Johnson flexes some muscle in ‘Hercules’ and fails to make a punch

Rating 2/5

There could be much to say about director Brett Ratner’s 2014 Hercules, but I don’t think there really is. I suppose, though, if you enjoy some action, fighting, a little humor, campy dialogue, and Dwayne Johnson flexing a little muscle while pushing over a large statue, then this might be for you. It’s like if you like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing you like. Writers Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos are credited for the script that boasted 98 minutes of the aforementioned campy dialogue (although not as campy as most of the Kevin Sorbo television series of the ‘90’s) and seemingly bland story.

Earlier in the same year, audiences were treated to The Legend of Hercules starring Kellan Lutz and directed by Renny Harlin. In that film, (which I have not seen yet, but probably will appear in a future post) a story surfaces, which supposedly is grounded more in the traditional Greek mythology of Hercules’ origin. Ratner’s version portrayed Hercules as sort of a mercenary for hire, which is apparently based on another story of the famed demigod, leading a small rag-tag team of “misfits” on quests to earn gold. It was like if the A-Team was set in the fantastical realm of Greek mythology. If you need to overthrow a king, and if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Hercules.

The performances were nothing extraordinary here but basically cookie-cutter two-dimensional characters with no real distinguishable characteristics. They really had nothing that allowed me to have an interest to what happened to them. The film also starred Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, and Rebecca Ferguson, and of course many others; but again there was nothing that made me feel for the characters or care about their activities and story arcs.

I will admit, though, some of the fight scenes and big battle scenes were decently choreographed and done to an almost precision point that served the film well for what it was. I just particularly didn’t care for the type of film it appeared to be. However, even with its faults, the film was somewhat enjoyable on some level. There was some entertainment in the characters but it didn’t have enough to sustain my interest through the duration of the film. Other films seem to do it better with a more engaging story and characters even though there might not necessarily be a lot of action in every scene with huge explosions and fights.

There are those that may find this particular kind of film more enjoyable. That’s not to say it wasn’t watchable, because it was. It’s just not something I would necessarily see again if I didn’t have to. It might serve a purpose to have something playing in the background while performing another activity or something to watch for some simple entertainment on a lazy afternoon.

 

 

Neeson uses his skills to run in ‘Taken 3’

Rating 2/5

After 2012’s follow up to Taken, we get a third (and supposedly final) installment to the Taken franchise. In this film, nobody’s really “taken,” except maybe for the audience. Released in 2014, Taken 3 brings back writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen and director of the second film Olivier Megaton for a seemingly tiresome ploy to somehow capitalize on the moderate success of this particular action franchise.

This film also brings back the Mills family – Bryan (Liam Neeson), Lenore (Famke Janssen), and Kim (Maggie Grace) – and is set in Los Angeles. Bryan and Lenore are still divorced, but have a friendship going after the events of the other films and having Kim in common. This relationship puts a damper on Lenore’s current beau, Stuart (Dougray Scott), who simply asks Bryan to stop seeing her. After an opening sequence that doesn’t really get answered until much later (and is a weak plot point at best), Bryan goes to meet his ex at his place after receiving a text from her. He arrives and soon discovers she has been murdered. Of course, the police are alerted anonymously and Bryan has to fight his way out to go on the run.

That’s the premise. And that’s what moves the film into the second act and an unbelievable high-speed foot chase. Bryan leads the police through the streets to a house where he barges in on the unsuspecting couple, runs upstairs, then finally to a garage where he somehow knows there is a hole, covered with boards, underneath a car, that leads to the sewer. And I thought some of the sequences in the second film were a bit outlandish. I suppose, though, if you are an excellent former CIA operative with incredible skills, it could be slightly plausible you would have escape routes, weapons and gear hidden around the city like some great covert Easter Egg Hunt. But I digress. Bryan is on the run and his mission is to find out who murdered his wife and who framed him.

The film’s redemption is Neeson’s performance. Despite the obscure sequences, plot, and storylines, he still brings something to the character, but not at the level of his first outing. I’m sure he did what he could with the material he was given and Megaton’s direction. The addition of Forest Whitaker as Franck Dotzler, the police officer charged with bringing Mills in, but is always seemingly one step behind, offers a decent performance. However, it still lacks depth. For the most part, the performances were lackluster and 2-dimensional.

The cinematography is not as breathtaking in this film as the other two (France and Turkey) although it seems to utilize the locations well and serves the purpose of the film. But with that, the action and story doesn’t quite move along as well in this outing (not necessarily because of the cinematography, but story itself) because it is more drawn out (at nearly 20 minutes longer) than the first two installments. The camera movements made the fight scenes and chase scenes a little too fast-paced to easily follow to allow the audience to fully be aware of the surroundings and scope of the action.

Taken 3 is not about the characters being taken, it’s about the audience being taken, taken for a near 2-hour ride of quick-moving, incongruent scenes with a weak story. The characters, story and action of this film did not have enough substance for me to enjoy this film as sometimes that helps me retain interest. Maybe a better vision for this film would have helped. I don’t know. What I do know, there are other films, and even a television show, in this genre that do it better.

 

 

 

Mills uses his skills again in ‘Taken 2’

Rating 2/5

I suppose it was inevitable there would be a follow-up to Taken. The sequel showed us what would happen if Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) and his wife (Famke Janssen) were taken. The same writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen return, but fail to bring it to the same level as the first one. There are moments in this film where it might be exciting and interesting, but there seems to be far more inadequacies that take me out of it to fully enjoy the film.

Olivier Megaton’s direction is an attempt to follow its predecessor but falls short in its delivery of the same level of action and continuity the first one had. It still follows that this film be built around a phone call between Bryan and Kim (Maggie Grace) like in the first one when Kim was taken. If this was the thought behind these films, perhaps I could write a screenplay based on a conversation I had with a friend over the old phrase “Where’s the beef?”

The film opens in Albania where Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija), the father of one of the men Bryan killed in the first Taken film, is with his clan at the burial site of his son and the rest of the others Mills killed because they simply got in his way. So of course he vows to get Mills and make him pay for the death of his son. Never mind the fact his son seemed to take enjoyment out of taking young female tourists and making them sex slaves.

And it just so happens that Bryan is in Istanbul on a private security assignment and has brought his family along for a little R & R in the country. Of course these bad guys find out and decide to take Mills and his wife while Kim is in the hotel room preparing to get ready to meet them after a little swim. Here’s where the phone call comes in, because apparently these guys aren’t smart enough to check for and take any forms of communication away from him before they tie him up. Bryan calls his daughter to tell her that he and her mother have been taken and gives her instructions to help them escape. And of course, being a former CIA agent, he has a case filled with “emergency equipment” like hand grenades, a map and other material. Here’s a part where inconsistencies comes in to play. He tells Kim that the men who took him are going to come after her. So he helps her get out and as she is doing so she is running barefoot through the rooms and halls of the hotel and finally gets to a window. She steps out barefoot on the ledge. But as the bad guys close in, one of them notices a sandal on the floor by the window. A. Single. Sandal. She didn’t have any footwear running through the hotel, but suddenly she leaves a single sandal by the window? It’s those little things that take me out of the film.

Now I know there are probably numerous inconsistencies in various films, but it’s the execution of character, action, story and other elements in a film that can hold my interest and suspension of disbelief for the sake of the film. Taken 2 did not do that for me like the first one did. The film really left me with no real connection with the characters. Yes I was sort of rooting for Mills to kick some ass and take some names as he fights for the freedom of himself and his family, but a real emotional connection was lost to me in this film. Thankfully it does move rather quickly and only has a 92-minute runtime.

Taken 2 plays as a slick, fast-paced action flick but its substance leaves something to be desired. If fast paced action is what interests and entertains you, then Olivier Megaton and company might just have the thing for you. But if you’re looking for a little more, then this film probably misses the mark.

Bryan Mills has a particular set of skills in ‘Taken’

Rating 3/5

In 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who uses his particular set of skills to rescue his daughter while on a trip to Europe with a friend. Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen penned the script that gave director Pierre Morel a framework of action and a world in which these characters could play.

I don’t think the film is an accurate depiction of what the CIA is or does, but it does show what a father of Mills’ background might do in a situation such as the one depicted in the film. From the start, Mills is not particularly happy about his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) going off to Europe to “study” with a friend. Come to find out they are there to party and have fun. He already has a somewhat strained relationship with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and when Kim tells him she wants to go to Europe he immediately is apprehensive because he knows how cruel the world can be for people, especially two teenage girls. But through some assurances, he allows his daughter to go and thus sets the action of the film in motion.

The plot was simple enough I suppose. Was it accurate? Probably not entirely. Was it believable? Not necessarily. But it had a decent set up and plenty of action to keep me in the film. The characters seemed to be drawn efficiently with enough characteristics to make the bad guys bad and the good guys good. Neeson portrays Mills with precision while seemingly being a master of every skill imaginable that aids him in finding his daughter. It almost seems, though, that if all CIA agents were as skilled as Bryan Mills, the world’s terrorists should be afraid, very afraid. I would say it is probably one of Neeson’s better performances. Kim is not seen through most of the film after she is abducted, but Grace still brings a frightened reality to the character. Janssen is not seen much through the second act either, but delivers a believable and honest performance.

It seems the film was set up around the phone call that Mills makes to his daughter to check up on her after she failed to call when she arrived at her destination. About this time, men who the girls just meet enter and abduct the unsuspecting visitors. He tells his daughter that she will be taken and he tells the kidnapper on the phone that he will find him and he will kill him. With that, the kidnapper says “Good luck.” So, with the help from his CIA pals, he manages to get the name of the kidnapper and Mills begins his cross-country trek to get his daughter back.

Mills becomes a one man army and stops at nothing in his pursuit. It does make for an entertaining film even with some of the sequences seemingly implausible. But supposedly with the skills and expertise that Bryan Mills has, nothing is impossible (or improbable) in the course of the film.

There were moments in Taken that seemed a little outlandish, almost preposterous. But the film had enough action to keep me in the film and entertained. It’s one of those films that could make you go “hmmm,” but still has the action, story, and characters to be a watchable film.

Love knows no boundaries in ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Rating 3/5

This review is being written never having viewed the 1991 animated classic or the 1946 original or any other incarnation of the classic tale. In viewing the latest version of Beauty and the Beast, one can only think how good it might be. There must be something to this story for it to have seen two television series, the classic Disney animated film, a foreign film from France/Germany in 2014 and now this film version. As I understand, this 2017 version is more of a direct remake of the 1991 Disney classic. At the 1992 Academy Awards, the film was nominated for Best Picture (which apparently was the first animated film to do so) and Best Sound and won Oscars for Best Original Song and Best Original Score.

This film version has its merits and does bring some of the magic and wonder that you might expect from Disney in a tale like this. Bill Condon directed this story from writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos and has produced a new version for new viewers. The cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler was marvelous to look at and added to the film with musical numbers like “Be Our Guest.” From the depictions of small villages to the vast countryside and from the crowded, treacherous woods to the grand castle in which lived the prince (Beast), the cinematography brought the characters and surroundings to life.

The acting in this film seemed short of extraordinary, but that is not to say the performances were dull or plain, they just appeared to fit and served the purpose of the story. The film starred Emma Watson as Belle, the fair beauty of the land, who lived with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline), and Dan Stevens as the Prince turned Beast by the Enchantress (Hattie Morahan) because of his vanity and cold soul. Luke Evans portrayed Gaston, a seemingly vain character himself who would do anything to win the affection of the fair Belle, while LeFou (Josh Gad) stood by and unwillingly served him. Not knowing the cast before going in to seeing this film, I was surprised at some of the acting talents that lent their voices through much of the film, talents such as Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Stanley Tucci. Of course there were many others (because musicals usually bring large casts to the production) whose faces we did not see for much of the film that did a wonderful job with their voice characterizations.

I believe the musical score and choreography were worthy of most any big stage musical production and the CGI seemed to flow flawlessly through the musical numbers. So, hats off to the original animated inspiration. There might be differing views here, though. While this production’s musical performance served its purpose for this production, from what I understand, it might pale in comparison to the 1991 animated classic in some aspects. Not having seen the animated version, I can’t quite adequately compare the two. But I, regardless if the film is a remake, a remake of the remake, or some sort of adaptation of the original source material, I take it as I see it in the current version. In this case, this musical version appeared to serve its purpose – and I believe that purpose is to entertain and be visually stunning while still maintaining a true sense of story.

Even with its merits, stunning cinematography, and near flawless CGI action sequences, the film does suffer from some inadequacies. In part, the aforementioned CGI, but mostly the relationship between the Beast and Belle. It seemed a bit rushed and the sense of connection between the two wasn’t quite strong enough for me. I wanted a little more to be truly believable. From what I understand, the backstory of how Belle lost her mother was a nice little addition to the story and character, but I’m not sure if it was truly warranted.

There was some talk in the film’s release about some “gay characters.” I don’t consider this a true issue or controversy. There might have been a “sense” of it if you were actually looking for it, but it was not overtly done and was done with enough subtlety that I don’t believe should really be an issue. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

This new version of Beauty and the Beast fell just short of remarkable, but still had enough story and action to keep me engaged with the characters to make this an enjoyable film to watch. At some point, I will have to visit the 1991 animated version to truly compare the two (as I have with other remakes) to test the true virtue with this story. Until then, I leave you with this enlightening and entertaining film.

 

 

 

 

Mortality, a strong theme in ‘Logan’

Rating 4/5

I suppose it’s true what they say. All good things must come to an end. For nearly 20 years Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart have been portraying Logan (aka Wolverine) and Charles Xavier (aka Professor X) respectively. This is supposedly the final time we see these two actors in these roles.

It would appear that on the surface, Logan is a superhero movie. However, the film is a bit more than that. It is not the usual fanfare spectacle commonly seen Marvel superhero flicks (although this isn’t a full Marvel film since Fox still owns the rights to these characters). Logan is about mortality. We all grow old. This question is posed in Logan. What happens to superheroes when they get old?

Scott Frank and Michael Green co-wrote the script with James Mangold, who also directed. They have adapted this character, adding depth, heart, and a little humor. They have also added some profanity to these characters, which adds to the humor, and brings them down to a more human level, and it also justifies the ‘R’ rating the film received. And it was a little surprising, yet somewhat satisfying, to hear the profanity coming from the Professor’s mouth. It was still surprising with Logan, but a little more believable.

They have set the film in the not too distant future where all mutants have been eliminated and an aging Professor X, in his nineties, is afflicted with some habilitating brain disease, which has significantly reduced his powers, and causes violent psychic seizures. Additionally, Logan’s strength is deteriorating and his healing powers are slowing. He is shown with graying hair and a hard, grizzled, scarred body.

In his twilight, Logan has taken to care for the ailing Professor and drives a limo for cash. They share an abandoned factory with Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a mutant tracker. Their lives are simple. Survive. That is their life until a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), enters the picture. Her backstory is explained later, but they (and the audience) soon discover the girl has Logan’s powers – right down to the metal claws. I won’t give away too much more here as the rest pretty much follows most action films. Bad guys come. They fight. They chase. They fight. They chase. New bad guys are introduced. They fight, etc., etc. Richard E. Grant and Boyd Holbrook play the antagonists as the “mad-scientist” and evil henchman. But the true villain in the story is mortality (or time) itself. That’s what our heroes seem to be battling throughout the film. That “invisible killer” that no one can escape as it steals our strength and human capacity.

Jackman has given a performance here that was fun and exciting to watch. He played it fervor and a veracity that showed layers to the character not necessarily seen in his other portrayals of the character. Stewart displays the same level of humanity and layered character as Jackman did to his Logan. With time and age diminishing Charles’ power, Stewart does remarkably well to bring that struggle to the screen. Keen displays the power and energy Jackman brought to the character seventeen years ago. There was truth and honesty in her performance that could possibly develop into a spin-off series with the character if that is a direction worth pursuing by the filmmakers.

As mentioned, Logan is unlike your typical fanfare blockbuster superhero movie. It has some heart and adds some humanity to it. For these elements to truly work, the film is set in a darker tone than the other X-Men films (or Marvel films for that matter). This is something that DC, and Zack Snyder, has truly grasped in their recent film escapades. And that’s not entirely good.

 

 

More than heroics prevail in ‘Seven Samurai’

Rating 4/5

There has been much said about this film. Many consider it a great film. Obviously, it was great enough to spawn a remake, several war stories, and the idea of the group protagonists assembled together on a single mission. It can be said it has even introduced the spaghetti western. Moreover, this film, and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, even gave inspiration to a young George Lucas to create his Star Wars saga. In that regard, it is most certainly a great film.

This film was released in 1954 and it might have been considered a great film – even a masterpiece – at the time, and I enjoyed the film for those reasons. The elements such as cinematography, sound, and music were great attributes and added to the film’s story and tone. However, the length of the film, at nearly three and a half hours (with an actual intermission), just appeared a little lengthy. It was a little tricky to navigate the long running time. During my first viewing, I had to stop about a quarter way through because of a reluctant interruption and it took a little wile to get back to continue the film. I was able to view a little more before I was interrupted again. Finally, I was able to sit down and view it in its entirety. I believe I was able to appreciate it more in that last viewing. Seven Samurai is more than a classic story of heroism and the underdog being triumphant over the forces of evil, it is a story of rich Japanese culture and tradition within the 1600’s, for which this film is set. The length here is the same reason why I thought The Magnificent Seven seemed a bit lengthy and “drag” in some places because some of those sequences of character and story development didn’t work quite as well for me in the Western remake.

The plot centers around a small farming village that is terrorized by bandits who take most of the food they have, barely leaving enough for the villagers to survive. The fearful villagers convene and there is some disagreement as to what the best course of action is. One thing is for sure that they are fed up with the way things are. It is later agreed that they hire samurai to help them fight the bandits. A small group of villagers go on a quest to find the samurai and ultimately hire seven. Of course the farmers have little to offer in the way of funds, so they repay the samurai by giving them rice and shelter until the village is free from the tyranny of the bandits. And during this time, it is not appropriate for farmers to be mixing with samurai (or vice versa). This is where social conventions come in play. This also leads to a subplot of the film where one of the local female villagers falls in love with one of the seven samurai. Eventually discovered, there is discussion about the situation and a common ground is met to appease the modern audience.

Questions arise during this heroic, social commentary. Why do the samurai take the job in the first place? What propels them to put their lives up for these farmers? The samurai are bound by honor and so to keep with societal obligations, they help stand with the farmers to fend off the bandits. The samurai begin training and preparing the locals to fight. The samurai lay out a strategic plan to battle these ruthless bandits and it is clearly seen the samurai and bandits persevere through each of the battles. However, the bandits soon realize the village is being well defended but continue their assault until the climactic showdown.

The film was beautifully crafted and has all of the elements to make a great film. The story and characters were there and it skillfully showed the life of the samurai and villagers and their place in the social caste system of the 17th Century. For some films, lengthy run times can be detrimental. But if masterfully done, it can add so much to a film as it did with Seven Samurai.