prisoners-posterReligious symbolism clashes with the harsh brutalities of a world bent in two by purely evil forces in the drama Prisoners which seeks to frighten, disturb, and wring us out emotionally. The redeeming qualities, however, unleash some terrific acting performances and unsettling suspense throughout a 2 1/2 hour runtime that manages to fly.

Two missing six-year-old girls from two different suburban families (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) – (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) are the center of an investigation led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal).  There is only one clear suspect to Keller Dover (Jackman), and that is a mentally challenged, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whom Keller believes abducted the girls in his RV.  Loki, however, can’t find any substantial evidence to support Jones as his man.

A spiraling investigation leads Loki and Keller to desperation in their own ways.  As each day passes, the girls are certainly closer to death if they aren’t already.

Directed with a great deal of feeling by Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners resists the route of typical revenge actioners and actually heads up the drama in very realistic, albeit overwrought, fashion.  The premise manages to carry the film for quite a while leading to a satisfying and physically draining conclusion that answers nearly every question the audience can throw at it.  While the film lends itself to being picked apart due to the nature of an unfolding mystery, the picture is held together so well by alarmingly good performances for thinly drawn characters that have little range on paper, yet bloom onscreen.

Jackman is the angry autocratic father.  Gyllenhaal is the determined investigator.  Bello is the weeping wife.  None of the characters have lives outside of their predicament.  Yet the acting is so very good that I failed to notice it much until further reflection.

This is obviously the kind of film gunning for awards attention, and for the most part it deserves it.  Jackman and Gyllenhaal especially deliver strong performances worthy of consideration.  The film as a whole could be a little tighter, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was glued to the screen the entire time, even when I wanted to look away.  Prisoners is a mostly fascinating drama that delivers a strong hit to the gut.

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Rise of the Guardians

Rise G posterThe first thing you’ll notice about Rise of the Guardians is that it’s certainly, well, different. We start off with narration by the main character (Chris Pine). “Darkness … that’s the first thing I remember. It was dark and it was cold and I was scared.” Fair enough. But he continues. “Then I saw the Moon. It seemed to chase the dark away, and then I wasn’t scared anymore.” Ooookay. About this time, we see our narrator, his face young, but his hair white, apparently being pulled by an unseen force through the top of a frozen lake, to alight, barefoot, on the snow-covered branch of a tree, apparently unbothered by the cold. He soon wanders into a village, where he realizes no one can see or hear him. He continues: “My name is Jack Frost. How do I know that? The Moon told me so. That’s all he ever told me.”


We then cut to 300 years later, at the North Pole. How do we know it’s the North Pole? The text on screen tells us so. We cut to the inside of a building, where a pair of booted feet make the ground shake with each step. We see a pair of strong arms, one tattooed “naughty,” the other tattooed “nice,” gripping a chainsaw, as it lays into a hapless block of ice. As a brilliant ice sculpture takes shape, we hear a booming voice: “Still waiting for cookies!”

Yes, it’s him. Chris Cringle, Pier Noel, bringer of joy and lover of children, but he’s nothing like you’ve seen in any other Santa movie. “North,” as he is nicknamed in Guardians (Alec Baldwin), is a regular badass, a mountain of a man that would make Jack Reacher submissive (yeah, I said it). He drives a tricked-out sleigh that would make Shaft jealous, pulled by reindeer that look like they should be ridden by the eight horsemen of the apocalypse. Or maybe Ghost Rider. Or the Headless Horseman. (They totally needed a scene where North pulls the sleigh up in front of the Fortress of Solitude and yells “Hey, Kent! You need to get yourself one of these babies!” And then races off, leaving a green-with-envy Superman in a cloud of dust. Alas, I wasn’t consulted.) Best of all, he carries these two huge scimitars, which he twirls with expertise, and with which he slices and dices the forces of evil!

Dude! Where was this Santa when I was kid??

North looks at his globe, a magical monitor from which he watches over all the children of the world and sees evil power creeping across it. He deduces that the lord of all evil himself, none other than the Boogeyman (Jude Law), is amassing power for an attack on the world’s kids. He calls an emergency meeting of the Guardians, supernatural beings who are given the power and responsibility to protect the wonder and innocence of children everywhere. The team consists of North, the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman (no voice) and, of course,

I'm not a kangaroo, mate. I'm a bunny. The EASTER Bunny.

I’m not a kangaroo, mate. I’m a bunny. The EASTER Bunny.

the Easter Bunny, who is also nothing like you’ve seen before. “Bunny” is voiced by Hugh Jackman, and Jackman must have enjoyed the heck out of this roll. He gives free reign to his Australian accent, and kicks his tough-guy persona into overdrive. Fittingly, his animated avatar is six feet tall, master of Thai-Chi and sports thorny tattoos across his keg-sized shoulders. He also wears a quiver across his back, carrying deadly boomerangs and egg bombs, which he’s not afraid to use.

Awesome. Though I have to say, all this makes watching him paint beautiful designs on eggs kind of awkward. Imagine if you caught Tito Ortiz doing needle point. Well, nothing’s perfect.

As you’ve probably figured out, this is a story not unlike The Avengers. The idea is to get a handful of superhumans together and have them fight against a huge army of nameless, faceless bad guys led by one villain who actually speaks. The Boogeyman (aka Pitch Black) even has a back story similar to that of Loki in Avengers (also rather similar to that of Satan in the Bible). He was once a Guardian, but when he demanded all the power and renown for himself, The Man in the Moon dismissed him from the company of the Guardians, and cast him down to the earth, to wander about scaring people. The Man in the Moon fills the roll of God in this story. We never see him directly, but he selects people to be Guardians and directs them in the fight against evil. He watches over the earth. And for a movie about Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy … it works well enough. Once he knows Pitch is up to something, the Man in the Moon selects Jack Frost to join the ranks of the Guardians, and the battle begins.

If your dentist had Tooth's enthusiasm, you would run out the door in terror.

If your dentist had Tooth’s enthusiasm, you would run out the door in terror.

How does Rise of the Guardians stack up? It definitely takes some risks and I have to give it a nod for that. It’s not likely to become a classic, but it creates a world you can lose yourself in, and takes its characters to a place no one ever has before. It has a few gripping action sequences, and some funny lines. All in all, I liked it, and held on to the DVD to watch it a second time before returning it. Director Peter Ramsey helmed it well, considering that, with what they tried to do conceptually, it could have been an absolute train wreck of a movie, and it was actually pretty good. Plus, it’s safe for kids.

Maybe even a little too safe. There is one major flaw in Guardians, and that is that they do an absolutely abysmal job with the villain. Pitch is represented in every scene as this weird looking guy who mainly hangs out in the shadows and whines about how unfair his life is. They never make him scary. This is especially problematic considering who he is supposed to be. I mean, he’s the  Boogeyman, for Pete’s sake! He’s a Satan. A Dracula. The embodiment of all evil and terror from our basest instincts. The faceless horror that reaches out of every shadow to drag you to Hell. He’s the reason 4-year-olds wake up screaming at 2 a.m., the reason you suddenly start walking faster at night and you don’t know why, the reason grown men still make sure their closets are latched before bed. He needs to scare the audience, but Pitch never becomes the slightest bit threatening. We never see him do anything, except create this army of black horses (Night-mares. Get it?) that the Guardians fight. It’s implied that he’s giving kids nightmares around the world, but we never see any nightmares, or their effects.

Do something scary!

Do something scary!

I understand they were making a PG family film; I’m not asking to see blood and guts. They still could have made him scary. All Ramsey had to do was watch a few Disney movies and take notes. Disney has perfected the art of terrorizing kids and still getting a G rating. Throughout the whole movie, I thought it must be building to something. Pitch was going to change into something horrible and start attacking some kids … no? Well, I’m sure they’ll at least have some decent jump-scares where he pops out of something, maybe his eyes red, his teeth pointy … no? Well maybe he’ll transform for the final battle … nope. Pitch stays the same bland computer sprite for the entire movie and never makes himself a real threat. That, by itself, takes a star and a half off of this movie’s score.

Oh, well, like I said, nothing’s perfect. Guardians is still a wild ride, and well worth watching, if only for being original and good.

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Real Steel

The writers behind Real Steel propose that boxing at some point in the next decade will become too dangerous for humans to get into a ring and punch each other.  I would assume by then the MMA will have to turn into Fight Club.  Instead audiences will become engulfed by dueling Transformer-like robots controlled by programmers outside the ring.

Following the Night at the Museum flicks, Shawn Levy directs another special-effects filled fantasy featuring a lacking father trying to rebuild a relationship with his young son.  Shedding his claws for joysticks, Hugh Jackman enters as Charlie, a down-on-his-luck former boxer looking to settle major financial debts with the wrong people by purchasing fighting bots and betting on them in low-key fights.  Complicating his lifestyle on the road is his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo).  After the sudden death of Max’s mother, Charlie has to sign over parental rights to the boy’s wealthy aunt and uncle.  Without caring anything for the boy, Charlie agrees to giving up custody for $50,000 in a secret deal with Max’s uncle.  The catch: Charlie has to agree to look after Max for the summer while his guardians are out of the country.  The stubborn father and willful son have no interest in each other, and yet have their love for boxing in common.

Charlie invests his money in a famous Japanese boxing bot that ends up getting demolished in its first fight.  Looking in junkyards for scrap parts, Max discovers an outdated sparring robot named Atom.  Max gives Atom a thorough tune-up and discovers that it has a rare shadowing feature that allows the robot to mimic his operator’s movements.  This gives Atom the ability to be trained by both Max and Charlie and store real boxing maneuvers and moves.  The father-son duo start earning quick cash as Atom proves to be a worthy opponent in the ring, scoring several unlikely wins that leads to a title shot against the undefeated world champion robot.  Max bonds with Atom, and ultimately and more importantly with his father.  Thus Charlie ends up with a comeback shot with Max while their bot fights for the title.

Levy throws Rocky, Over the Top, Transformers, and a giant bottle of syrup into the blender to deliver a film built entirely on formula and familiar beats.  I was surprised I didn’t find the film’s recipe on the back of my ticket stub.  The characters laugh on cue, cry on queue, and the movie practically invites audiences to stand up and cheer by the end credits.  But you know what?  I didn’t care.  Both Jackman and Goyo create a believable relationship onscreen making Real Steel the perfect movie for fathers and young sons, complete with impressive visual effects that have hulking metal clamoring for our entertainment.  Levy’s effects team surpasses the destructive mayhem of Michael Bay’s Transformers as far as convincing robots go.  The bots of Real Steel have weight to them.  They’re affected by gravity.  I was thoroughly impressed and believed these boxing matches even if I didn’t believe in them.  This is fantasy, and in a world of virtual gaming, any boys under 12 years of age will be loving Real Steel to the last bolt.  And I bet their fathers might have just as much fun.

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Van Helsing

Yeah, that’s right. I like Van Helsing (2004), one of the most hated movies of the last 20 years. I have seen so many reviews, blogs and videos trashing this movie, that I felt I had to speak up to defend it. So before you blow me off as an idiot, hear me out.

There’s no denying that Van Helsing is stupid, but it’s no stupider than a lot of movies out there. In fact, Van Helsing is probably the magnum opus of its director, considering that its director is Steven Sommers, one of the most bubble-headed directors of all time. To put Van Helsing in the proper context, it’s necessary to take a brief look at Sommers’ filmography.

Sommers’ first box office hit was The Mummy (1999), which I’ve already reviewed, a brain-dead piece of clap-trap that existed soley for the sake of mindless violence and spectacle. Some people read from a book, which brings the Mummy back from the dead, he kills half the world, and then the same people are supposed to be heroes just for cleaning up their own mess. For reasons I’ve never understood, The Mummy continues to be a favorite movie of many people. Next, Sommers vomited out The Mummy Returns (2001), a fairly standard sequel with a lot more horrific deaths, and even more ridiculous plot points. The herione of the first movie (Rachel Weiss) is suddenly declared to be a reincarnation of Egyptian princess Nephretiri. Don’t ask me how that works, as reincarnation was never discussed in the first movie, or in Egyptian mythology for that matter. Then, Sommers took a minor character from Returns, the Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. “The Rock”), and stretched his back story into a full length movie. The Scorpion King was yet another mental death-trap for teens, given a mild-souding PG-13 rating and yet loaded with violence and near-nudity. The story was little more than an excuse for the Rock to show off.

And after all this, we got Van Helsing. Apparently bored with making three movies out of one Universal Studios moster, Sommers decided to make one movie and include three Universal mosters — Dracula (Richard Roxburg), The Wolfman (Will Kemp), and Frankenstien’s Moster (Schuler Hensley). While I can understand why some people hate Van Helsing, I cannot understand why some people lapped up The Mummy and then hated Van Helsing.

Why is Van Helsing awesome? Here's why.

First, vampires and werewolves are way cooler than mummies. Second, our hero, Van Helsing, is played by Hugh freaking Jackman, probably the greatest specimen of manliness since Harisson Ford (okay, so I’m not imune to man-crushes. Sue me). The Mummy has Brendan Frasier. This is the guy who played Dudley Do Right and George of the Jungle, and then got beat up by cartoons in Looney Tunes, Back in Action. And third, Van Helsing has a collection of gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. He fights monsters with buzz saws, crossbows that launch silver arrows, a shotgun, a pop-out silver stake, pop out crosses, grapling hooks, and thats just to name a few!

The action sequences in this movie define the word epic, involving huge sets, hundreds of extras (monster fodder) and dazling special effects. Every detail of them was meticulously planned out (too bad you can’t say the same for the plot). Moments that I initially dismissed as rediculous (e.g. the roof of a carriage catching fire durring a werewolf attack) actually do happen for an (admittedly implausible) reason (e.g. the werewolf crashing against a lantern on the side of the carraige and sliding across the roof). This movie has more effective jump-scares than many other movies combined, and even pulls off a number of really difficult delayed-jump-scares (the kind where you sort-of see it coming, but that only increases its effect on you). On top of all this, it still manages to slip in quite a few funny moments.

Jackman is, of course, dashing as a younger version of Bram Stoker’s hero, but Aussie star Richard Roxberg is equally great as the Lord of Evil himself, Count Dracula. There’s a little bit of Bella Lugosi in his performance, a little of Gary Oldman, and a little of the historical Dracula, but it’s mostly his own creation. It ranges from quiet, brooding moments to wild rage, and manages to make it all quite sinister and intimidating. In any case, it’s much more interesting than watching Arnold Vosloo make faces like he needs to blow his nose. This is a major strength of the movie that compensates for lack of a coherent plot: you have these epic characters that are so vividly realized, and they’re played off eachother so powerfully that you almost don’t need a story. Leading Lady Kate Beckinsale (as Transylvanian she-warior Anna Valerious) looks great in her slinky outfits and also pulls of the action side of the roll. It’s hard to believe she once had this roll. A word also needs to be said about David Wenham, who, prior to this roll, had been voted “Australia’s Sexiest Man Alive.” However, for this movie, he put tack behind his ears to make himself look like Dumbo, donned a friar’s outfit, and speant the movie jabbering and bumbling around, just so we could have a laugh. Thanks, David.

Finally, there are the special effects. I know, I know. Just like all of you, I’ve talked a lot about how I’m tired of special effects, and they don’t impress me anymore. But any honest viewer has to admit that, even by 2011 standards, Van Helsing’s special effects truly are incredible. Most of it is C.G.I. However, if you watch the making-of features, there are some surprises. For example, when Dracula’s brides transform and take flight, the bodies are C.G.I., but their faces are still their own, covered in makeup. Rather than rely on C.G.I., Sommers used it to enhance the sets and props, which look good of their own accord.

When it comes to special effects, even today, movies tend to cheat. Forexample, if someone is going to transform (e.g. into a werewolf) we usually see the beginning of the transformation, then they fall below the camera, or stumble behind something, then we see the finall result, and the producer saves $50,000. Not in Van Helsing. It helps that “subtlety” is not in Sommers’ vocabulary. We see everything every time, and everything looks absulutely real. The werewolves, in particular, look amazing; you can actually see individual hairs blowing in the wind. In one scene, it’s raining, and the hair gets matted down, but still looks natural. There are all kinds of little touches throughout the movie. For example, in one scene, a vampiress (Elena Anaya) takes a stake in the heart. She then explodes into slime. Animating liquid is hard enough, but they didn’t stop there. They actually kept the shape of her screaming face in the slime as it flies at the camera. I didn’t even notice this until the third or fourth time I watched it. From the first scene to the last, you see proof that the post-production team worked tremendously hard on this one.

Is Van Helsing destined for a spot in the anals of great movies? Psh. Heck, no. But is it the steaming turd so many make it out to be? Not at all. What is it? A roaring good time that cast and crew put a lot of sweat into, and a sign that Sommers can make a decent movie, if he really tries. And there’s hope for more, because he still hasn’t done the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

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