REVIEW: It’s always fun when all the summer movies start to hit Blu-ray, DVD, and pay-per-view earlier and earlier each year. Used to be, I would have to wait practically until Christmas to see the movies I skipped going to the big-screen theaters to see during “blockbuster” season. Last month the first crop hit the home market, and the rest rolled out right before or right after the calendar says we’ve moved into fall.
REVIEW: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Generally, one cannot expect too much from a film based on a computer video game, but to get to the heart of it: Prince of Persia isn’t too bad. It’s a rip-roaring adventure in a make believe place, with great special effects, great set pieces, locales, and a good looking cast. Once you get past the conceit of western movie makers using pasty white British actors for many of the leads, along with their “exotic” U.K. accents, it’s a fairly enjoyable film.
When I’d heard that Jake Gyllenhaal would play the male lead, I was skeptical as he will always be Donnie Darko to me, somehow. But, he buffed up nicely, and his diverse catalog of work the past decade allows him to believably play this kind of action character, even if almost everything in the film is unbelievable. He is likable, and carries the story in places where it verges into a bit more comic book than Arabian Nights territory. Since it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, one can generally presume high entertainment value, and this film doesn’t disappoint. If you want to compare it to any of Bruckheimer’s other recent projects, I have to say the script and story are better than the second Transformers movie, but take that statement however you wish.
The story: Gyllenhaal’s character is an orphan boy (Dastan) who is adopted by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), and becomes part of the family along with two other sons and heirs, and the king is tricked into invading a neighbor for the purpose of acquiring an ancient dagger that can release the sands of time, a gift from the gods that can allow the possessor to reverse time. Dastan falls for the dagger’s guardian, Tamina, played by always lovely Gemma Arterton. Together they banter and flirt across the desert, avoiding the bad guys, ruffians, and the local equivalent to ninjas, while trying to reach the source of the sand in the dagger and stop the big baddie from hatching his evil plot of revenge and world domination. Sounds silly, but it actually works pretty well.
The $200 million budget really raises this above the typical “B” movie that this genre would have fallen into a few years ago and there is a lot of that money on-screen, and not just in CGI. It reminded me a little of the Jolie Lara Croft movies in tone. However, while it wants to be the next Pirates of the Caribbean, Gyllenhaal is not Johnny Depp although director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) does keep the story going and focused on the characters and not an overload of special effects creatures that made the last Mummy film a disappointment due to the disconnect with the live actors.
For the supporting cast, Ben Kingsley is good, but he is so typecast now as the bad guy, that you immediately suspect him of being part of the conspiracy that causes Dastan to be accused of killing his adoptive father and then having to make a run for it along with Tamina. Alfred Molina is playing true to his past work, even if his character is an amalgam of similar characters we’ve seen many times before.
I was surprised to see Richard Coyle as one of the king’s sons, Tus, who takes over the throne upon the king’s murder. Coyle is a great actor, and he definitely brings some depth to his part.
The film does try to keep some of the elements of the computer games (I recall playing one version of the game on my Mac SE30 circa 1994) such as Dastan’s wall hopping and climbing, almost to the point of parkour. There were a few moments in the opening scenes where the juvenile version of Dastan steals some food and is running from the authorities over the roof-tops that I couldn’t help remembering the very similar opening from Disney’s Aladdin – but thankfully there was no singing or overly aware monkeys.
The story develops nicely, shifting from big screen action, to small scenes, then political machinations, then back to “on the road” with the main characters. There are some slow parts here and there, but relationships do develop, and evolve. So, if you like fantasy-adventure films, and can completely suspend your disbelief, it’s entertaining enough. Special effects are really nice, and – again – the story is much better than I was expecting, with a happy ending that utilizes the power of the dagger to resolve more than one story line. If you go in expecting nothing, you may be pleasantly surprised, especially if you enjoy genre films.
My only quibbles really stem from Arterton’s spray tan changing a bit from scene to scene, as she is really pale in most of her real life appearances, and the overall dearth of Middle Eastern actors in a film which resides in a part of the world which generally is not particularly happy with the western world at this time (Iran is the current incarnation of Persia, in case you are clueless about world history). It seems like an odd time to be making a film based in a place that really existed, but which has been fictionalized by western writers into something else. But, that would be Disney for you. To get my meaning, imagine if an Iranian filmmaker did a movie about Native Americans loosely based on a couple of mythic oral history stories.
I do feel this contributed to the lower box office than might be expected for this “big budget” film ($90 million domestic, as of Sept. 2010). Compare that to Clash of the Titans, which cost $125 million, but grossed $163 million in the US. But, regardless, I liked it.
On disc, the picture looks amazing, and the DTS sound is also good.
“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is rated PG-13; 116 minutes. Director Mike Newell. Writing credit: Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard, screenwriters; Jordan Mechner, screen story.
REVIEW: If you’re like me, you might be one of the growing ranks of folks who have given up going to the “big screen” movie theatres in favor of stay-at-home movie watching, replete with a Blu-ray player, full surround sound and a large 1080p DLP or other TV. These days I tend to watch some films “on-demand” now that many discs are time-delayed before hitting Netflix. With my home theatre PC (HTPC), a Sony PS3, and Time Warner cable, I have a lot of choices for how to stream films.
Each month I usually get to watch the films which came out at the traditional movie houses 3-6 months earlier. So, holidays films get seen in summer and “blockbusters” from the summer often get seen in fall or winter of the same year.
With this time-delay, it’s often an interesting experience to see something that others have already seen, commented on, reviewed, criticized, and/or loved. Watching the trailers (coming attractions) and talk shows really give little up as to whether the film is any good or not. I used to rely heavily on Ebert and Roeper (and prior to that Siskel and Ebert), and have only recently discovered Ebert’s “voice” again on the SunTimes website (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/).
I make no claim to be a professional movie critic, but I have been writing about entertainment since the mid ’80s, and I’ve been going to the movies since a child of the ’60s. Nothing quite like seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella, and The Fearless Vampire Killers at the age of 6, or The Wild Bunch, at age 8. I’m happy to say it didn’t warp my fragile widdle mind.
But back to “disc watching.” It turns out most of my friends and family members have also adopted this staycation school of film appreciation, and it’s become a weekly ritual to critique the films we’ve all seen, recommend things, and warn about others. It didn’t take long for someone to suggest I start a column on this topic, but over the past year I’ve had other responsibilities and “time suck” matters to deal with, and this is really the first stab at getting out of the garage and onto the race track. Hopefully you may find this of some little interest, particularly if you don’t like the highly inconsistent comments about films based on Netflix reviews, or the self-promotional rantings of many bloggers who have not disclosed their free tickets and goodie bag for coming to an early screening of said movie “they loved, a must see.” Um, yeah.
So, without further back story, here are my short takes on a number of films and discs I’ve watched in August, 2010 (warning: some spoilers ahead):
The title does it justice, and kicks-ass!
One film I was not expecting to like very much, based on the TV commercials, is the movie Kick-Ass, directed by Matthew Vaughn, who also directed another film I really enjoyed, Stardust (2007, with Claire Danes, Robert De Niro, and Charlie Cox). If I had known it was the same director up front, I might not have been surprised by how good Kick-Ass turned out to be. Vaughn also directed Layer Cake (2004, with Daniel Craig) which I also liked.
Based on the previews it looked to be some hideous mixture of Superbad and Watchman, without the originality of either. And in many ways, it started off as your typical teenage comic book geeks in school, into girls and not being very popular, and all of that we’ve seen a million times. It becomes more interesting when the central character (played by Aaron Johnson) decides to don a costume and fight crime after he’s bullied one too many times by the neighborhood creeps. The first time he goes to fight them, he gets beaten to a pulp and put in the hospital. But he doesn’t feel much pain anymore and his bones are now stronger, in an odd way, he’s had his own version of a very minor super hero upgrade, although in no way similar to the Stan Lee cannon of radioactive elements or cosmic rays.
In his next real outing he fights off a bunch of goons chasing a man, and the four goons keep knocking him down and he keeps getting back up, to their surprise. Not through any super power, but sheer force of will. As is likely in today’s high-tech world, a bunch of people in the nearby laundromat happen to video him, and he ends up on the news.
But this is just the intro, a very minor origin story, from a young masked hero, who can’t possibly take on a real force of nature if he came up against it. So, where this tale suddenly gets really interesting, is that the local crime boss and drug lord (played by the always good Mark Strong, even in bad films) is told that a masked crime fighter had taken out some of his gang. Naturally this leads to the mistaken assumption that it might be the new hero “Kick Ass” interfering with their business.
Cut to a father, and his young daughter, and he’s talking to her about how to stand up to a bullet in the chest. Nicholas Cage shoots his daughter (wearing a bullet proof vest), and this is the first time we meet Chloe Moretz’s character, who acts too old for her age (she looks someplace between 8 and 11). Moretz ends up stealing this movie, later on, totally and completely.
It turns out that Cage’s character is a masked vigilante, who looks a bit like Batman, and does a hilarious job of channeling Adam West’s style of stilted speaking. His daughter is his apprentice and side-kick (or side-kick-ass, if you will). Cage is the hero who has been chopping off the crime boss’ gang at the knees, and whose wife was killed by the drug lord. Cage turns in a great performance, with moments that reminded me that he can actually act, and also reminding me a little of the classic Raising Arizona (the old young Nick Cage).
But it’s really Moretz as “Hit Girl” that steals the show. From this point on the film turns into a real super hero movie, where the two “real” super heroes take things to the next level in wiping out numerous bad guys, and this eventually leads to interaction with the Kick Ass character. What is so surprising about this film is the action scenes end up looking like a cross between a Tarantino film and John Woo, both for the dialog, and the literal “kick ass” fighting. Any movie that makes me laugh one minute then go “holy shit” the next gets five stars in my book.
Without giving away any more than I have, suffice it to say this is a really good comic-book “inspired” movie, without seeming to slavishly follow any one style. The scenes with Cage and Moretz balance out the naivete of the Johnson character and his nerdy pals, and the girl he’s trying to impress. It provides an interesting A to B from reading about costumed heroes and wanting to be one, to the harsh reality of what it takes to be one, and what you might have to do to fight, and actually kill, the bad bad men. There’s a surprising amount of killing, which was not anything like the TV commercials, hence the “R” rating. But if you like your films a little more Sam Pekinpah and a little less Lonesome Dove, you’ll really dig this film!
2010; 117 minutes; R rating; Blu-ray, DVD, on-demand; Director Matthew Vaughn. Blu-ray: Widescreen 1:85:1, DTS 7.1 HD. Cast: Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong, Lyndsy Fonseca, Clark Duke, Evan Peters, Michael Rispoli, Omari Hardwick, Xander Berkeley. Writer: Jane Goldsmith and Matthew Vaugn. Comic book: Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.
Date Night makes it to first base
Although I’m a fairly big fan of both Tina Fey (not so much Baby Mama) and Steve Carell, I thought Date Night was a bit of a mixed bag. This may be due to seeing the “extended” version, which sometimes works with more material and sometimes does not. In this case, I think I might have liked the theatrical version better as some scenes like their unfunny pole dancing scene in the strip club was a bit pointless.
The film doesn’t make my eyes bleed, but it also didn’t make me laugh out loud very much. It’s amusing, and entertaining, but not something I’d likely want to re-watch any time soon. In a nutshell it’s another version of the fish out of water tale, with a stuck-in-a-rut married couple finding time for a night out, trying to get into a snooty downtown restaurant and taking the reservation of a no-show couple, who turn out to be in trouble with the baddies.
A case of mistaken identity ensues, and the frivolity goes on from there. Many of the elements are quite lazy, like the bad guy (Ray Liotta) eating pasta, and the lack of intelligent dialogue for the under-used William Fichter. Two of my favorite “babes” are in this, Leighton Meester and Olivia Munn, but don’t get to do much.
Mark Wahlberg gets to take his shirt off, and turns out to be some type of super spy. The police are in cahoots with the corrupt DA and the mob boss. Blah blah.
It all feels a little flat, which if you’ve seen some of director Shawn Levy’s other recent films like Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, or What Happens in Vegas, it’s about as tepid in the range of performances pulled out of the cast. I quite liked his work on the first Night at the Museum, but that film had a varied cast, and some tender moments that seemed to help it really work.
While it’s not awful, it’s not great either. For a date night in (no irony intended), or a time waster, it’s not painful to watch, and I had some moderate fun. If you have a choice, I’d recommend the shorter version.
2010; PG-13; 102 minutes (extended), or 88 minutes (theatrical); Widescreen 2:35:1. Blu-ray DTS HD Master Audio. Cast: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, Leighton Meester, Taraji P. Henson, Jimmi Simpson, Common, William Fichtner, Kristen Wiig, Mark Ruffalo, Mila Kunis, Ray Liotta. Writer: Josh Klausner. Director: Shawn Levy.
Clash of the Titans now 99% mechanical owl free!
First, let me say that growing up I was a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen, the master animator and special effects wizard who created the stop-motion effects for the original version of Clash of the Titans, as well as earlier films like Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C., and Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. I got to meet Harryhausen at a film festival in the ’70s, and still have an autographed photo of him on my wall, showing him standing in front of a display case of all his classic monsters.
However, I was less fond of some of his later works, which included Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and Clash of the Titans (1981), which was notable at the time for having Laurence Olivier as Zeus, with Harry Hamlin (best known for L.A. Law, 1986-1991) as Perseus. While it was true to its genre, for mixing old-world quest legends with mythological monsters, it unfortunately also included a horrible mechanical owl, which apparently was intended for the kiddies (it seemed too much like Star Wars’ R2-D2 with its bleeps and bloops). Generally it was a passable ’70s era fantasy yarn, which was already seeming dated as the 1980s unfolded.
Fast forward to now, with the ability to create stunning CGI monsters, and giant sets existing in no real world of set construction. I wasn’t expecting a lot. Once again, Sam Worthington seems to have made a pact with the devil to get cast in every major sci-fi and fantasy film this past year (Avatar, Terminator: Salvation, Clash of the Titans), and he’s again likable although a bit too much like the soul-less machine in Terminator to really shine here. In Terminator, he was actually the most interesting (and least silly) male character in the film, and here he’s playing to type as the strong, bent on revenge against the gods, half-human son of Zeus.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed this re-make, and was happy to find it more than a re-imagining, of the prior film – in other words, it kept the good, left out the bad. It was true to its old-school fantasy genre, but the production values looked more like Lord of the Rings, with some pretty amazing giant scorpions and a breathtaking Kraken. The lovely cast has fairly light dialogue, true to most of the Harryhausen films, and doesn’t seek to provide long-winded moments of introspection or exposition. It’s a quest movie. Still, there are some sweet moments between Sam Worthington and the lovely Gemma Atherton, and Liam Neeson is almost always good no matter the material.
It’s interesting too, having also seen the lackluster Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Lightning Thief prior to the Clash remake, which is a very similar story, but somehow less believable even with modern real-world characters.
This new version of Clash, does a lot of things right, and in a funny (I thought) homage to the original movie, when Perseus finds the mechanical owl in a trunk, one of the others simply tells him to leave that behind.
Director Louis Leterrier does as well with this film as with some of his previous work, which for me has been a bit uneven. I liked his film Unleashed: Danny the Dog (2005 with Jet Li), which was quirky and odd. I was mightily disappointed with his version of The Incredible Hulk (2008), which suffered from quite boring and unconvincing special effects or action fight scenes. Transporter 2 (2005) was not as good as the original, but light years ahead of the disappointing Transporter 3. I would put Clash on the good side of his work, versus the bad.
Despite numerous writers involved, I thought the movie was a hoot, even if they left out the mechanical owl (thank you!). Two of the screenplay writers, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, actually did a film I quite liked in the sci-fi genre, the 2005 live action version of Aeon Flux.
If you like old-school fantasy films, with lots of monsters, ancient Greek legends, and good actors playing serious with some potentially childish material from the original film, you will probably also enjoy this version of Clash of the Titans.
2010; PG-13; 106 minutes. Blu-ray: widescreen 2:40:1 and DTS-HD Master Audio. Director: Louis Leterrier. Writers (screenplay): Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi. Cast: Cast: Sam Worthington, Alexa Davalos, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Tine Stapelfeldt, Mads Mikkelsen, Luke Evans, Izabella Miko.
Okay folks, that’s all for this installment. See you next time.
Article is Copr. 2010 by Christopher Simmons. Story originally appeared on CitizenWire.com