REVIEW: “The Last of Sheila”

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Its title is as awkward and unusual as its story, but the 1973 mystery thriller “The Last of Sheila” maneuvers through its clever twists and red herrings before finishing in a much different place than where it started. Clever is a good word to describe it. It paints itself as something routine and predictable only to pull the rug out from under the audience over and over again. And the best part is it works really well.

The film was produced and directed by Broadway choreographer Herbert Ross. This was only his third time in the director’s chair and several years before his most successful movie “Steel Magnolias”. Equally intriguing is the writing team of actor Anthony Perkins and composer Stephen Sondheim. It’s a surprisingly impressive collaboration. I wasn’t expecting such an intelligent, crafty, and unpredictable picture from such a unique creative trio.

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The story opens with six people in the film business receiving invitations to join wealthy movie producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) on his yacht for a weekend on the French Riviera. The group includes screenwriter Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett), a washed up director Philip Dexter (James Mason), talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), movie starlett Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and her manager/husband Anthony (Ian McShane).

There are two common threads that link the group. One is the pungent arrogance that surrounds each of these spoiled individuals. There is a haughty sense of self-importance and entitlement that makes them feel a bit like caricatures but it’s intentional and it makes more sense as the story plays out. Another common thread is that they were all together the night Clinton’s wife was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Needless to say that plays prominently in where the story goes.

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To tell any more would be doing a disservice, but lets just say Sondheim and Perkins put together one heck of a parlor game involving both the characters and the audience. For the characters it is an intricate game put together by the enigmatic Clinton with his guests being his snooty and self-serving players. For the audience it becomes a dense and mesmerizing puzzle that takes one unconventional turn after another. It was hard to muster sympathy for these characters, but the slow and revealing leaks of information made each of them pretty fascinating. It also makes the story’s twisted and unexpected turns all the more satisfying.

“The Last of Sheila” will instantly strike you as a movie from the 1970s. That decade’s styles and sensibilities are all over it. But once you get to what matters – good characters, good concept, good storytelling – the movie sparkles. It does have subtle things to say particularly about the entertainment industry, but for me it was about the story and the way Ross, Perkins, and Sondheim deliver it. I’ve never heard many people speak of this film which is a shame. It is a thriller worth talking about.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Hercules”

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If you would have told me ten years ago that WWE wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would become the highest paid actor and busiest man in Hollywood I would call you insane. But that’s exactly what has happened. It seems like his face pops up everywhere. Case in point – last year alone he appeared in five different films. But as any halfway discerning movie fan knows, not all of Rock’s films have been gems and I can’t say I was expecting much from his latest flick “Hercules”.

But there is something surprisingly effective about “Hercules” that makes it easily watchable despite its glaring flaws. Brett Ratner directs which threw up all kinds of warning signs for me. I’ve disliked my share of his past films, but this one is actually fun in large part thanks to its charismatic and likable lead and the fun assortment of supporting talent. But I give Ratner credit, he doesn’t derail the film’s momentum and he keeps it within a nice, tidy 98 minutes.

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This isn’t the normal Hercules story you’ve read about or even seen in the rather misleading movie trailer. This is based off a graphic novel titled “Hercules: The Thracian Wars”. At first we hear the legend of Hercules – the demigod son of the mighty Zeus. In reality he’s just a mortal who has a ton of muscles, great battlefield skills, and a pearly white smile. He leads a colorful band of mercenaries that includes prophet (Ian McShane) who is always wrongly predicting his own death, an Amazonian archer (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) with endless supply of arrows, his knife-slinging childhood friend (Rufus Sewell), a hatchet-wielding warrior from Thebes (Aksel Hennie), and his nephew (Reece Ritchie) whose main job is to build the legend of Hercules through his exaggerated stories.

Hercules and his crew are approached by Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) and offered a ton a gold to help defeat a murderous warlord who is burning villages and killing innocents. Herc agrees to meet with Lord Cotys (John Hurt) and the two strike a deal. Hercules will train the makeshift army of farmers and lead them into battle defeating the evil warlord and bringing peace across the lands. Oh please, you know things aren’t that simple.

Actually things really aren’t that simple and I’m thankful for that. The story does start out cliched and incredibly formulaic. So much of the dialogue, narrative structure, and plot maneuvers are things we’ve seen in so many other fantasy films. But the story does have a couple of twists that shake things up and keep it interesting. There is also an enormous amount of action, much of which pushes the PG-13 violence boundaries. People are skewed, impaled, burned, and sliced in rapid succession and it’s quite amazing the film avoided an R rating. The action sequences, much like portions if the plot, do sometimes feel lifted from other films. But they’re also a lot of fun mainly because Ratner keeps them energetic and embraces the absurdity of it all.

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Now I have to admit, at times I found it hard to buy into The Rock as Hercules. It has nothing to do with his performance (he is surprisingly good here and continues to get better as an actor) and he certainly has the look. But the above mentioned charisma that he naturally possesses kept bringing visions of The Rock and not Hercules. But he has a lot of fun with the role and which made it fun for me. It also helps to have really good actors like Hurt and McShane having a blast with their characters.

It’s impossible to call “Hercules” a great movie mainly because it lacks originality and borrows too much from too many other films. From its plot and dialogue all the way to its use of its score, “Hercules” feels way too familiar. But it is easy to call the film fun and it is definitely a pleasant surprise. It’s a ‘kick your feet up’ action movie and never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. It may be a ‘one and done’ popcorn flick, but I have to admit it is an enjoyable escape.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

“Jack the Giant Slayer” – 3 STARS

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Hollywood is all about the fairy tales these days. Much like the superhero craze, we’ve seen a load of fairy tale features covering everything from Snow White to Hansel and Gretel. The latest is a variation of the familiar Jack and the Beanstalk story titled “Jack the Giant Slayer”. It comes from director Bryan Singer and to call it a slight deviation from the classic story would be misleading. This CGI laden fantasy picture takes a few of the ingredients from the fairy tale but basically builds its own original story.

I find Bryan Singer to be a very hit or miss director so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this picture. What I got was an above average and sometimes surprisingly fun fantasy film that can be entertaining as long as you’re able to overlook its flaws. I know some who have struggled with doing that, but for me and my tempered expectations I actually came out of the theater a bit surprised. Unfortunately there are a few hiccups and for that I just can’t let the movie off the hook.

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It almost feels like they took parts from several other fantasy films, threw them in a pot, and mixed them together to get the story of “Jack and the Giant Slayer”. I have no doubt that throughout the film you’ll be saying “yep, I’ve seen that before” repeatedly. We get the blind and bull-headed king who insists on an arranged marriage between his daughter and a devious lord. We get the poor commoner who falls in love with the princess. And we have a huge event that allows the commoner to prove his worth. Throw in a silly sidekick and a trusted protector and you’re into some pretty familiar territory. And while all of these characters play out pretty much as you would expect, I still think the story does enough fun things with them to entertain.

Nicholas Hoult (you may remember him from this years “Warm Bodies”) plays Jack, a poor farm boy who goofs up one day by trading his uncle’s horse to a monk for a handful of mystical beans. Of course you know the story, these are magical beans but Jack’s irate uncle doesn’t buy it and he flings them across the room with one falling through a crack in their floor. In a slightly similar story of frustrated youth, Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) pleads with her stubborn father King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) not to sanction her marriage to the slimy Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci). As usual the King is blind to Roderick’s scheme to take over his kingdom even though we recognize it before he says a line of dialogue. Then again if some of these characters were smart we wouldn’t have much of the story left.

Repelled by the arranged marriage to a man she doesn’t love, the princess disguises herself and sneaks out of the city on horseback. But after ending up lost in the middle of a late night deluge she comes across Jack’s house where she seeks shelter. The two make starry-eyes at each other but are interrupted when the rainwater soaked bean under the house sprouts. And boy does it sprout! Jack is knocked out of the house and Isabelle is taken through the clouds by the humongous beanstalk. Soon the King and his men arrive and Jack informs them about the princess. A rescue team of Guardians led by Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and including Jack and Roderick head up the beanstalk to find the princess. But waiting above is a sky world inhabited by giants with a special appetite for human flesh.

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Now even though this movie features some pretty standard characters I can honestly say I was interested in some of them. Hoult is quite good and believable as the unexpected hero. I also thought Tomlinson was solid and very princessy. Sadly she isn’t given anything to do outside of the typical damsel in distress routine. That’s unfortunate. I would love to see her character have more depth. I also didn’t mind Stanley Tucci, a very good actor who’s clearly having a lot of fun as the antagonist. And as always Ewan McGregor is very good giving a variation of the knight in shining armor. McShane on the other hand seems dry and by the numbers. That could be because his character was probably the most poorly written in the film.

But where the movie spends most of its money is on the visuals. “Jack the Giant Slayer” is a virtual feast of tantalizing eye candy. The beanstalks are incredibly well conceived. The scenery with its green meadows, huge waterfalls, and lush forests are nothing short of gorgeous. But the giants are the real treat, each designed with amazing detail. I was really surprised at just how well done they are particularly in some big action sequences in the second half of the film. But in spite of all of these great special effects I did at time feel a bit disconnected due to the massive amounts of CGI. It wasn’t the quality of CGI but the volume. And it wasn’t helped by the 3-D. Like so many films the 3-D offered nothing for me and it felt pointless. I also have to say some of the costume designs were pretty dreadful, specifically the royalty garb. I couldn’t help but laugh at McShane in his gold-plated monstrosity.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” is a mixed bag but overall I found it to be an entertaining mixed bag. If you can shake off the cookie cutter characters, the occasional cheap and lazy writing, and the overload of CGI there’s some fun to be had here. I can honestly say I had a good time with this picture and I would really like to praise it more. Unfortunately its shortcomings keep me from doing that and instead I’m left feeling that this could have been something really special. Instead we’re left with a good but not great film that left a lot of potential behind. Still, you could do a lot worse at the theater.

“Snow White and the Huntsman” – 4 STARS

Call me a sucker for fantasy pictures, but I really enjoyed “Snow White and the Huntsman”. In fact, I would go as far as to call this movie one of the biggest surprises of the year. In cinematic terms, this darker retelling of the classic Snow White fairy tale is pure fantasy through and through. We get trolls, dwarves, fairies, and magic but there is nothing lighthearted about it. Unlike the other Snow White movie of 2012 “Mirror Mirror”, “Snow White and the Huntsman” aims for a broader audience by creating a dark and often times creepy fantasy world that doesn’t shy away from cool horror elements and death. In the end, it was an effective approach that completely caught me by surprise.

One of my main concerns about the movie centered around Kristen Stewart in the lead role. After seeing her previous work I was never convinced she was a good actress. “Snow White and the Huntsman” does nothing to change that. But the writers seem aware of that and the script cleverly limits what Stewart is required to do. Much of her story unfolds through the words of other characters so Stewart isn’t asked to do much. It was a smart approach and I can’t help but think the movie benefits from it. For the most part Stewart is a good Snow White. She runs, rides horses, and innocently looks in wonder at the new world around her. It’s only when Stewart is asked to rouse the crowds in the third act that you’re reminded of her past work.

The movie takes the key ingredients from the popular fairy tale and mixes them with several unique twists. As a child Snow White witnesses the murder of her father the king at the hands of her wicked stepmother Ravenna (Chalize Theron). Queen Ravenna takes over the entire kingdom and throws Snow White into a tower prison cell. Ravenna is dependent on dark magic for her power thanks to a spell cast on her by her wicked mother. She maintains that power by draining the lifeforce of the young girls from the nearby villages. Years pass and Snow White has grown up yet is still confined to the tower. Queen Ravenna learns from her magic mirror that Snow White is destined to topple her so she figures it’s time to suck the life right out of her competition. Snow White escapes into a dark and marshy forest where the Queen’s powers can’t reach. The queen bribes a drunken widower (Chris Hemsworth) who has survived the forest to lead her forces in order to capture the princess.

While Hemsworth seems to be falling into the same type roles for each of his films, I still really like him. Once again he plays the tough and rugged sort and once again he’s very good. It’s a pretty simple role that fits the fantasy character model well. He has a decent chemistry with Stewart which is helped by the fact that the script doesn’t force anything on their character’s relationships. And what is Snow White without dwarves, right? Several fantastic actors played the dwarves, or at least had their faces placed on different, smaller bodies. It’s a remarkable bit of animation. Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, and Toby Jones are a blast to watch in the roles. But it’s Theron who steals the show as the wicked queen. She sells each calculated expression and devious grin and she opens up a fairly layered character. Theron has a lot of fun and it shows.

Another standout component to the movie’s success are the wonderful special effects and cinematography. The fantasy environments are well done and often times stunning. There are several cool creatures, beautiful landscapes, and some really slick magical effects. As alluded to, “Snow White and the Huntsman” isn’t necessarily a kid’s movie and some of the effects attest to that. Maybe that’s one reason it worked so well for me. It helps make the movie more closely resemble “Lord of the Rings” than the Brothers Grimm classic fairy tale. And as a fantasy fan, that’s a really good ingredient to this incredibly surprising movie.