Review: Haunt

The creepy poltergeist at the center of Haunt.

The creepy poltergeist at the center of Haunt.

With limp found-footage flicks like Devil’s Due and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones piling up at the box office, it’s gratifying to see that there are writers and directors out there devoted to making actual, full-blooded horror. Enter director Mac Carter and writer Andrew Barrer, two newcomers to the genre who prioritize mounting suspense over jump-out scares in Haunt, to great effect.

Haunt, about two teens (Liana Liberato and Harrison Gilbertson) simultaneously exploring first love and interacting with malicious ghosts, is a scarily effective frightfest precisely because it flies in the face of the trash that has been polluting the horror genre in recent years. There’s no nausea-inducing shaky-cam, no frustratingly ambiguous ending and, best of all, no characters so moronic that you actively root for their demise.

Instead, Carter cunningly exploits his limited setting for maximum suspense, turning the house Gilbertson’s character moves into a dread-filled labyrinth that’s as much an antagonist as the ghosts that roam its halls. The cinematography on display is eerie and uncommonly beautiful for a horror film, from the desolate forest that surrounds the house to a basement so creepy that I didn’t go down into my own for a few days after viewing (just to be safe).

Carter is aided by Barrer’s screenplay, which never goes for easy scares or one-note characterization. As such, when the scares really kick up a notch during the film’s pulse-pounding final act, they’re both remarkably effective and feel completely earned.

Liberato and Gilbertson’s strong lead performances also elevate Haunt above other recent horror fare. They share a soft, natural chemistry not unlike Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley’s in The Spectacular Now, and, thanks to them, the romantic subplot of the film never feels extraneous. Particularly, Liberato, with her expressive eyes and graceful screen presence, makes a strong case for herself as one of our generation’s next great scream queens.

In supporting roles, Silver Linings Playbook’s Jacki Weaver chews the scenery as the sinister previous occupant of the house, who lost her husband and children to the vicious supernatural being inside it, and Ione Skye shows up briefly as the supportive mother of Gilbertson’s character. Machinations of the plot render Skye’s character ultimately peripheral, but the actress is clearly invested in the role and turns in a believable performance.

Sadly, the impact of Haunt is slightly lessened by its final few minutes, which conclude the story on a decidedly bitter and disturbing note. Carter and Barrer’s ending intentionally subverts conventions of the genre, and while many will applaud it for that, it’s a testament to the strength of the acting on display in Haunt that I was dissatisfied with the slightly rushed nature of its final scare.

Still, Haunt is the best horror film of 2014 so far, and it heralds the arrival of some major talents, so I’m willing to forgive it that shortcoming. It’s refreshing, well-acted and delightfully spooky. So what are you waiting for? Go get Haunt-ed. Your nerves won’t thank you, but you won’t regret it.  A-

DVD Review: The Bling Ring

bling-ring

The empty-headed protagonists of Sofia Coppola’s film mirror the movie’s equally superficial presentation.

I count myself among the fans of Sofia Coppola, a member of Hollywood’s most notable dynasty and the director of Lost in Translation and Somewhere. Coppola’s hazy, stylish direction has served her well in the past and has also positioned her as one of the most interesting directors working today. So it was with great curiosity that I sat down to check out her latest, a fact-based crime drama about a group of privileged California teens who robbed the houses of multiple Hollywood A-listers. Unfortunately, I soon realized Coppola’s dreamy, distant MO was precisely the wrong approach for The Bling Ring to take. Though gorgeously filmed, The Bling Ring is infuriatingly feather-light and shies away from turning a critical eye to the actions of its characters.

That’s not to say that The Bling Ring is a total failure. On the contrary, Coppola gets some great performances out of her young cast. Most notably, Emma Watson plays way against type as vacuous socialite Nicki and completely pulls it off. If the film had been released in the fall, I could easily see A24 making an Oscar bid for the actress. Watson, best known for her role as the brainy wizard Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise, commits to Nicki’s contemptible selfishness but never delves into caricature. It’s a tribute to her performance that Nicki is never dismissed as a simpleton; conversely, she’s one of the film’s most fascinating, complex creations.

Katie Chang is also great as the Bling Ring’s dauntless leader Rebecca, who’s terrifying in her obsession with everything related to her celebrity idols. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from her, because Chang inflects every line of dialogue with dozens of emotions all tangled up in each other. Israel Broussard, who acts as our entry point into the dangerously fame-oriented world of restless California youth, holds his own against the girls, though his contributions to the film are rarely as compelling as Chang’s or Watson’s. Leslie Mann, in a small but important supporting role, presents The Bling Ring‘s protagonists’ inevitable future, playing a laughably self-deluded single mother committed to teaching her greedy, hollow-eyed daughters about their innate goodness.

The film is equipped with a terrific, pulsating soundtrack that speaks volumes about its characters. Sleigh Bells, Kanye West, Azealia Banks and Frank Ocean are the obvious stand-outs, ranting about the frivolous, drug-fueled lifestyles led by the film’s fame-obsessed subjects, The dance-ready soundtrack provides The Bling Ring with an eerily fluorescent, audiovisual glow.

Surprisingly, Coppola’s detached direction is the film’s weakest link. As she captures the rise and fall of the Bling Ring, cameras hover around the characters as if a documentary crew is filming the proceedings, recording every juicy sound bite and piece of body language. Coppola’s ultimate failure is her unwillingness to probe beneath the surface of her characters’ actions and find out what in their lives drove them to commit such petty, plainly dumb crimes.

The Bling Ring attempts to satirize the media’s focus on the celebrity lifestyle without ever getting to the heart of what makes that lifestyle so appealing to many in the first place. The film suffers because its characters are never portrayed as complete individuals; instead, they’re empty vessels designed to project Coppola’s oddly simplistic ideas about the actual crimes. Perhaps that’s the point, that there’s nothing going on beneath the glamorous exteriors of her protagonists, but that vacuity does not a very compelling drama make.

Instead of the in-depth character study that I had expected, The Bling Ring is a middling, skin-deep retelling of the Hollywood Hills burglaries. Though Coppola’s actors turn in great performances, The Bling Ring is ultimately as disappointingly hollow and superficial as its protagonists. C+

DVD Review: Evil Dead

Mia (Jane Levy) is one of the unfortunate teens at the center of 'Evil Dead.'

Mia (Jane Levy) is one of the unfortunate teens at the center of ‘Evil Dead.’

“Leave this book alone,” warns scrawled handwriting across the pages of the barbed wire-bound Naturom Demonto at the center of Fede Alvarez’s relentlessly gory Evil Dead reboot. Seems pretty clear to me. Alas, even the nerdy bookworm (Lou Taylor Pucci) in this inferior horror update appears illiterate. And so, let the carnage commence.

I’ve made no secret of my distaste for “torture porn” flicks like SawHostel, and now Evil Dead. I simply don’t see the appeal in a film with no gimmick other than brutally torturing all of its characters in place of plot. Sam Raimi’s original was different; sure, it wrought havoc on an unsuspecting group of college students, but it did it with style and slick, dark humor. Unfortunately, all of that wry self-awareness has been sucked out of this new, darker Evil Dead, replaced only by buckets upon buckets of blood.

Make no bones about it, Evil Dead is one of the most repressively violent and gory horror films ever made. It positively wallows in the misery of its characters, putting each of them through the cinematic equivalent of a meat grinder. Nothing is off-limits as far as the violence goes. Mirror shards, razors, nail guns, shotguns, crowbars, and (of course) a chainsaw are all utilized in sickening ways. It’s not so much exhilaratingly gory as unabashedly gross.

Another level on which Evil Dead fails to entertain is the intelligence of its characters. Say what you may about me looking for logic in a movie called Evil Dead, but just about everyone in this movie is relentlessly, mind-numbingly stupid. A clever set-up shifts the characters from taking a vacation in the woods to setting up camp away from civilization in order to help a drug-addled friend (Jane Levy) go cold turkey, but when all of the limb-hacking and demonic possession kicks in, it’s difficult to buy that anyone in the group, even vacuous protagonist David (Shiloh Fernandez), would attribute it to withdrawal.

Yet dismiss it they do at first, until the brutality inflicted on the characters by a filthy-mouthed she-demon reaches levels even they can’t ignore. But by then, all that’s left for them to do is die in ludicrously bloody ways. To be fair, blood has more screen-time in this movie than any of the actors. Still, it would be nice, for once, to find a horror movie filled with good actors who play reasonably smart characters.

Instead, we get one great performance and a host of mediocre ones. Suburgatory‘s Jane Levy, playing recovering smack-head Mia, is terrific both as a girl disillusioned with the world around her and, when possessed, as a gleefully evil demon bent on the destruction of everything around it. Sadly, the other characters are as one-dimensional as the pages of the Naturom Demonto, communicating nothing convincing apart from terror. The worst of the bunch is the dull Shiloh Fernandez, miscast in a lead role. Nothing he says is convincing, and some of his decisions are so moronic that some might actively start campaigning for his violent death.

Perhaps mediocre performances would be more acceptable if Evil Dead delivered some scares or humor with its gore. Shockingly, there’s neither. Alvarez is far too focused on bloodshed to build any sense of dread, and the script is utterly lacking in the tongue-in-cheek humor that made the original a cult classic. As a result, we’re left with a film that calls itself Evil Dead but shares almost none of the same DNA. If relentless gore is your style, by all means, check out Evil Dead. It does gross extremely well. But if you’re looking for anything more, this remake is dead in the water. C-

DVD Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney share some father-son bonding time.

Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney share some father-son bonding time.

There’s a special place in hell reserved for movies like A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth and unquestionably worst entry in the Die Hard franchise. Everything about this sequel reeks of laziness, from the nonsensical, practically nonexistent plot to John Moore’s appallingly sloppy direction. It’s all shockingly, relentlessly terrible. The acting’s pretty deplorable too, and even Bruce Willis disappoints, sleepwalking through a script that succeeds in turning his most enduring character into an irritating one-note caricature.

What little story there is in this movie finds John McClane tracking down his erstwhile son (Jai Courtney, agonizingly wooden), who has wound up in a Russian prison. Before you can say “Yipee-kay-yay,” McClane is thrown headfirst into a terrorist plot involving a nuclear power struggle between two corrupt Russian officials. From there on, A Good Day to Die Hard is all but incomprehensible, zipping from set-piece to set-piece in an utterly futile attempt to conceal the fact that there’s absolutely nothing going on behind all the explosions and gunfire.

Perhaps A Good Day to Die Hard would be at least half-way tolerable if it yielded some interesting action sequences or memorable lines. No such luck. In fact, the only thing worth watching on the screen is the occasional fireball. Each scene is less interesting than the last, and good luck trying to follow any of the film’s action. Moore’s inept direction makes searching for any logical flow in the movie’s action sequences a Herculean task that’s just not worth it.

Cars crash into each other without rhyme or reason, explosions inexplicably destroy every part of a room other than where the protagonists are standing, and every character is apparently made of rubber. The real-life mechanics that the rest of the Die Hard movies at least partially observed go completely out the window here, and the result is a movie that feels simultaneously phony, disjointed, and pointless.

As McClane defies basic laws of physics and falls from extraordinary heights merely because the shoddy script calls for it, the movie betrays the everyman-versus-the-bad-guys spirit of its predecessors, sacrificing every inch of credibility (and fun) in the process. Die Hard was once a great franchise, but A Good Day to Die Hard does everything it can to taint its legacy by insulting the audience at every turn. As Willis incessantly growls “I’m on vacation” to himself or anyone who will listen, beating a half-fun line to death then kicking its motionless corpse for a full hour and a half, it’s painfully clear that the real screenwriters were as well. F

Photo Courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

Review: Pacific Rim

A damaged Jaeger collapses after a battle in 'Pacific Rim.'

A damaged Jaeger collapses after a battle in ‘Pacific Rim.’

Director Guillermo del Toro clearly never identified with those people who live by the adage ‘less is more.’ His movie Pacific Rim, a sci-fi epic that pits human-powered robots against giant monsters, is as colossal a summer blockbuster as there ever was or ever will be. Del Toro’s greatest directorial challenge is ensuring that it never collapses under its own weight. Miraculously, he pulls it off. Pacific Rim succeeds against all odds; it’s a visually dazzling powerhouse that packs both emotional resonance and an unfailing sense of fun. In a word, it’s awesome. In two words, it’s really awesome.

As towering human-powered robots called Jaegers fight even larger monsters called Kaijus to save humankind from annihilation, the sheer size of Pacific Rim‘s action is jaw-dropping. Even more shocking is how Del Toro miraculously keeps the film’s battle sequences coherent and clear, never losing his footing despite the film’s scale. It’s a testament to his talent that a scene’s action can encompass an entire city without the audience losing track of what’s what.  

Pacific Rim‘s top-notch cast also helps the movie soar, particularly Idris Elba, who’s outstanding as stoic commanding officer Stacker Pentecost. His performance, complete with booming voice, soulful eyes, and surprising emotional depth, demands the audience’s attention. The chemistry between leads Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi, two unlikely Jaeger pilots who become humanity’s last hope against the Kaijus, is also terrific. Del Toro staple Ron Perlman shows up to deliver some cheesy but still great lines as larger-than-life black marketeer Hannibal Chau. And Charlie Day nearly steals the show as an energetic scientist studying the monsters, providing laughs and heart in equal measure.

However, the biggest thing that Pacific Rim has going for it is ever-present energy, courtesy of del Toro. This is his ode to the Japanese monster movies of his youth, executed with due reverence, visual gusto and expert aplomb. No matter how large the action gets, del Toro successfully emulates the simple magic of a kid playing with toys in a sandbox, letting the audience bask in that youthful exuberance as well. His boundless enthusiasm for the genre shines through.

Although Pacific Rim‘s action sequences take up a huge chunk of the movie, they never feel drawn out or artificial. One colossal battle in Hong Kong is terrific fun, both exciting and remarkably innovative. A smaller-scale martial arts scene with fighting sticks is just as cool to watch. And the film’s grand finale, a fast and furious fight to the death on the ocean floor, is a thrilling pièce de résistance.

Throughout the film, Del Toro’s confident direction allows the film to take risks with its narrative and cinematography, and those risks pay off tremendously. For one, Pacific Rim doesn’t shy away from the human cost of war against the Kaijus, capturing both the perspectives of civilians caught in crossfire and of the monster-mashing pilots. As such, the most devastating moment of the movie comes early on, as a terrified young girl finds herself in a Kaiju’s path of destruction. Additionally, the direction often highlights the strange beauty of the movie’s creatures – both the Jaegers and Kaijus are wondrous to behold, dazzling CGI behemoths which move with an almost celestial grace at times.

The only time when Pacific Rim ever really stumbles is when it overreaches with its story. Some ideas the script puts forth about the origins of the Kaijus don’t sit well, and other plot points in the story’s set-up are undeniably weak. But even with those few shortcomings, Pacific Rim ultimately succeeds both as a tribute to Japanese monster movies and a resuscitation of the same. Any gripes with the plot don’t even register once Hunnam and Kikuchi strap into their Jaeger and throw down with fearsome Kaijus in any of the film’s breathtaking action sequences.

As far as action goes, there’s no better film to see this summer. Pacific Rim is an imaginative and thrilling popcorn-pleasure spectacle that doesn’t let gargantuan scale sacrifice a big heart and sense of fun. What more do you need to hear? Go get lost in Del Toro’s crazy-cool childhood fantasy, and experience the breathtaking grandeur of his fully-realized vision for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. A-

Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros.

DVD Review: Lockout

Guy Pearce shoots off bullets and one-liners in 'Lockout.'

Guy Pearce shoots off bullets and one-liners in ‘Lockout.’

Die Hard in space, as sci-fi thriller Lockout could be accurately dubbed, may be the silliest (and stupidest) Die Hard rip-off yet.

Guy Pearce stars as devil-may-care secret agent Snow, who is forced to infiltrate a high security prison to rescue the President’s daughter Emilie (Maggie Grace) after the prisoners rebel and take over. The catch? The prison, MS One, is in fact a maximum security space station orbiting Earth.

Pearce is easily the best part of Lockout, playing Snow as a Han Solo clone, complete with gruff charisma and roguish wit. Luckily for the film and audience, he pulls it off. Trading either barbs or blows with every character he comes across, Pearce effectively establishes himself as a more-than-capable leading man. It’s just a shame he’s given so little to work with.

Lockout‘s plot is as described above, and that’s pretty much it. There are no layers to the concept of MS One, though the writers throw some inadequate tidbits to the audience that make the film’s ultimate simplicity all the more frustrating. The fact that Emilie is on board to investigate rumors of prisoner abuse is one of the film’s only thoughtful ideas, but it’s immediately drowned out by explosions and gunfire and never goes anywhere. An undercooked side plot with Pearce’s character being framed for murder back on Earth is so meager and poorly executed that it’s not worth trying to piece together.

There are a lot of missed opportunities in Lockout, which decides to poorly copy better movies instead of introducing its own ideas. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is the movie most plagiarized, from the concept to the characters, but almost every idea in Lockout originated in a different, better movie.

Lockout is about evenly split between effective action sequences and ones that look shockingly crappy. The film’s jumpy, amateurish direction does nothing to alleviate sensory headaches caused by the worst of those scenes. Honestly, at times, the level of thought that went into Lockout makes it appear as if it were made by middle school students taking an Introduction to Filmmaking course, albeit ones with deep pockets.

Atrocious direction aside, Lockout not only asks viewers to suspend their disbelief, but to throw basic laws of physics out the window. Pearce tries his damnedest, but it feels like he’s fighting alone. Lockout‘s directors, producers, and writers (including super-producer Luc Besson) are all perfectly content to let the film float around aimlessly like so much space debris. The supporting cast is no help, with Grace floundering in a thankless role and Peter Stormare mangling already cheesy dialogue as a dull government supervisor.

Lockout wants to be seen as a legitimate action thriller, but it can’t even be truly enjoyed as a parody of the same. With mind-numbingly bad special effects and even worse plot points, Pearce’s fine performance doesn’t even come close to saving Lockout from collapsing under the weight of its own idiocy. Lock this one up and throw away the key. C-

 

Photo Courtery: EuroCorp.

DVD Review: Jack Reacher

Tom Cruise is JACK REACHER in Christopher McQuarrie's action thriller.

Tom Cruise broods in Paramount’s action thriller adaptation.

Tom Cruise is no Jack Reacher, despite what the posters may say. Cruise lacks the brawn, height (in the books, the character clocked in at 6’5″), and most importantly the charisma of Lee Child’s protagonist. The actor does his best to launch a new franchise with Jack Reacher, but the overlong end product is ultimately a unfortunate misfire. 

That’s not to say that the action thriller is a total dud. Director Christopher McQuarrie deserves a great deal of credit for keeping the action moving, particularly in the film’s harrowing close-quarters fight scenes. While Jack Reacher‘s dialogue drags and sags, the action sequences are exciting and innovative. Reacher’s brawl with hired thugs in a cramped washroom is a standout, simultaneously brutal, exhilarating and humorous. And the film’s second-act car chase is a heady, jarring thrill, much better-executed than most recent comparable scenes. McQuarrie also excels at bringing out the darkness in Jack Reacher‘s criminal underworld, infusing many scenes with a unshakeable, uneasy sense of dread and decay.

Jack Reacher‘s biggest flaw is its inability to juggle a lot of moving parts at once. The plot, based on Child’s novel One Shot, follows Reacher’s investigation of the murders of five seemingly random civilians by an expert sniper. It’s a decidedly dark story for an action thriller to tell, and McQuarrie’s stomach-churning depiction of the murders, the film’s opening, is an immediate and highly potent sucker punch. However, Cruise attempts to sell Reacher as a brooding antihero with an acerbic wit, and when faced with such abject carnage, all he can do sullenly stare into the distance and fire off a few inconsequential one-liners.

The supporting cast is equally dissonant. Rosamund Pike shows cleavage but no acting ability as defense lawyer Helen Rodin, who regresses from successful businesswoman to damsel in distress with little reason other than to give Reacher something to do. Meanwhile, Werner Herzog slithers around as a Russian mobster called the Zec, a really nasty piece of work, and David Oyelowo works on making his temple veins stand out as a detective at odds with Reacher. Only Robert Duvall, a reliable action staple, and Alexia Fast, a fresh new talent, stand out in their few scenes.

It couldn’t be any clearer that this is Cruise’s vehicle, but the actor surprisingly doesn’t make as much of an impression as he should. He’s a less likable Ethan Hunt with no sense of humor, entirely bereft of the charm the audience is meant to believe draws  characters to him.

Unfortunately for Paramount, little apart from McQuarrie’s direction really works, and Jack Reacher devolves into a series of clichés surrounded by such stale dialogue as “I’m a drifter with nothing to lose,” meant to sound threatening but actually just painful. By the time the two-hour mark rolls around, Jack Reacher has outstayed its welcome, and there’s still half an hour to go.

Cruise does his best work when he’s allowed to infuse his fight scenes with a playful, devil-may-care attitude, but Jack Reacher‘s script fails him, and the audience, by taking itself entirely too seriously. It saps the fun out of it all, leaving Cruise to run through the motions without the energy he needs to keep the audience invested. I would love to see what a creative director like McQuarrie could do with a more energetic, intelligent and interesting script, but Jack Reacher is as by-the-numbers as they come, too lazy to think for itself or ask its audience to do the same. C+

Image Courtesy: The Boston Globe.

DVD Review: The Call

Halle Berry picks up the phone in 'The Call.'

Halle Berry picks up the phone in ‘The Call.’

The Call is a better movie than it needs to be, and you should be grateful for that. After all, this is a thriller arriving in the middle of March, where most studios usually bury their duds. But lo and behold, save for a final fifteen minutes that throw credulity out the window, The Call is a bona-fide nail-biter that mostly delivers on its intriguing premise.

Halle Berry stars as Jordan Turner, a veteran 911 operator who answers a call from teenager Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), who has been abducted by a serial killer (Michael Eklund). As Jordan and the police race to find Casey, Jordan realizes that the girl’s captor is the same man who abducted and murdered a teenage girl six months earlier.

The screenplay cleverly takes a familiar idea and makes it taut and suspenseful by confronting intelligent characters with believable obstacles. Casey’s phone is disposable, which prevents the police from tracking it. Signal strength varies in and out. Computer screens load agonizingly slowly. No one makes any bone-headed moves that take the audience out of the story, a refreshing change from typical thriller fare.

Berry is aces as Jordan, presenting her strengths and weaknesses without making her either superhuman or pathetic. She’s a compulsively watchable heroine, and Berry succeeds in dialing up the tension to almost unbearable levels. Breslin, all grown up, is just as good as a kidnap victim who keeps her wits about her even under the most terrifying circumstances imaginable. Though The Call is her first thriller role, it certainly won’t be her last after this pulse-pounding performance. And Eklund is scary good as the story’s resident maniac, savoring every homicidal giggle.

As Jordan attempts to keep Casey on the line long enough to locate her, The Call is a top-notch thriller. It’s only once Jordan gets out from behind the desk that the movie loses its momentum. The last fifteen minutes, viscerally satisfying though they are, end The Call on an odd, almost sour, certainly implausible note. Less, for The Call, would have definitely been more.

That implausible ending aside, any March thriller that keeps me glued to the edge of my seat as consistently as The Call did is hard to dismiss as common trash. It’s better than most of the generic thrillers that major studios churn out year after year, and that’s noteworthy in of itself. The Call, though it careens wildly out of control in its final act, is an entertaining and accessible way to spend an hour and a half. B

Image Courtesy: Gorgview.com.

DVD Review: The Last Stand

Schwarzenegger prepares for battle alongside Knoxville.

Schwarzenegger prepares for battle alongside Knoxville.

Though billed as Arnie’s big comeback to acting, The Last Stand only really ever adds up to the Governator spinning his wheels and spitting out paltry clichés. What should feel exciting and fresh in this actioner instead comes across as cloying and threadbare, a wasted opportunity. Painfully stilted line reading from the entire cast, especially Arnie, doesn’t help. Sadly, The Last Stand ultimately does more harm to Arnie’s rep than good; Schwarzenegger looks shockingly old, and he’s given agonizingly little to work with.

The Last Stand doesn’t waste much time with set-up. A bad man in a fast car is heading for the border, and only a small-town sheriff (Schwarzenegger) and his motley crew of deputies can stop him. It’s a simple premise but not an unpromising one. And as Arnie, partnered with Jaime Alexander (Thor), Rodrigo Santoro (300), and resident Jackass Johnny Knoxville, preps for battle and comes out guns blazing, the film has a certain charm. What a shame that the energy it should have dissipates so quickly.

Schwarzenegger knows he’s best at kicking ass, so that’s what he spends a good portion of the movie doing. It’s once he’s required to start talking that the film really starts to fall apart; between his thick accent and the often incomprehensible script, nothing but the action works. And it’s not even all Arnie’s fault. The supporting cast, composed of typically fine actors like Forest Whitaker (playing a DEA agent) and Alexander, is for some reason incapable of delivering any good lines at all. Most of them are so mediocre that they fade from memory before the end credits roll. Watching Whitaker pace as his prisoner escapes him is less fun than watching paint dry. It’s only Knoxville who manages to make some jokes land with his typical manic, daredevil energy, but his part is strangely limited to only a few scenes. A buddy-cop flick with the Governator and the Jackass would have been much more fun to watch. Alas, they share only a few minutes of screen-time, spouting hackneyed dialogue all the while.

The action is serviceable, with some nifty car chases and a satisfying shootout that decimates half of the sheriff’s sleepy town. But there’s not enough of it, and The Last Stand takes too long in getting to that titular climax. The first hour and twenty minutes feel like warm-up, because that’s all they are. By the time the bullets start flying in earnest, it’s too little, too late. It would be one thing if the screenwriter had something interesting to say in the scenes he stuffs with dialogue, but it’s all dull platitudes, accomplishing nothing. There are only a couple of lines that show signs of life, but those are rarities, and the monotony is grating. I’m sure that Arnie will back, and I can only hope that it’s in fare better than this. C-

 

Photo Courtesy: Spinoff – Comic Book Resources.

DVD Review: Hansel and Gretel – Witch Hunters

Arterton and Renner have a bone to pick with the world's witches.

Arterton and Renner have a bone to pick with the world’s witches.

Reviewing a movie like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a fool’s errand. Anyone who can read knows that this dark fantasy, starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, is not aiming to win any awards or make picky critics happy. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters wants to be exactly what it sounds like – a bloody, fun, and unapologetically loopy revenge fantasy, starring two very attractive people and a whole lot of nasty-looking weapons. And there’s something to be said for a movie that gives its audience exactly what it promised them in the first place. For most of its short (88-minute) running time, it’s a shamelessly simple, delightfully disposable take on a classic story. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

The movie picks up the tale of two extremely gullible siblings fifteen years later; evidently lacking access to therapy, they’ve dealt with their trauma by becoming formidable bounty hunters, hunting down every witch in sight with a stockpile of crossbows, shotguns, and pistols. Both still bear serious psychological and physical scars from their imprisonment (Hansel’s a diabetic as a result of his forced candy binge, a nice touch), and their mission to destroy all witches is a very personal. When they arrive in the town of Augsburg, where children are going missing, Hansel and Gretel face their toughest challenge yet: a coven of witches led by the powerful Muriel (Famke Janssen).

Director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) pulled off a major casting coup with Arterton and Renner, two stars typically found in higher brow fare than this. The two are game and have an easy chemistry both in their conversations and their witch beat-downs. They do a decent job of bringing to life their certifiably badass characters, no easy task. Their performances are intentionally serious, and while that does work with the film’s tone, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters would have been more entertaining if both the script and the actors had loosened up a bit instead of playing it straight. Arterton seems to be having a better time than Renner, whose scowl never recedes for a second, but neither one of them truly runs with the absurdity of the movie’s central concept.

Wirkola keeps the pace moving quickly, likely to hide the undercooked script, and it’s not a bad choice, because with such tight direction, the film never wears out its welcome. The director also embraces his film’s darkness, maxing out the gore and griminess in his action sequences.Unfortunately, the movie’s serious tone is a poor choice given how close the movie’s concept is to falling over the edge into parody. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is at its heart a revenge fantasy, about two screwed up adults with a bone to pick, and that refreshingly simple concept would have served a goofier film better. Even as blood and guts splatter the screen, it’s all should be tongue-in-cheek, never grim or morbid.

The film is positioned as the start to a series, which gives me both hope and concern. There isn’t much to Wirkola’s concept, enough for one movie, sure, but probably not enough for a series. Then again, with subsequent installments on the way, perhaps the leads and the script can loosen up and tell a fun story, instead of getting weighed down with introductions. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters doesn’t take place in any particular time period and accuracy was clearly not a concern in this first film, so the sky’s the limit for what they can do with follow-ups. One thing I do know is that Arterton and Renner are a team I’d watch anywhere. B

Image Courtesy: JoBlo.