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Hercules (2014)

MV5BMTQ4ODA5MTA4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjMyODM5MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_What happens if you make a Hercules movie but take out all the unique things that make the classic hero who he is? Would he still be Hercules? This question is at the heart of director Brett Ratner’s newest film, and it’s better than expected, which is a nicer way of also saying it’s not as bad as it looked like in its terrible cheesy advertising. It might be the most entertaining Brett Ratner film yet for what that statement is worth.

So, who is this Hercules? Besides looking like The Rock, he’s a mercenary who leads a band of warriors that are carefully left out of those widespread tales of his heroics and derring-do. Hercules’ nephew (Reece Ritchie) is the mouthpiece for the group, spinning the tales into epic poetry. There’s also a female archer, a sarcastic second-in-command good with throwing knives, an animalistic swordsman, and an older spearman (Ian McShane) who is given fleeting prophetic images, mostly about his own death. There’s a reason these people aren’t described much beyond their character-defining weaponry. This gang is hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to protect his people from a Thracian warlord who rumor has it is a centaur. Could he be? Have you been paying attention?

317348_064Depending upon your tastes, you may either find this new approach refreshing or feel completely ripped off. It does seem that all of those cool glimpses of Hercules going through his grueling trials, fighting giant beasts, doing generally Herculean acts, well it was all comprised to the opening two minutes, which is why I feel no spoiler guilt over revealing the true nature of the movie. It’s not really a Hercules film. Yeah, The Rock is just about the closest living example of a modern Hercules (he shouldn’t have the hobo beard, though), but it’s in name only. Whether this is a stopping point is up to the viewer. It does seem like a disappointing bait-and-switch to tease out what promises to be an epic with giant mythological beasts, and I feel like the audience has every right to be irritable they have been denied this. But if you move beyond this legitimate gripe, the resulting movie is actually serviceably entertaining, which again sounds like a backhanded compliment unless you remember how truly lousy it looked from its initial goofy trailer.

The plot is predictable at every step of the way, except one character I swore was going to be a backstabber due to pigeonhole casting surprised me when they turned out to just be another underdeveloped yet loyal sidekick. Other than that, and I apologize for the vagueness of that sentence, this is a movie you can accurately predict without having to even watch it. The mercenaries are hired for a cause, perhaps they’ll start feeling differently about what they’ve been called in to do, get more involved, and then oh no, perhaps the heroes and villains were all mixed up after all. The plot structure is at its most simplistic (mild spoilers, but really, come on): Act 1 break – they take the mission. Act 2 break – oh no, the guy was bad all along and they’ve been working for the wrong side. Act 3 is then essentially battle and vengeance against the true villains. There’s almost an admirable efficiency to its formula plot mechanics, including the tortured hero back-story over his slain family and the forced reveal of who was behind said slain family being slain. If you don’t want to overwhelm your brain, then Hercules will do.

Free of the rigors of being original or complex, the movie is open to accomplish its minimal goals of entertainment, and to this end I would call the movie a mild success. The action is involved just enough to keep things interesting, especially when Hercules and his battalion are beset on all sides by green-skinned guys who, for whatever reason, hid in holes in the ground. There’s a primal joy watching The Rock carry around a giant Captain Caveman-style club and gleefully beat people with it, especially when the recipients fly like 30 feet in the air. There’s a pleasure to be had with a stripped down and somewhat dumb action flick where everyone is running around in leather or loincloths. The action is more Hercules by way of Conan the Barbarian but without the monsters and sorcery. There’s a fun running gag where McShane’s character keeps thinking he’s come to his final moment, the death that has been prophesied, only to be denied it time and again, causing some slight frustration on his part. The pacing is also swift enough that you won’t be bored for long periods of time.

hercules-dwayne-johnsonBut at its heart, this is still a rather block-headed action film with questionable choices. While scrubbing the supernatural elements from the story, this still exists in the unbelievable world of Movie Land where the good guys can do anything. The archer never runs out of arrows. The good guys never miss. At one point, Hercules topples a 100-foot tall marble statue like he’s Samson. So even though it wants to be a more grounded take on the legend, it’s still filled with all that silly impossible action movie stuff we see all the time. Then there are just small impractical things that exist only for the fact that someone thought it looked cool. There’s a secondary villain (Peter Mullan!) who prefers to use a whip made of a spinal cord. This can work in one-on-one confrontations but in the open field of battle, with men churning all around, it seems like a rather poorly ineffective weapon. Lastly, there’s a trite message about the power of believing yourself. See, Hercules needs to believe he’s a worthy hero and he’ll rise to the occasion. All you have to do is believe in yourself and anything can happen… if you happen to be The Rock or look approximately like him.

This new spin on one of the oldest heroes is generally entertaining, that is, if you can accept the bait and switch of its premise, robbing Hercules of his godlike abilities. It’s like doing an action movie about Greek mythology but taking out all the mythology and just having a bunch of dudes poking each other with spears and swords. Actually, it’s exactly like that. With Ratner at the helm, you know there’s going to be a ceiling, but the film is so unabashedly clear with its simple intentions that I found it hard to grumble, and so just soaked up an average action adventure with one of the genre’s best leading men. As far as summer action vehicles go, it’s got just enough going for it, but see all the other good films first. Make a list. Check it twice.

Nate’s Grade: B-

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The story behind the making of X-Men: The Last Stand is more interesting than most. Bryan Singer had directed the first two X-Men films and had done a fine job establishing many loveable characters and the universe that housed them. Warner Brothers has been trying to get their Superman franchise flying for so long, going all the way back to 1996 when Kevin Smith wrote the script, Tim Burton was to direct, and Nicolas Cage was going to be the man in tights. Since then directors and drafts of screenplays have come and gone, including Brett Ratner, best known for directing both Rush Hour movies and a slate of mostly mediocre movies. Then Warner Brothers poached most of the X-Men 2 team to make Superman Returns, hiring Bryan Singer as director, plus X2‘s screenwriters, cinematographer, editor/composer, and maybe even the cat that licked Wolverine’s claws. Fox was left without a captain for X-Men 3. They daringly picked Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) but then he dropped out for family reasons. Then Fox went with their second choice … Brett Ratner. Both directors had essentially switched projects. Hollywood’s funny like that.

It’s been a few months since the events in X-Men 2. Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden) is still mourning the loss of his love, Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save the rest of the X-Men. He’s tormented by her voice, whispering all around him and pleading with him to return to Alkali Lake, the site of her death. Miraculously, Jean returns from the dead but she’s much different. Her persona has broken and the Phoenix has taken over, a destructive killing force unparalleled on earth.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) has great use for such a force. There’s been news of a new drug that suppresses the gene that causes people to be born as mutants. This discovery has been dubbed a cure. The question persists, is should being different be curable and what would that even mean? Magneto sees the writing on the wall, knowing that any cure would only be voluntary for so long. He collects new mutant fighters along with his stalwarts the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and fire starter Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a former student at Xavier’s School for the Gifted.

Over at Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school, the mutant students are each questioning life with a cure. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is considering it so she can finally touch her boyfriend, Bobby “Ice Man” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) without killing him. Plus, so he’ll stop spending so much time with Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (Ellen Page), a girl who can walk through matter. Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are left to run the team after some disastrous setbacks. Henry “Beast” McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) is a man covered in blue fur and appointed as head of Mutant Relations for the president. He senses the growing danger and anxiety the administration has with mutants and joins the X-Men to do what he feels is right.

It feels like that in a rush to production that character development, subtlety, and subtext were chucked out the window to make time for more boom-boom action. The first two X-Men flicks juggled the characters and introductions but still managed to squeeze in one great moment for the characters we cared about. The plot moved at a mature pace, insightful and touching on elements of psychology, politics, and personal struggles to fit into a society that fears you. There was some sophisticated, relevant stuff bandied about this franchise in between the kick-ass action. But with X-Men 3, you basically have Halle Berry doing less with more. She’s got more screen time, in part to her demands, and now she can use that extra time onscreen to show us how perfectly bland her character is as the film’s most laughable moral ideologue. The idea of a cure for the mutant gene is vastly interesting with all kinds of great avenues for character introspection and socio-political debate. But X-Men 3 renders all of its debate to be merely superficial, another in a series of plot points to get the action moving quicker.

The X-Men franchise was already overpopulated with lots of characters vying for screen time, so I don’t understand the decision to add even more characters to the ensemble and cut down the running time to a brisk 100 minutes. As a result, certain characters sit out for long stretches of the film, are inactive during key moments, some are mostly forgotten, or some meet unjustifiably hasty ends. If I was still an ardent comic book fan, and a follower of the X-Men, I might view the third film as heresy. Why even bother bringing the character of Angel into the movie if he’s just going to be on for two minutes, including a forehead-smacking deus ex machine moment? The Dark Phoenix storyline is the most pivotal storyline in the comic’s history, so why even bother dragging it into X-Men 3 if it’s just going to be Zombie Jean Grey? It feels like Ratner is off screen with a pole poking Janssen whenever the story needs her to wake up and stir up some stuff.

I hope comic fans enjoy the brief glimpses of some of their favorites, because X-Men 3 does a good job of throwing characters into a meat grinder. I had to check online to just to find out who they were, and even then my realization was followed by, “Her? Him? What?” And what the hell is up with Porcupine Face? That has got to be the worst mutant ability of all time. What’s he going to do to his enemies? “Hey, will you come a little closer. I have a secret to tell you. Closer … closer … closer still … that’s right, now please lean against my face.”

The movie trades character for action, so is the action even good? Ratner is a workmanlike director devoid of any personal style, which further brands X-Men 3 as ordinary. The action sequences aren’t anything extraordinary, there just happens to be more of them. The climax pits mutant against mutant in short-lived bursts. A battle between Ice Man and Pyro should be awesome, but Ratner stages the showdown like he was choreographing his neighbor’s kids. This battle lasts a whopping 45 seconds. The climactic end battle, the “war to end all wars,” is rather sloppy. Ratner keeps cutting back and forth between his pairing of Good mutant vs. Evil mutant (why do the two black girls seem forced to fight each other?), but his showdowns are all too quick to quicken the pulse. Wolverine’s brawls in the woods never rise up to the adrenaline-soaked fights in X-Men 2. The special effects and make-up are just as good; they’re just not being put to as good a use. If Ratner is going to dump character for action he has to make his action exceptional. The movie feels on autopilot.

Ratner is not fully to blame for the shortcomings of X-Men 3. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zack Penn (Elektra) have crafted an overly rushed story that is more tailored for getting the job done than telling a good story. They present some big ideas and interesting elements, like a love triangle between Rogue-Ice Man-Shadowcat, but then most of the promise is either skipped over or dropped. They’re trying to juggle too many balls at once, and it just makes me miss Singer and the X2 screenwriters and how effective they were in defining character even in the smallest of moments. Some of the X-Men 3 dialogue is awfully stilted, like “You of all people know how fast the weather can change” and “Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.” There’s also a silly subplot about Storm teaching Wolverine what it means to be responsible. Try and count how many times you roll your eyes with that one. How many times are they going to have the president look blankly at a TV screen and gasp, “My god”? There’s some clever use of mutant powers during battles (mostly involving Shadowcat) but there’s just as many routine moments as well.

The acting is all over the map. Jackman owns his role as Wolverine. McKellen and Stewart bring a needed dose of grandeur to the proceedings. The X-kids are enjoyable, and Ellen Page (knocking ’em dead in Hard Candy) makes a very nice addition to the fold. I’ve likely enjoyed Paquin the most in this series, next to Jackman of course, so it’s so frustrating that she just plays Jealous Girlfriend at Window. I think it’s criminal how little she’s examined in the movie, especially since the supposed cure has the most questions and ramifications for her. Grammer is essentially Frasier in blue fur, but that’s essentially what Beast is so it works. He has a very nice moment when he sees what life would be like minus his mutant likeness. It’s really hard to judge most of the performances because of how short they appear in the movie.

X-Men: The Last Stand is far from boring but it’s more serviceable than special, and lacks the maturity and imagination that its previous films held. This was a franchise full of limitless potential, so to see it drop to something ordinary is sad, especially if this is the rumored end of the franchise (a record opening gross over Memorial weekend says otherwise). This franchise feels dumbed down; yes it’s still entertaining on a mass market level but it doesn’t have the creativity and precision that Singer’s movies had. X-Men 3 is fast-paced and not without its great geek moments, but it’s also the least emotionally involving of the films. When the deaths and departures come you’ll probably shrug your shoulders because of how the film presents them. X-Men 3 is fine, but I expect better from this franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Red Dragon (2002)

The following is a conversation overheard between two studio producers:

“Person #1: So this Hannibal movie made like a ton of green. What else can we do to squeeze out some more money?”

Person #2: “Hey, do you remember a movie called Manhunter based on the first Lector novel?”

Person #1: Nope.

Person #2: That’s fine because nobody else does.

It’’s official folks: Hannibal Lector, America’’s favorite cannibal, is now more comical than scary. See the element that 1991’’s Silence of the Lambs carried with it was a stealthily gripping sense of psychological horror. It hung with you in every closed breath you would take, surrounding you and blanketing your mind. I mean, there aren’t many serial killer movies that win a slew of Oscars. And while the follow-up, last year’’s Hannibal, gleefully bathed in excess at least Ridley Scott’’s sequel was so over-the-top with its Baroque horror that it was entertaining. So what’’s Red Dragon, the latest Lector flick based on Thomas Harris’ first novel like? Well it’’s like the bastard child of Lambs and Hannibal after a drunken one-night-stand neither would be proud of in the pale light of morning.

In an extended prologue we see the capture of the good doctor with a good appetite, Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins, completing his trilogy of the character). FBI Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) seeks his advice on a profile of a serial killer, not knowing that Lector more than fits the bill. A violent struggle ensues that leaves Graham with a long scar across his abdomen and Lector locked away for nine consecutive life sentences.

Turns out there’’s another madman on the loose. The “Tooth Fairy,” dubbed by tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), has butchered two families in their homes and inserted shards of broken mirror into their eyes. The FBI coaxes Graham out of retirement to try and track down the “Tooth Fairy.” But it seems in order to make any significant ground he must seek help from an old advisor –– Hannibal Lector.

The crux of the film follows Graham’’s attempts to figure out the identity of the “Tooth Fairy,” which we learn fairly fast is pretty boy Ralph Fiennes. Seems Fiennes has a cleft palette and years of physical and sexual abuse to toil over. He desires to transform into a mythical Chinese creature known as the Red Dragon. But wait, the lonely Fiennes is befriended by a lovely blind woman (Emily Watson) who identifies having people look differently at her. Can her affections melt the cold heart of a cold-blooded killer? Well, if they did there’d be no other half of this movie.

What Red Dragon feels like is more of a checklist of what we expect to see in a Hannibal movie than anything of creative nourishment. It’’s like a slimmer version of Lambs plot. Once again there’’s an FBI agent who recruits Hannibal for advice on tracking down a serial killer. Once again there’’s a disturbed killer trying to transform himself. Once again Hannibal Lector scares the crap out of anyone at will. Check, check, and check. Creative stagnation? Double check. The most disappointing aspect is the rudimentary feel this whole exercise has. Even though Red Dragon is a prequel it still seems like it’’s begging to meet our expectations of two earlier films.

The first stab at the Red Dragon novel was in 1986 by director Michael Mann (Ali, The Insider) with the thriller Manhunter. William Peterson (before his work at CSI) was a more brooding Graham, Tom Noonan was a spookier “Tooth Fairy,” and the tension was stacked better. There were no comparative expectations.

Norton is the finest actor of his generation but has certain trouble breathing life into Graham. The character is far more straight-laced than what we’’ve been told is an expert at delving into the minds of killers. Graham’s relationship with Lector doesn’’t have any of the complexity, or interest, that Jodie Foster’’s Clarice Starling had. He can even be very flat-footed in his detective work for a specialist. He stares at the home videos of the two slain families for about an hour wondering what the connection is while we in the audience shout it out to him. Let’s go to the videotape Ed!

Anthony Hopkins returns as the devil in the flesh and seems to have another grand old time. Lector worked in Lambs because he was caged up, like a wild animal not meant for four glass walls. You never knew what would happen. He’d get in your head and he would know what to do with your gray matter — not that he didn’’t have a culinary degree in that department with Hannibal. With Red Dragon, Hannibal is just window dressing to another serial killer. He’’s a supporting character in a story that he has nothing to do with. He’’s reduced to comic relief with his sudden attacks of chattering teeth and velvety voice. The amazing supporting cast of actors all do well, especially the beaming Watson who will shine in anything you put her in. Just try.

Ultimately the story of Red Dragon is far from flawless and meanders for quite a while. It would have been a marginally competent movie had it not been trying to replicate Silence of the Lambs so damn hard. So, is this the last you’ll see of Hannibal Lector? No as long as clinging cash registers can still be heard. Cue evil laughter.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Family Man (2000)

If I poked this movie it would spray sap in my eye and blind me. It’s essentially a Hollywood remake of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life with a bit more cynicism and a bit less success. Cage is a heartless Wall Street whiz who catches a “glimpse” of an alternative life where he’s married to Tea Leoni and has kids in the suburbs. The Family Man wants to kill you with its message of “business is EVIL” and “suburbs and mini-vans and bowling leagues and family… good!” It’s almost caveman like in its bludgeoning. Sap flows freely in this supposed feel-good flick, but stalls in a lackluster ending.

Nate’s Grade: C

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