Rasputin — he's a bad guy, right? High school global history class pretty much swept over that chapter to devote enough time to World War I, so all we really have to go by is Anastasia, in which the historical figure was embodied by a tall, deplorable, Jafar-ian villain. So naturally, when you think Rasputin, you think Leonardo DiCaprio.
Unsatisfied with Calvin Candie as the identifying "going beyond type" role, DiCaprio is going for the role of Rasputin in a developing biopic about the Russian Imperial Family's turn-of-the-20th-century advisor. Laden with a mysterious life story (and an even more mysterious death story), Rasputin should make for a pretty interesting central figure in a script to be crafted by American Sniper writer Jason Hall.
Deadline reports that the Warner Bros. project will be headlined by DiCaprio, who will either have to do some serious Christian Bale-style ugly-getting for this role, or will turn Rasputin into a newly alluring figure.
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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.”
The Two Towers saw fellowship mates--brave man Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) archer-elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) grand wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) comical dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies)--win a major battle against Dark Lord Sauron's orcs at Helm's Deep alongside noble King Theoden (Bernard Hill) of Rohan. But as we soon find out in The Return of the King that battle was nuthin' compared to what the good folks of Middle-earth are about to face. Sauron's force is growing more powerful and malevolent by the minute and the men joined by feisty Hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) are on the move to what they anticipate being their last stand at the Gondor city of Minas Tirith. Desperation fear and hope play out on the faces of the warriors who face impossible odds as they battle an endless sea of orcs flying dragons gargantuan many-horned elephants and catapult-heaving behemoths waging a merciless attack on the walled fortress. Meanwhile hapless Hobbits Sam (Sean Astin) and Ring-bearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) with the help/hindrance of conniving Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) continue their arduous quest to Mordor. Sam grows ever more distrustful of the underhanded creature (with just cause) but the awful and all-powerful Ring is clouding Frodo's judgment causing him to heed Gollum and doubt his stalwart Hobbit friend. Sam knows Frodo isn't himself carrying such a heavy burden so he refuses to waver in his sole duty to get Frodo to Mount Doom where he can cast the Ring into the lava rivers from whence it came and rid Middle-earth of Sauron's dark forces forever. Then and only then can Aragorn take his rightful place as heir to the ancient kings and rule the land in peace.
The trilogy's familiar characters have grown subtly deeper in The Return of the King. We've gotten to know these characters so well in their journeys of the previous two films that they've come to life in flesh bone and a computer-generated part or two far more even than in the fantastical novels. Strapping Mortensen turns Aragorn into a worthy king not just with heroic words (although he does give one heck of a Henry V speech to rally the troops) but also with immense courage in his convictions. Bloom's Legolas still the coolest elf ever (sorry Will Ferrell) and Rhys-Davies' Gimli finally put away their cultural differences and become true friends while the wise McKellen and perky Boyd have some poignant moments together preparing Minas Tirith for the great battle and saving Gondor ranger Faramir (David Wenham) from his insane father Denethor (John Noble). Miranda Otto as Rohan princess Eowyn shows some serious mettle on the battlefield kicking the bejeezus outta some nasty baddies. Frodo on the other hand is so tormented and feeble it's hard to watch at times but the soulful Wood plays it beautifully. Serkis' computer-generated Gollum remains as creepy and sad as ever but when he gets the Ring back for one brief shining moment the look of pure joy on that horribly distorted face is something to see. But there's no doubt about it; the true hero of this last installment is Astin's Sam. Turns out the trilogy is as much Sam's journey as Frodo's--if anything Sam is the one who changes most throughout the ordeal as his average Joe Hobbit becomes the story's heart and soul.
Just when you thought director Peter Jackson couldn't make his epic any bigger or better he completely outdoes himself with the spectacle that is The Return of the King. He is meticulous about this production's look and feel and he doesn't falter on a single detail. Witness the giant spider Shelob which Jackson says was inspired by his own arachnophobia--it shows. The battle scenes go far beyond anything ever seen on screen and take special effects wizardry to new heights with images of armies washing toward their opponents like waves. The monsters are even more terrifying: The piercing cries of the winged dragons deafen the men in agony and the elephantine creatures stomping the army of men and their horses like ants recall (and were obviously influenced by) George Lucas' plodding Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back. (Watch Legolas bring one of those puppies down!) As in the past films Jackson intersperses all this heart-stopping action with small intimate moments of quiet contemplation taking as Gandalf puts it a deep breath before the last stand. Along with his trusted director of photography Andrew Lesnie Jackson gorgeously captures the panoramic grandeur of the New Zealand landscape especially in a scene where beacons are lit from mountaintop to mountaintop to let the men of Middle-earth know the war's on. If any criticism can be made it's in the last 30 minutes when the film lingers too long tying things up (and this is a three-and-a-half hour opus folks; pack a picnic). While the closing scenes are important Jackson seems to have trouble selecting which ending to use (mind you there are like 20 endings in the book so with four or so Jackson's still coming out ahead). Without question the New Zealand director should win the Oscar for this astonishing accomplishment. Maybe he'll melt it down to make a giant golden Ring.
Shanghai Knights is really just a thinly veiled plot device to a) show more of Jackie Chan's amazing abilities; b) show the chemistry between Chan and Owen Wilson and c) show Chan in yet another fish-out-of-water situation. As a sequel with all the "right stuff" already in place Knights apparently doesn't need an intriguing story. Starting where Shanghai Noon left off Chon Wang (Chan) is living large in 1800s American Wild West. Yet when Chon learns his estranged father the Keeper of the Imperial Seal has been murdered in China's Forbidden City and the seal stolen he immediately vows revenge. To get to the killers who have escaped to London Chon reluctantly reteams with his old partner the incompetent Roy O'Bannon (Wilson). Once in England they run into Chon's sister Lin (Fann Wong) who has had the same vengeful idea as her brother (and has the same skills). Much to Chon's chagrin Roy is quickly smitten with the beautiful Lin who has uncovered a plot to kill Queen Victoria and the royal family but has trouble convincing the authorities since the instigator of the evil plan is Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen) seventh in line to the throne (hence why he wants them killed off). Not good. With the help of a kindly Scotland Yard Inspector and a 10-year-old street urchin Chon kicks Britain in the pants as he attempts to avenge his father's death--and keep the romance-minded Roy away from his sister.
The Chan/Wilson comic duo works well once again. Chan's easygoing unassuming style matches well with Wilson's smarminess. Wilson seems to have become one of those actors-for-hire saying yes to just about anything offered to him (why else would he have done I Spy?) ; still we know he has the goods when he turns in hysterical performances in quirk-fests such as The Royal Tenenbaums. There definitely is something special to his pairing with Chan who fits into Hollywood's mainstream like a glove. The only way to aptly describe his abilities is to compare him to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly who could dance with anything from a woman to a hat rack and make it look so smooth. Granted Chan is getting a little long in the tooth (rumor has it he didn't perform all the stunts) but the combination of martial arts and Chinese acrobatics he displays is stupefying. Wong handles herself very well getting in a few swift mean kicks of her own. As well baddies Gillen and real-life martial arts master Donnie Yen who plays a Chinese rebel aligning himself with Rathbone snarl with the best of them. It is intriguing to see Yen and Chan go at it in their very different yet mesmerizing styles.
Doing a sequel to Shanghai Noon was a very smart move. Why not pair up these two likable heroes again throw them in a different adventure and watch the sparks fly? It's the kind of repeat performance that doesn't require much attention to detail and director David Dobkin (Clay Pigeons) shouldn't feel the need to top Knights' predecessor. Each action sequence is spectacular and the interim goofiness sustains the time when Chan can do his stuff again. Still it would be nice to have at least some semblance of glue to hold the movie together. It's all over the place trying to pack in as much fighting as possible together with funny awkward moments with Chon and Roy as well as playing with the history of London in the 1800s. For example the kindly Scotland Yard detective who helps them is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before he starts writing his Sherlock Holmes series (Roy comes up with the pseudonym) and the street urchin so impressed with Chon's moves is a young Charlie Chaplin. Ah very clever. At least Lin gets to kick Jack the Ripper's butt. Oh who are we kidding? The film's fun and it's going to make big bucks. Who cares about a story?