Monday, November 24, 2014

Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) vs. The Legend of Hercules (Kellan Lutz)


If you are looking for a good popcorn movie, Dwayne Johnson delivers in his portrayal of Hercules.  In comparison, Kellan Lutz's Hercules falls a little flat for me.


In the Legend of Hercules, we meet the son of Zeus 20 years after a very elaborate conception. He is the rambunctious second son of a vicious king, and he is in love with a princess betrothed to his brother.  After an act of defiance, he is exiled.  He becomes a slave then a rebel. (Isn't this all sounding familiar...Gladiator, anyone?).  Hercules is on a quest to reach and rescue the woman he loves.

In Hercules, we meet the son of Zeus well after his labors of legend and we meet his comrades - a ragtag group of extraordinary warriors.  They are mercenaries and their quest is for gold - simple.  However, in the midst of his mercenary efforts, Hercules changes his character. 

Action & Costumes

Legend definitely has more action and more effects than Hercules.  But the effects in Legend are borrowed mercilessly from 300.  Speaking of which, why was the king in Legend a blatant rip off of "King Leonidas" in 300?  Come on! Gerard Butler owns that, so please leave "Leonidas" to him. Meanwhile, the fight scenes in Legend were still very pretty.  Some ultra stylized, some brutal and intimate, but lots of fights, almost becoming repetitive.  I would say that people who loved Gladiator (Russell Crowe), and do not mind the filmmakers ripping from 300, would be more interested in The Legend of Hercules for its story and action.

Hercules however was more strategic with its action.  The opening sequence was unfortunately almost identical to the opening in The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock), but it was informative as it introduced his team encompassing some of the cooler actors associated with period pieces.  The battles were somewhat short but were a major part of the storytelling and everybody had their share of the screen to show off specific skills, which were awesome.  It's good to have multiple, important warriors so that the fights do not become repetitive.  If you like the ensemble action sequences in say The Avengers then this action movie may be more interesting.

Costumes in Hercules were almost forgettable, almost, except for that lion pelt, wow really?? Legend may beat Hercules in the costume department, though the Roman soldiers' outfits looked a bit cheap.

Cast & Characters

Legend had an ok cast, but I must say it was great to see Liam McIntyre ("Spartacus" himself from the hit Starz! series Spartacus: Vengeance & Spartacus: War of the Damned), though it was a typecast.  Kellan Lutz was not bad as Hercules either.  Lutz exuded power and resilience as expected but was also playing the younger, spritely, naïve Hercules that is not too appealing to me.  Besides Spartacus, the supporting cast was forgettable except for the brother, Iphicles, played by Liam Garrigan (from Starz! mini-series The Pillars of the Earth), who plays sleazy very well.

Hercules, I think, boasted the better ensemble though, especially with the amazing Rebecca Ferguson (from Starz! mini-series The White Queen) whose performance as Ergenia lifts this story to another level without spoiling its popcorn movie effect, which is fully enhanced by Ian McShane (The Pillars of the Earth) as Amphiaraus, the quippy seer.  Rufus Sewell (A Knight's Tale, and also The Pillars of the Earth) as Autolycus rounded out a very interesting circle of warriors.  Dwayne Johnson as Hercules was physically impressive as expected, but also portrayed an introspective warrior with some surprising layers.  Though, he is still a fun-loving giant in this too, so keep smiling.

Come to think of it, it seems both of these sword-and-sandals popcorn movies dipped from the same casting well, taking players from the Starz! camp, especially The Pillars of the Earth, making my eyes cross a bit from all the cross-referencing.  (Nugget: there is even a familiar extra in both movies for those of you who pay attention to these things.)

My overall opinion is that both are enjoyable popcorn movies, but Hercules is the better.
Just to be perfectly clear though, these reboots tried and failed to replace the ONLY Hercules - Kevin Sorbo.
Kevin Sorbo & PopcornMovieMaiden @ Awesome Con 2014 - Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Clouds of Sils Maria (Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz)

I find it hard to describe Clouds of Sils Maria, but I will say, this female-oriented indie is a conversation piece no doubt.
The story concentrates on two women, Maria Enders - a middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche), and Valentine - a young personal assistant (Kristen Stewart), who travel to a remote mountain location to rehearse a play that the older woman really doesn't want to do, but the younger woman knows she should do to stay relevant.  Maria's reluctance is clearly connected to her inability to face her own maturity because, after all, she was the younger lead in the very same play twenty years ago.

Clouds of Sils Maria doesn't really get started until the middle of the second act.  Then the layers of the script appear and suddenly we are watching art imitating life imitating art affecting life. (Try saying that three times fast lol)  More detail would spoil the effect for some potential viewers.  But, I must warn anyone who is interested, that Clouds of Sils Maria has A LOT of clouds in it.  If you go in believing the title is just a metaphor, think again.  The metaphorical clouds are indeed present, but then the repetitive use of cloudy images dilutes the effect.

Besides the clouds, the movie was a bright platform for three gifted female personalities.  Bravo! (Note: the movie was written and directed by a French man, Olivier Assayas, do with that information what you will.)  Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz deliver drama and even a few laughs on an almost incoherent script - that is, until it became clearer in the later part of the second act. 

Binoche (Chocolat) is elegant and somewhat convincing as an aging actress who is woefully disconnected with reality but completely in tune with her craft.  Fittingly, Stewart plays the paid friend/personal assistant who's in the know but under-qualified and under-satisfied in her position.  I think Stewart's Twilight fame actually validated her shiny, hipster, new penny character.  Again, art imitating life imitating art affecting life.  Moretz (Kick-Ass and Kick-Ass 2), who plays Jo-Ann Ellis, brightened up the joint in what would have been a sedate cinematic affair!  As a manic, young, dramatic genius, Moretz only appeared in snippets but somehow captured the energies of young Angelina Jolie, Courtney Love, Colin Ferrell and Mel Gibson on demand. 

Clouds of Sils Maria is not unforgettable.  I think its female cast is artfully appropriate too.  The movie certainly passes the Bechdel Test, which makes me smile.  The movie is smart, and while it takes itself a little too seriously, may be a sophisticated choice for girls movie night - you know, instead of Bridemaids, which I absolutely loved but seems to be polarizing amongst a group of women.  Clouds of Sils Maria gets a MEDIUM BAG from me due to its savvy display of girl power.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)


As it seems Gugu Mbatha-Raw is about to blow up, given her high marks & great reviews coming out of Beyond The Lights (also starring Nate Parker, Minnie Driver and Danny Glover), which hits theaters this week November 14, 2014, I humbly review the film that introduced me to this up-and-coming ebony movie maiden... WINNER: BEST ACTRESS, British Independent Film Awards 2014

A Lovely Film*
In the realm of Pride & Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility, Belle is a tale of lost & found in love and life. Belle is inspired by the true story of a biracial woman (white father, black mother) growing up in slave trading hub England, and who is raised in aristocracy while being excluded from it, thus, struggling to find her place in society. While clearly focused on the life experiences of this one girl, Belle is somehow a universal tale of finding oneself as well as a different cinematic angle on slavery.  This film will obviously stir political discussion upon viewing, here, I'd rather talk about performance, because this movie is full of robust theatrical charm.
Not to be confused with Disney's princess Belle

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido is not only visually stunning but theatrically breathtaking. Even when she is still, you can see her mind and emotions running a mile a minute as her eyes are incredibly expressive.  This talent is crucial since she portrays a woman navigating a time when restraint was key to acceptance and advancement in a girl's social life.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw was a revelation. And, yes, in the movie her name is Dido.  The reason behind her name is clear in the movie, but the writer-director Amma Assante has explained that Belle comes from the girl's late mother's name and the title is a tribute to her.  (Fun Fact: Belle was also originally going to be called Belle & Bette, for reasons made clear in the movie, but I am actually glad for the one word/one name moniker to keep the audience focused with so many issues whirling in the story.)

Tom Wilkinson as Papa was moving as a struggling soul in this piece as he represented the turbulent political climate into which Belle was born. With the looming "Zong case," he also represented every parent's struggle: how do you explain to children the horrors of this world? and is explaining accepting?

Amma Asante's direction and Ben Smithard's cinematography are reminiscent of The Queen and Starz! series The White Queen as this pair play with frame and light and focus to drive us from one thought to another by utilizing every eye flutter, swallow and incline of the head for each character.  As much of the story is told through Dido's eyes as it is through her aunt's smirks, her suitors' dropped jaws, her cousin's hands, the servant's slow gait, etc.  I rarely see so much sharing of the screen, it's refreshing. Some of the best moments were silent.
Dido is a female heroine without guns/whips/boxing skills/acrobatics, but with gripping wit in a socio-political nightmare (hey, kind of reminds me of Juno! - aahhh classic).  I ran to see this movie in my local indie theater.  I recommend it highly, especially if you care to see a comparison leading effort from Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

*The original review was first published on IMDb. This is an updated version.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Last Five Years (Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan)


Movie musicals are a most beloved art form for me.  Hollywood genius in this arena usually comes in waves.  And, usually, successful stage productions will garner support for a movie adaptation.  I guess such is the case with the off-Broadway musical, The Last Five Years (TLFY) by Jason Robert Brown. Unfortunately, I have not seen the stage production because, well, I did not know about it.  So, this is my review of the movie alone.

Directed by Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You), The Last Five Years is a story of a five-year relationship between Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, NBC's Smash) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect), going from meeting to dating to marriage to separation, all told through song in less than two hours. 

"Summer in Ohio"
TLFY had its clever musical moments for sure, especially its little shout out to The Sound of Music (still rotfl).  Cathy's "Ohio" song was pretty cute and snarky, but then again when is Kendrick not playing someone snarky (I suppose in Up in the Air her character was.... no, no she played a snob there too). Jamie's song about "Believing" in Cathy struck myriad a deep chords, especially that lyric: "I won't fail to make you feel comfortable / I will not lose so that you can win." I felt Jaime's distress in that scene and my heart did ache for the couple in that moment.

Poster for Theatrical Performance (2001)
On the other hand, TLFY was not a compelling cinematic experience overall for me.  It lacked something, maybe it was depth.  I cannot quite describe it, but the atmosphere of the movie felt claustrophobic and thin.  Maybe the director wanted this.  I do not know.  But I felt like the movie, the music would have benefited from the richness of a variety of voices, or maybe a comparable relationship or two, or maybe just give these two some friends!  I mean, no wonder they are at each other's throats if they are all wrapped up in one another, forsaking all others because they think they are "Better Than That."  Yes, there were a couple memorable songs, but without a proper breather of actual dialogue between the only two characters, or meeting other interesting characters with voices (literally, the main characters sing over the voices of others who we see talking to them), it leaves the movie element feeling superficial and the musical element thin.

Musical lovers beware: if you understand that a true musical has depth, you may not find much of that in The Last Five Years.

Film Saga #3: Middleburg Film Festival 2014

The Middleburg Film Festival

The 2nd Annual Middleburg Film Festival (Official Site) was truly a gem of a festival nestled in wine country Virginia.  Over twenty films were screened over four days, but the creators of this festival did not stop there.  This festival included a Masquerade Ball in honor of Oscar winning costume designer Colleen Atwood (Edward Scissorhands, Snow White and the Huntsman, Into the Woods) as well as a Symphony Orchestra tribute to the immensely talented composer Marco Beltrami (Hurt Locker, Scream - who wouldn't recognize the iconic, sharp, sinister sound of doomed Woodsboro?).  In essence, this festival truly celebrates every aspect of the movie-making and movie-going experience. 

It also doesn't hurt that the small, country town also boasts fine wine & dining to compliment the screening experience.  Leaving with torn movie tickets and a bottle of local wine made Middleburg Film Festival a worthy trip.

Pros: small, thoughtful selection of independent films; cozy atmosphere among celebrities; the press blend in as genuine fans (mostly because they are genuine fans); everything feels accessible especially geographically (all locations except one were within walking distance or five minute drive); the souvenirs and informational materials were beautiful keepsakes; the voting system was simple; and the drive to Middleburg/Upperville is through some lovely country

Cons: the town shuts down too early for festival goers to take full advantage; difficult to spot some of the venues; not super festive for a festival - but then, quiet and smooth may be what Middleburg is all about

But you know what?!  This is just the second year.  The festival is still young.  I am sure that Year 3 will be all banners and brighter lights in the town of Middleburg at least for a few days.  The Middleburg Film Festival is definitely for those who enjoy seeing little-known films in a cozy atmosphere.  Meanwhile, thank you Middleburg for hosting us movie lovers.  Seeya next year!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Gone Girl (Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike)

"...marriage is hard work..."

Gone Girl is a psychological, relationship drama / mystery that revolves around a missing wife and an unhappy marriage.  I choose not to repeat the trailer to describe this movie, but let me say that, after watching Amy (Pike) and Nick (Affleck) for two hours, I left the theater shaking my head and thinking... "perfect."  Not that Gone Girl was perfect; I had issues with the pacing of the Amy character's story, and the ending left much to be desired, perhaps purposely.  To me, it is more that these characters of Amy and Nick Gunne are nearly perfectly crafted - for the message or for each other is for you to decide.  I also suggest that book lovers read the New York Times Bestseller source, Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn (Amazon Kindle, $7.99) - the first two paragraphs are brilliant like the opening lines of this movie.

Actually, I am reminded of a stage-to-film adaptation of another relationship drama: Closer, starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and a caustic Clive Owen, and which garnered many awards for its supporting cast.  In Closer, the poison was truth.  In Gone Girl, the poison is lies. Nick resembles Dan from Closer, both writers and romantics.  Amy resembles Alice from Closer, both magnetic enigmas.  When characters are crafted to possess easy wisdom, but with some reliable naiveté, it just works.  I see that magic working in Gone Girl.    For those who have not seen Closer, I recommend it highly (Large Bag of Popcorn).

Be warned that Gone Girl is drama, mystery, thriller, satire all meeting with smooth transition.  Please do not be alarmed if you find yourself snickering or, in the case of one woman in the theater, screaming.  It is ok, as this movie is provocative, because Gone Girl is wrapped in classic David Fincher wit and darkness.  Fincher directed Se7en, which is one of my all time favorite suspense thrillers, as well as Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Panic Room, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Social Network. If you have seen any one of these, then you should have an idea of what to expect.  Many may take issue with some of Fincher's casting choices here, but I personally found it refreshing to see Tyler Perry take another turn in a supporting role (I am still reeling from seeing him on the disciplinary board for Star Fleet in Star Trek!).  Kim Dickens did the best with what she was given, which was not much, but her and Perry's characters introduced the satirical aspects in my opinion.  Neil Patrick Harris will just have to see for yourself.  The script is wonderful, and  Pike's delivery was scary accurate, but odd at times.  What little violence there is in the film is - in true Fincher form - abrupt and shocking when it shows up.  Oh, and Ben Affleck deserves respect for this performance.  Haters need to take notice.
Note: Media plays a huge role in the story including a book series, a missing person's campaign, press, pictures, and "the journal."  There is underlying commentary on all forms of media, what media does to our images and, in turn, how it may affect our character.  This is not a feel good movie.  In fact, you will probably come out of the theater shaking your head just like I did.  But as far as relationship dramas go, this was a pretty interesting journey.