Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Alice Through The Looking Glass, Gods of Egypt, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Me Before You, Mother’s Day, Risen


Here are six mini-reviews of six films that I saw in 2016!

Alice Through The Looking Glass (dir by James Bobin)

In a word — BORING!

Personally, I’ve always thought that, as a work of literature, Through The Looking Glass is actually superior to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  That’s largely because Through The Looking Glass is a lot darker than Wonderland and the satire is a lot more fierce.  You wouldn’t know that from watching the latest film adaptation, though.  Alice Through The Looking Glass doesn’t really seem to care much about the source material.  Instead, it’s all about making money and if that means ignoring everything that made the story a classic and instead turning it into a rip-off of every other recent blockbuster, so be it.  At times, I wondered if I was watching a film based on Lewis Carroll or a film based on Suicide Squad.  Well, regardless, the whole enterprise is way too cynical to really enjoy.

(On the plus side, the CGI is fairly well-done.  If you listen, you’ll hear the voice of Alan Rickman.)

Gods of Egypt (dir by Alex Proyas)

I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to describing the plot of Gods of Egypt.  This was one of the most confusing films that I’ve ever seen but then again, I’m also not exactly an expert when it comes to Egyptian mythology.  As far as I could tell, it was about Egyptian Gods fighting some sort of war with each other but I was never quite sure who was who or why they were fighting or anything else.  My ADHD went crazy while I was watching Gods of Egypt.  There were so much plot and so many superfluous distractions that I couldn’t really concentrate on what the Hell was actually going on.

But you know what?  With all that in mind, Gods of Egypt is still not as bad as you’ve heard.  It’s a big and ludicrous film but ultimately, it’s so big and so ludicrous that it becomes oddly charming.  Director Alex Proyas had a definite vision in mind when he made this film and that alone makes Gods of Egypt better than some of the other films that I’m reviewing in this post.

Is Gods of Egypt so bad that its good?  I wouldn’t necessarily say that.  Instead, I would say that it’s so ludicrous that it’s unexpectedly watchable.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (dir by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan)

Bleh.  Who cares?  I mean, I hate to put it like that but The Huntsman: Winter’s War felt pretty much like every other wannabe blockbuster that was released in April of last year.  Big battles, big cast, big visuals, big production but the movie itself was way too predictable to be interesting.

Did we really need a follow-up to Snow White and The Huntsman?  Judging by this film, we did not.

Me Before You (dir by Thea Sharrock)

Me Before You was assisted suicide propaganda, disguised as a Nicolas Sparks-style love story.  Emilia Clarke is hired to serve as a caregiver to a paralyzed and bitter former banker played by Sam Claflin.  At first they hate each other but then they love each other but it may be too late because Claflin is determined to end his life in Switzerland.  Trying to change his mind, Clarke tries to prove to him that it’s a big beautiful world out there.  Claflin appreciates the effort but it turns out that he really, really wants to die.  It helps, of course, that Switzerland is a really beautiful and romantic country.  I mean, if you’re going to end your life, Switzerland is the place to do it.  Take that, Sea of Trees.

Anyway, Me Before You makes its points with all the subtlety and nuance of a sledge-hammer that’s been borrowed from the Final Exit Network.  It doesn’t help that Clarke and Claflin have next to no chemistry.  Even without all the propaganda, Me Before You would have been forgettable.  The propaganda just pushes the movie over the line that separates mediocre from terrible.

Mother’s Day (dir by Garry Marshall)

Y’know, the only reason that I’ve put off writing about how much I hated this film is because Garry Marshall died shortly after it was released and I read so many tweets and interviews from people talking about what a nice and sincere guy he was that I actually started to feel guilty for hating his final movie.

But seriously, Mother’s Day was really bad.  This was the third of Marshall’s holiday films.  All three of them were ensemble pieces that ascribed a ludicrous amount of importance to one particular holiday.  None of them were any good, largely because they all felt like cynical cash-ins.  If you didn’t see Valentine’s Day, you hated love.  If you didn’t see New Year’s Eve, you didn’t care about the future of the world.  And if you didn’t see Mother’s Day … well, let’s just not go there, okay?

Mother’s Day takes place in Atlanta and it deals with a group of people who are all either mothers or dealing with a mother.  The ensemble is made up of familiar faces — Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, and others! — but nobody really seems to be making much of an effort to act.  Instead, they simple show up, recite a few lines in whatever their trademark style may be, and then cash their paycheck.  The whole thing feels so incredibly manipulative and shallow and fake that it leaves you wondering if maybe all future holidays should be canceled.

I know Garry Marshall was a great guy but seriously, Mother’s Day is just the worst.

(For a far better movie about Mother’s Day, check out the 2010 film starring Rebecca De Mornay.)

Risen (dir by Kevin Reynolds)

As far as recent Biblical films go, Risen is not that bad.  It takes place shortly after the Crucifixion and stars Joseph Fiennes as a Roman centurion who is assigned to discover why the body of Jesus has disappeared from its tomb.  You can probably guess what happens next.  The film may be a little bit heavy-handed but the Roman Empire is convincingly recreated, Joseph Fiennes gives a pretty good performance, and Kevin Reynolds keeps the action moving quickly.  As a faith-based film that never becomes preachy, Risen is far superior to something like God’s Not Dead 2.

 

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #97: Elizabeth (dir by Shekhar Kapur)


Elizabeth_Poster“I am no man’s Elizabeth!”

— Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) in Elizabeth (1998)

I have to admit that I always feel guilty about the fact that I love movies about British royal history.  After all, I have roots in Northern Ireland and I was raised Catholic.  If anything, I should refuse to watch films about British royalty on general principle.  I should be writing more reviews of films like Bloody Sunday.

But I can’t help myself.  Whether it’s because I enjoy looking at all of the costumes or I just have a thing for movies set in drafty old castles, I have a weakness for films about British royalty.  (And I will also admit that I sat through the entire royal wedding and I have a bit of a girlcrush on both Pippa and Kate Middleton.  As I said, I just can’t help myself.)

Of course, some of it definitely has to do with the fact that I’m an unapologetic history nerd.  I am fascinated with how people lived in the past.  And, of course, anyone who shares my obsession understands that, when it comes to history, there’s both the official story and the truth.  The official story is something that’s passed down over the centuries.  It’s what we learn in school.  The truth, however, is always far more obscure.  The truth is what historians piece together from what little gossipy evidence has managed to survive the passage of time.

We all know that the official story of Queen Elizabeth I is that she was England’s greatest Queen, she defeated the Spanish Armada, and she never married.  She was the “Virgin Queen,” forsaking love to serve her nation.  That’s the official story but is it the truth?

That’s the question at the heart of the 1998 Best Picture nominee Elizabeth.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing that Elizabeth represents the truth.  Historically, the film is messy and full of speculation that is less based on evidence and more on the desire to keep things cinematic.  But still, Elizabeth is an interesting film specifically because it takes a historical figure and dares to suggest that she may have been human before she became an icon.

Cate Blanchett gives a great performance in the role of Elizabeth.  When we first meet her, she’s a somewhat silly girl who is less concerned with politics and religion and more concerned with her boyfriend, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes).  Elizabeth is also the protestant half-sister of Catholic Queen Mary (Kathy Burke).  Mary is planning on ordering Elizabeth’s execution but dies of stomach cancer before she gets around to singing the order.

Suddenly, Elizabeth is Queen of England.  Young and insecure, she is, at first, manipulated by advisors like William Cecil (Richard Attenbrough), who pressures her to marry the cross-dressing Henry III (Vincent Cassel) of France.  Meanwhile, the Pope (John Gielgud) signs an order calling for Elizabeth’s death.  Catholic nobleman Thomas Howard (Christopher Eccleston) and mysterious priest John Ballard (Daniel Craig) conspire to assassinate Elizabeth.  With even Robert Dudley giving her reason to distrust him, Elizabeth discovers that her only ally is the enigmatic and ruthless “spymaster,” Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). It all ultimately ends in a sequence that basically transports the finale of The Godfather to the Elizabethan era.

I really should not like Elizabeth.  It’s undoubtedly an anti-Catholic film, though it’s nothing compared to the histrionic anti-Catholicism of its sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age.  But I can’t help myself, I enjoyed Elizabeth.  It was impossible for me not to relate to Cate Blanchett’s passionate performance.  (And there was just something so incredibly hot about the way Joseph Fiennes, with his intense eyes, would stare at her.)  When you ignore the film’s protestant bias and just concentrate on the performances and the gorgeous production design, you can’t help but love Elizabeth.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #92: Stealing Beauty (dir by Bernardo Bertolucci)


Stealing_Beauty_PosterI love Italy.

Some of that’s because I happen to be a fourth Italian.  And a lot of it is because many of my favorite filmmakers are Italian.  However, Italy is also place of which I have a lot of wonderful memories.  I spent the summer after my high school graduation in Italy and it was amazing.

Venice was full of sensual mystery (and, to be honest, some pretty obnoxious tourists as well).  Naples was dangerous and exciting.  Pompeii made me feel like I was living history.  Rome was full of handsome men and temptation.  When I walked through the Vatican, my inner Catholic girl suddenly woke up and I just had to stop and stare.  And Tuscany — oh my God, Tuscany!  That summer, as far as I was concerned, Tuscany was the most beautiful and romantic place on Earth.  I can still remember standing in the street of Florence and seeing the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in the distance and, for a minute, I almost felt like I was in a painting.  And I actually started to get light-headed and dizzy, I was so overwhelmed by it all.

(That’s right.  Stendhal Syndrome isn’t just a Dario Argento film.)

At it’s best, the 1996 film Stealing Beauty made me think about that wonderful summer that I spent in Italy.  And, at its worse, Stealing Beauty made me happy that I made that trip with my sisters and not Lucy Harmon.

Lucy Harmon is the main character in Stealing Beauty.  Played by a young Liv Tyler, Lucy is the teenage daughter of a poet who has recently committed suicide.  Lucy is a poet herself.  Among her poems: “The dye is cast/ The dice are rolled/ I feel like shit/ you look like gold” and “I wait/ I wait so patiently/ I’m as quiet as a cup/ I hope you’ll come and rattle me/ Quick!/ Come wake me up.”  That’s right — Lucy writes the same type of crap that I used to write when I was 17 and trying to impress everyone with the depth of my mind.  The only difference is that Lucy is rich and privileged so her poetry doesn’t actually have to be any good.

Anyway, Lucy comes to Tuscany for three reasons.  First off, she wants to be sculpted by one of her mother’s friends, who lives in a villa.  Secondly, she wants to lose her virginity to an Italian boy who, years before, kissed her.  And, finally, she wants to learn the identity of her father, who she believes to be one of the residents of the villa.

The film’s great when it concentrates on the beauty of Tuscany.  It’s a beautiful film to look at and, as its best, it captures the romance of being young and having your entire life ahead of you.  In that way, the film brought back a lot of good memories and it made me want to revisit Italy.

But then, whenever I was fully content to just enjoy the sight of Tuscany, the film had to try to focus on Lucy and the other people living in the villa and … bleh.  For all of their talk about art and political posturing, they all basically came across as being a bunch of self-righteous fakes, the equivalent of the millionaire with a Che poster in his office.  In the end, there are only two adults that you end up liking.  You like writer Alex Parris (Jeremy Irons) because he’s dying and, as a result, doesn’t feel the need to try to impress anyone.  And, despite the film’s intentions, you end up liking the local fascist, Carlo Lisca (Carlo Checchi), because he doesn’t apologize for or try to rationalize his narcissism.  You like Carlo because all of the other characters dislike him.

In the role of Lucy, Liv Tyler is obviously beautiful and gives as good a performance as the script will allow.  At the same time, as a character, Lucy got on my last nerve.  Judging from what we see of her work, Lucy is not a particularly talented poet.  In fact, Lucy appears to often be an amazingly vapid person.  (Her much-commented on virginity only serves to confirm that Lucy is largely meant to be a male fantasy.)  But, at the same time, she’s rich and she’s got a famous mother and, as a result, the film seems to be telling us that it’s not important that she’s not really that interesting.

So, plotwise, Stealing Beauty did not really work for me.  But the scenery was truly beautiful.

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Hercules”


hercules-rock-poster1

It’s been a weird week at the movies for yours truly, my friends : first off, I went to the theater three times this week, which almost never happens anymore (what do you think I am, rich?), and secondly, while I enjoyed The Purge : Anarchy about as much as I expected to (which is to say quite a bit), the other two flicks I saw both took me by surprise for different reasons : I was far less impressed with Richard Linklater’s much-celebrated Boyhood than I expected to be, and I ended up liking Brett Ratner’s new take on Hercules waaaaaayyyy more than I figured I was going to.

Though not because of anything Ratner himself did. But we’ll get to all that in a minute.

Full disclosure : I only went to see Hercules because my dad wanted to check it out. He’s a sucker for this kind of thing (he absolutely loves the old Kevin Sorbo TV series), and my mom wouldn’t touch a movie like this with a ten-foot pole, so when he mentioned he was hoping to check it out, I said I’d go with him. We’ve all gotta spend time with our parents while they’re still with us, right? But it’s fair to say, given Ratner’s involvement with this thing, that I wasn’t expecting much.

And ya know? He doesn’t deliver much — the direction here isn’t actively bad by any means, but it’s pretty straightforward stuff : the numerous “big battle” scenes are handled competently, and the actors by and large turn in decent enough performances, but there’s no real unique authorial stamp on any of the proceedings, and frankly, a  lot of the CGI is several rungs below what we’ve come to expect from these mega-budget summer popcorn flicks. All in all, technically speaking, it’s a fairly mixed bag.

Why, then, did I find myself pleasantly surprised by this latest (and third so far this year alone, by my count) take on Greek mythology’s most famous demi-god warrior? Simply put, the script offers a neat revisionist take on the hero, and is smart, intelligent, engaging, and surprising — it’s entirely unlike any iteration of the character we’ve seen before, and for my part, I really dug it.

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Before I give all of the (or even any) credit to screenwriters Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos for this film’s suceess, though, let me state for the record that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is perfectly likable in the title role, and while he may be a pretty conservative casting choice, that’s okay — he’s more or less pitch-perfect and his supporting actors (including Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, and Ingrid Bolso Berdal as members of his mostly-merry mercenary band and John Hurt and Joseph Fiennes as the film’s principal villains) do their jobs well, too. So kudos to everyone for putting in an honest day’s labor all the way through here. But let’s get back to the novel new twist on the whole legend/premise here, shall we?

This Hercules is radically different to his predecessors not just because he can actually talk (something Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and Steve Reeves really weren’t so great at when they tackled the role), but because he a) may not actually be the son of Zeus; b) is leader of a group of freelance soldiers-for-hire; and c) was driven from his home after having name dragged through the mud for supposedly killing his own family. Told’ja this was a new set-up, didn’t I?

There are also some intriguing moral complexities woven into the story that I won’t give away here — hey, I want to keep things at least nominally “spoiler-free” when and where I can — and the interpersonal relationships between Hercules and his fellow travelers — as well as those they lend/sell their services to along the way — have considerably more depth than any reasonable human being would expect from action movie fare such as this. I was both mightily impressed by this intriguing series of twists, and frankly taken more than just a little aback by them. It wasn’t until the end credits rolled that my “aha!” moment came and I realized I shouldn’t have been shocked at all, if only I’d done a little bit of homework beforehand.

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As it turns out, Ratner’s film is an adaptation of a comics series (well, two comics series, actually) penned by the late, great Steve Moore. I don’t know much about the publisher of these books, an outfit called Radical Comics , but I do know plenty about Steve Moore, and you should, too. Moore, who passed away from natural causes at his home earlier this year, is probably best known to comics fans as Alan Moore’s best friend (no relation despite sharing the same last name), and was a genuinely remarkable talent and, by all accounts, a genuinely remarkable human being. His comics work was sporadic, but he was at the forefront of the “British Invasion” of the early 1980s with works such as the criminally-underappreciated Laser Eraser And Pressbutton, and outside the field of comics he was a regular contributor to Fortean Times magazine as well as being a part-time musician and experienced occultist. He lived his entire life in the house he was born in and apparently carried on a decades-long erotic/romantic relationship with a moon goddess entity known as Cybele. All in all, then, a thoroughly interesting guy, as well as being an insanely talented creative force.

I wish I’d known about his Herclues comics when they came out — I don’t know if they just didn’t get very good US distribution or what (the cover of the first issue is pictured above), but I honestly don’t recall ever seeing a single copy of any of them out on the shelves at my local comic shop, and I’m there every week. A quick search on Amazon shows that two trade paperback collections of the series are available, but one is out of print and commanding rather high prices. Oh well, think I’ll probably order it up anyway.

Here’s the kicker, though — as much as I enjoyed this flick, now I feel kinda bad for  having shelled out any cash on it. Why, you ask? Because Steve Moore’s surviving family isn’t getting a dime off it. A quick Google search shows that Alan Moore has been absolutely up in arms about how his recently-deceased friend (and, in many respects, mentor) has been screwed over by the producers of the film, and he’s called for a boycott of it. I know, I know — Moore’s got a reputation for being a curmudgeon and for telling people not to buy, well, anything, but the damn thing is, more often than not, he’s absolutely right. The cinematic adaptation of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen was, in fact, every bit as horrendous as he claimed it was going to be, the Before Watchmen comics were by and large positively awful, and the V For Vendetta movie was an atrocious dumbing-down of his far superior original work. Yeah, he was none too pleased about the Watchmen film, either, but I won’t use that as an example of him being correct because by and large I kinda liked that one. Still, his criticisms are spot-on more often than not.

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So here’s what I’m thinking knowing what I know now : Ratner’s Hercules is, in fact, a far superior effort than I felt sure it would be going in, yes — but it’s probably nowhere near as good as the comics it was based on, and the fact that Steve Moore got swindled — even (and especially) after death — from seeing so much as a penny from a big-budget adaptation of his work is positively unconscionable. Again, I haven’t read any of these comics yet, but it’s a safe bet that anything good that survived the translation from the printed page to the screen is only there because Steve Moore put it there in the first place. In short, he’s the main reason this movie is actually pretty damn good, and that makes perfect sense when you think about it because you know full well Ratner isn’t capable of delivering the goods on his own. We all remember Red Dragon, don’t we?

Okay, fair enough — I’ve tried my best to put that out of my mind, too.

So in the end I guess I’m left with something of an ethical conundrum here — I liked Herclues. I really did. But mostly for its unique and original story. And now that I know the story behind that story (whoops, I’m being repetitious here, sorry), I sorta wish I’d never seen the thing. Okay, on that note. I’m off to Amazon to order up these books.