Saturday, August 2, 2014

Movie Reviews: Hercules, Sabotage, Transcendence

Hercules
directed by Brett Rattner

While this graphic novel adapted film starring Dwayne Johnson was better than the other Hercules movie that recently appeared (you shouldn’t see that film unless you are trying to kill your brain cells) it wasn't quite a must see film for a few reasons. This film is still under the spell of Zack Snyder’s 300. I am too but does that mean I want to see it made over and over again by every single director? Probably not. Also 300 had a well deserved “R” rating. Because it’s aiming for the family crowd, Hercules has a “PG-13” rating. It has a few iffy scenes but despite war and death this is not a supremely graphic film. Second, maybe we just live in a cynical age but the mythical Hercules was a great tragic hero of supernatural origins. As the half-human son of Zeus, king of gods and men, Hercules attracted special hatred from Zeus’ sister-wife, the goddess Hera. It didn't help matters that Hercules' mother gave him the name "Glory of Hera" to try to mollify the goddess. Hera was not mollified. Hera tried to murder Hercules in his cradle. She later drove him to a fit of madness during which he murdered his wife and children. In repentance Hercules performed the 12 labors. Hercules once impregnated 50 women in a single night. Hercules was the ancestor of the Spartans. Eventually Hercules was killed by his jealous wife who was either wrongly convinced Hercules was having an affair, trying to prevent Hercules from having an affair, or manipulated into doing so accidentally by an enemy, depending on which myth you prefer. The human Hercules died. The demigod Hercules ascended to Olympus. 

But this film has few supernatural elements. Almost every myth is revealed as people exaggerating, lying or simply being mistaken about key events. Unlike the movie King Arthur, which also showed a grittier deglamorized version of a central Western myth, Hercules suffers from this approach. There’s a resulting loss of majesty which limits the film. Dwayne Johnson is literally larger than life. Why not give him a film that measures up?  
Still, Johnson impresses as the film doesn’t require him to do much more than strut around, drop some boasts, glower at his enemies and of course engage in the physical stunts which he made famous as “The Rock”. He takes his role very seriously. I suppose this is an example of color blind casting as the Black/Samoan Johnson plays the European Greek hero Hercules but it really wasn’t that jarring given Johnson's appearance. Russian model Irina Shayk, who could probably pass for Brazilian or Black/Biracial , has a brief role as Hercules’ doomed wife. She can smell what the Hercules is cooking!
The film opens some time after Hercules has completed his 12 labors. He’s a mercenary who leads a small band of brothers (and one sister). He claims to fight for money but we all know that anyone who says that doubtless has a hidden core of decency. Some say that the orphaned Hercules must be the son of Zeus to have done all that he’s accomplished. This is what his hype man, charioteer and nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) is always telling people. Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) is the older world weary adviser who claims to be a seer. Atalanta (Ingrid Berdal) is the woman archer in the form fitting leather bustier. Heh-heh. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) is the savvy #2. And Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) is the wild man who thinks he’s a wolf. He doesn't speak but is thoroughly devoted to Hercules. Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson in clothing that is a little less form fitting but more diaphanous) seeks out Hercules and his group. The Princess wants to hire the mercenaries to lead and train the armies of her father King Cotys (John Hurt) to protect Thrace against the depredations of the evil warlord Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). People say Rhesus has centaurs and magic.
Hercules agrees to work for King Cotys. Hercules comes to take a paternal liking to Ergenia’s son and heir to the throne while Ergenia may have an earthier interest in Hercules (her husband is dead). And the King is as pleased as punch to have the grand hero Hercules helping to lead his men to (hopeful) victory. There are plenty of twists and turns, most of which are predictable. Hercules might be the strongest of men but no one ever said he was the smartest. Joseph Fiennes has a small role as someone from Hercules' past. I liked the idea that it takes more than weapons and equipment to make an army and more than beating up people to make a hero. The film features a pretty exciting setpiece attack on a shieldwall. This film was a worthwhile entry in the whole swords and sandals genre which I enjoy ever so much but it wasn’t an A+ submission. I would give it a solid B. Not everything needs to be Braveheart, 300, or LOTR. Johnson’s charisma and extreme dedication to diet and exercise shine through but there's not much more to this film. It's fun though and maybe sometimes that's all you need from a summer film. So enjoy if battles, derring do and feats of strength are your thing. TRAILER




Sabotage
directed by David Ayer
If you send your dog to hunt a wolf what happens if the dog decides on second thought it would rather be a wolf? You've got a serious problem if that happens. After all, unlike the wolf, the dog knows all your bad habits and weak spots. You actually trust the dog which is something a bad dog might be able to use to its advantage. Sabotage raises that question but the film doesn't really give us a classic cat and mouse game between the good guy gone bad and the real good guy who has noticed some anomalies and is closing in fast. It tries to do that for a short period of time but inexplicably drops that approach. As a result it's difficult to identify with any of the protagonists, even if you think you know who the "good" guy is. Or at least it was difficult for me to cheer anyone on. YMMV. Everything is ambiguous. David Ayer also wrote Training Day and directed End of Watch. You can see some of the same themes that Ayer used in those films used in this one but for some reason they seem muddled here.
John Breacher (Schwarzenegger) is a legendary DEA commander who commands a DEA strike force team. They are described as undercover agents but only one of them is ever seen in a true undercover role. And with one exception they don't seem to be in the business of arresting people either. No, they're really paramilitary Special Forces type operators. They kill people. And they're good at it. Generally speaking the characters all run together and you don't get a chance to make too many individual distinctions among them. So their names aren't really that important. There's big white guy, even bigger white guy, serious white guy, crazy white guy, intelligent white guy, smooth black guy, crazy white girl, etc. Each of them have nicknames like Sugar, Grinder, Monster, Tripod, etc. They all seem to have an excess of testosterone, including the sole woman. For example Lizzy (Mirielle Enos), tells a team member who is not her husband that she can outfight and outf*** him. This is banter. Maybe. The team, including Lizzy, also spends a lot of its down time in bars and strip joints where boasting, excessive drinking and fights -with other people- are normal behavior. These are bada$$es who might have adapted a bit too well to their violent milieu. Although they squabble and harass each other they all have trust and something approaching love for Breacher. It's a family and he's their Daddy.
The team gets an assignment to raid a drug house which has tremendous amount of money hidden within. Lizzy is undercover and lets the team in. After wasting the bad guys and losing one of their own the team steals some of the money (about $10 million) and destroys the rest of the cash (significantly more than $10 million). It's initially unclear as to whether they are doing this for themselves or for higher ups. What is clear is that when they go to retrieve the stolen liberated cash it's gone. More disturbingly the DEA bosses somehow know that money was taken from the larger stash. They even roughly know the amount. Apparently this theft was unauthorized. Breacher and his team are separated and grilled. No one admits to anything, Breacher is placed on restricted desk duty while his team is suspended. Eventually the suspension is lifted. The team's internal trust and competence is badly damaged. Before Breacher can get it fully restored one of the team members dies in what appears to be a grisly accident. This accident attracts the attention of hardnosed homicide investigators Brentwood (Olivia Williams) and Jackson (Harold Perrineau). Other team members start to die in spectacularly gruesome violent ways. Obviously someone is hunting them. Is it the DEA? Is it the Mexican Cartels who want their money back? Who can they trust? This is basically an updated version of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None but without the Old World panache.
I thought that Williams and Enos should have switched roles. Williams has the tough lady look and sound down much more than the slight Enos. Enos took an over the top approach that I didn't find all that convincing, though it was somewhat entertaining. This is a very graphically violent movie. There are a lot of shootouts. Whoever is killing the team members not only knows what they were doing but intended to inflict the maximum amount of pain and humiliation. The camera lingers over a few killings. Generally speaking I like the film's look. There's a good mix of colors and settings. As mentioned it's difficult to tell who if anyone you should be rooting for. Even after one of the big reveals you might wonder if that's really the bad guy. Schwarzenegger is the name to draw viewers but this is really an ensemble movie. Other cast members include Joe Manganiello, Sam Worthington, Kevin Vance, Josh Holloway, Max Martini, and Terrence Howard. I recently read an online question asking why does Howard often sound like he's on the verge of crying when he talks in many movies. Evidently in real life Howard might indeed have a reason to shed a few tears. Heh-heh. All in all this was a mediocre/decent action movie. The ending was semi-satisfactory. It's just that getting there didn't make a lot of sense to me.  TRAILER





Transcendence
directed by Wally Pfister
This movie was thoroughly bad. Disappointing. Frustrating. Irritating. Just all around bad. It was so bad that it actually amazes me that when the director, producers, writers and studio execs reviewed the finished product that they actually thought releasing this film unchanged was a good idea. It seems as if someone would have raised his hand and said "Guys, we might need to reshoot this and rewrite that." Then again, jobs are hard to come by these days. At work I've kept my mouth shut sometimes when I shouldn't have done so. But I like to think I'd speak up if my department was about to produce something that was equally as bad as Transcendence. I don't mean that the acting was particularly horrible or that the movie looked bad. Well then again to be kind there were some performances that were better than others. But most of the cast gave it the old college try. And the film's look and associated special effects were ok. No what I didn't care for in this film was the story and the pacing. If you read the Stephen King book or saw the film Pet Sematary, you will remember the quote and tagline "Sometimes dead is better". Well that quote succinctly summed up the message in Pet Sematary and should have been obvious to everyone in Transcendence but especially the remarkably solipsistic scientist Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall).This woman got on my nerves so much that I wanted to yell at the screen. She was a walking example of the stereotype "I don't care what my man does as long as he's nice to me". Long after everyone involved can see the danger and is literally heading for the hills, Evelyn is still marching along with blinders on. Love will do that I guess. 

I couldn't care less about the romance between Evelyn and her husband, scientist Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp). Obviously I am not among the target audience who goes gaga over Johnny Depp but that aside I thought the film placed far too much emphasis on the relationship. It was almost like a Beauty and the Beast opera. I was waiting for the singing to break out.
Dr. Will Caster is a genius cutting edge artificial intelligence researcher. He thinks that quite soon humans (that is to say him) will be able to create a sentient computer that has more brainpower than all of humanity ever has had or ever will have. Such intelligence will radically change the world and humanity, much for the better as far as the good doctor is concerned. He thinks that his AI will help slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. To those who think that Caster or his would be creation are playing God, Caster responds that humans have always tried to create God. Well some people who are either religious and/or wary of creating artificial intelligence are not thrilled with Caster or his ideas. One of them decides to let Caster know of this generalized displeasure by shooting him with an irradiated bullet. The gunman works for an anti-tech organization headed by Bree (Kate Mara). Will's not long for the world. But desperate to continue their work and lives together, the Casters convince friend and fellow scientist Max Waters (Paul Bettany) to upload Caster's consciousness to a quantum computer. Later, against Max's strident advice, Evelyn gives her husband's virtual identity access to the internet. Well you know what they say about absolute power and all that. Government scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), a mentor of both Casters, finds that he must make common cause with Bree despite the fact that she sent hit teams after him. 
The film misses some important things because it's too busy trying to be important and philosophical. Other than Evelyn and a few other characters no one shows any excitement or wonder at the fact that Will's consciousness has survived or rather transcended the death of his body and is still existing in THIS world. Sorry but that's something that would have been a big f*****g deal as our vice-President would say. That news would have gone around the world at light speed. Evelyn and virtual Will would have immediately been inundated non-stop with worldwide media coverage, government interest, terminally ill people, etc. Religions would have been rocked to their core. And so on. But the film doesn't bring any of this across. Depp basically mails in his performance. FLAT doesn't do justice to the lack of emotion shown. And as mentioned Evelyn is so freaking stupid and self-righteous that it hurt my head to watch her. If you skip this movie you won't miss much.  TRAILER
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