(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) Call it encroaching old age, but I’m getting a bit tired of mashups combining historical references with monsters. Whether those monsters are zombies, vampires, robots or (in this case) witches, and whether those familiar references are fairytales, established genres, historical figures or classic fiction, the result often doesn’t have anything to offer but a blend of buzzwords. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter! Jack the Giant Killer! The concept becomes the crutch, and once you’ve grown accustomed to buzzword blending, there’s often nothing beyond the high-concept. All of which to say that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is nothing more than what it says in its title (ie; grown-up fairy-tale heroes become witch hunters… I told you it was the title), and that it doesn’t do much with its own premise. There is a bizarre mixture of high comedy (most absurdly a reference to a missing kid picture on a milk carton) and low horror that never quite solidifies into something meaningful. Many of the action sequences repeat themselves, and the occasionally-good visuals doesn’t excuse the film’s overall tedium. What’s too bad is that I quite like Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, but neither have much to do here aside from running and shooting. (Famke Janssen does seem to have fun playing pure evil, though.) The script is weak and contrived –especially when it comes to the heroes going back to their childhood home and discovering that their backstory means something in the current moment. While the martial anachronisms can be amusing, most notably by providing Big Guns to dark-ages heroes, the film doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with the assets at its disposal. The problem with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t its premise; it’s that it’s just its premise.
(Video on-demand, January 2014) I may not have any measurable interest for gambling in my own personal life, but I’m certainly a sucker for films that revolve around the subject. So it is that even a disappointing thriller like Runner Runner can get me smiling even as its shortcomings are obvious. Justin Timberlake stars (and doesn’t do badly) as a bright young man who gets sucked into the seductive lifestyle of an online casino operation headquartered in sunny Costa Rica: the initial allure of his new job quickly turn sour when he discovers the web of secrets masterminded by the business’ shady owner (Ben Affleck, in a role that could have been played better by many other actors). The narration-heavy script is initially pretty good with the details, but those get scarcer as the film advances and accelerates, much to the audience’s detriment: As the protagonist’s life-saving machinations get more intense, our glimpse into what’s happening gets narrower and narrower, and the rhythm of the film seems to push aside much of the detail that initially makes Runner Runner so interesting. It also runs roughshod over some of the essential connective tissue of the story: The romance between our hero and the initially-unattainable heroine (Gemma Arterton, looking good but stuck without much to say) is developed without depth, to a point where no one really cares if she’s truly loyal to the protagonist or not. Timberlake isn’t too bad as the lead, but it’s Anthony Mackie who gets the most of his supporting role as an FBI agent, with a few good monologues to project an adequate amount of menace. (Mackie’s been seen in a few supporting roles so far, and he usually manages to impress in them.) Director Brad Furman doesn’t have as good a script as the one he had for his previous film The Lincoln Lawyer, and if the result may be a serviceable way to spend 90 minutes, Runner Runner is not quite as interesting as it should have been.