When we last saw the armed-to-the-teeth vigilante Frank Castle he was fleeing Tampa after exacting his revenge upon the money launderer responsible for murdering his son wife parents aunts and uncles third cousin twice removed … But that was the old Punisher. Meet the new Punisher. Like Incredible Hulk Punisher: War Zone reboots a franchise by assuming we know enough about the Punisher without having go into excruciating detail about why he became judge jury and executioner. Another good sign: Ray Stevenson’s Punisher is back where he belongs in a dirty grimy New York not sun-kissed Florida. And he’s got his sights set on comic-book nemesis Jigsaw the alias of mobster Billy “the Beaut” Russoti (The Wire’s Dominic West). While trying to assassinate Russoti the Punisher accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent compelling him to hang up his guns. Russoti escapes but his face is torn to shreds by glass. With his once-handsome face stitched up like a 12-piece puzzle the rechristened Jigsaw springs his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) from -- of course -- a loony bin to help him punish the Punisher. So much for the Punisher locking up his war journal for good … No disrespect but Jane’s too much of a pretty boy to pass himself off as the Punisher. The big burly Ray Stevenson (HBO’s Rome) looks every bit the cold-blooded dispenser of justice fanboys know and adore. And the Northern Irish hard man possesses an intimidating physical presence something Jane inherently lacks. Jane though received significant leeway to explore the anguish resulting from the loss of Castle’s family. Stevenson wears nothing but a scowl as the taciturn and psychologically scarred human weapon which admittedly is in keeping with the comic-book character’s stony disposition. Then again the out-of-control West does enough emoting for an army of Punishers. With his exaggerated gestures dancing eyebrows and thicker-than-Italian-cheesecake Noo Yawk accent the Brit blasts through War Zone with the destructive force of a rocket-propelled grenade. This is a money gig for West and damnit if he isn’t going to have fun earning his paycheck. The Green Mile’s Hutchinson as Jigsaw’s organ-chewing sibling almost keeps pace with West. Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight does his usual shtick as weapons supplier Microchip. Colin Salmon fills space as a by-the-book lawman pursuing the Punisher. Rambo and Saw V’s Julie Benz -- who obviously can’t say to any sequel or reboot she’s offered -- is wasted as the FBI agent’s widow and the voice of Castle’s conscience. Try counting the ways the Punisher dispatches of his foes. He hangs from a spinning chandelier and sprays a roomful of mobsters with bullets blows up a man leaping between buildings punches his fist through a bad guy’s face sets another on fire and … well we could be here all day. Fair to say director Lexi Alexander’s blood lust drives her to come up with one grisly laugh-inducing death after another. With its Empire State Building-high body count Alexander’s does the impossible and out-Rambos Rambo. And quite frankly it’s everything a Punisher quest for vengeance should be. The 2004 Punisher seemed too disconnected from its source material. Why relocate from New York to Tampa? Or pit the Punisher against a villain from not from the comic book? Or have the Punisher setup Travolta for his fall when he lives by the gun? Jane’s departure paved the way for a reboot that’s closer to the spirit of the comic book and wants nothing more than to be an old-school shoot ’em up like Commando or Lethal Weapon. There isn’t a moment that goes by when you’re not howling at the disgracefully bad dialogue gasping in shock at each and every execution or wondering at just how much more dumb and fun things can get. Alexander the German director who turned sweet little Elijah Wood into a soccer thug in Green Street Hooligans isn’t trying to transcend the comic-book genre á la The Dark Knight. Instead she’s just wants to give us one hell of an adrenaline rush. “This is just the beginning ” Stevenson growls after taking care of business. Let the bodies continue to hit the floor.
It can’t just ALL be about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. There have to be other fantasy-driven stories grounded in reality that are just as exciting. And so there is: The Spiderwick Chronicles a series of short books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black which tells us about the magical creatures who live around us but who remain invisible so we humans won’t freak out. Probably a wise choice for most but there are a few who want to see the creatures. One such person is Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) a turn-of-the-century naturalist who has witnessed the likes of sprites goblins hobgoblins ogres and trolls at work. He has documented their secrets and habits in his Field Guide--a book that if placed in the wrong hands could make some fantastical beast maliciously omnipotent. Jump ahead some 80 years when we meet Spiderwick’s descendents the Grace family who have moved into his dilapidated house in the woods. Newly divorced mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) has uprooted her kids--teenage Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both Freddie Highmore)--to start a new life with Jared being the one protesting the loudest. That is until he finds Spiderwick’s field guide and quite literally opens Pandora’s box giving evil ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) who has desperately wanted the book since its inception the window of opportunity he’s been waiting for. The Grace kids have to band together--with a few otherworldly allies of course--to protect the book at all costs. Although Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) struggles at times with the American accent the young British lad continues to prove his worthiness in the acting department--and joins the ranks of playing twins onscreen that dates back to Patty Duke on The Patty Duke Show (yes they were just cousins but they were identical cousins). Highmore does a nice job distinguishing between the two boys but he seems to have the most fun playing Jared. And rightly so since Jared is the true hero of the story. He is deeply wounded by his parents’ divorce blaming his mother for it all but in discovering this magical and dangerous world that goes way beyond his personal problems he quickly snaps to it. Bolger (In America) too takes her clichéd older-sister-who-knows-everything role and freshens it up adding a fierce determination to protect her family--with an expressive face that makes her very watchable. The adult cast isn’t nearly as important but they all fit in nicely especially Joan Plowright as Great Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick’s 80-something daughter who saw her father taken away by sylphs the keepers of the faeries’ secrets when she was 6 and has been trying to explain it ever since. Then there are the voices of some of the creatures the Graces meet including Martin Short as the ever-faithful house brownie Thimbletack; Seth Rogen as the hobgoblin Hogsqueal a piggish and friendly fellow whose spit in the eye gives you the Sight; and Nolte as the horrible villainous Mulgarath. OK all those who believe in faeries raise your hand! The Spiderwick Chronicles is just the kind of story that gets an imaginative kid to run out to the garden to start looking for sprites and director Mark Waters inherently understands this. Better known for his comedies such as Mean Girls and Freaky Friday Waters nonetheless grabs hold of the Spiderwick’s mythology and firmly plants it in reality with normal modern kids encountering a whole magical realm. Taking from the illustrations of co-author Tony DiTerlizzi Waters also gives us new versions of magical creatures we’ve read about for ages. Goblins for example look like giant frogs and act like attack dogs in this film as opposed to the more civilized view of them in the Harry Potter books--and goblins in Spiderwick can be killed by tomato sauce which melts them. Nice touch. Trolls too aren’t great big lumbering fellows but more dinosaur-like in Spiderwick. And let’s just say ogre Mulgarath looks nothing like Shrek but more so a devilish creature with yellow eyes and great big horns. Spiderwick is indeed scary at times maybe too scary for the younger kids but the action sequences and chase scenes are thrilling enough to keep everyone else’s attention.
What starts out as a case of mistaken identity turns into a war between two of New York’s most rival crime bosses: The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) and The Boss (Morgan Freeman). They both believe laid-back Slevin (Josh Hartnett) staying at his absent friend’s apartment is the guy who owes them money--and they both set about to make sure he pays them back one way or another. The happy-go-lucky girl next door (Lucy Liu) tries to help Slevin unravel the mystery but the whole mistaken identity thing gets him into even more hot water when a relentless detective (Stanley Tucci) hounds him--and an infamous assassin Goodkat (Bruce Willis) tracks him. Looks like Slevin is going to have to come up with his own ingenious plot to get himself out of this fine mess he’s in. And I do mean ingenious. With character names such as “The Rabbi ” “The Boss ” “Goodkat ” and “The Girl Next Door” you know you’re in for some style over substance which is probably why the script attracted such a top-notch cast. Josh Hartnett (who starred in Slevin director Paul McGuigan’s weirdly romantic Wicker Park) tries something different as the affable Slevin a guy who seems pretty smooth on the surface but who has some seriously twisted ulterior motives. Liu also veers from her usual icy villainess to play Slevin’s kooky love interest bouncing all over the screen like a pinball. Willis revisits his Jackal character but adds a certain panache to the hit man role. And then there’s Kingsley and Freeman. As the Rabbi Kingsley deliciously chews things up while Freeman deftly plays his usual understated self as the Boss. When these two have their one and only confrontation the Oscar winners show us exactly what acting is all about. Lucky Number Slevin is a bit of an enigma. It starts off shaky. You feel like you’re watching something you’ve seen done a million times before: Mistaken identity quirky crime lords who want him dead the bumblin’ cop the hardened assassin. But in the capable hands of Scottish director Paul McGuigan(Gangster No. 1) things aren’t what they appear to be and soon you are thoroughly involved forgiving its formulaic beginning. Much like the recent Inside Man this is yet another excellent example of taking something prescribed and turning it on its ear. Of course much of the intelligence comes from the smartly written script by Jason Smilovic who supplies the actors with plenty of juicy mouthfuls. But Slevin makes you think. It makes you want to find the clues so you can figure out the puzzle. Or if you didn’t catch the clue have it shown to you in an inventive way. Thank god independent film these days offers such new and resourceful ways to watch staid themes.
This is one of those stories you want to keep vague for fear of giving away too much. It starts when photographer Matthew (Josh Hartnett) sees dancer Lisa (Diane Kruger) for the first time as she passes by his video shop in the Wicker Park section of Chicago immediately captivating him. He follows her they meet and soon fall deeply in love. All things seem to go perfectly until Matthew asks her to move in with him--and she up and leaves on a dance tour without a word. Two years later Matthew has moved on with his life has a good job even a fiancée (Jessica Pare)--but he still has completely gotten over Lisa and the nagging torment of the "what ifs?" Then suddenly he thinks he catches a glimpse of her in a bar. Not sure if it was she all the feelings come rushing back nonetheless and Matthew begins a twisting obsessive search for the woman who captured his heart years ago. But as Matthew's search intensifies it leads him deeper into a mystery which now includes his best friend Luke (Matthew Lillard) and Luke's newfound paramour Alex (Rose Byrne). Facing deception at every turn Matthew quickly learns that obsession can go both ways--and that indeed you can love someone too much. Fuzzy enough for ya?
Once considered the "It" boy especially after a string of films including Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbor Hartnett took himself out of the heartthrob equation by slowing down to one film a year. His last two efforts--2002's 40 Days and 40 Nights and 2003's Hollywood Homicide--didn't do so well at the box office so in a way Wicker Park is a coming out party for Hartnett. It deftly brings the actor back into the spotlight as a romantic lead as well as taps into some of that talent we all know he has (remember
The Virgin Suicides?) His Matthew is a rather intense fellow but his emotions about the love that got away ring true even when things turn dangerously towards obsession. In one telling scene after Hartnett finds out he's been played he registers his anger through those penetrating brown eyes. As for his female co-stars Kruger and Byrne (who starred together in the epic Troy) also play well off the situation. Kruger has the easier job of being the sweet object of affection while Byrne turns in the more complex performance as Alex who has hidden agendas of her own. As the best friend Lillard (Without a Paddle) delivers in his usual high energy goofy shtick but at least this time it's with real human beings instead of CGI dogs named Scooby-Doo.
Director Paul McGuigan (The Reckoning) describes Wicker Park as a "love story told in a very non-linear way." Boy he isn't kidding. Although Park is a remake of the French film L'Appartement it takes a wholly original spin on staid themes which in this day and age is getting harder and harder to do (and usually only comes in the form of a Charlie Kaufman script). Through McGuigan's guidance Park toys with your emotions--and your expectations. Jumping back and forth through time and seen through varying perspectives the film starts out very slowly--almost too slowly-- setting up what you think is a sweet love story but then having things quickly turn darker. It's plodding and confusing at first but then it begins to pull back the layers and as you fit the pieces together you're hooked. And as cheesy as it might sound you want to the two lovebirds to find each other; you're on the edge of your seat urging Matthew to hurry up and get to Wicker Park to meet Lisa before she thinks he's never coming and gets on a plane to London forever. Run Matthew run!