit themes. Just like June Squibb, an older woman, pulling up her skirt in front of some guy’s tombstone. She’s rubbing it in the dead guy’s face that he never got inside her pants. I find that scene morbid and off-putting; not empowering, insightful or worthy of a chuckle.

There’s a beautiful camera shot down a set of hospital stairs, while Matt’s voiceover speaks above the sound of his ascending footsteps. He is heading to find out his wife must be taken off the machines and will soon die.

And the entire movie is a series of sequences; a number of character interactions where others talk down to Matt about his choices. Like the staircase, they can only watch from above, and patronize.

Except the kids, all other characters condescend to Matt, are inconsiderate of his feelings and pride themselves for praising his comatose wife in comparison. It’s mostly a despicable lot he encounters.

And yet he keeps his mouth shut. Towards the end, we see a tiny victory in this choice.

But this ‘glimmer in the darkness’ doesn’t distill the discomforting sadness (and often boredom) one must wade through to get there.

I don’t know. I’m not trying to rain on the Payne parade, but it’s just not my spot of tea.

The Descendants is a good enough movie. I call it ‘good’ because it’s visually stunning, and intelligent. It’s easily watchable, but there’s just a lot of better stuff out there. Especially starring Clooney.

Might I suggest the aforementioned Up in the Air, instead, perhaps?

It touches on a bit more sadness, but it’s just as intelligent plus more captivating and fun.

Best of all?

No quirky teenage girls.

The Lego Movie (PG)

7 Stars

I don’t like to brag but…

I’m a bit of an animation aficionado.

2013 was a spectacular year for animated films.

Shame on Oscar and the Globes for not nominating all five of these: Frozen, The Croods, Monsters University, Turbo and Despicable Me 2.

But, smart as it is, The Lego Movie falls short of this pantheon.

I enjoy TLM (although I don’t appreciate the title), and you probably will too. Perhaps a bit more than I did.

For all the fun character cameos, the original smart writing and Lego fight fireworks; the pacing slackens in the middle.

It’s a good family movie that’s mildly humorous, with the creative cuts and camera transitions that come along with animation. The style’s laid on thick, but it works, and the story is a good one.

Lego’s got a solid voice cast to back it up, lead by Chris Pratt, and my girl, Elizabeth Banks.

But seriously, the fights are sick, and there’s a lot of death in this film (if you think about it.) I know that sounds creepy, but I’d argue it’s imperative to an animated film nowadays. Otherwise how’s an adult audience going to feel there’s anything at stake?

Anyway, if you don’t want to see any spoilers, cease reading now.

Here’s my existential quandary: I simply don’t know how to properly review a film like this. The effort and correct ingredients went into the moviemaking cauldron and all that came out was a less than spectacular film.

My major problem with it is the pacing. It slows down immensely, once the cloud world is destroyed and they escape in a submarine. They hit the water and I’m wondering how many minutes remain.

As I said before, the humor is mild at best. There are a couple good laughs, but there are also some jokes that fall flat.

One of the funnier parts of the movie is the relationship between Superman and Green Lantern, voiced by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. These two are becoming quite the comedic team.

Will Arnett as Batman is also very funny.

Morgan Freeman, as the prophet Vitruvius, is one of my favorite parts. Not only is he particularly chucklesome, but his character distorts the structure of traditional narrative storytelling. For example, he ‘makes up’ the prophecy.

I read Harrison Ford was too busy to record the lines for Lego Han Solo, but they managed to get Billy Dee Williams (as Lando Calrissian) and Anthony Daniels (as C-3PO). I hate to be overly critical, but I’m pretty sure it takes two hours in a recording studio for small voice parts like Lego Han Solo’s.

Harrison, what gives buddy?

And finally, how could I forget Liam Neeson? He did two separate voices as Good Cop/Bad Cop. I like that Liam fellow, he’s got talent.

Now, there are two parts of this movie that are particularly smart. The reveal of the live action context (in which the Lego universe exists) rounds off the ending in a more than satisfactory way. I’ll add this is the second time that Will Ferrell’s physical appearance is revealed in a movie (the first is Wedding Crashers.)

Themes like conformity and creativity, the imaginary and concrete, physical skill and intellectual knowledge, etc. resound throughout the film.

The basic point of The Lego Movie is that life can work both ways. You can follow every instruction manual to the letter, or be the total opposite, a complete freethinker who just powers ahead and doesn’t get caught up in the minutia of perfectionism. Life will probably work out regardless, but perhaps we shouldn’t grow too rigid, and remained shackled (or ‘Kragled’) to our own ways of navigating the world.

I like The Lego Movie.

I just wish the pacing and humor could keep up with the storytelling.

Maleficent (PG)

7 Stars

What is the best feature from the list of Disney Animated Classics?

It’s an old conundrum.

All nostalgia aside, the answer is a five-way tie: Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and Tangled (2009).

Because of the similarities between Sleeping Beauty and some of the other greats, like Cinderella (whose got a great publicist) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (another damsel cursedly dozing), Princess Aurora’s misadventure is often forgotten.

But hers is a compelling plot; for males and females alike. And it contains one of the most heartwarming notions of the entire Disney canon:

Briar Rose (a.k.a. Aurora) and Prince Phillip first meet and fall in love waltzing in a dream.

Sleeping Beauty has many additional strengths but one is its antagonist.

Maleficent is one of the most compelling villains in the history of animated cinema.

Her character is an artistic masterpiece. She is technically, “The Mistress of All Evil.” More specifically, she’s a dark sorceress and an organic incarnation of chaos.

She’s fundamentally inhuman, you see. Which brings us to a general grievance regarding the live-action reworking of the animated classic.

To allow Maleficent a moral dimension is to undermine the fundamental principle driving the original story.

But, in the end, this is neither here nor there.

I quite enjoy Maleficent.

First of all, let’s talk a little Angelina Jolie.

She’s great as the lead; the acting doesn’t slip for a minute. Even during the most difficult parts, she’s mysterious and menacing. The strains of battle and conducting sorcery oftentimes require wailing in a manner that needs to sound believable. But she delivers every time.

Jolie deserves even more rigorous applause because of her role as an executive producer. A live-action retelling of a Disney Animated Classic is exactly the type of movie I’d encourage producers to champion.

Good on you, Angelina. Combine this with the achievements of Salt, and we’ve got an all-star actress in the making.

Because of the PG rating, the stakes can only be so high. The filmmakers do an excellent job of hiding that fact.

There are several epic battles involving fantastic elements, and they’re a sight to behold. Seriously. The fights feel real and devoid of cheese.

Unfortunately, the weakest parts of this film fall on the acting performances from the rest of the cast.

Elle Fanning’s performance as Aurora is not bad; it’s just not compelling. Frankly, other than the color of her hair, skin and eyes she doesn’t resemble the original character from the animated feature.

Sharlto Copley, who I like a lot in Elysium, is a disappointment here as King Stefan.

The fairies are humorless and a severe downgrade from the delightful characters in Sleeping Beauty. They’re animated in a strikingly human fashion, and it’s more off-putting than humanizing.

Anyway. Maleficent is a very good movie, that’s safe enough for kids.

Go out and enjoy while you still can!

If you haven’t seen it, stop reading here because some spoilers follow.

The visuals are excellent; the special effects are sharp and realistic. I love the scene with the dragon.

But why do Maleficent’s wings suddenly fight to break free of their glass-enclosed prison, seemingly of their own accord?

In terms of plot resolutions involving kissing, my count is five: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Frozen, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Maleficent. Aurora’s princely catalyst is just a better version of Snow’s.

But in Frozen it’s Elsa, the loving sister, whose kiss breaks the spell. In Snow White and the Huntsman, it’s a different man; the caress of the Huntsman’s lips does the trick. And in Maleficent it’s the ‘Mother’s Kiss’ which breaks the curse.

This is strikingly similar to the ‘Daughter’s Hug’ which Merida uses to save her mother in Brave. As well as Anna’s saving grace from Frozen; they just use a different female from the protagonist’s immediate family.

Finally, Stefan’s death is choreographed in a similar manner to that of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

No?

Feel free to let me know what you think.

Wink.

World War Z (PG-13)

10 Stars

Are they ever going to explain what happened during World Wars ‘A’ through ‘Y’?

Typically, I don’t watch movies more than once.

Probably because I’m anti-contrarian.

It’s why people think I’m a hero.

I’m kidding, but I generally avoid repeated viewings.

You might think this strange, but there are still plenty of winners waiting in my unseen ether.

This inventive new take on the zombie apocalypse grips you within the first ten minutes, and never relents.

Wawazee is one of my top five films of 2013.

I’m nearly positive the opening shot is in homage to Dawn of the Dead, but apparently am the only one who’s noticed.

Sure, the CGI’s not immaculate, but that’s nitpickery.

The pacing may slow down at moments, but even the dreamy Brad Pitt (as Gerry Lane) needs the occasional breather. But it doesn’t slow for me; I care throughout the snappy action and all the space between.

Besides. With such a well-rounded narrative unfolding around Mr. Pitt’s international adventures, the audience needs reminding that these great action scenes, take place within a well-thought-out story.

Anyhow. This film has the second best rating: PG-13.

It’s rare to find a movie that veils this deficiency so adequately.

The supporting cast is excellent. There are several characters you grow to love by the end of the film. Although none from Gerry’s immediate family, come to think of it.

Don’t be a square and turn your nose up at WWZ.

It’s not ‘just another zombie movie.’

It’s a wonderful film.

But spoilers follow; so if you haven’t seen it yet, tear your gaze from this wildly compelling review!

World War Z takes place in several settings across the Earth. Bradley’s pit stops begin after fleeing with his family from Philadelphia to Newark, NJ. Then he journeys alone onto Jerusalem, Wales and finally reunites with his family back in Nova Scotia.

The only real criticism I have is that even after two viewings, I’m not 100% certain why the Jurgen Warmbrunn (played by Ludi Boeken) character’s necessary to the plot.

More specifically, I’m confused about how his position as the ’12th’ man (or the one who must always disagree) on the Israeli council relates to the greater conflict. But honestly, I really don’t care; I’m sure there’s a reason I’m just not seeing.

I won’t go too in depth about the cast, but I think Daniella Kertesz’s performance as Segen, is spectacular.

Not to get too abstract here, but the scene where Gerry severs Segen’s hand, is one of those ‘magical cinematic moments.’ My best description of this emotional swell is ‘breathtaking,’ cliché as it is. But watching that scene I feel extreme tension, elation and a deep appreciation for the writing; all within a short moment.

James Badge Dale as Captain Speke delivers an exceptional performance as well. It gets a little dusty in the theater when his character says goodbye.

The scenes in the apartment complex, the two separate calamities on different runways, the chase through the streets of Jerusalem, the plane crash, the World Health Organization; all are so, so good.

By the way, I hear there’s going to be a sequel?

If so, you can count me in.

But we better find out about the other twenty-five World Wars.