Summit via Everett Collection
You can imagine that Renny Harlin, director and one quadrant of the writing team for The Legend of Hercules, began his pitch as such: We'll start with a war, because lots of these things start with wars. It feels like this was the principal maxim behind a good deal of the creative choices in this latest update of the Ancient Greek myth. There are always horse riding scenes. There are generally arena battles. There are CGI lions, when you can afford 'em. Oh, and you've got to have a romantic couple canoodling at the base of a waterfall. Weaving them all together cohesively would be a waste of time — just let the common threads take form in a remarkably shouldered Kellan Lutz and action sequences that transubstantiate abjectly to and fro slow-motion.
But pervading through Lutz's shirtless smirks and accent continuity that calls envy from Johnny Depp's Alice in Wonderland performance is the obtrusive lack of thought that went into this picture. A proverbial grab bag of "the basics" of the classic epic genre, The Legend of Hercules boasts familiarity over originality. So much so that the filmmakers didn't stop at Hercules mythology... they barely started with it, in fact. There's more Jesus Christ in the character than there is the Ancient Greek demigod, with no lack of Gladiator to keep things moreover relevant. But even more outrageous than the void of imagination in the construct of Hercules' world is its script — a piece so comically dim, thin, and idiotic that you will laugh. So we can't exactly say this is a totally joyless time at the movies.
Summit via Everett Collection
Surrounding Hercules, a character whose arc takes him from being a nice enough strong dude to a nice enough strong dude who kills people and finally owns up to his fate — "Okay, fine, yes, I guess I'm a god" — are a legion of characters whose makeup and motivations are instituted in their opening scenes and never change thereafter. His de facto stepdad, the teeth-baring King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins), despises the boy for being a living tribute to his supernatural cuckolding; his half-brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan) is the archetypical scheming, neutered, jealous brother figure right down to the facial scar. The dialogue this family of mongoloids tosses around is stunningly brainless, ditto their character beats. Hercules can't understand how a mystical stranger knows his identity, even though he just moments ago exited a packed coliseum chanting his name. Iphicles defies villainy and menace when he threatens his betrothed Hebe (Gaia Weiss), long in love with Hercules, with the terrible fate of "accepting [him] and loving [their] children equally!" And the dad... jeez, that guy must really be proud of his teeth.
With no artistic feat successfully accomplished (or even braved, really) by this movie, we can at the very least call it inoffensive. There is nothing in The Legend of Hercules with which to take issue beyond its dismal intellect, and in a genre especially prone to regressive activity, this is a noteworthy triumph. But you might not have enough energy by the end to award The Legend of Hercules with this superlative. Either because you'll have laughed yourself into a coma at the film's idiocy, or because you'll have lost all strength trying to fend it off.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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I saw Disney’s TRON: Legacy last week and had a very middling reaction toward the science fiction spectacular. It is without question a visually stunning roller coaster, but lacks compelling characters to navigate its rather unfulfilling narrative, except for one minor player. Michael Sheen always brings class and complexity to his work, making him a filmmaker’s dream candidate for just about any role one can create.
Though he’s wonderful as a lead actor in films like Frost/Nixon and The Damn United, he excels at taking small roles and doing big things with them. That’s why Tim Burton used him in Alice In Wonderland as the White Rabbit and why Joseph Kosinski cast him as the eccentric club guru Castor in TRON. He was my favorite part of the movie; undeniably charismatic and infinitely watchable, but he’s not the first supporting player to steal a film’s glory. Take a look at a few other cases of small roles with a big impact:
Lambert Wilson in The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The Matrix was a massive hit not just because it was a mind-bending, genre-defying blockbuster for the new millennium, but also because it was a fun ride. In the bloated sequel everyone – from Keanu Reeves to the Wachowski’s – was wound up and super-serious about the material, leaving precious little breathing room. Enter the Merovingian, an eccentric, aristocratic asshole holding The Keymaker in captivity. Lambert Wilson’s blase portrayal of this pompous program was the gust of fresh air that Reloaded desperately needed and was the best of all the additions to the franchise.
Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road (2008)
Shannon’s contribution to this saddening film is colossal. His character says the things that we, the audience, want to say to Frank and April Wheeler when their marriage begins to unravel. He is the voice of reason in a society caught up in consumerism and upward mobility, pleading with the couple to follow their hearts instead of their wants. He maximizes his screen time with a raw, uninhibited performance that overshadows the films prestigious stars.
Matthew McConaughey in Dazed & Confused (1993)
I bet you can’t name more than five people who appeared in this classic comedy. Whether you can or can’t, I’m positive that one of those people would be McConaughey, who steals every moment of the movie with pitch-perfect delivery of his hilarious lines. Oozing charm and a delightful disregard for authority, he followed a long line of cinematic rebels that includes James Dean (Rebel Without A Cause), Marlon Brando (The Wild One) and Sean Penn (Fast Times At Ridgemont High) and is as cool as any of them.
Sean Connery in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Though some may disagree, I find this rendition of Robin Hood to be one of the most enjoyable. Director Kevin Reynolds assembled an all-star cast and created some memorable action sequences to tell the age-old story of the man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but Connery ends the film on a high note with a rousing cameo as Richard the Lionheart while giving a nod to his own cinematic past (he played the adventurous archer in 1976’s Robin and Marian).
Jackie Earle Haley in Shutter Island (2010)
Every bit the twisted mind-bender it was supposed to be, Shutter Island’s best moment was an informative standoff between Haley and star Leonardo DiCaprio. The former child actor sells the primal terror that the patients experience almost as well as director Martin Scorsese, but does so in less than ten minutes. In that time he reveals the entire plot of the movie – backstory, conclusion and all – but sandwiches it so well between layers of emotion you’re not entirely sure he knows what he’s talking about. It’s masterful exposition and a riveting sequence thanks to Haley’s tremendous talent.
Peter O’Toole in Ratatouille (2007)
O’Toole personified every chef’s worst nightmare as an imposing food critic in this heartwarming animated comedy. With just the power of his voice, he gave Anton Ego the presence of a Roman gladiator and the attitude of Ebenezer Scrooge. His character's enlightenment doubles as the moral of the story; not an easy task for someone taking on a minor role in a film of this size, but O’Toole makes it look easy and fun.
Matt Damon in EuroTrip (2004)
This by-the-books teen comedy isn’t all that great, but is fun enough to warrant repeat viewings. The ace up its sleeve is Damon’s tattooed bandleader Donny, who ridicules protagonist Scottie by sleeping with his girlfriend and then singing about it. The comedy is born from the absurdity of seeing the generally dramatic Damon in full frat-boy mode. Silly? Yes, but it’s a welcome surprise that never gets stale, even if the film itself has.
Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)
Had Murray’s brief appearance in this surprise hit never happened the trajectory of its awesomeness wouldn’t have changed. Looking at the film in hindsight, however, I find myself counting down the minutes and seconds until Bill chimes in. The timing of his cameo within the narrative is perfect and his self-deprecating humor plays so well off of the film’s central characters it’s practically a comedy short all on its own.
Elijah Wood in Sin City (2005)
In a film populated by creepy characters, Wood is exceptionally crazy as Kevin the cannibal. Without any words he managed to scare the pants off of most moviegoers with one of the weirdest characters in modern movie history (next to Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka and Mad Hatter, of course). His performance recalls the work of Max Schreck and other silent film stars while providing Mickey Rourke’s Marv with a polar-opposite nemesis who’s equally as deadly.
Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s landmark neo-noir features many great monologues and cameos, but none is quite as affecting as Walken’s. He delivers little Butch’s entire genealogy in less than ten minutes, but laces it with so much detail you feel as though you were in the trenches of Hanoi with him. His comical delivery makes it go down smooth and turns a somber moment into one of the funniest in the film. [Click here to view]