WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
Spanning from WWI to the 21st century Eric Roth’s screenplay (based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) tells the unique story of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). He is born in New Orleans as a very old baby the equivalent of a man in his 80s who then ages backward into youth over the better part of a century. The film is told in flashback by a very old dying woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who recounts her tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a hospital bed during Hurricane Katrina. Left on the doorstep of a retirement home one night by his father (Jason Flemyng) Benjamin is brought up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs the place. While there he meets a young girl Daisy who will become a key figure -- romantically and otherwise -- in his life. Ben does have some grand adventures: He goes to work on a boat sees sea battles during WWII finds love with an older married woman (Tilda Swinton) -- and gets progressively younger as the decades fly by. It all manages to be alternately haunting romantic funny epic emotional and incredibly moving and will likely to stay with you a lifetime. Brad Pitt manages to deliver a thoughtful and subtle performance through all the special effects makeup and CGI. He does so much just by using his eyes. Cate Blanchett is equally fine as she plays Daisy from a teenager to an old woman and matches Pitt in bringing an entire lifetime skillfully to light. Her aging makeup is completely natural and she’s very moving in the hospital scenes opposite Ormond. Henson is just marvelous as Queenie a warm and understanding soul. Swinton is elegant and memorable in her few crucial encounters with Ben and plays beautifully off Pitt. Jared Harris (TV’s The Riches) as the colorful Captain Mike who hires Ben on his tug boat and Flemyng (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Ben’s father are also effective in their brief screen time. Interestingly Benjamin Button has been gestating for decades in the Hollywood firmament but needed time for the proper technology to catch up to it. Director David Fincher (Zodiac Fight Club) with his early background at George Lucas’ ILM proves to be the perfect choice to marry a compelling story with spectacular visual effects achievement. He did not want to do the film unless the technology allowed one actor to play the role throughout the course of the film. Remarkably they were able to achieve this superimposing Brad Pitt’s face and eyes into all the incarnations of Ben Button. In one sequence Pitt looks just like he did in Thelma and Louise. It’s an amazing feat. He has seamlessly created a unique universe without ever bringing attention to it advancing the art of screen storytelling leaps and bounds ahead of everything else that has come before. Benjamin Button is a plaintive and provocative meditation of life death and what we do while we are here. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Who knew that Will Smith could deliver the year’s most unexpected and profoundly moving love story? He plays Ben a man with a deep dark secret that leads him help seven complete strangers each with their own particular set of circumstances. Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle we slowly get clues to the traumatic events that cause Ben to contact these people and change their lives in ways they never could have anticipated. What he doesn’t expect is to fall in love with one of them -- Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) a cardiac patient whose heart may be weak but is clearly strong enough to make a difference in the way Ben looks at things. It’s this relationship that becomes the center of Grant Nieporte’s compelling screenplay but as it continues it’s obvious there is more to what Ben is doing a mystery not revealed until the final moments and one you will not easily forget. Will Smith is at his best. He may be the world’s No. 1 movie star at the moment but he’s continually proving himself to be a brilliant actor as well. Reteaming with director Gabriele Muccino who led him to a Best Actor Oscar nomination in The Pursuit of Happyness Smith once again finds his dramatic mojo in the role of a man whose life has been shattered by something so profoundly affecting that he reaches out to strangers in an effort to redeem himself. You will be hard-pressed to find the loveable Will Smith persona anywhere within this character. Dawson also has a career best as the spunky and courageous Emily a role that could have been sloppily sentimentalized and maudlin. She’s a revelation delivering a flawless and luminous performance. And best among the various recipients of Ben’s kindness is Woody Harrelson as a blind man he encounters. Also quite good is Barry Pepper as Ben’s childhood friend who is the only other person “in” on Ben’s master plan helping him to achieve his goal. He rips your heart out when he gets the call from Ben who says “It’s time.” Gabriele Muccino puts it all out there. He is an unapologetically emotional director and some will probably find fault with his style but as the Italian filmmaker proved in Pursuit of Happyness he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s taking the story. He’s most successful here in building suspense and an air of mystery around Smith’s character and then bringing it all home in a whopper of a final act. Clearly story acting and gut-level feeling are the three things that drive Muccino and his distinctive stamp and European approach is evident throughout. Most of all he has given Smith and Dawson a real showcase finding the meat of a story that’s one from the heart and good for the soul.
Author Stephanie Meyer unleashed a phenomenon with her Twilight novels a teen vampire romance that has spurned a teen cult following. The good news is the movie is surprisingly just as potent -- a spellbinding terribly romantic hypnotic and entertaining film. At its heart are the elements that make any teen drama work; in this case it’s forbidden love. It starts with 16 year-old Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) who relocates from her sunny Phoenix to the cold gray foreboding atmosphere of Forks Washington to live with her father. At her new high school she meets the incredibly attractive but mysterious Cullen clan including the allusive Edward (Robert Pattinson) who immediately intrigues her. What she doesn’t know yet is that Edward and his “family” are a group of vegetarian vampires who drink only animal blood and must live in the terminally cloudy region of Northwest. Edward tries to drive a determined Bella away by revealing his true identity but soon realizes she is the girl of his dreams. But as the two begin their complicated romance things get dicey when another group of um meat-lovin’ vampires target Bella. Teen Beat should clear their covers for a new group of stars sure to become huge with the female teen set -- and probably their mothers as well. Exuding a brooding reserve and air of mystery the follicley-endowed Robert Pattinson is reminiscent of James Dean and completely believable as a conflicted bloodsucker who becomes dangerously attracted to a mere mortal. His Edward’s unpredictable nature becomes irresistible for the attractive Kristen Stewart’s Bella as she grows closer to him despite his attempts to keep her at arm’s length. Not since Baby yearned for Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing has there been such an effective pairing for the acne-challenged set. Pattinson and Stewart simmer with teen angst and desire and could be the next big thing -- especially if there are more Twilight sequels to follow. The Cullen clan led by foster parents Peter Facinelli and Elizabeth Reaser is perfectly cast with a good looking bunch of vampiric thesps including newcomers Ashley Green Kellan Lutz Jackson Rathbone and Nikki Reed. Red-headed Rachelle LeFevre as bad vamp Victoria is ideal along with Cam Gigandet and Edi Gathegi as the guys in her group of nomadic vampires. Director Catherine Hardwicke has certainly shown she understands the ever-changing moods of youth with her previous efforts (Thirteen Lords of Dogtown). But those flicks were just warm-ups for what she taps into with Twilight. She creates a wonderful creepy kind of muted dark and cloudy society with imposing camera angles and aching teen lust from her bright red-lipped hormonally charged leads. And thankfully she leaves the fangs on the cutting room floor. These vampires are actually relatable and Hardwick takes what could have been an awful juvenile programmer and lifts it into a different league creating not only a movie that should cross over beyond it’s target demo but one that makes us genuinely excited for the inevitable sequels.
In yet another variation on the shopworn road picture in which two mismatched former buddies are forced to cross the country together Soul Men’s uneasy brand of overly broad humor and contrived situations is saved intermittently by some cool musical numbers. But alas it’s not enough. Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd (Bernie Mac) are part of a major musical group led by Marcus Hooks (John Legend) who goes solo leaving Floyd and Louis in the lurch. Fast forward 20 years Hooks has died and Louis and Floyd who did not end on good terms and have not spoken since have been coerced into appearing a tribute show for Hooks at New York’s famed Apollo Theatre. Afraid to fly they get in Floyd’s 1971 Cadillac El Dorado accompanied by a talented young woman (Sharon Leal) who may be Floyd’s daughter. Along the way they try to get their act up to speed by appearing in various redneck honky tonks filling the interminable 103-minute running time with a lot of unfunny sexual encounters and unbelievable situations. The late Bernie Mac was a terrific comic talent and is highly wasted in this mishmash in which he is constantly encouraged to mug for laughs. Mac is so much better than the lowbrow material he has to work with here that it’s a shame this film should stand as one of his last (at least there’s Madagascar 2). Faring even worse however is Samuel L. Jackson who is out of his element in a musical comedy and seems to be taking none of this hokum seriously. Thankfully the soulful musical numbers reminiscent of classic ‘60s Sam and Dave R&B are well chosen and capably performed even though neither Mac nor Jackson are known for their singing. Best number in fact is fronted by John Legend making his acting debut as Hooks. As the young eager beaver manager trying to get Floyd and Louis back together Sean Hayes is way too broad. Faring better is newcomer Adam Herschman as Hayes’ mop-topped intern who uses his fanboy infatuation with the pair to nice advantage. And there’s a nice now bittersweet bit near the end with the late Isaac Hayes. Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) is a director who tends to go for the slapstick when a little subtlety and believability would be more in order. With a great Sunshine Boys premise and some nifty musical material to pepper the proceedings Lee still manages to drop the ball letting his talented actors down and encouraging them to chew up every scene. The corny silly situations certainly doesn’t help matters with the road trip device feeling more like padding than anything else. Soul Men doesn’t find the right rhythms.
Not to be confused with the 1979 ghost story The Changeling this Changeling is a horror story of a very different stripe. Based on a long forgotten case buried deep in the L.A. crime files this true tale revolves around the mysterious 1928 disappearance of 9-year-old Walter Collins. Set in an election year and with heavy political pressure on city officials and a corrupt LAPD they find a child five months later who they claim is Walter and arrange to reunite him with his mother Christine (Angelina Jolie). Only problem is she says this is not her kid. When she asks the police to continue trying to find her son she finds herself victimized and accused of being insane and unfit for not going along with the PR campaign informing the public that the police have solved the case. With the help of a community activist Reverend Briegleb (John Malkovich) she begins to fight the city and the police who try in every way to silence her even committing her to a mental institution. The film details not only her valiant quest to right a wrong and find her real son but serves as a probing indictment of the police state 1920’s Los Angeles had become. As in her searing portrayal of the pregnant Marianne Pearl in last year’s A Mighty Heart Angelina Jolie once again connects with her maternal side. In another challenging role she must exhibit a wide emotional range going from fear to anguish to anger to pure resolve in an effort to uncover the mystery of her son’s abduction. Splendidly outfitted in ‘20s garb Jolie delves deep into the soul of a woman who dared to go against the grain and challenge a corrupt police department in Prohibition-era L.A. She’s simply remarkable in the most intense determined and heartbreaking role of her career. As the man who helps out in her cause Malkovich is perfectly matched to Jolie. As the merciless Captain Jones who heads the investigation to find Walter Jeffrey Donovan (TV’s Burn Notice) is properly frustrating and imposing while Colm Feore gets the evil side of his LAPD police chief down pat. Nailing her few scenes Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) plays a fellow psycho-ward inmate who helps Christine when she is institutionalized. Particularly impressive is Eddie Alderson as the 15-year-old nephew of the serial killer who leads police to a grisly crime scene and his uncle played a bit over the top by Jason Butler Harner. And filling out their juvenile roles nicely are Gattlin Griffith as Walter and eerie Devon Conti as the young man impersonating him. Clint Eastwood knows his way around ominous foreboding material so it’s no wonder he was instantly attracted to J. Michael Stracynski’s immaculately researched script. After Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River Eastwood exhibits a strong understanding of the dark side of human nature. Changeling fits right in with his oeuvre and he delivers yet another superbly crafted and acted film -- one that exists on two separate levels as a look at the corruption that crept into the LAPD of the era and as an impassioned journey of a woman trying to find a happy ending for herself and her son. Shot with the director’s usual ease Eastwood seems comfortable letting the almost unbelievable facts of the story speak for themselves and remarkably didn’t change a word of Stracynski’s fascinating screenplay. He doesn’t have to. The fact that it’s a true story that all really happened is simply incredible by itself. This is an unforgettable triumph for everyone involved.