1 1/2 Stars
The Legend of Hercules isn’t mush fun and lets face it, fun is exactly the tone the producers should have been aiming for. This latest incarnation of the mortal son of the gods has been developed under the same watchful eye as the creators of that ghastly Conan reboot a few years back. That should be the tip-off that loads of money have been spent on a script that doesn’t seem fit for filming, headlined by a star with the right physique and nothing else. The main difference between the two fantasy flicks is that Hercules has been directed by long-time film action ace Renny Harlin, who brings a glossy sheen to the proceedings that without his involvement this dud surely would rank among the genre’s worst.
After flirting with doomsday scenarios in his biggest hits Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich goes the full distance in 2012, showcasing nearly 160 minutes of non-stop destruction. The special effects dazzle but as is often the case, the writing is broad enough to fit in every conceivable demographic and appeal to all nationalities.
In the pole position is John Cusack, who after Robert Downey Jr’s recent career resurgence must have been after his agent to find him a blockbuster too, cast here as a published science fiction author working odd jobs to make ends meet. His estranged wife and children live in the suburbs with their well-to-do stepfather, a big-time plastic surgeon. Cusack’s character is a likable creation that is played well by the talented actor, often in Emmerich pictures the affability of his leads is an annoying distraction and Cusack manages to avoid the trap.
As the movie begins, scientists in India have discovered the extreme heating of the Earth’s core, which signals an oncoming cataclysmic event. From there an immediate conference with the President ensues and before long plans are in place to construct big Ark like boats to survive the event.
Nearly a dozen characters are brought on-stage only to find themselves the unfortunate victim of gruesome deaths in later scenes. The story is surprisingly light-on-its-feet, particularly for a gargantuan disaster film that runs over two and a half hours. Emmerich’s genre filmmaking is an acquired taste. I find his 1990′s style, comforting and easy to watch. But in reviewing some of his earlier work it is apparent that his inability to maintain narrative momentum has been a hinderance. 2012 is not without similar faults, this is popcorn cinema to be sure, but it is effective blockbuster craftsmanship also.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Stars: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet
The sequel to one of the most beloved films of all-time is an oddly flat and over-all disappointing follow-up that represents the most blatantly commercial cash grab of Spielberg’s long and other-wise distinguished career. To be fair the story is taken directly from Michael Crichton’s cash grab novel of the same name. All parties involved are responsible for this bland and curiously non-involving sequel that feels perfunctory from the opening frame.
Picking up four years after the disastrous events at Jurassic Park, word has surfaced that a nearby island is populated by Dinosaurs roaming free. Now John Hammond’s corporate minded nephew seeks to reinvigorate InGen’s stock by capturing a T-Rex an bringing the dinosaur to San Diego, CA.. An expedition team is recruited and assembled by the wily Hammond to sabotage a mercenary team. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) once again finds himself running from hungry carnivores, though this outing he is also responsible for the well-being of his ten yr. old daughter and free-spirited girlfriend Sara (Juliana Moore).
What starts as a research trip quickly turns into a rescue mission, as the two groups are forced to work together in order to survive the extreme danger lurking around every corner. After many chases and close calls the surviving members of the crew are brought back home. Then horrified to find out that InGen is shipping a sedated T-Rex to the mainland via cargo ship. The ship comes crashing into port with a very angry Dinosaur unleashed, now roaming the suburbs and downtown area of Southern California.
The Lost World has two set-pieces that are on par with the electric fence sequence from the earlier film. The special effects are better this time around and the action comes faster and more frequently. So why isn’t this a more enjoyable experience? The magic and awe of the first movie have been replaced with a sardonic and cynical attitude that is constantly articulated by Goldblum’s increasingly obnoxious Dr. Malcolm.
I do no count myself a fan of the Jeff Goldblum school of acting, but even the…pause…master isn’t as stiff and unlikable as Julian Moore’s Sara, who she chose to play as a cross between Catherine Hepburn and “Hildy” Johnson. A slimmer more energetic looking Vince Vaughn is cast as a cameraman with a background in war zone photography. Bits of that recognizable humor start to creep in during a few of the actor’s line readings and it makes you wish he had been cast in the lead and Spielberg had dumped Goldblum. A wasted trip back to the well that was a big hit in its day but didn’t achieve a lasting impression.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite,
Uwe Boll’s improbable trilogy concludes with this ultra-low budget entry subtitled: The Last Mission. That is a swell promise since this series is now so far removed from the source material that started the franchise it’s embarrassing to even associate the name with this picture. Boll’s latest muse is Australian beefcake Dominic Purcell, this the fourth pairing of director and star and it is by far the weakest collaboration between the two.
The self-important and over-long reboot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi hit is a big letdown. It starts promisingly with a satirical news program showcasing drone technology being applied as a military ground force in Tehran. A group of martyrs attacks the robot army in an attempt to gain attention from the news crew broadcasting live from the hot-zone. This title sequence is so captivating and realistic it feels like it could have escaped from the hands of Paul Greengrass or Neill Blomkamp. Unfortunately it’s all down-hill from there on, as the story takes familiar elements and bits of dialogue while recycling them into an on the nose diatribe about drone warfare and the consequences of taking responsibility out of human hands and putting faith into machines.
Def-Con 4 is a surprisingly thoughtful and very entertaining low-budget sci-fi film from the mid 1980′s. Released under the New World Productions banner, this cheapie is a gleaming example of good filmmaking under the conditions imposed by limited funds and resources. This isn’t the greatest B-movie of the era but it ranks on the upper echelon of the sub-genre.
1 1/2 Stars
Mario Van Peebles’ brief bid as an action attraction peaked with this Rambo meets Terminator hybrid. Saddled with an unproven director in Norberto Barba, and laced with an uproariously derivative screenplay that is improbably taken from a novel, Solo is on its own in terms of down-right awfulness. The most clever moment in the entire screenplay, is a scene in which the robot solider chooses a shaved head look to appear, “Like Mike”. When a Michael Jordan reference is the highpoint of creativity in a Sci-Fi/Action thriller, than you know you’re in trouble.
Peter Jackson’s return to middle-earth is a wondrous film that is full of the magnificent visuals fans have come accustomed to and a much lighter tone that will enthrall younger viewers. Needlessly padded out over three hours, this overlong tale is a bit too much of a good thing, plucked down to a lean two hours this would have been the breakneck adventure of the year. In its current form The Hobbit still qualifies as great entertainment but the sprawling and sometime laborious running-time will turn off some potential viewers.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the best of the years’ blockbusters. This is the ideal mixture of commercial and artistic storytelling. After 14 years I’ve finally succumbed to the Tolkien/Jackson phenomenon, and Smaug in no small part has been the catalyst for this (late to the game) convert. I realized at about the thirty minute mark that I like Martin Freeman a whole lot more than the intensely eyed Elijah Wood, who carried the look of someone caught between happy and sad through three monotonous films. While this is a darker toned chapter, as has been the case for part two of any trilogy since Empire set the precedent in 1980, Desolation of Smaug is still funnier, more action packed and overall far more warm and cheerful than any installment in the previous Lord of the Rings trilogy.
After an initial flashback sequence, the narrative picks up directly where the first story ended. Avoiding the clutches of an evil vengeance minded Orc king, Bilbo Baggins and his pack of thirteen dwarf warriors including Thorin Oakenshield, rightful heir to a kingdom of riches currently lorded over by a vicious fire-spewing dragon, continue their quest through enchanted landscapes. Making time for stops in a twisted magical forest and escaping imprisonment by the Elf king, the broad of dwarfs and their nibble footed hobbit companion steadily proceed on their mission to reclaim the throne of Erebor.
A complainant can be lobbied than Ian Mckellan’s majestic wizard Gandolf the great, an ever-present figure in the last picture, is sidelined in this outing in favor for some newly created characters, courtesy of Jackson and his screenwriting team. I have heard Rings pundits cry afoul that an elf/dwarf love angle is close to trampling on sacrament. In reality it adds an otherwise missing emotional heartbeat to what late film critic Roger Ebert use to describe as ‘a bruised forearm movie’. He rationed that by the end of such a movie, your forearm would be black and blue from your date clutching it through the nonstop intense moments. I can assure you that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug fits that description accurately, and for the first time ever I can say, I’m looking forward to the next Hobbit movie.
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Martin Freeman, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom
3 1/2 Stars
If The Postman had been released prior to, rather than on the heels of the Waterworld debacle, it may have been mentioned in the same breath as Costner’s universally heralded masterpiece Dances With Wolves. This is a richly detailed, post apocalyptic tale that runs nearly three hours in length, yet remains swiftly paced and utterly watchable through out. Adapted from the novel by David Brin of the same name, the story is broken down into three major movements. Each as gripping as the last until a final thirty minutes that pulls all the combined elements together beautifully.
If Star Trek IV represented the goofy highpoint of this cinematic incarnation of the former television series, than Part V is the deadly serious low-point and weakest of all the films. This is an overly-talky installment that is so mishandled by director/star Shatner that the film is a rambling mess. There are moments of spice, in the story co-hatched by Shatner and long-time series’ producer Harve Bennett, but the redundancy and borderline incompetent staging of scenes quickly dispels any narrative momentum.
Darkman II tries to be rise above its modest roots and obvious budgetary shortcomings, and nearly succeeds until the realization that not much has happened on-screen, sets in. The first thirty minutes are well handled and the story appears to be unfolding in a satisfactory manner, until the plot mechanics kick in and the film goes on auto-pilot. To be fair this is a stripped down sequel that was intended for the direct-to-video market and the craftsmanship is on the level, but this isn’t a story worth telling.
The original was directed by Sam Raimi, when his long gestating Shadow reboot was shelved he penned the script to the off-beat superhero/horror/action film. Darkman II has wisely incorporated some of the mischievous energy into sequences and this is when the film plays best. Larry Drake has inexplicably survived the events of the first film and what looked to be a fiery death, to return as Robert G. Durant, a crime-boss with a panache for cutting off fingers as trophies. Director of Photography Bradford May is behind the camera and simultaneously handles the directing chores, he acquits himself nicely and has chosen a winner in casting Arnold Vosloo as the title character.
Payton Westlake/Darkman (Vosloo) is on the verge of discovering the scientific key to making him whole again. Teaming with a brilliant doctor, the two have almost cracked the key to a formula that with enable a skin like texture to remain intact for 175 minutes, before breaking down. This clearly surpasses the 99 minute barrier, which has plagued Westlake for nearly 3000 attempts. The facility where the pair conduct their research is a an old electrical warehouse, Durant intends to buy the property to use the electricity as a battery station for a new dangerous weapon he is manufacturing. Unwilling to evacuate, the doctor is murdered and Westlake soon realizes his nemesis Durant is not dead. Leading to a showdown between the physically and psychologically scared Darkman and the kingpin, who is now determined to be the ultimate ruler of the underworld.
Darkman II: The Return of Durant is an expected step down in quality form the original. Yet, as far as direct -to-vid- follow ups go, it ranks on the upper rungs. Depending on your exposure to the genre, that might not be saying much. The re-use of Danny Elfman’s musical cues and themes are a great reminder of the man’s talents.
Director: Bradford May
Stars: Arnold Vosloo, Larry Drake, Kim Delany
The second film in Marvel’s Phase Two of releasing, is the follow to up 2011′s rousing and unexpectedly humorous, Thor. This new film keeps the humor intact but there’s something light and insubstantial about this movie. It almost floats away as you watch it, and it dissipates from memory just as quickly.
2 1/2 Stars
After the head-spinning sci-fi epic The Matrix, directors Andy & Lana Wachowski set the creative bar so impossibly high that expectations for a sequel couldn’t have possibly been met. The Matrix Reloaded is a glossy follow-up with all the bells and whistles that modern technology and loads of cash can buy. Unfortunately the script from the directing duo, is stilted and at times nearly incomprehensible. The story is straight forward but the dialogue runs circles around itself until the audience just gives up and waits for the next thrilling action set piece. There are a couple of doozies in the follow-up, including a brilliantly designed freeway chase sequence that serves as the film’s highpoint and centerpiece.
Machete Kills is the most purely enjoyable and arguably the most creative film from Robert Rodriguez since his much celebrated Sin City some 8 long years ago. The first film was the feature-length fleshing out of a fake trailer from the grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. The earlier film felt constrained to a stitched together narrative slave to the clips in the 3 minute mock preview. This time out the screenplay is fresher, funnier, more clever and outlandish in equal measures, with intentionally bad special effects, over-the-top sexual situations and some of the most cheerfully horrific death scenes this side of Ridley Scott.