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Race to Witch Mountain (2009)

Does anyone ever fondly recall, let alone even recall, the 1975 original children’s film, Escape to Witch Mountain? This remake is Disney-fied in all places. It’s a lackluster kiddie adventure with more special effects, car crashes, and one-liners. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson cements his tight grip on the family film genre; I really like this guy as an action hero and as a charismatic comedic actor, but being a wisecracking chauffeur to monotone yet strikingly Aryan-looking space aliens isn’t cutting it. The little green pre-teens need to get back to their ship and escape the clutches of government agents and an alien killer. This is one of those movies were everyone leaves their brain at home. This is the kind of movie where everybody is profoundly stupid and easily tricked. You’d think space aliens and intergalactic travel and psychic abilities would be met with more than incredulous jokes. Regardless, Race to Witch Mountain is devoid of fun, wonder, and excitement despite a decent effort by the assorted cast. This is lazy, by-the-numbers stuff masquerading as quality family entertainment. Families and children deserve coherent stories with actual characters and action sequences that feel like they matter. The only thing that really matters in Race to Witch Mountain is the fact that nobody will remember this movie in 35 years time, allowing Disney (or whatever alien/robot/alien robot overlords run the show at the time) to follow through with another thoughtless, mechanical remake.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Much less a Narnia knock-off and more of a coming-of-age tale. It’s a simple story with loads of familiar elements (the strict tough love father, the bully who just needs a friend, the free-spirit kid that goes against conventions) but it plays every moment with a satisfying level of integrity. When a late revelation occurs that shakes up everything, the impact stings and we realize all the steady groundwork that has stealthily been going on. Not everything works, particularly Zooey Deschanel as a music teacher that strums her guitar and does little else, but this is a family movie that has much more on its mind than most.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Reaping (2007)

Forgive me father for I have sinned… I think The Reaping is not a terrible movie. Now, that would be damning praise in most circles, but when it comes to the notoriously implausible and awful genre of religious-based horror, well then “not terrible” is worthy of being brandished in the film’s ad. All of my fellow critics need to take a step down from the pulpit and see The Reaping for what it is: mild harmless fun.

Katherine (Hilary Swank) is a professor at Louisiana State who specializes in debunking claims of religious miracles. “38 miracles and 38 scientific explanations,” she says matter-of-factly. Katherine has something of a grudge against the Big Guy, being that she used to be a minister before her husband and daughter were murdered on an overseas missionary trip. Doug (David Morrissey) has a case only that only Katherine can crack. In the sleepy town of Haven, along the Louisiana Bayou, is being beset by Old Testament style plagues. The river has turned to blood and the Bible-beating townsfolk are itching to blame a little blonde girl (AnnaSophia Robb) who they feel could be the spawn of Satan.

The Reaping starts off with tiny amounts of promise and intrigue because of Swank’s character. She?s a globetrotting spiritual investigator and a skeptic that an audience can get behind. She has a checkered history and Swank uses glances and moments to make her seem convincing. The Reaping isn’t complicated when it comes to its spiritual message. It’s all about renewal of faith, and I?m not exactly certain how all the pieces add up but that’s the gist. The Reaping isn’t too deep when it comes to thoughts of any kind, but that doesn’t mean much from a genre that requires a healthy suspension of rationale thought.

As a horror movie The Reaping relies on routine jump scares and the occasionally jump cut to a dream or a flashback in Africa with a lot of loud, abrasive sound effects to jolt the viewer. The plagues themselves are kind of weak, especially when plagues of maggots and frogs are seen as being so contained and limited. For maggots, we see a grill loaded with fish now covered in maggots. We never get any other anecdotes of what may have been reaped by the maggot plague. The frogs fall for about ten seconds and only in one part of the swamp. These pathetically isolated incidents don’t do much to ratchet up any scares and they certainly belittle the powerful wrath of the Almighty. Then again, maybe God is trying to tell people in unorthodox ways to eat less meat, thus the ruined fish and diseased cows. The plagues lack some oomph when they just happen to a handful of people, especially when it comes to lice or boils. I think the small-scale plagues really say, “We blew our budget on that river of blood, but hey, that was pretty cool right?”

I don’t think I’ll ever utter these exact words again but here goes. The Reaping is a rather so-so movie that is mostly redeemed by an implausible and foreseeable twist ending. Yes, as horror and supernatural thrillers are go, twist endings seem pretty common place and often times forced, like the studio is dictating that they need something just a little extra to fool the audience into thinking they got their money’s worth. We as a movie watching society are so attuned to twist endings now that we can sniff them out like bad CGI. Twists generally become worked into the advertising campaign. The Reaping has some last-second turns to it, and even though I had my suspicions, I was quite pleased the movie walked the path it did. In fact, I would even go as far to say that it turned a spiritually thin schlocky horror movie into a moderately enjoyable spiritually thin schlocky horror movie. This is far from a good movie, but as a dumbed down genre flick it will be like home cooking for the right audience. Now, I cannot defend the gaps in logic brought about by the twists in The Reaping, and you will be spending the rest of your day coming up with a new problem every minute (the line ?some people just don’t wanna go to heaven? takes new life). The film takes one step too far with trying to up the ante. Just know that the upcoming crisis in Katherine’s life has been solved by a little thing called Roe vs. Wade.

Director Stephen Hopkins has some stinkers to his resume, chief among them 1998’s abominable Lost in Space, so he will take kindly to having his latest film deemed “not terrible.” Swank struts around in a tank top in the balmy South, gets knee-deep in blood, and convincingly sells this nonsense as only a two-time Oscar winner can. The scares are clunky and the story is rife with lots of explaining for a 90-minute movie built around the simple concept that the devil is nasty. The Reaping will play best for fans of the religious horror genre as well as those willing to lower their expectations. This isn’t a good movie, but then again, it’s not terrible.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

The visuals by Tim Burton are suitably lavish but it’s missing the heart of the 1971 film. I never thought I’d say a movie worked despite Johnny Depp’s performance, but that’s the case here. It was far too off. Whereas Gene Wilder had the dichotomy of warmth and madness, Depp was just the kooky Michael Jackson-esque weirdo in a bobbed haircut (I thought Neverland had been found). Perhaps the added Michael Jackson vibe makes the premise a lot darker, what with luring children into a chocolate factory. Charlie is a really boring character lacking definition beyond his “goodness.” Once they get to the factory he?s basically wallpaper, watching his peers fall one by one to their vices. I’m not sold on a Wonka back-story. I don?t need to know why he is as he is; I need no tormented childhood and daddy issues. This new film has more polish but the old film has more togetherness and lasting power.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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