Paramount via Everett Collection
A quarter of the way into Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit's far-too-long runtime, the titular hero takes note of a war-time portait in his adversary Viktor Cherevin's office. "Napoleon," Ryan says, proudly identifying the subject of the painting. "Ah," the nefarious Cherevin smiles. "I see you know your history." You'd think we'd get a bit more academic sophistication in a film directed by Kenneth Branagh... hell, in a line delivered by Kenneth Branagh. But this is par for the course in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit's script. And even more problematic, it's the thing that sticks with me most only a few days after seeing the movie. Well, that and the fact that Chris Pine and Keira Knightley make for the most compatibly attractive onscreen couple I have ever seen. Aside from these standout elements, the film dissolves into a 105-minute (jeez, it feels twice that) blur of running, driving, choking, shooting, and the like.
But it's not a painful jaunt all the while, and this is thanks almost entirely to Pine. An actor who we remember popping up in early Lindsay Lohan movies and thinking little of, Pine has earned his place at the center of franchises like Star Trek and, this weekend's box office intake permitting, Jack Ryan. He maintains character and personality in the movie's heightened scenes of "the first kill" and pulling the long con on Cherevin. With a better, smarter script, Pine could thrive in an action hero role like Ryan, but here he's only left to occasionally cut through a staunch layer of boredom.
Paramount via Everett Collection
The other winning factor of Jack Ryan is in its female lead: Knightley and her character Dr. Cathy Mullins. Another pervasive charmer, Knightley manages to inject a wealth of vitality into the movie at the points most desperate for some flavor — so much so that we're not simply thrilled, but relieved when she shows up unexpectedly to tag along with boyfriend Jack on his mission to... to... well, it's something to do with stopping terrorism. Trust me, you'll forget the specifics as soon as you leave the theater, if not sooner. But the most impressive part is that Shadow Recruit actually gives Knightley something to do as Mullins. She doesn't just wait around and lament the life choices of her danger-prone boyfriend, she gets in on the action. And we're glad for it. Without her, it'd just be Pine. And as much as we like him, he needs somebody else with a personality to play off (sorry, Kevin Costner, but you're not exactly playing your A Game here).
The best player in the World for movie trailers, Hollywood interviews and movie clips.
In short, there's almost nothing to say about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which in itself says a lot — it's dull, it's slow, and it's got two stars who deserve a lot better than the material they're dealt. Aw hell, maybe the sequel (yeah, we've come out of denial... it's gonna happen) will up the ante on the script, and not mistake knowing who Napoleon is for being a history expert.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Against all odds a lightweight Broadway musical made up of ABBA songs and an innocuous storyline has become a worldwide phenomenon still running and selling out wherever it plays. Now it has been given the big-screen treatment filmed on location in the Greek Isles. The story basically remains the same (and oddly similar to the 1969 Gina Lollobrigida comedy Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell) about a young girl Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) on the eve of her wedding. She has decided to find out who her real father and so she invites all three of her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) ex-loves to the wedding. With the arrival of Sam (Pierce Brosnan) Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth) all hell breaks loose as Donna must not only deal with the impending nuptials but also the re-emergence into her life of three very different--and now older former flames. Helping her through the ordeal are her two best friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and the seductive Tanya (Christine Baranski). All this of course is just an excuse to break out into song every five minute with all of the major ABBA hits used to move the story along--or just stop it dead in its tracks. Either way it’s a toe-tapping experience apart from every other film we’ve seen this summer. With a cast not exactly known for their musical skills this version of Mamma Mia is indeed a roll of the dice which has paid great dividends for the most part. With few exceptions (we’ll get to Pierce’s warbling in a moment) the entire cast shines and delivers--beginning with Streep who is simply a force of nature. She’s sensational and can she ever sing! Her big 11-o’clock-number “The Winner Takes It All ” which she belts out against the stunning scenery of Scopelos (where much of the movie was filmed) will remind you of Barbra Streisand’s triumphant anthem “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl. Streep is the real deal--Hollywood’s real hidden singing and dancing queen. You just have to wonder why she hasn’t gotten more musical opportunities in film. Baranski and Walters are delightful sidekicks and each belt out their own numbers in style. Seyfried (HBO’s Big Love) is a great discovery a charmer who keeps the film grounded and unveils a natural singing voice. As for the guys both Skarsgard and Firth get through their limited vocals with seeming ease and have a great camaraderie as does Brosnan--acting-wise at least. His musical numbers while on key exhibit a voice that probably isn’t going to top the charts anytime soon but you have to give him credit for swinging er singing for the fences. Despite his iffy pipes he and Streep display such great chemistry it would be nice to see them re-team somewhere down the line. It’s not often Hollywood offers a Broadway show’s creative team the chance to repeat their stage success but give credit to Universal for bringing in the original director Phyllida Lloyd writer Catherine Johnson and producer Judy Craymer. Consider the fact that they are all over 50--just like three of their key female stars--and you have a situation in which youth-obsessed Hollywood has reversed course--all for the good. Although Mamma Mia is not shot with the kind of razzamatazz style a Rob Marshall (Chicago) might have brought Lloyd’s feature film debut hits the mark with zeal enthusiasm and the gift of fun. It’s a good-time movie with a refreshing lack of pretense and makes it one of the most purely entertaining musical events ever to hit a motion picture screen. Lloyd has re-captured on film the unabashed joy of the theatrical experience and staged it in one of the most beautiful places on earth. If it’s a little disconcerting to see all these older stars belting out a Swedish pop group’s greatest hits it’s also probably just what audiences living in these troubled times need. Our guess is you’ll want to line up and see it again the minute it ends.
Veteran British actor Maurice (O'Toole) knows that his final curtain call is coming soon. Though he still earns booze and cigarette money playing small parts in TV movies his heyday is far behind him and his chief delight is gossiping and reminiscing about the old days with acting crony Ian (Leslie Phillips). But beneath Maurice's craggy creaky exterior the heart of a young rake still beats. That heart gets plenty of exercise when Ian's grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) appears on the scene. Fascinated by her youth and rawness Maurice takes the girl under his wing--and it's clear even before he dubs her his Venus that his motives aren't exactly grandfatherly. No innocent herself she responds by using her sexuality to manipulate him. As each learns more about the other their complicated relationship twists and turns in ways both predictable and unexpected. Whatever else can be said about Venus it's undeniably an actors' movie--particularly one actor. O'Toole gives one of the best performances of his career in a part that seems tailor-made for the acting legend. Whether he's staring at Jessie with a combination of sympathy and lust abruptly dissolving into tears of regret during a meal with ex-wife Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave) or sitting on his bed quietly and sadly alone O'Toole's Maurice is a fully fleshed-out thoroughly lived-in character. The spark he feels when he meets Jessie is clearly the most exciting thing that's happened to him in a long time and it's impossible not to sympathize with his newfound zest--even while raising an eyebrow at his pursuit. Newcomer Whittaker is also excellent adeptly shifting between Jessie's moments of brazen womanly confidence and naïve little-girl hurt and eagerness. Like its main character Venus isn't an easy movie to categorize. Just when it seems like a quiet dignified drama about one man's attempt to make peace with his own mortality the advent of Jessie turns it into one of filmdom's more unlikely May-December romances. And then there are the movie's comic moments (one of the best is when Maurice takes a pratfall while trying to spy on Jessie when she poses nude for an art class). Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill The Mother) takes all of these conflicting elements and weaves them into a compelling challenging whole. It's hard to say whether he would have succeeded without O'Toole--in another actor's hands Maurice could have been just another dirty old man and some scenes frankly require all of O'Toole's talent to overcome that obstacle. But with this star and this director Venus is artful.