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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The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
While recent animated blockbusters have aimed to viewers of all ages starting with fantastical concepts and breathtaking visuals but tackling complex emotional issues along the way Ice Age: Continental Drift is crafted especially for the wee ones — and it works. Venturing back to prehistoric times once again the fourth Ice Age film paints broad strokes on the theme of familial relationships throwing in plenty of physical comedy along the way. The movie isn't that far off from one of the many Land Before Time direct-to-video sequels: not particularly innovative or necessary but harmless thrilling fun for anyone with a sense of humor. Unless they have a particular distaste for wooly mammoths the kids will love it.
Ice Age: Continental Drift continues to snowball its cartoon roster bringing back the original film's trio (Ray Romano as Manny the Mammoth Denis Leary as Diego the Sabertooth Tiger and John Leguizamo as Sid the Sloth) new faces acquired over the course of the franchise (Queen Latifah as Manny's wife Ellie) and a handful of new characters to spice things up everyone from Nicki Minaj as Manny's daughter Steffie to Wanda Sykes as Sid's wily grandma. The whole gang is living a pleasant existence as a herd with Manny's biggest problem being playing overbearing dad to the rebellious daughter. Teen mammoths they always want to go out and play by the waterfall! Whippersnappers.
The main thrust of the film comes when Scratch the Rat (whose silent comedy routines in the vein of Tex Avery/WB cartoons continue to be the series highlight) accidentally cracks the singular continent Pangea into the world we know today. Manny Diego and Sid find themselves stranded on an iceberg once again forced on a road trip journey of survival. The rest of the herd embarks to meet them giving Steffie time to realize the true meaning of friendship with help from her mole pal Louis (Josh Gad).
The ham-handed lessons may drag for those who've passed Kindergarten but Ice Age: Continental Drift is a lot of fun when the main gang crosses paths with a group of villainous pirates. (Back then monkeys rabbits and seals were hitting the high seas together pillaging via boat-shaped icebergs. Obviously.) Quickly Ice Age becomes an old school pirate adventure complete with maritime navigation buried treasure and sword fights. Gut (Peter Dinklage) an evil ape with a deadly... fingernail leads the evil-doers who pose an entertaining threat for the familiar bunch. Jennifer Lopez pops by as Gut's second-in-command Shira the White Tiger and the film's two cats have a chase scene that should rouse even the most apathetic adults. Hearing Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) belt out a pirate shanty may be worth the price of admission alone.
With solid action (that doesn't need the 3D addition) cartoony animation and gags out the wazoo Ice Age: Continental Drift is entertainment to enjoy with the whole family. Revelatory? Not quite. Until we get a feature length silent film of Scratch's acorn pursuit we may never see a "classic" Ice Age film but Continental Drift keeps it together long enough to tell a simple story with delightful flare that should hold attention spans of any length. Massive amounts of sugar not even required.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.
As we start at the beginning we see how the hideous mass murderer Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) is born right in a meat-packing warehouse. His grotesquely obese mother is forced to continue working by a sadistic boss even after her water breaks. The boss sees the monstrous child and throws it in a rendering vat where a twisted family finds it and rears it. A few decades later the Texas town around them has slowly died away and the baby turns into a giant who enjoys slaughtering well lots of things. Then Leatherface’s uncle Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey) becomes the sheriff who likes the flavor of human flesh after acquiring a taste as a POW in Korea. Soon Hoyt Leatherface and the rest of the family began to like it too getting motorists to stop along their route. Along come two brothers Dean (Taylor Handley) and Eric (Matthew Bomer) with their girlfriends Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) and Bailey (Diora Baird). The boys are suppose to be going off to serve in Vietnam and this is their last hurrah. But Dean hasn't told his brother that he's actually going to run off to Mexico with Bailey because he doesn't want to experience the horrors of war. Little does he know what horror truly is. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise has included in the past the likes of Oscar-winning Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey (Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and The Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) so anything can happen to these young actors' careers. Of course Leatherface is the most important character and Bryniarski returns to the role and plays it well and not like the sniveling drag queen the character became in later sequels. Other familiar faces from the brilliant 2003 remake of this 1974 Tobe Hooper classic are brought back for this prequel including Ermey and the grotesque cannibal family: Luda Mae (Marietta Marich) Uncle Monty (Terrence Evans) and the horribly obese Tea Lady (Kathy Lamkin). They are as evil as ever and the prequel explains why Uncle Monty is a double amputee why Sheriff Hoyt has no teeth how Leatherface cuts skin off people and why the family has such a taste for human flesh. The victims are typical in their struggle to survive but Bomer as a brave soldier is particularly poignant as he desperately fights while becoming a play toy for Leatherface. Brewster (The Fast and the Furious) and Bomer (The O.C.) don't need a horror movie to boost their careers but they help create victims you really care about. Director Jonathan Liebesman pays proper homage to what Hooper created but perhaps too much. So much of it is familiar that TCM: The Beginning is quite predictable. The characters are a lot more (pardon the pun) fleshed out than in the other films and very likable but the murders aren't particularly gruesome. And what about the actual chainsaw? The chase through the woods with the crazed hacking killer is the most memorable and chilling moment but there isn’t any such scene in this prequel. The focus is more on the evil rather than the torture—i.e. when Luda Mae washes Bailey's face tenderly and sings "You want to look good when the company comes." Creepy yes. Blood-curdling grisly? Not so much.
As Star Trek: Nemesis begins its journey the U.S.S. Starship Enterprise is enjoying Officer William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Deanna Troi's (Marina Sirtis) wedding reception. But the celebrations come to halt when Engineer La Forge (Levar Burton) detects some sort of electromagnetic signal coming from the nearby planet Kolaris III. A crew from the Enterprise heads to the planet to investigate and finds scattered body parts of what looks like an android prototype of Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner). Before they can put the android back together again Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) receives a message from Admiral Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) that the Romulans have undergone a revolution and their new Praetor (leader) wants to discuss peace with the Federation. But when a hesitant Picard and his crew arrive on the planet they discover that the Praetor Shinzon (Tom Hardy) is not actually a Romulan but a human from Romulus' sister planet Remus. And not only is he human--he's a younger clone of Picard. Shinzon is hell-bent on revenge and wants to destroy everything in his path including the Enterprise the Federation and Earth but first he has a score to settle with Picard. Meanwhile Data struggles with what to make of his own double B-4.
Stewart's Picard faces his most personal enemy here in Shinzon and must grapple with heavy moral issues. Although Shinzon is maniacal and antagonistic Picard cannot help but wonder if he would have turned out the same way had his life been like Shinzon's. Stewart delivers a great performance as his character finds his judgement clouded by Shinzon. Shinzon as played by Hardy (Black Hawk Down) with a shaved head and a sculpted latex nose and chin is believable as Picard's doppelganger (although I hate to say that with the pale skin and scarred lip he looks an awful lot like Mike Myers's Dr. Evil). While Picard and Shinzon are dealing with their own issues Spiner's Data is going through his own personal turmoil. His prototype recovered on Kolaris III B-4 is not as advanced as he is prompting Data to turn him into a better android. Not since the Star Trek TNG episode "The Measure of Man" has Data's character been explored so in depth. Cast members Frakes Sirtis Burton and Michael Dorn (Worf) take a back seat in Nemesis allowing the film to focus on the main story line involving Picard Shinzon and Data.
Nemesis was directed by Star Trek newcomer Stuart Baird who stays true to the franchise's tradition by delivering a film that encapsulates a good story with great dialogue without going overboard on the special effects. As the film opens for example the crew has been forced to land on Kolaris III the old-fashioned way since an ion storm has disrupted transporting capabilities. Baird provides some great footage of the planet's surface which is bathed in sepia-toned light complete with the some great shots of the crew riding around in the Argo a sort of high-tech dune buggy. Scribe John Logan (Time Machine) introduces an interesting new race the Remans and a personal foe with Shinzon who although not as menacing as the Borg or as complex as Kahn is just as warped. The most compelling aspect of the film however has to do with Data and his desire to be the best "person" he can be. Nemesis encompasses the kind of dramatic storytelling that made the series created by Gene Roddenberry more than 25 years ago so intriguing. It is also a reminder of what the series was all about: "To explore strange new worlds to seek out new life and new civilization..."