Jules Verne’s classic 1864 novel has inspired many film and TV versions. None has matched the success of the penultimate 1959 Journey which starred James Mason and Pat Boone and remains a baby-boomer favorite and classic of the sci-fi genre. That could change with this clever remake--ingeniously filmed in 3D--which goes directly back to the source material of the book and comes off like an endless thrill ride. This updated tale begins with the daily travails of American professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) who has never gotten over the mysterious disappearance of his brother Max several years earlier. When Max’s son Sean (Josh Hutcherson) pays a visit bearing a box of Dad’s papers the Trevor discovers hand-written notes in a copy of an original Jules Verne book suggesting his brother may have found a way to confirm Verne’s theories about a direct volcanic entrance into the center of the earth. With nephew in tow and the book in hand the twosome set out for Iceland on their own perilous journey to test Max’s thesis and trace his steps. There they are joined by Hannah (Anita Briem) a skeptical mountain guide who agrees to show them the way--though she highly doubts they find anything resembling Verne’s imagined lost world of natural wonders and roaming dinosaurs. But stranger things have happened right?
Anchoring the proceedings with enough derring-do to suggest he would be ideally cast as the next Indiana Jones if Harrison Ford ever wants to hang up his hat Fraser has just the right amount of authority cynicism and dry wit to make us connect to a down and out professor whose “crazy” geological beliefs have torched his reputation. Key to liking this guy is clearly the fun Fraser has in playing him. Hutcherson is thankfully a little looser in this flick than the spiritually-driven boy he played in Bridge To Terabithia even though the two films share odd similarities especially with their descent from mundane real life into fantasy adventures any kid would salivate over. Briem nicely rounds out the threesome as the reluctant guide trying to deny the beliefs of her own late father a Verne disciple who as it turns out shared the same dreams of the two nascent adventurers she now finds herself shepherding to parts unknown. In a relatively minor role SNL’s Seth Meyers also turns up early on as a disbelieving colleague of Andersons. Oscar-winning visual effects veteran Eric Brevig (Total Recall) makes his directorial debut and turns out to be perfectly chosen for what is after all an effects- driven summer ride. Leaving a lot of the talkiness and exposition of Verne’s book (and previous film versions) on the cutting room floor Brevig cuts right to the chase in this breezy 90-minute guilty pleasure. He clearly knows today’s moviegoers have the attention span of a mosquito so he piles on the action but still manages to keep the sense of wonder crucial to the story alive. Best of all the 3D technology which has been part of Hollywood for over half a century is still remarkable to behold even in the CGI era. Rather than just selected sequences the entire film has been shot with 3D in mind so expect to have lots of objects hurled directly at you--none more effectively than a scene in which our explorers encounter flying fish. And even without the glasses prepare to hold your breath and hang on for a great time at the movies.
Nim (Abigail Breslin) and her dad Jack (Gerard Butler) have been tucked away on their own private tropical island since Nim's mom died. They live in a tricked-out treehouse hang out with sea lions and marine iguanas and only communicate with the rest of the world via email and satellite phone. It's all sunshine and blue waters until Jack heads out for a short research expedition and gets stranded by a nasty tropical storm leaving Nim to fend for herself. At first she takes it in stride but eventually worried and lonely she confesses some of her fears to her cyber pen pal/favorite writer adventure novelist Alex Rover--never guessing that the intrepid hero she's imagined is really a neurotic scaredy-cat woman (Jodie Foster). When tourists threaten the island Nim asks Alex for help challenging the writer to overcome her fears and become "the hero of her own story." Nim's Island is the first lighthearted movie Foster has made in quite awhile and her first family film in decades. Watching her warm funny accessible performance you have to hope that she's got more of both on tap. She makes Alex--whose quirks are markedly more exaggerated here than in the book--endearingly idiosyncratic rather than creepily irrational. She tackles both physical humor and dramatic moments with gusto and the scenes in which she bickers with Butler (who does double duty as Jack and "Alex Rover"--the physical embodiment of the Indiana Jones-like hero of Alex's books) are charming. Breslin is as ever an appealing expressive kid; alone on the island she spends many of her scenes interacting only with Nim's animal pals and/or the computer and she keeps the energy level up nicely. Wild-haired and sun-kissed she seems like a real girl not a starlet in training. When your movie takes place in a tropical paradise that comes complete with the coolest jungle abode this side of Swiss Family Robinson beautiful beaches and even a slightly rumbly volcano you don't need to do too much except point the camera at the action. Directors Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett do a fine job on that front turning Nim and her sanctuary into something out of a kid's wildest imagination. That makes some of the movie's weaknesses--predictable bits like the scene in which Nim and her animal pals dance around the fire Jack's frequently cheesy dialogue Alex's unrealistically quick transformation from agoraphobic to trailblazer--forgivable. Bottom line? In an era when so many kids' movies rely on special effects and flashy animation to grab an audience's attention an old-fashioned adventure like Nim's Island is a refreshing island breeze
Love means never having to say you're sorry; it's a many splendored thing; it's all you need. But in tennis love means zero; it means you lose. Or does it? For Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) a British pro tennis player seeded near the bottom of the world tennis ranks love actually inspires him. After scoring a wild card to play in the prestigious Wimbledon tournament he meets and falls for the rising and highly competitive American tennis star Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) fueling a winning streak he hasn't had since he began his career. For Lizzie however the love thing doesn't necessarily work out as well. Her feelings for Peter become a distraction throwing her off her game. Hmmm. Can these two crazy kids keep it together long enough so Peter can fulfill his lifelong dream of winning the men's singles title even if it means his muse might have to sacrifice her first Wimbledon title?
Kirsten Dunst may be what draws you in but Paul Bettany is the reason you don't walk out. The British actor who made an impression with American audiences playing the oh-so-witty Chaucer in A Knight's Tale and then wowed them in Oscar winners such as A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander doesn't disappoint in his first lead role. Bettany's Peter embodies all that charm we've come to love and expect in our British actors--although thankfully not as floppy as Hugh Grant--he stumbles about and apologizes profusely. It's so cute. And he makes a pretty darn believable tennis player to boot (one would hope so after the intense training session the actors apparently had to go through to prepare for the movie). Unfortunately Dunst does not fare as well. Her Lizzie is appealing and she adequately handles the tennis stuff--but she ultimately fails to connect with her male lead making their relationship seem forced. Their beginning sparks are fun but when there's suppose to be a real flame igniting between them you're left scratching your head wondering just when where and why they fell in love so hard so fast. Yep that's a big red flag.
I've said sports movies usually work (see the Mr. 3000 review). To clarify: That is team sports. Sport movies where the action revolves around a single competitor are harder to pull off. It's just not as exciting watching an underdog struggle with himself in order to win. Luckily director Richard Loncraine (HBO's My House in Umbria) seems to know this fact. Even though Peter takes Centre Court (that's the British way of spelling it) Loncraine tries to at least create a more complete picture giving us a glimpse into the world of tennis as well as delving into the traditions of Wimbledon and how the Brits feel about the prestigious tournament where British champions are few and far between. Loncraine also utilizes real-life tennis pros such as John McEnroe and Chris Evert who appear as announcers to liven up the proceedings. Even the action on the court with close-up shots of the ball whizzing over the net gets the blood pumping a little--wish there was a lot more of that. But then of course one could just turn on the TV and watch the real Wimbledon instead watching a silly run-of-the-mill romantic comedy set there.
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.