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

REVIEW: “Only Lovers Left Alive”

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Several years ago vampires became all the rage in modern pop culture. “Twilight” made millions from novels and movies. “True Blood” was a hugely popular television series. And while I can’t say many flattering things about the quality of these properties, fans could get their vampire entertainment fix almost anywhere. Now, as the vampire craze appears to be fading, writer and director Jim Jarmusch gives us a vampire tale that is boldly unique and intelligently metaphoric. It would also send Twilight fans running for the exits.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” could be described as a mood piece. Like other Jarmusch films, this is more centered around developing characters than developing plot and your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how much you enjoy being with these people. As you can guess the two main characters are vampires, but part of the film’s genius is how it uses vampire concepts while stiff-arming the usual tropes and gimmicks. In fact it seems like calling it a ‘vampire movie’ is actually doing it a huge disservice.

At the core of the film lies the love story of a centuries old vampiric couple. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a recluse living in an old two-story Victorian on the abandoned outskirts of Detroit. He surrounds himself with out-of-date electronic gadgets and his music. His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier, Morocco where she spends most of her time enjoying books and literature. The two are very different. Adam has grown forlorn and sour due to the current state of the world. Eve is more playful and optimistic, choosing to embrace hope and happiness. Yet despite these differences the two soulmates deeply love each other.

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Sensing Adam’s depression Eve travels to Detroit where the two are reunited. From there the film opens up the characters and their relationship by simply following along with them. We listen to their conversations which range from scientific theory to makes and models of classic guitars. We listen to Adam lament the death of creativity at the hands of humans (who the couple call zombies). We listen to Eve remind him of the great artists and innovators they have known through the centuries. These are fascinating individuals who have a number of fascinating discussions, but they all aim to serve the movie’s greater points.

In many ways “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an indictment of humanity, or at the very least a call for introspection. We hear how humanity’s appreciation for the arts has declined. In fact, in what may be Jarmusch’s jab at modern moviemaking, we hear Los Angeles refered to as “zombie central”. We see how humanity has destroyed what it has created as evident by the hollow and empty Detroit landscapes. We learn about humanity’s destruction of the environment particularly through a couple of references to the scarcity of clean water. Humanity has even destroyed themselves. Vampires are forced to seek alternate methods of acquiring blood because humans have poisoned their own. None of these things ever get to the point of being preachy. Instead they are thoughtful story components that are clever and thought-provoking.

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The film also has a smart sense of humor which shows itself most when the vampires are relating to the past. For example Eve reminding Adam of his time spent playing chess with Lord Byron or sharing creative ideas with composer Franz Schubert. Then there are several gags tied to John Hurt’s character. He plays Eve’s dear friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe – yes, the 16th century playwright. Some fun is had with the conspiracy theory that he wrote many important pieces of literature under the assumed name of William Shakespeare.

It also helps that Jarmusch cast the two best possible people for the parts of Adam and Eve. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are so intensely convincing both in their intelligent coolness and blanched physical appearances. You never doubt them as connoisseurs of fine art and music, and you never doubt their vampire status. They are two of the most compelling and strangely attractive characters I’ve seen this year. I loved spending time with them.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” can be called a vampire movie, but in reality it bucks nearly every common vampire trend. It’s a slick, stylish, and moody character piece that doesn’t shy away from asking good questions and prodding reflection. It’s also great fun watching a true independent director like Jarmusch work with top talents like Hiddleston and Swinton. This certainly won’t be up everyone’s alley, but I found it to be mesmerizing entertainment and a refreshing jolt to the 2014 movie year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Snowpiercer”

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Every revolution has a cost and the cost is high in Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi action flick “Snowpiercer”. This is the Korean filmmaker’s first feature since “Mother” from 2009. “Mother” was my first exposure to Bong Joon-ho and my christening of sorts into the art of Korean cinema. “Snowpiercer” is a much different film yet it doesn’t stray too far away from the style and approach which lies at the heart of this auteur.

Despite the efforts of blowhard extraordinaire Harvey Weinstein, “Snowpiercer” has finally made its way to the United States. Weinstein acquired the North American rights for the film with a wide release planned. But the pompous film mogul demanded that 20 minutes of footage be cut and when Joon-ho rightly refused, Weinstein sabotaged the movie by delaying it for almost a year and severely restricting its release. But word of mouth and positive reviews eventually earned it a broader release although nothing like what was originally planned.

The story is taken from a 1982 French graphic novel and as with any good science fiction, the premise is everything. To stonewall the effects of global warming mankind injects the atmosphere with an experimental agent that instead brings on a second ice age. Humanity’s last inhabitants live within the Snowpiercer, an enormous train in constant motion powered by the “eternal engine”. Onboard the train a social order has been created. The affluent upperclass live in the lavish head section while the poor and needy inhabit the tail. Now at first the movie appeared to be a climate change and class warfare lecture, but once we begin to meet the blend of interesting and eccentric characters, we realize there is more under the hood.

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After several failed attempts the tail section puts together another revolt against the privileged and the armed soldiers who defend them. Curtis (Chris Evans) is quickly established as the strongest link and the man many look to for leadership. His mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) is grooming him to be the leader once they are able to take over the train. Curtis is a complex character. He often shows heart particularly in his dealings with his fellow tail-sectioners. Evans continues to grow as an actor. He’s mostly been known for playing goofballs or superheroes but I love seeing him open himself up as an actor. He once again flexes his action star muscle, but it’s nice to see him digging deeper into a character and doing it well.

Evans is helped out by an incredible supporting cast. Jamie Bell is good as a character who starts out as a standard sidekick but evolves into something more. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer plays a mother determined to get her son back after he is taken by the upperclass authority. A Joon-ho favorite Song Kang-ho plays the drug addicted designer of the train’s many doors separating the cars. The fabulously quirky Alison Pill is great as a character simply titled Teacher, and the always exceptional Ed Harris pops up in a significant role. But the true scene stealer has to be Tilda Swinton. She plays Minister Mason, an overseer of sorts who is really a glorified lacky. Swinton has a ball playing such a wacky and neurotic character. Everything from her appearance to her ways of expressing herself works to inject a bit of humor while never derailing the movie’s more prominent tone.

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All of these characters work to energize Joon-ho’s engaging story. To be honest it’s hard to deny the absurdity of it all, and a surface reading would make this sound like a pretty standard action romp. But when the story is this well told and it moves at such a fluid and dynamic pace, it’s so easy to get completely caught up in it. I had a blast with its central conceit and the stylized storytelling. The careful mix of action and character development is well done and the setting is superb. It ranges from beautiful and colorful to dark and dirty while always maintaining a sense of claustrophobia. And as with almost every other sci-fi film, we get plenty of commentary here. Joon-ho paints a parallel portrait of the modern societal standard which is sometimes effective and other times ham-fisted. His climate change theme was the most compelling showing an awareness while also showing the dangers of overreacting. His class warfare approach is a little more uneven. But other themes such as drug abuse, political power, and revolutions are laced throughout the story in intriguing ways.

“Snowpiercer” also looks amazing from its wide assortment of environments within the train to its ice-ravaged world outside. The variety of action we get is also a treat. It may be intense close quarters shootouts or hand-to-hand combat in precarious situations. Some of it dances close to the edge of brutality, but so often Joon-ho pulls back his camera just as the violence is happening sparing the audience from the gore while keeping the sheer intensity of the scene. It’s a mark of the creative Korean style and it gives the movie a particular look that I absolutely loved. It’s a visual delight.

Thanks to Weinstein “Snowpiercer” hasn’t gotten the release it deserves but word of mouth is spreading. Let me happily add to its positive press. This is a fantastic science fiction picture that sounds similar to many other films yet feels completely unique and fresh. It’s a film with many strengths and as a lover of good sci-fi, I had an absolute blast with it!

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “V for Vendetta”

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“Remember, remember the 5th of November”. These are the first words mentioned in the 2005 thriller “V for Vendetta”. It’s a phrase referencing the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. This failed attempt to blow up The House of Lords has oddly become a celebrated event and it serves as the inspiration for this movie’s masked vigilante known as V. This is a film based on a comic book written by Alan Moore which was distributed by Vertigo, a brand of DC comics. The screenplay was written by the then Wachowski brothers which instantly caused concern for me. I’ve had a hard time latching on to their other work but I entered this with an open mind hoping they would avoid the traps they normally fall into.

The movie starts off on a good note introducing us to its fascist dystopian near-future world. It also introduces us to V, an underground resistance fighter sporting a cool Guy Fawkes mask and a belt full of blades. He’s played eloquently by the fluid-tongued Hugo Weaving. He rescues a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) from three alley thugs and then goes on to reveal to her his plans to spark a revolution. His methods (which could understandably be called terrorism) disturbs Evey but she also finds herself mesmerized by the words and reason of the mysterious V.

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Hugo Weaving as V

At first the oppressive and tyrannical world we are thrown into is fascinating. The government has gained supreme power and High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) is pulling all the strings. The government controls the flow of information and Sutler ultimately decides what’s acceptable in every facet of the people’s lives. The citizenry sit in front of their TVs in an almost hypnotic state while the government filters and alters the “news” and “entertainment”. The totalitarian rule is realized in a variety of alarming ways which makes V’s passion and cause more sympathetic.

But as with most of the Wachowski’s other work they don’t know when to stop. After drawing us into this disturbing yet entrancing world they created, they don’t focus on unwrapping the story within it. Instead they bombard us with contrived and heavy-handed political sermonettes and pop shots. They throw out a crazy amount of soapbox issues and irrational comparisons which they have every right to do. The problem is they become so obviously forced and they do nothing to help the greater story. The social issues, the Bush bashing, the ‘blame America’ nonsense, the selective religious critique, rendition, blah, blah, blah. The second half of the film is filled with these injections that make it feel like a left-wing political propaganda piece, something the movie is supposedly speaking against.

These things mixed with the sometimes bloated dialogue ultimately made “V for Venetta” an almost laborious experience. That’s a shame because there are things the movie does well particularly in the first half. I mentioned the fantastic early impressions of the world and Weaving’s brilliant performance even during some of the Wachowski’s more blabber-heavy scenes. But the excess crap eventually weighs the thing down and at over 130 minutes it was a tad tough to endure. Director James McTeigue does the movie no favors either. There are all kinds of pacing issues and his dull camera tempered the film which seemed to be screaming for a bit of style. And he never develops enough tension and intrigue past the first act – a problem we also get in his most recent film “The Raven”. Visually the movie underwhelms and, aside from a couple of impressive explosions, it resembles a TV production. All these things left me wanting more.

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Natalie Portman

The most frustrating thing about “V for Vendetta” was that it had me during the first half. Despite its technical shortcomings I was wrapped up in the story and I found myself anxious for Hugo Weaving’s next scene. But when things come unglued I was just anxious for the ending. The Wachowskis don’t seem to understand when they’ve created a good thing. Here they take the great message built around an oppressive government and squash it with their own preachy hard-left politics. There’s nothing wrong with that in the hands of more capable writers and filmmakers, but here the latter politics don’t propel the movie. Instead they feel far more self-serving.

I know this movie has its share of followers but for me it’s a case of squandering a good thing. It goes off the rails and leaves nothing of any substance. There is a good message hidden somewhere under the clunky and peremptory politics but I lost my grasp of it halfway through. That’s unfortunate because I really wanted to like this movie. But in the end I can see why Alan Moore disassociated himself from it even if his overall problems with it were a little different than mine.

VERDICT – 2 STARS