Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
For whatever reason, there's been a flood of sword and sandal epics charging toward the screen. But Brett Ratner's Hercules, already the second film starring the mythical demi-god to be released this year, is the best of the lot. Unsurprisingly, this feature lacks the polish and ambition of the year's weightier blockbusters like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the sublime Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But what it lacks in ambition, it makes up for in pure thrills.
It's been years since Hercules completed his mythical labors, and stories of his gallantry have spread far across Greece, which benefits Herc and his merry band of mercenaries just fine since a résumé that can double as a child's bedtime story is worth its weight in gold. But when King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) enlists Hercules to end a rebellion that threatens to send his city into chaos, a quest that has the untrained Thracian soldiers whispering nervously of monsters, beasts, and an evil sorcerer, the mighty son of Zeus might not have the gods on his side.
Who knew a film by Brett Ratner and starring Dwayne Johnson would have more than two brain cells to mush together? Hercules boasts a narrative that's all about the power of mythmaking; it examines the way legends grow, spread, balloon, and deflate, and takes the classic Hercules story in unexpected directions in a nicely subversive, clever way.
Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
The Rock's brawny good looks do the Greco-Roman demi-god his due justice, and the hulking hero's physique looks like a supreme feat of nature (and the gym). But even through the muscles and leather armor, Johnson's natural charisma shines through. While The Rock is the centerpiece of the film, the true highlights are his supporting cast of heroes, who fire off expertly loaded quips when necessary. The standout here is Ian McShane's soothsaying Amphiaraus, whose quest to meet his fate often requires standing right in the way of flaming spears. The jokes sometimes feel anachronistically modern, but they mesh well enough into a story that's wholly uninterested in adhering to classic representations of ancient Greecian myths.
Hercules is by no measure a great film. Hell, I'd even be cautious to call it a good film. The suspect CGI and cheesy costumes break the spell all too often, but it's such a cheerfully ridiculous take on Hercules myth that it's nearly irresistible. The film is knowingly doofy and hits every rung of the standard action adventure, but does so with such a spirited commitment to the material and swashbuckling sense of fun, it's hard not to buy into its legend.
The Tourist is about as difficult to get through as spotting the vowels in the name of its director. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was last seen receiving a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007 for The Lives of Others which was about a couple living in East Berlin who were being monitored by the police of the German Democratic Republic. Its positive reception made way for the assumption that Donnersmark would continue to populate the USA with films of seemingly otherworldly and underrepresented themes. But his current project is saddening in its superficiality and total implausibility.
The film’s only real upside is its stars: two of our most prized Americans. Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo a math teacher from Wisconsin who travels to Europe after his wife leaves him presumably because of his weakness and simplicity. While en route to Venice he meets Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) who situates herself in his company after she receives a letter from her criminal lover Alexander Pearce (who stole some billions from a very wealthy Russian and the British government) with instructions to find someone on a train who looks like him and make the police believe that he is the real Alexander Pearce to throw the authorities and the Russians off his track. Elise picks Frank and after they are photographed kissing each other on the balcony of Elise’s hotel everyone begins to believe Frank is the real Pearce and so begins the chase.
While Donnersmark could not have picked two better looking people to film roaming around Venice his lack of faith in the audience is obvious. Every aspect of the characters is hammed up again and again as if Donnersmark felt burdened with the task of making us see his vision. Doubtful that we’re capable of getting to where he wants us he has crafted a movie completely devoid of subtlety. Elise’s strength and superiority over Frank are portrayed by close-ups and repeated instances of men burping up their lungs upon seeing her (as if her beauty is in any way subjective?). And in case we forgot that Frank is the victim in this story -- even though he’s been tricked chased and shot at - Donnersmark still felt the need to pin him with a lame electronic cigarette to puff on. Frank and Elise somehow manage to lack mystery even though we get very few factual details about each of them.
Nothing extraordinary comes to us in the way of the film’s structural elements either. There is very little of the action that The Tourist’s marketing led us to believe and the dialog is often painful. The plot itself is almost shockingly unbelievable especially when we’re asked to believe that Elise falls in love with Frank after a combination of kissing him once and her disclosed habit of swooning over men she only spent an hour with (yes that was on her CV).
The Tourist is rather empty and cosmetic. It’s worth seeing if you’re a superfan of Jolie or Depp but don’t expect to walk out of the theater with anything more than the stub you came in with.
In the beginning of the Dark Ages the warlords of England are brutally kept in line by the Irish King Donnchadh (David O'Hara). Tristan (James Franco) has grown up hating the Irish for killing his family and has made a strong allegiance to father figure Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) while Isolde (Sophia Myles) Donnchadh's daughter has grown up under her father’s thumb. After a fierce battle that leaves Tristan near death he washes up on Irish soil and is nursed secretly back to health by Isolde who tells him she’s someone else. The two fall madly in love but Tristan must return to England before he’s discovered. Meanwhile Donnchadh decides to stage a tournament between all the champions of England with his daughter as the prize. Tristan ends up winning the princess' hand for Lord Marke but is horrified to find out she’s his own true love. Tristan and Isolde now must suppress their love for the sake of peace and the future of England. But despite their best efforts to stay apart the lovers are driven inexorably together. Despite the fact that Franco (Spider-Man) and Myles (Underworld) look lovely rolling around on the ground in romantic trysts and gazing forlornly at one another you don’t necessarily feel any heat between them. That seems to be mostly the fault of Franco who plays the young Tristan far too stoically. We understand he’s a tortured soul torn between duty and love with his eyes perpetually half-filled with tears. But couldn’t he have shown a little more passion (and while he’s at it washed his hair)? The luminous Myles is better at showing her burning desire but she too is left many times sad and weepy. Only Sewell (Legend of Zorro) who is usually delegated to playing bad guys shows any kind of raw emotion as he first falls genuinely in love with his bride--and then is betrayed by her and the only son he ever knew. He’d probably make a great King Arthur. As the Celtic myth of Tristan and Isolde predates the Arthurian legend as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet you can easily see how those two more famous stories were possibly formed. Tristan & Isolde is a classic story of forbidden passion set against political upheaval as well as a tale about a tragic love triangle. Producers Ridley and Tony Scott had been fascinated with the legend for many years and finally got the opportunity to bring it to the big screen. Ridley however who directed last summer’s medieval fare Kingdom of Heaven wisely chose to hand over the directing reins to Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) who adequately paints a picture of a time when chaos reigned. Maybe Tristan & Isolde is not as compelling or romantic as the king of them all Braveheart but it is certainly far more accessible than say Kingdom of Heaven. Sorry Ridley.
Extreme Ops should be a James Bond movie. Then at least we'd expect the ridiculous plot--plus we'd see some sex. Alas the film takes itself too seriously and those wacky opportunities are simply missed. As it stands a crew of commercial filmmakers--director Ian (Rufus Sewell) producer Jeffrey (Rupert Graves) coordinator Mark (Heino Ferch) and cameraman Will (Devon Sawa)--known for going that extra mile to get extreme action shots are hired to shoot a commercial for a Japanese digital video camera. Their idea is to take three skiers to the Austrian Karawanken Range bordering Yugoslavia and have them outrun an avalanche. No sweat. Up for the task are Chloe (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) a downhill gold medal winner; wild-child snowboarder Kittie (Jana Pallaske); and all-around adrenaline junkie Silo (Joe Absolom). They make it to Austria and shack up in an unfinished resort nestled in the mountains (you were expecting a warm chalet?) where a band of Serbian terrorists led by war criminal Pavle (Klaus Lowitsch) has also happened to make its base camp. Seems this group of not-so-happy campers has a master plan involving world destruction which the hapless filmmakers uncover. Darn the luck. It's going to take some fancy-schmancy stunts to foil these bad guys--but our motley crew of extremists is up to the task.
This is one of those times you wonder what initially convinced good actors such as Rufus Sewell (A Knight's Tale) and Rupert Graves (The Madness of King George) to make this film. Maybe they thought they could improve it along the way. Or maybe the extreme stunts tempted them to have a little fun in the Austrian Alps. Regardless only Sewell rises above the mire every once in a while; the rest of the cast wallows in it. Newcomers Pallaske and Absolom have very limited range and do better when they simply stand around getting snow in their hair while Sawa (Slackers) seems sorely out of place. Wilson-Sampras has some potential as an actress (her performance breaking up with Matthew McConaughey on their wedding day in The Wedding Planner comes to mind) but an awful script and a bunch of second-rate actors bring her down. The only exceptions are her scenes with Sewell. As for the villains it seems Hollywood has a new bad guy of choice. It used to be the Russians but these Serbs are mighty vicious and suitably over the top. It's their job to make the heroes look good and they do it adequately.
Putting aside a weak plot and bad acting the point to this movie would be the opportunity to see some amazing stunts right? Crazy snowboarders outrunning avalanches attack dogs and evil terrorists all while leaping off snow-capped cliffs and outmaneuvering other perilous terrain. This can make a movie worthwhile if done correctly but sadly that is not the case with Extreme Ops. Director Christian Duguay (The Art of War) manages to mess up even this simple task. The first few shots of the skiers shooting down the hill with the snow tumbling after them are pretty spectacular yet after about the eighth time you see this same shot it starts to get a little boring. On top of that there are some extraordinarily bad blue-screen moments when it's clear the actors are standing in front of a fake background. In this CGI age audiences have high expectations and are very unforgiving of shoddy filmmaking. The worst of the movie's offenses however happens in the editing room. With all the good guys bad guys skiing helicopters and running through snow you're never quite sure who's who or what's what.
Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) finds an old tin box from the 1950s filled with childhood treasures hidden beneath the floorboards of her bathroom. After tracking down the owner she returns the box anonymously and after watching his reaction from a distance realizes how this small unexpected surprise transforms his life. Relishing her success Amélie makes the decision to transform the lives of the people around her some for the better and some for the worst and admires her achievements from a distance. But while Amélie is able to fix the lives of strangers she is a master at avoiding her own problems including her relationship with her father. She also becomes smitten with a man named Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz) who spends his days collecting unclaimed photos of people at train station photo booths. Amélie discovers that in order to win Nino's heart she will have to do it face-to-face rather than with behind-the-scenes manipulation.
Tautou who won a César (the French equivalent to an Oscar) for her role in 1999's Venus Beauty Institute is charming as the gamine Amélie and her performance is pivotal in getting across the film's sense of hope. She comes across as immensely sweet and curiously playful. Her love interest Nino is played by Kassovitz (The Fifth Element). An odd collector of anything unusual by day and part-time cashier at the "Palace Video King of Porno" by night Kassovitz is perfectly cast as Amélie's intriguing suitor. The supporting roles are also of top quality including the singularly named French actor Rufus (Delicatessen) who plays Amélie's cold father and town doctor; Serge Merlin as her neighbor whose congenital illness causes his bones to shatter like crystal; and Jamel Debbouze as an endive-loving grocery clerk. Each encompasses their characters to a tee and adds to the film's authenticity.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen) took the romantic comedy formula and turned into a sweet original and entertaining film. Starting with a visually stunning montage of Amélie's childhood-which clearly explains her ability to sidestep reality-the movie surges ahead to the present without ever being predictable. We meet a colorful and lively Parisian neighborhood whose quirky denizens have lived there for generations. All the players are introduced by a hilarious voiceover describing their traits ("Joseph is a pathologically jealous character who only enjoys himself when he is popping bubble-wrap foils.") And while they are complex people and not always good they are endearing and genuine. The eclectic cast and colorful cinematography make Amélie a warmhearted movie without the usual sappiness that comes with almost every romantic comedy.