(On Cable TV, February 2016) The current crop of fantasy films seems hell-bent on proving that even wall-to-wall special effects can’t ensure a film that will be remembered once the end credits roll. I’ve had issues in the past with trying to write reviews of dull fantasy movies weeks after seeing the movie, but with The Huntsman: Winter’s War, I’m not taking any chances: I’m writing this the lunchtime after, because the longer I wait the less I’m going to remember any of it. It’s dull enough that I even have problems the day after. Once again, the fairy-tale inspiration has been squished through the Hollywood blockbuster screenwriting machine to produce extruded product clearly more inspired by past movies than by any kind of personal statement. This wholly unnecessary sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman completely evacuates Snow White (other than a few bogeyman-like references) to focus on the Huntsman as he’s thrown into another adventure involving the Evil Queen’s sister. Or something like that. As I said; it’s not a good movie, and it can’t even manage to be a memorable one. I think it’s slightly better than the original, but that’s by the sole virtue of not having Kirsten Stewart anywhere near the screen. Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth are back and they’re generally tolerable. Emily Blunt is (hilariously enough) being asked to play the more-evil-than-evil sister and the result is as unconvincing as it is disappointing. More hilariously, Jessica Chastain shows up in a skintight black leather suite to play an elite medieval assassin and that ends up being the most visually spectacular aspect of a film crammed with computer effects from beginning to end. While director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan tries his best to keep the film propped up, he can’t do much with the incoherent script that stumbles from a prequel to the sequel to the first film and never quite figures out whether it wants to be a follow-up, a Snow-Queen influenced sideshow or its own thing about love and other meaningless blather. It’s profoundly uninteresting despite the occasionally good visuals and it pretty much autodestructs upon viewing. It’s films like The Huntsman: Winter’s War that not give the fantasy genre a bad name—how about we drop the special effects and get back to an actual sense of wonder instead?
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Blackhat is not a great film, but it’s interesting largely in how it tries to assimilate contemporary innovations in a standard thriller template. Sure, here we have a tainted protagonist trying to catch a bad guy before he wreaks more damage. But we also have sequences trying to portray computer hacking, delving deep into machines, whizzing along the bit-flow and trying to portray how bytes of information sent with evil intent can cause physical damage and human misery. It takes an audacious director like Michael Mann to even try that kind of stuff, and it’s also why, despite the film’s generally hum-drum impact, it’s worthy of a look. Fans of conventional thrillers should at least get basic satisfaction from the way the film moves around the world, pits a dangerous hero against an unknown opponent and delves a bit into information security minutia in-between the more conventional chases and gun battles. The I.T.-Security lingo sounds OK, but it matters more that Blackhat can benefit from Chris Hemsworth’s charisma, as well as good supporting performances by Viola Davis, Leehom Wang and Tang Wei. Never mind the leaps of logic in seeing the cyber-criminal protagonist suddenly become an action hero –the film is more realistic in its details than in its overall plotting. The end result is muddled, but there’s enough good in here to sustain interest.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Given the speed and excitement of Formula 1 racing, it’s a wonder that there aren’t more movies about the sport. Considering Rush, though, the wait has been worth it: Easily eclipsing 2001’s Driven, this historical bio-drama has everything we’d wish for in a racing film, and strong historical accuracy as a bonus. Centered around the 1976 Formula 1 season in which British racer Daniel Hunt competed against Austrian legend Nikki Lauda, Rush is an actor’s showcase, a convincing period recreation, a virtuoso blend of special effects and crackling good drama. Expertly directed by Ron Howard, it’s gripping from the very first moments, pitting a charismatic playboy and a valorous technician against each other. Howard’s direction doesn’t stay still for long, and does a fine job at summarizing an eventful season’s worth of incidents into a striking whole. The atmosphere of the high-flying 1970s Formula 1 circuit is impressively conveyed, including impressive race sequences with period cars. (Was is done with CGI or practical? It doesn’t matter when the film is that good.) Much of Rush‘s effectiveness boils down to its two lead actors: Chris Hemsworth makes full use of his charisma as the seductive Hunt, his brashness clashing against the methodical Lauda very well-played by Daniel Bruhl. The two make for compelling rivals, and Rush makes maximum use of their conflict in allowing us a peek into the mind of top-notch race drivers. As exciting for its dialogue scenes than for its racing action, Rush may not look like much on paper, but becomes steadily engrossing without any effort from the viewer.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) I said it about the first movie and I’ll say it again because it’s important: I don’t really care about the entire mythology of Marvel’s Thor character. It’s a hodgepodge of fantasy concepts all blended together and I can’t make myself to care about Asgaard’s sixteen worlds of wonder or whatever. The hammer is lame, the palace intrigue is dull, Thor looks silly and the material with his faithful companions (or, again, whatever) is so under-developed as to be a waste of footage. So it’s no surprise if Thor 2 feels like such a slog in-between the passable parts. I still find Chris Hemsworth compelling in the title role, I’m not entirely immune to Tom Hiddleston’s charming villainous performance as Loki and there are a few nice special effects sequences here and there. But once the geekery cranks up into a salad of made-up words, I’m left rolling my eyes and thanking my own good luck that I never got into comics in any serious way. I’m still frustrated by the absence of thematic depth to the Thor films, and felt my fleeting interest dwindle the longer the film was away from Thor or Loki. I’ll tolerate the result if it means we get another Avengers film out of it, but come Thor 3‘s opening day, look for me anywhere but in the movie theaters showing it. I don’t care and it increasingly looks as if no one can make me care.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Most remakes are useless, but this one is more useless than most. The original Red Dawn was a product of its time: a Reagan-era jingoistic anthem that dared take an implausible premise (The United States gets physically invaded by its enemies) and run with in in full macho glory. This time around, though, the premise is flat-out impossible enough that the film never gets past its own ability to suspend disbelief. It doesn’t help that there’s little of value in Red Dawn: At best, it’s a by-the-number treatment of an obvious premise, with a few good action sequences and some likable young actors (most notably Chris Hemsworth) in the lead roles. There’s practically no thematic depth: the most intriguing idea (that the Americans are suddenly forced in the insurgency role they confronted in their recent military excursions) isn’t developed beyond a brief mention, and it gets turned into patriotic pap anyway. For a more intriguing treatment of the same basic idea, adventurous viewers are advised to take a look at the 2010 Australian invasion film Tomorrow, When the War Began, which isn’t all that good, but certainly feels more interesting than this limp American effort.
(On-demand, September 2012) Given the latest decade of post-Lord of the Rings fantasy films, re-imagining the Snow White fairytale as epic fantasy wasn’t such a conceptual leap. Here’s the evil queen, here are the rebels, here is Snow White as a symbol of the old order to be restored… not bad. Or rather; would have been not bad had someone with some skill had written the script, and someone vastly more talented been the lead protagonist. Because, even though I like Kristen Stewart in specific doses (Adventureland, anyone?), her range as a dour emotionless actress just isn’t wide enough to accommodate what she’s being asked to do here. Would it kill her to smile, laugh, squee or have fun once in a while? Not that the issues stop here, what with a medieval-ish land that clearly has pagan magic and a Christian prayer in it: It’s never too clear whether the universe of this film is supposed to be realist with a bit of magic or a fully-magical secondary universe. No matter, though, because plot contrivances really drive this story, along with misguided told-not-shown romance, dropped plot threads, blindingly-obvious foreshadowing and other problems. At least two people come out if this film with reputations intact: Charlize Theron as the evil queen with more humanity than the protagonist, and Chris Hemsworth as the gruff titular huntsman. Below the line, the people who worked on the film’s visual elements should also give themselves a pat on the back: there’s some nice work here, most notably in the scene-setting of the fairyland segments. Alas, it’s a moment that clashes with the grittiness of the rest of the film and feels largely useless as a plot element, something that extends to the seven dwarves of the Snow White legend. (In a further twist, a number of famous non-dwarves actors play the somewhat superfluous dwarves, something so staggeringly useless as to defy explanation.) For all of the visual impact of the film, Snow White and the Hunstman is almost completely empty of interest: the plot staggers and spurts ahead without forward momentum, and the result is boring. 2012 has seen two disappointing big-screen versions of the Snow White fairytale, but if I’d have to choose, I’d rather sit through Mirror, Mirror once again.
(In theaters, May 2011) I went into this film not understanding why it existed, and came out of it just as baffled. Granted, I’m not a fan of the comic-book character: I don’t even recall reading an issue of the source material. But unlike better comic-book movies, Thor has no point, no thematic depth and no reason for existing other than setting up the upcoming Avengers film. (At best, those looking for a message will find out that it’s anti-adoption agitprop.) As the film sets up its background in the fantasyland of Asgard, I found myself wishing that the film could go back to Earth, to Natalie Portman (as little as she has to do here) and to something I could care about. Otherwise, it’s all pompous accents, aliens, palace intrigue and invented mythologies that (I’m guessing) teenagers will love a lot more than I do. Am I losing the ability to care about fantasy movies? Maybe, but it’s not as if Thor gives me any reason to care. I’ll grant at least one thing, though: it’s got a certain visual style, and some of the Asgard sequences are pretty. Chris Hemsworth is also very good in the title role: Few other actors could have pulled the arch dialogue and regal bearing without looking ridiculous. Otherwise, it’s more interesting to see how the film exists in continuity with the other Marvel-universe movies, from the return appearance of a few SHIELD agents to Jeremy Renner’s cameo as Hawkeye to the now-requisite post-credit sequence. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling Thor dull or uninvolving, it does feel like a low-expectation, low-results kind of film: the scaled-back main-street fight scene is a clear example of that. Thor does brings back to mind the kind of underwhelming comic-book films that we used to get before filmmakers realized that they had to put some depth into it. To say that Kevin Branagh is behind it all almost boggles the mind.