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“Grease Live” is the word

635859444948456391-GREASELIVE-F7Coming from someone who never saw the movie “Grease” in full or even seen the Broadway show, it was interesting to see how little expectations could change during a performance. What turned me away from this 1960s throwback was the other 1960s throwbacks I was exposed to at the time. “Hairspray” was a unique commentary on the racial tensions of the time while Coppola’s adaptation of “The Outsiders” was a powerful coming of age story. Whenever I heard something on” Grease,” I would kind of shrug it off. It also didn’t help I only saw parts of the film as a kid and didn’t get into it. “Little Shop of Horrors” was more of my forte for its fun premise, well-written characters and catchy songs.

So when Paramount Television and the Fox Network teamed up to produce a live telecast of the Broadway show, my reaction was fairly obvious. After coming off of NBC’s streak of live musical telecasts (“Sound of Music,””Peter Pan” and recently “The Wiz”), part of me felt like it was a bit of a cash-in but mostly disinterested. Don’t get wrong, I didn’t think it couldn’t do a live musical. I just didn’t get hyped over it. So doth to my surprise when I found myself humming “Beauty School Dropout” and appreciating the presentation midway. By the time it was over, I was surprised at how enjoyable it was and how pale the NBC performances were in comparison.

Now before everyone leaps on, I will state this review is based on the performance only sans compare/contrast to the 1978 film or the Broadway version. I’m only going by what I saw here and not riding on my nostalgia seeing I wasn’t a fan of both. The story is basic, corny but a little fun at times. It centers on a group of high school seniors that are going through the typical situations one would experience. Peer pressure, gang tussles, social conflicts and even at one point pregnancy. There really isn’t much substance but it can be interesting these try and manage these situations. Sure they’re generic but have tend to have a heart and soul.

Aaron Tveit is a blast as Danny Zuko, the greaser with a heart of gold that has the usual thoughts of car mechanics and babes on the mind. But Aaron’s innocence when his character calls to be emotion and talk about his true state of mind really show during the “Sandy” number. Julianne Hough is sweet as Sandy, the heartthrob with a shy mind. Like Aaron’s take on Danny, Julianne’s Sandy shows similar trends as a teen who is good but not with the times. It makes her transition from nice girl to open-minded rewarding seeing how “safe” her character takes things.

The rest of the cast is remarkably good too. The teachers can get a funny line once in a while and the comic relief is your typical comic relief. Though I’m certain praise will be left for Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo. The sassy leader of a clique who is all about risk taking and less about thinking through. This is a great contrast to the Sandy character who is all about being cautious while Rizzo just acts before thinking through. It should be noted that coming off of the success of “High School Musical,” it’s nice to see a Disney veteran broaden her horizons. Granted, Hudgens has proven this before with “Spring Breakers” so a role that calls for one to be rebellious and regretful surprisingly fits. You can tell she’s having fun with this role while also delivering the soul of the character.

The songs I’m sure everyone knows by now for those who are fans of “Grease.” The beach rock tones of “Greased Lightening,” the angelic feel of “Beauty School Dropout,” the ballad-like “Sandy” and the list goes on. A song is performed well when the singer can emote and carry a tune. Honestly, I don’t remember a single moment when I felt taken out of one’s singing. Though, maybe Boyz II Men’s rendition of “Beauty School Dropout” seeing the slow delivery kills some the punches in the lyrics. “Your The One That I Want” is energetic as “Summer Nights” is giddy in its delivery. But again, for my taste, I don’t recall a moment when I didn’t enjoy a song. But I didn’t have this feeling to hum each one aside from a select few. I just think they are fine tunes that are performed with plenty of energy.

With this elements in play, it makes for a decent performance. So what makes this stand out from all the others? The answer is in the technical work. When NBC performed their telecasts, they were always enclosed on a set and surrounded by effects crew and cameras. “Grease Live,” on the other hand, pushes things a step up. Instead of one sound stage, there are multiple ones making it interesting yet easy to transition from one place to the next. There’s always an audience around to cheer on or applaud at the end of each song. Sometimes, they will even allow them as extras into a scene which is very clever.

This is very evident early on during Jessie J’s performance of the opening song. A normal telecast would either cut the song out or just do something within the set. Here, they go all out. They have her move constantly from dressing room to the next, the camera is always following her and even they take the performance outside DURING THE RAIN! Yeah, during the live telecast, there was weather concerns about a rain storm. But as they say, the show must go on and use it to their advantage.

In fact, most of the time, I feel like I’m not watching a live show but a feature film sometimes. In a Broadway play, actors would have to emote and look to the audience in order to understand their emotion. Seeing this is a TV production, we get a better advantage at seeing close-ups and these multiple camera set-ups which give a better look at the environment. Its a very clever, and from the looks of it, possibly complex presentation that obviously doesn’t look easy.

My only nitpicks are questioning how the audience during the filming was able to move from one place to the next (unless they were positioned in one spot which feels kind of a bummer) and that with the complex camera work, it does make me wonder why this wasn’t a feature film for television. When they would show a close up of someone’s face or a split screen, I would feel that emotion and be cheated into thinking I was watching a theatrical feature by the amount of staging and blocking.

So overall, “Grease Live” was a nice surprise. I found myself amazed at how all out the production was to deliver a musical spectacle. Future live telecasts should probably take a cue from this one. While I can’t say it was 100% seeing some audio issues and the climactic drag race being one of the most embarrassing (reduced to shaking cameras and actors sitting in toy vehicles suited more for soapbox racing), it was an enjoyable performance none the less. You can tell your having fun when the actors and audience jive with it. All I have left to say is that I’m certainly looking forward toward Fox’s telecast of Rocky Horror with more hope than ever.

 

Rental Corner: An unfortunate visit to “Tomorrowland”

How misleading the advertising can be...poster and movie name

How misleading the advertising can be…poster and movie name

When dealing with themes of the future, movies have a two-sided coin to present. One says make it bright and hopeful like Hill Valley in Back to the Future Part II while the other says make it darker and grimm like Blade Runner. To present an optimistic view of the future while showing conflict is an even heavier attempt has a movie has to balance between showing the upside to a higher lifestyle while presenting there are conflicts like the society of wealthy vs. poverty in Metropolis. To make these elements into a thought provoking blockbuster is not a bad idea but it depends on how the mixture of these elements get handled. Or else one will end up with such a clunky and off-tone picture as Tomorrowland. As I am sad to say, one of the biggest domestic box-office flops of this year seeing so much effort and talent were thrown in yet little pays off or comes as entertaining.

The premise deals with a hidden utopia on Earth, how it is hidden remains unclear, with a promise of peace and harmony but comes off looking like a giant spa resort of gizmos and gadgets taken from The Jetsons and many other future films. Perhaps I should be more precise and bring up the fact this is based on Disney’s Epcot and Tomorrowland theme park attractions. Which is no surprise seeing certain elements like Space Mountain do appear as Easter Eggs here and there. But as expansive as the giant city is, we don’t spend much time in it. The main focus is the story and characters surrounded by this massive place which I wouldn’t have much of a problem if these elements were at the very least interesting.

Britt Robertson plays a tech-savvy teen that always believes in optimism but it nearly contradicts with her character by means of vandalism to a NASA launch pad being dismantled so her father can remain an engineer. I guess her actions account for something seeing she gets a magic pin that shows her this amazing city but only as a holographic illusion. Even more questioning is the ability of the pin as once one touches it, they see this great world but stuck in the real one as they lumber around like some kind of virtual reality helmet strapped on. Even in one scene, we see her move to the city in a corn field but also falling down the stairs when doing so in real life. If this pin makes an illusion, wouldn’t it be safer to confine it to one room as opposed to having said person meander in real life? What if one touches it and walks around in day time traffic? So much for the future of that poor soul.

George Clooney tries to find a solution to save the Earth and the crumbling utopia...but can't find one for the movie

George Clooney tries to find a solution to save the Earth and the crumbling utopia…but can’t find one for the movie

Either way, this pin creates such curiosity, that she seeks out the origin of it. All traces lead to a cranky inventor named Frank Walker (George Clooney) who wishes to be left alone then return to the fabled city he was banned from. Apparently, he somehow manages to keep track of the world’s lifespan as an impending doom is set against the Earth. He thinks the young teen has the ability to save it as in much stories where the young hero or heroine is chosen to save the day thanks to her kindness.

In a sense, the film tonally tries to be something along the lines of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the good kid gets picked due to their ingenuity and despite hardships has a kind heart but I didn’t really get a sense of care for out characters.  The performances are fine but just something about the writing feels off in narrative and character wise. The narrative flow gets distracted by Clooney’s flashing back as the structure of the movie is held by first person narrative as we cut back to the character Frank telling viewers what we are watching. An element cleary unneeded as the film can unfold without it.

Outside of Britt’s character having an open mind and Clooney being the man who lost hope, there wasn’t much else I found that really showed a care or motive to hang on to. Maybe its the jumbled narrative or how little we see of the city, but most of the plot feels very spotty that when one character decides to go on a search or move to the next story beat, there isn’t much risk or purpose behind it. She find a pin, goes to see the source, finds out the villains, saved by a sidekick/henchman type character, comes across a grizzled guy, go to futuristic place, find something is wrong and try to fix it. The story is so basic and paper thin that it shouldn’t feel this complex when its being told. And with not much connection to these story beats and directions it takes, why should we care as viewers?

Your a mean one...Mr. House!

Your a mean one…Mr. House!

The bigger problem comes in the second half when our heroes make it to Tomorrowland to find it in shambles. Apparently, a last minute conflict comes in the form of Hugh Laurie who plays a pessimistic Governor of the place who knows the secret link between Tomorrowland and the real world as well as why things are crumbling as they are. With the fear of an apocalypse on the way in people’s minds, it feels this is the direction things are heading into. So right off the fly, the message is a no-brainier. Be happy, keep being positive, work toward a bright future and don’t be negative. My problem is how heavy handed this message is and obvious they hammer it through the majority of the movie to the point it becomes more of the focus and less on the story.

To compare, The Peanuts Movie has a similar theme but not as obvious. As Charlie Brown tires to show he can do great things and fails, the more the viewer wants to see him succeed. The message of hope is more well-preserved here because that is not the focus. The focus is the characters and the story so later on, we can look back and remark the trails the protagonist had to endure as we compare them to our lives. Even themes of optimism and pessimism are explored better in Inside Out as we see how one can’t live without positive and negative things. They have to co-exist and co-operate. Tomorrowland takes these elements and instead cooks them into a good vs. evil manner at the last minute that has been done to death.

Without giving too much away, Laurie’s character reveals how people’s positive and negative thinking are essential to the world of Tomorrowland in a reveal so preachy that it undermines the entire message of the movie. With images of doom and gloom plaguing the real world, it has the future seeking to go in that direction unless convinced otherwise seems to be the logical solution. Instead, the final 20 minutes opts for a big action climax instead of a much smarter route like maybe a talk or a way to convince Hugh’s character that convincing people to be positive is a means to make a brighter future. That doesn’t happen. We get a feast of explosions, destruction and a villain’s downfall that is so cliche it makes my blood boil to see what could have been a nice story about building to a better tomorrow turn into a cliche blockbuster romp.

Sure it looks nice...but I wouldn't want to visit

Sure it looks nice…but I wouldn’t want to visit

The screenplay was written by Damon Lindelof who credits include Lost and 2012’s Prometheus while Brad Bird co-writes. With this knowledge, it feels like two different movies are mixed in as the ideology of Brad Bird is clashing with the “whizz,” “bang,” and “pow” of an edgy sci-fi movie. Instead of taking a break for character development or perhaps even heart felt moments which are standard of Brad’s work, we find ourselves watching and counting out the story beats as hero goes from point A to B with little interest knowing what will happen next. Times that could have been used for exploring character relationships are traded up for big action set pieces and CGI wonder as a  monument turns into rocket ship and people get obliterated by lasers held by evil androids. There is something very tonally off here between the future talk and the action.

And for those who think I’m being “negative” over Brad Bird, I like the guy. I do. I recall The Iron Giant when the metal monster is told how souls can’t die. Or how about the “Krusty Gets Busted” episode from The Simpsons when Bart is trying to convincing himself his hero is not a crook under shades of blue and Krusty merchandise. And need we not forget Mr. Incredible’s dilemma of trying to be a secret superhero and a family man. If Tomorrowland had more charm much like these small scenes that carry so much weight, perhaps I wouldn’t be so harsh. The city might have an interesting design, but under the retro rubble is a clunky and uneven story that crumbles and pods without pay off or impact. If you want a movie about the optimism and pessimism of the future play against itself, I recommend watching the Back to the Future trilogy more seeing themes of controlling one’s future and the negative benefits of a positive change are far better explored. Even movies like Explorers and The NeverEnding Story had a better handle with certain aspects like building to the unknown or trying to maintain hope. Fraggle Rock’s themes of universal peace was better explored without the aspect of violence being involved to solve a problem. Unfortunately, Tomorrowland didn’t do much for me. Aside from the performances being ok, it just came off as dull, preachy and just really a waste of good talent. I feel bad for saying this but the future of this movie looks rather grim as it stands at #4 at my worst of 2015 list.

Rental Corner: “Star Trek VI” great finale to a grand journey

Is the best saved for last?

Is the best saved for last?

For the longest time, I never understood why “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” never got the talk it deserved. It was a hit at the box-office and paved the way for the Next Generation films while showing the Star Trek franchise still had legs. Fans tend to look at films Khan, Spock and Voyage Home as a defining trilogy and I can see why. My argument is why not end it all with “Undiscovered Country?” It ends a lot of character arcs with Captain Kirk, takes a lot of dark risks and even explorers more boundaries with the characters we know and love. Well, after watching it a few times, I sort of understand why some would tend to overlook it but I still see no excuse to skip it.

When a Klingon moon explodes, its revealed that a good bulk of the ozone layer on the Klingon’s homeworld is depleted and a lack of energy throws them into turmoil to the point they can’t control themselves. The solution; seek peace with the Federation who happen to be a long time enemy. How they choose to talk about their terms however is where it gets interesting. They decide to have an ambassador sent and let an escort accompany them to Earth. This of course has Kirk in the mix when him and his crew are chosen to be the escort despite the captain’s anger for the alien race after killing his son. But problems arise when when the Chancelor is assassinated under the Enterprise’s watch and leaves Kirk for the blame to the point him and McCoy get sent to court for their crimes while Spock and the crew try to piece together this intense mystery.

David Warner as the Chancellor Gorkon who gets a second chance after movie V

David Warner as the Chancellor Gorkon who gets a second chance after movie V

What works the most about “Undiscovered Country” is how it keeps your guessing. There’s so many open possibilities and it takes advantage of every single one. The idea that anyone on the crew is a suspect, Kirk trying to learn to deal with his bigotry and even the material with the Klingons hold up well too. They are alien beings that are trapped between making peace with a long time enemy or creating a new war. They play off of it so much it makes you wonder just how many are willing to put down their weapons and just get along. Even the Federation is unsure yet willing to try out making negotiations hoping this will lead to a positive outcome.

While that is a strength of a movie, it also comes as a weakness. A lot of Klingon elements are used as a tour de force metaphor for the Cold War when America and Russia went head to head in the nuclear arms race. Unlike most movies like Superman IV or Red Dawn where they use the time period as a plot device, Star Trek VI serves as more of an afterthought which is not a bad idea but the symbolism and metaphors come off as obvious and might date this entry a little. Crew members resort to racist Klingon slang as even talks of advanced weaponry get tossed in the mix. They even go as far to have Kirk and McCoy imprisoned on a snowy planet that looks remonstrant of a Gulag. On first watch, its kind cool seeing all the different alien species mining for minerals and mingling but in hindsight, it pushes the Russian connections a bit too much.

 

Christopher Plummer as a Klingon...nuff said

Christopher Plummer as a Klingon…nuff said

What that said, I feel the rest of the movie holds up enough on its own. Its nice to see the original cast back together one last time, the action scenes are intense while providing plenty of flare and the performances are good too. Highlights include David Warner getting a small but big role as the Klingon Chancellor and Christopher Plummer as the Klingon General Chang really soaks in his role of war crazed persona. Its funny how these two contrast from each other as Warner goes for a softer approach while Plummer really goes all out. Its fun seeing him watch in delight as he tries to outwit Captain Kirk and see that his motives succeed. The action scenes are well done and very intense for a Star Trek movie. The Klingon assassination scene is a huge highlight with Dutch angles and tight close-ups used to a good degree. The special effects hold up well enough but again there is that looming Cold War metaphor as starships move about like war submarines when in confrontation. On the other hand, its nice to see some model work before the switch over to CGI.

An added scene from the Director's Cut where Colonel West proposes a rescue mission.

An added scene from the Director’s Cut where Colonel West proposes a rescue mission.

Fans might also be curious to check out the Director’s Cut which you can find on certain DVD releases and VHS tapes. The one that seems to be more recommendable and available is the Special Collector’s Edition cut. Much like with “Wrath of Khan,” (ironic as Nicholas Meyer returns to direct), the additions are small and subtle but enhance the narrative without grand damage. There’s only a couple of shots changed around like when Scotty examines some blueprints of the Enterprise but then there’s whole sequences that are restored like a group proposing to save Kirk and McCoy and Spock inspecting the torpedoes while the Scotsman alludes to his Klingon bigotry. But then, there’s some that sort of work like this extra twist to an assassination near the end when the assassin turns out to be someone else. Without spoiling anything, its a neat idea but lacks the proper build up.

Overall, “Undiscovered Country” is a fitting end to such an amazing franchise. Sure the original Star Trek movies had some bumps along the way, but this entry really ties the knot together. I’m pleased to see they decided they stopped here and didn’t continue as clearly the cast was already aging. In a way, this acts like a reunion film and its nice to see the old crew back together one last time. In today’s cinema, this considered a taboo move as films like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feel pointless knowing the original franchise was fine without a new entry. This sequel doesn’t fall into that trap but nearly does considering the cast is well aware there’s no point for a six one but at least have fun with it. By the time the end credits came and showed the signatures of everyone from William Shatner to Leonard Nemoy, I couldn’t help but feel a sign of accomplishment. These people went to explore the most amazing parts of the galaxy and truly went where no one had gone before. This was this curtain call and it was a nice end to their experience to such a well remembered franchise.

Rental Corner: New “Annie” falls flat…dead flat

"By having grown-up humor, you make it more childish!  By modernizing the dialogue, you make it more dated!  And by changing the source material, you show how much you don't respect what's already perfect!"

“By having grown-up humor, you make it more childish! By modernizing the dialogue, you make it more dated! And by changing the source material, you show how much you don’t respect what’s already perfect!”

There’s an embarrassing story I must confess before I begin. A week into the new year, I actually tried to see the new “Annie” as part of a resolution but it didn’t last long. I was alone with no one in and by the time “It’s a Hard Knock Life” came on, I got up and left. 15 minutes was all I could last. But then, I thought maybe things would change when it would come out on home video. Perhaps I was in a different mood or atmosphere at the time. Well, I have to say that anything past those 15 minutes I don’t regret missing. Maybe a small thing here and there but the execution and everything else kills it to a beating pulp of crumbled screenplay paper.

Tempted to call it a remake, this new “Annie” is more of “remix” trying to be a contemporary take of the 1977 Broadway musical seeing it uses eight of the original songs and injects new score and lyrics to bring a modern style. I’m not against the idea of a modernization unless I feel its done good respect and justice. But in this case, next to nothing works. On paper, certain aspects could be salvageable but the choice in cast, the music and the overall delivery completely brings things to a lifeless and dull standstill. And this is coming from someone who wasn’t a big fan of the original musical or the 1982 film.

The better actress is on the left...

The better actress is on the left…

The movie literally opens with an Annie lookalike finishing a report on William Henry Harrison only to be greeted with groans and bored looks while the new Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) tries to hip her ad-libbed report on Franklin D. Roosevelt with class participation and false information much to the confused look of the teacher (who says “Good job, Annie” with the magic of ADR). On top of that, she is no longer an orphan but in foster care while she awaits the return of her parents who abandoned her years ago. Unlike the previous versions, we never learn their fate and thus left to guess they are dead or written out for a sequel.

But let’s go back to the previously mentioned scene on how they introduce this Annie but saying the old was annoying and cheery without any personality. But yet throughout this movie contradicts the “new look” by giving a personality that is cheery, overly optimistic and nothing but smiles. There’s not a single thing I remember that Wallis does new to improve this character other than giving Annie a literacy complex. She’s not feisty like Aileen Quinn nor clever like Alicia Morton. There are times when they try to show this Annie is not dumb as you think but its played up for the cute factor more often. I try not to hamper on child acting too much but when your told to look cute and smile a lot, that’s very much what you get here.

No words....that face says how much pain she brings

No words….that face says how much pain she brings

She’s under the care of Miss. Hannigan performed by Cameron Diaz in one of the worst roles I’ve seen her perform. I can’t say Hannigan is a moral character seeing she is supposed to have a huge hate for children despite living off the misery of orphans (oh, I’m sorry “foster”) and in return gets hit back. The Carol Burnett take was fun despite being floozy and dark while Kathy Bates went for a more manic approach. Diaz gets the drunk aspect but takes the cruel matters way too far making her portrayal so annoying and unbearable that looking at undigested vegetables in my colon were more fascinating than the countless pop culture references she spews out (“I never told you the time I was almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish”) or when she treats that foster girls like pure trash to the point she uses a spray bottle to get their attention.

Again...the face is what you see thought THE WHOLE movie

Again…the face is what you see thought THE WHOLE movie

Jamie Foxx achieves a new low as the Daddy Warbucks character; now renamed Will Stacks. Stacks is a tycoon that does a cellphone business but is pursuing to be mayor of New York City. Why? There is no clear reason. All we get is this cheap “work hard in life” motive but it doesn’t go anywhere. On top of that, how is it possible for a head in a telecommunications business be able to run for politics? Either way, Annie is brought in to soften his image especially seeing he rescued her from a near car accident that goes viral on the Internet (perhaps, too quick as the universe of this movie says that what Stacks does goes viral globally at the drop of the hat.) To add on, Foxx’s performance feels tiring and stiff. He barley cracks a smile and at times rarely shows an emotion. At least the previous Warbucks had an excuse for their grump complexion but had a change of heart. Here, Foxx doesn’t show this form of change and left yawning along with him as he goes out to a Twilight-style movie and try to bond with Annie. The only times he shows signs of life is during the songs but even they feel stiff due to the song style and lame lyric changes.

Bobby Cannavale replaces Hannigan’s scheming brother in the form of a slimy political adviser  (“I got them elected. Schwarzenegger, Kim Jong Il, that Blood Diamond guy”) who seems his only motive is to get Stacks elected and get paid for his work. There’s no other big motive than just get this guy mayor and get his name out. To describe the annoyance I developed with this character, picture someone from Jersey Shore mutated with a Republican and Cameron Diaz’s performance in this movie. The result is the migraine I got for the rest of the movie as he tries to bug in on Stacks to “up the polls” and act devious for no other reason. I get it! He wants to see Stacks mayor but what does that accomplish for this guy. Even when he tries to remove Annie from Stacks (even though it was his idea to adopt him) near the climax with fake parents, I kept asking just what is he accomplishing and what purpose does he serve. Even if you added a mustache, a top hat along with a back cape, he wouldn’t fit the standard cliche of a 1920s silent movie villain because there is no strong motive to support his actions. At least Rooster in the previous incarnations had a purpose even if he was a last minute conflict.

They are happy....I'm not

They are happy….I’m not

Other than forgettable and tiring performances, the songs are just standard and sound the same. When I mean “sound the same,” they attribute with the same style of pop tempo and constant auto tune. There’s never a moment when I stopped and thought, “wow! they are singing!” like in Les Miserables or Into the Woods. Every note that is belted or every word that is sung is enhanced with electronic voice and it goes so tiring that it becomes a drinking game. Even the new lyrics that are added to “Hard Knock Life” and “Little Girls” feel lazily written with no clever spin or twist. “Little Girls” being the worse of the batch as Diaz’s Hannigan whines about being famous and not surrounded like little girls saying she is locked away like a princess which contradicts her character seeing she drove herself to this point of living and no one else. Choreography is beyond stiff without any inspiring use of set as musical numbers are shot from a far distance with tons of empty space as the camera moves around trying to do something interesting. As bad as “Little Girls” is, it had an interesting idea by having Hannigan hallucinate her furniture and clothing into little children which at least did something but that’s the only thing I can remember that I thought was close to clever.

In fact, a lot of this new “Annie” didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I barely remember the other foster kid’s names or what they did in the movie. Even by the big climax with her parents found at about 90 minutes in, I still felt things were dragging on to a dead creak. There’s already so much you have done, what else is there? Wrap up and get to the “super mega happy ending.”  I want to compare it to something like The Wiz but even that journey down the Yellow Brick Road had more flare and effort. This comes off as a heartless and “slap-dash” feeling that feels more half-arsed by the end when red balloons from the celebration finale keep bouncing off the end credits to no end as if they want us to find something to enjoy from it desperately. I want to say they tried, but I sense not much of an effort when you have boring to annoying performances, stiff dancing as well as song “re-scoring” you can find on any “Kids Bops” CD and painful pop culture references that try to modernize but end up dating the movie as opposed to be a timeless affair. And I swear, if anyone tries to convince me other wise that this WAS a good movie with effort and grace, then do me a favor and never speak to me again. Please?

Rental Corner: “Neighbors” dumb and basic

"Family vs. Frat" as Seth and Zac go head to head

“Family vs. Frat” as Seth and Zac go head to head

The premise of “Neighbors” may have been done before but it shows some promise. The idea of wacky neighbors moving in and turning the quiet life of John Belushi upside down at least brings opportunity for social commentary and ideas for jokes. Of course, I wish I was talking about that 1981 comedy and not the 2014 movie because even the new Seth Rogan and Zac Effron showed bigger opportunities for laughs but it seems stuck in its dumb environment and doesn’t do much clever. The 1981 John G. Avildsen uneven comedy at least had something building towards it with old vs. new, youth vs. senior and anti-socialism. The 2014 Neighbors is a far different movie with some similar cues even though it bears no connection to the Belushi comedy outside of similar themes and a slightly similar story. I’m not saying its clone or a remake. But when two different movies share the same name, it makes you wonder what is the better movie when both feel uneven.

Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne surprisingly work well as a couple that moved into a new neighborhood and have a sweet kid. Moving past their wild days, they try to settle down and focus on a quiet life raising their baby. The good thing so far is the chemistry between these two. They really sell you the idea they are a perfect couple considering the dialogue feels natural and they look cute together. Unfortunately, conflict comes in the form of a fraternity that moves next door and the two battle it off as the couple tries to tell them to keep the party down despite getting roped in to kick back and have a beer every time they try to convince them. Things go too far when they call the cops on the sorority unleashing a war between frat and family as the two try to find a way to get the college kids kicked out for good.

The concept itself shows promise but it goes way too easy for the stupid and dumb. This could have been a smart commentary about “coming of age” and at times it does get that vibe but a good bulk of the movie has Seth smoking a joint with college kids and pulling crazy stunts to get the Delta kids in trouble. The whole movie feels mostly filler as air bag traps are placed in Seth’s office space and in return damages the plumbing system creating a bigger advantage for the Delta group as well as a one-note genital joke that temporary saves their house. I guess the movie is trying to be a lay back and stupid comedy but it doesn’t feel much amounts to anything. Even half the time when Seth and Rose pull their pranks, I’m thinking half the time about what’s going on with the baby. There’s even one hilarious scene where the kid almost swallows a condom leading to a variety of jokes that are not mean spirited but at least work in the context of the movie. I kept wondering why not have more of that. You have an excuse to push the boundaries of comedy here. Instead, it takes a back seat to the ususal drug, poop and sex jokes.

On the plus, the performances are good. Again, Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne work good together. Zac Efron plays the leader of fraternity as he is determined to see their sorority made well known and I do find his character interesting but it feels too villainous. Off the bat, we side for the couple way too easily as his pranks go from harmless to borderline diabolical. In one scene, he twiddles the sorority bat like a cane as he examines the deeds of the past college members as his friend convinces him to move on and focus on reality. Something about this character almost feels like it could work for “A Clockwork Orange” parody like Zac is doing his take of Alex and all that matters is getting his name out there even when he is long gone and graduated. There’s something dark to this character that never made me sympathize him that much and that’s the problem. The couple are easy to feel bad for because they have an excuse; they have a baby!

Later in the year, Seth Rogan and James Franco made “The Interview” which in comparison I feel is the better movie because the satire was clear and its attack on media portrayal left no stone un-turned. “Neighbors” tries to be something akin to “Animal House” where its going for that college humor but there is a big difference. “Animal House” had characters you could relate to and in a way see in a normal fraternity. They were over-glorified but simple people that were underdogs but never gave up. I feel like they attempted the same thing here but it doesn’t come together for me. Most of the comedy is just the straight-up R-rated material you’ve seen before so its not breaking much ground and its source of satire is all over the place. Its is trying to say something about the youth today or getting a life vs. having one that is carefree. Aside from a few solid laughs and good performances, I only recommend this as a rental.

Rental Corner: “The Amazing” underwhelming, overstuffed “Spider-Man 2”

They said it was big...we expected better....it was a lie just like this poster

They said it was big…we expected better….it was a lie just like this poster

There has never been a movie that had such a diverse audience than “Amazing Spider-Man 2.” When ever it came up in conversations, many were willing to praise it while others dismiss it as a fluke. This entry in the web-head franchise got such a huge backlash on its reception, that even the studio Sony is second thinking about the future entries. However, between the leaked plans that were revealed in December and after seeing this entry that my thoughts on this one didn’t surprise me. I actually felt that is worse than the first one. At least the first “Amazing Spider-Man” was a footstep into a new franchise and while I wasn’t all for the new directions, it was establishing itself. A sequel should have a chance to mend those problems behind from the first one. “Muppets Most Wanted” still shared most of the flaws of its predecessor but at least made up for it but focusing it story and humor on the Muppet characters. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” blew my socks off with its complex characters and smart storytelling that made Rise look soft in comparison. Even “X-Men: Days of Future Past” felt like a breath of fresh air after the lame and mediocre entries. The only thing “Amazing Spider-Man 2” proves is that its own studio doesn’t know how to grasp the idea of a franchise and not only repeats similar mistakes but (what I also feel) make bigger ones.

Andrew Garfield returns as the gawky Peter Parker whose alter-ego is a web shooting and wall crawling superhero named Spider-Man. I didn’t think Andrew was a good pick and this sequel doesn’t convince me other wise. He’s just doing what the script is telling him to do without giving air for him to establish an identity. When he’s Peter, he’s obnoxious when it comes to feuding over his Aunt May (Sally Fields) in order to avoid spilling his identity and even uninteresting. I feel that so much story is rushed that we don’t get a good understanding of his portrayal of Peter Parker. And don’t get me started about what happens when he is Spider-Man. Not only do they push the limits of his powers, but his wise-cracks and sarcasm get so old to the point I’m grinding my teeth to dust. Even a scene when he helps a kid fend off bullies feels like it was taken out of cheap PSA. Moments like that come off as forced even considering they do it again at the tail end to establish Spidy as a hero and not a menace. It just got old for me even considering this was already done in the first film.

Worse of all is when Peter is interacting with his friends and loved ones. At least give Sam Raimi some credit for developing the relationship of Peter and Harry Osborn. Here, Harry just appears out of the blue like he was meant to be established in the first film. The relationship is developed at a rush pace that we don’t even give two cents. They keep adding in exposition and talks about how they used to be best friends but I don’t feel that. We never see them do things together as friends other than share one scene and that’s it. Even later when Harry tries to get Spider-Man’s blood for some bizarre disease he has, there is no feeling of tragedy to the character. Dane DeHaan’s performance comes off as so cold that we get no human factor. He’s like a cross between a stingy Richie Rich and Donald Trump. His line delivery is some of the worse I have ever heard in a movie for a long time. Dane says his lines in a way that shows he doesn’t care. There’s no emotion or even a bit of weight. Even worse is his transformation into the Green Goblin for the end. Couldn’t do something better with the make-up? He looks like Evil Ed from Fright Night melted in the microwave with a Beavis doll. Its such a horrible design that I ended up laughing at it whenever he was on screen for the “big finale.”

Speaking of which, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey is a good writing 101 on how not to make a romance. Most of the critics who saw this, and viewers alike who liked or disliked, praised the romantic chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. To which I ask, what chemistry? For a good portion of the movie, they keep breaking up and making up to the point it becomes a drinking game. It also doesn’t help they give Peter Parker this guilt factor by having him see Gwen’s dead father every time he’s around her. Why doesn’t he talk about this to her or consult someone? No, Gwen has enough and dumps. Then reconciles just to tell Peter that she’s going to Oxford, England to a university. Then break up again and then have her help Peter stop a madman just so they have this big moment (which I can’t spoil…crud) but I get no feeling when that moment does happen. Most of their scenes are just romantic fluff that I’ve seen before to the point I could give two cents. There’s only one time Gwen helps Peter out and that’s it. Other than that, I feel nothing for the both of them.

And the best saved for last is Jamie Foxx as Electro. Oh man, did this character irritate me. Taken from Batman Forever, they pull the old nerdy and creepy engineer that gets so obsessed with his idol that it somehow causes him to get a causality and use it against the one he used to worship. Blah, blah blah. Been there, done that and smoked it. This is the man who did an great potrayle of the late Ray Charles and he is wasting his efforts going from an unfunny and (again) surprisingly creepy geek that gets turned into a blue-skinned, auto tuned villain that is dull and shows no menace. Even when they attempt to raise the stakes, it doesn’t come off as feeling threatening but rather cartoony. And while we are on the subject, what is the with the property damage in this movie? Every time Spider-Man goes against a villain, there’s so many car crashes and building damage to the point it feels like New York is getting torn to shreds. What kind of budget does this city have to fix itself over a night?

The rest of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” I personally care for less. Its such a weightless entry that barley has a driving motive or even a solid story to go with it. I didn’t even talk about Paul Giamatti’s throwaway cameo as the Rhino, the most pointless Stan Less cameo in existence, the heavy foreshadowing and painful irony of Gewn Stacey’s big scene at the end or even one of the biggest plot holes in the movie. If Peter’s parents wanted to hide somewhere from Oscorp, why couldn’t do they it in the secret, abandoned subway tunnel instead of getting axed off in a jumbo jet? Wouldn’t it be better if they stayed there and hid among society? How hard is that when you have so much equipment to live and work off of? Stuff like that is never covered up or even given an inkling to explain. All this movie is doing is throwing so much stuff at you just to get to a bigger and explosive movie. That’s really all I get.

At least sequels like Back to the Future Part II and The Matrix Reloaded had a story and at least enough solid reasons for a third entry to exist. “Amazing Spider-Man 2” just feels like filler. And not even the enjoyable kind. Instead of focusing on expanding on Peter’s character, making a unique and tragic villain and having proper build up to what could have been a grand finale leaving for the need of a third film, all they do is use this one for their needs to build toward another one without the care that was shown in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That took time and care to make such a grand entry who know today as “The Avengers.” Here, they are obviously rushing it to make that explosive entry than let time and care be the essence resulting in us getting a sequel that gives nothing in return. Oh, right there was something! A never-ending plug at Sony computers and products throughout the whole movie. From laptops to even a flipping Walkman, this is more of a commercial for Sony than it is for Spider-Man. This is not a sequel. This is a sell out.

Rental Corner: “Edge of Tomorrow” silly sci-fi taken serious

Watch. Suffer. Critique.

Watch. Suffer. Critique.

The current DVD and Blu-ray cover of “Edge of Tomorrow” has done something rather strange lately. Instead of posting the title of the movie in its glory, the tagline “Live. Die. Repeat.” appears to be centered as the focus. Almost like they wanted that to be the title of the film while its real one is down in the far bottom in tiny lettering. After seeing this movie, I can imagine why Warner Bros would try to “re-title” its film by means of addressing the tagline more than the real title. It even appears on the disc label almost in a way its trying to cover up just unbelievable bad this film gets. Which is sad because it has a good idea in place but only if it was executed right.

Tom Cruise is  Major Cage, a public relations officer living in a post-apocalyptic Eurpoe where aliens have crash landed and consumed a good portion of the Earth. The human armies are trying all they can to prevent total extintction by somehow the aliens creatures called “Mimics” seem to be one step ahead of them. Cage somehow gets recruited under force to fight among the soldiers but when killing an alien, it somehow causes a time loop.

The gimmick is that each time Cage dies, he keeps repeating the same day and going through the same things from waking up in a military base to finding that alien race is far more advanced. This is sort of a science fiction version of Groundhog Day that has some promise but I couldn’t help but laugh a little every time Cage repeats a day. Maybe its the unintentional nature but something is just funny about how a man keeps reliving the same day under different casualties. And there are times when his multiple deaths feel like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon but more head scratching is how many times this character has to keep track of the different outcomes in order to stay alive. Its like he needs a pen and pad of paper to keep track of the actions.

Honestly, I would be fine with this if they didn’t give an explanation for the time loop. Cage later meets up with a Sergeant played by Emily Blunt who experienced the same problem he did. Apparently, one of the “mimics” he kills was an alpha and after being hit with its blood has to experience the same day again and again with the only option is to kill the Omega Mimic to ensure humanity is saved. Again, I address this. The blood of an alien is the reason for these time loops as these creatures are one step ahead of the human race and constantly use time to know when they will attack and be ahead. Even reading this on paper, I can’t believe how silly it sounds. Even the aliens are uninspired as they look like leftovers from the Matrix as a batch of mechanical tentacles and bizarre metal bone structure that looks to over used.

“Edge of Tomorrow” has some decent performances but I still can’t get over just how silly the execution is. From what I head, this was based on a Japanese light novel called All You Need Is Kill and from what I read up on it, sounds a tad more interesting than its live-action counterpart here. Perhaps somethings got lost in translation but “Edge” just feels like a video game that keeps getting reset. And when you repeat a level on a video game, you grow tired of the repetition playing that difficult level to the point you abandon it for something else. That’s the feeling I get from this movie. It doesn’t take many risks as Cage walks through the danger knowing if harm comes, he can always relive it. And again, you really have to be so smart to remember EVERYTHING in order to end the time loop. Without giving too much away, there is a risk factor at the end when he losses his time loop power knowing if he dies for real then humanity is doom but I already feel exhausted at this point. Somewhere there is a good movie here but with all the repeated deaths and dull “end of the world” dystopia theme that has been exploited over these years, the final product is more laughable than something thought provoking.

Rental Corner: “Annie is charming but overexagerated

The original "Tomorrow"

The original “Tomorrow”

No, this is not the recent 2014 adaption that got released. Believe me, we will get to that down the road soon. For now, the 1982 Annie is one that often gets mixed feelings. Even today some joyful appreciate it while others wish it never existed for its corniness and it infamous “Tomorrow” number. There seems to be a love/hate appreciation for this film that’s never been this big to my knowledge. Though I’m sure plenty of us had to grow up on this film and maybe that’s why there’s this clash over if it should be considered a good movie or a bad one. There are those who appreciate the nostalgia of how it light-hearted it gets at times and how chipper it can be. But then you have those who say its too happy and too optimistic to the point they will vomit into their popcorn bucket. With that disgusting image out of way, how do I think it holds up? Well, hard to say seeing I saw it on the ending cusp of childhood (be it age 7 or 8) and while I did like it, it wasn’t near anything like Pete’s Dragon or Doctor Dolittle where it was that close. But now that I’m older and have a stricter view, I will admit portions of it do hold up. Or perhaps about half of it does.

Albert Finney as Warbucks who is more Scrooge than...his performace as Scrooge

Albert Finney as Warbucks who is more Scrooge than…his performace as Scrooge

Based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip of the 1920s and the Broadway smash hit, we see Aileen Quinn as the red-curly headed, dimple faced little girl Annie who spends time in an orphanage with the hopeful promise that her parents will one day return for her. Her personality is not too basic to the point where its generic and forgettable as she acts kind and nice but independent yet feisty when needed like rescuing a dog from street bullies. Its a shame because just when her character gets interesting, these elements start to melt away when she is taken into the Warbucks home for the Fourth of July weekend. You see, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (Albert Finney) wants to bring a good image to himself and thinks that having an orphan around the house will soften him up. And at his aid is a mind bending bodyguard/butler named Punjab and his kung fu master chaufer The Asp taken straight from the comics but strangely were not in the musical. I guess you can argue they were crossing the musical with the original comic but I think its cool to see them use two different medias. But as you can expect, enough time goes by to the point Warbucks feels he can’t live without her. Or in film time, small bits of scenes that try to show a relationship but don’t do much to convey an emotion.

Two comedic giants in one. Carol Burnett and Tim Curry side by side!

Two comedic giants in one. Carol Burnett and Tim Curry side by side!

So he gets Annie adopted instead from the floozy drunk owner of the orphanage Miss. Hannigan played by Carol Burnett. She binged on so many alcoholic drinks that between looking after little girls and dealing with her scheming brother Rooster (Tim Curry) that a hangover is probably better than nothing. But its revealed she might have some information on Annie’s parents as the red-headed optimist hopes to find them with Warbucks’ help. But then Hannigan’s brother gets the idea to pose as Annie’s parents because Warbucks sends out this $50,000 reward to anyone who can find them and plan to take the money and set Annie off. And at this point, you can see what the main problem is. The story (or stories) are really all over the map.

Its funny because Popeye came out two years before Annie (as producer Robert Altman made the Paramount/Disney flick to compete with “the Movie of Tomorrow”) and shares similar problems. But Popeye is an original production that has one too many stories yet it tries to have a focus. Annie oddly enough should be the better movie in the story department but it feels like its slowly making one. You could argue that the focus is on Annie hoping for a home with her family but that’s only mentioned once in the beginning and then comes back later as a plot point. If there was a driving focus throughout seeing she does escape at one point and maybe the reason is just to find her lost folks, it would make sense. But this is never really clear. And for something looks and acts like its a spectacle for a good two hours, you wish there was a stronger plot. Maybe the stage show did this better but this is one problem I had with it.

But maybe you don’t need a strong story to make a good movie. After all, this is a movie musical. Well, it does deliver but only for the first half. Songs like “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” work because the intense camera work and heavy choreography really convey the energy of transitioning a stage musical to film. You really get into the beat of these girls and their hard working time and really marvel at how expansive the Warbucks mansion is from the wide angles and solid footwork. But then you have songs that could have been easily cut like “Dumb Dog” or “Sign” where dialogue could have been a better substitute. From what I heard, at least five songs were written just for the movie and replaced a good handful from the show. And sadly, there are not memorable. Heck, about 50% of them are about the dog character or just there because its a musical and it thinks a truck load of songs are needed.

One painful example that I keep coming back to is “Let’s Go to the Movies” (replacing the show’s “N.Y.C”). It starts off big yet small as Annie and Warbuck’s secretary marvel about the idea of going to the movies but then it just keeps snowballing as ushers give this personal gala permier and then they have the Rockettes perform right before “Camile” begins on the screen. Why? Why is all of this needed? I get it. Its trying to be some kind of Busby Berkeley tribute but it doesn’t work here for this kind of movie. Maybe if the Rockettes bit was a vignette instead of a stage bit for Annie, I can see it working but there’s no transition for this dance break we get. They just go into the theater and get a dance sequence for no reason. You think that’s the first but they do it again. We get a radio show performance of “Your Never Fooly Dressed Without a Smile” but then we see the little girls at the orphanage perform their take of it in Hannigan’s office. What is the point? Yes, you can have big numbers like what you did earlier but you need to balance it out with something soft and quiet. And when they try to do that, it feels unneeded. Like did we need a number telling us that Warbucks is about to adopt Annie or again, two or three songs about Annie’s dog Sandy which to the dog’s credit is a talented pooch.

The infamous "Tomorrow" scene in its corny glory

The infamous “Tomorrow” scene in its corny glory

I also find it weird that many people say that the song “Tomorrow” is overplayed where else here, I think its underplayed. Sure there’s the main credits and the finale but its big moment is done as a quiet scene when Annie visits the President. Well, at first its a quiet scene but then Franklin D. Roosevelt commands Warbucks and his secretary to sing the song to show its lasting power to remind people how optimistic they need to be. Hold on a moment. This is Franklin D. Roosevelt! The man who told us “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And what is he doing? Singing a show tune and later during the finale eating cotton candy at Warbuck’s Fourth of July party. There’s only so much corniness that can be done here.

So for all the negatives, is there some positives? Well, as said the technical work and choreography are great, some of songs are shot great and I do like the performances. I didn’t even mention how much I love Carol Burnett’s portrayal of Miss. Hannigan as an over exaggerated cartoon character or even Tim Curry’s slimy yet slick take on Hannigan’s brother Rooster. They have a big number “Easy Street” and surprisingly its perfect the way it is. They just dance about the orphanage while mucking up how much excitement they have in a plan they hope will succeed. You just can’t help but watch in delight how intimate yet fun the performance is.

Albert Finney is decent as Warbucks taking the Scrooge route of his character but there are times when I wish there was more sentimental value to his performance. When he goes mad and over the top, its funny to watch but when he needs to be caring towards Annie, it feels somewhat cold. Its not till she is close to finding her real parents that we get the feeling of Warbucks loosing someone so close to his heart. If Finney really played that out more, it would have been a perfect character.

A rare shot from the unused "Easy Street" sequence that was replaced with the one in the final version as three villains dancing with street folks was thought to be "overstuffed." Some snippets appeared in a behind the scenes special called"Lights! Camera! Annie!" along with the making of this scene

A rare shot from the unused “Easy Street” sequence that was replaced with the one in the final version as three villains dancing with street folks was thought to be “overstuffed.” Some snippets appeared in a behind the scenes special called”Lights! Camera! Annie!” along with the making of this scene

For a while, I tried to put my finger on why this movie didn’t grasp me midway as much as the first half as I felt a lot of stuff in the first 45 minutes was good. But then it dawned on me when I thought about when Annie was released. The movie musical came out in the summer of 1982 in sea of anticipated sequels and a week after Steven Spielberg’s E.T. So for a movie to come out in a sea of blockbusters, it makes sense to have it be this big, grand event film when its source is from a Broadway show set at Christmas. And while Christmas movies do have big business, they can be quiet and soft seeing how cheerful the holiday season is. Maybe if they stuck to the roots of the musical’s setting, it would have benefited better in some way. I did read up on some production problems it had like a version of “Easy Street” that had to be reshot from this grand $1 million set piece to a more lesser grand piece and “Let’s Go to the Movies” originally had this dance break that pushed things further. I can see why they would want to push the story into a bigger film but some of that doesn’t work.

Without giving too much away, a good example is the climax that is meant to be intense and nail biting as it goes into this chase sequence where Annie is dangling on a bridge while trying to get away from the bad guys and Warbucks sends out his bodyguards to save her. First off, what happened to the independent Annie that was all tough but fun? Now she’s hanging off a bridge for dear life. I know she’s a kid and there’s this adult after her, but do you think she would know better? And on top of that, it should be Warbucks rescuing her and not his assistants if he really cares for her that much. In fact, it just makes the movie feel a bit cold and cheap seeing how it builds to a climax that is uneven and lacks suspense. Because we know our main character is going to be safe, we know there will be a happy ending and at this point, we don’t feel much for the characters in jeopardy despite what we get tossed at us.

I’m even surprised to see a lot of people complain how light and cheery “Annie” gets when I found some parts of it to be too dark. Hannigan is always threatening the girls, there’s an assassination attempt at Warbucks that happens once and goes nowhere, Hannigan is always sleazy around every guy she sees, kids are tossed into peril at times, and the already mentioned climax. Even for a PG this is borderline depressing. But maybe that’s part of the charm. For every negative, there is a positive but even that is just pushing. I’ve obviously ragged on for too much on this film and if I go further, this opinion would become a novel.

The short version is that I think Annie is decent on its own. Its not ground breaking or timeless even if it attempted to be but the effort does show. Its not a movie I would watch on a constant basis but its worth revisiting just for those reasons I listed; the choreography, the performances and some of the numbers. I can’t say its the best seeing there are better movie musicals but I can’t say its the worst seeing how much everyone is trying to deliver. Not a big fan but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. Some of it was good but I just wish it was stronger in story and wasn’t too corny in places it didn’t need to be. A mixed bag but take it for what it is.

Rental Corner: “Herclues” is action routine but still fun

He's got the bulk and the act. But can Dwayne Johnson be Hercules? You would be surprised...

He’s got the bulk and the act. But can Dwayne Johnson be Hercules? You would be surprised…

Why is it that a move on the demi-god Hercules is hard to make these days? Is the idea of a stronger than average man taking up twelve tasks not interesting enough for a movie? Do we remember the good old days of sword and sandal films that were cheesy and fun? Well, that is where “Hercules” comes in. The only problem is that is an adaption of Steve Moore’s comic and I’m unfortunately not familiar with it.  Which makes me wonder how close to the source it was or just how diverse it gets? Neither one would surprise as being a film on its own terms, its enjoyable but for the wrong reasons.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays out title character who’s stories have been known far and wide as he has a band of mercenaries by his side in a major crusade. There’s an archer, his story-telling nephew, a prophet that can look into the future, one that throws knives and one that chucks spears. So yeah its The Expendables meets the TV show Hercules with Xena’s production. And that’s basically what it is. The whole movie has this weightless action/adventure tone that is nice but feels uneven seeing how expansive and grand it looks and feels at times. This is basically modernized telling of the Hercules mythos complete with modern terminology add to its action scenes and dialogue. Now its not bothersome to the point it pulls you out, but it does get wear thin seeing how massive yet Shakespearean it feels. Think Dragonheart but more lighter and action-oriented. But while Dragonheart didn’t feel too dated seeing the mannerisms and characters could fit a medieval setting, Hercules suffers because it doesn’t feel like this could all be set in its own time. Everything just screams modernization. Even right down to how the action is on par with today’s action movies.

But there are some upsides to it. Dwayne is surprisingly good as Hercules that it makes you wonder how he would be if this movie was taken seriously. Dwayne is able to carry out the fun of the film as he takes his roles with charm and entertainment. He doesn’t feel dull or act too serious but enough to at least show a variation of the Greek myth. This is where the mercenaries suffer because they all feel like cliches from action movies like The Expendables. These are characters I can sort see in modern day just by how they act upon one another. Its like a Diet Coke version of The Avengers but less personality. Once in a while they can be fun but mostly feel like basic characters.

Aside from standard action, the only real reason to see this movie is for John Hurt. Not that I’m a big fan but for the fact that he saves the movie from feeling mundane. He plays a tyrannical ruler that uses Hercules and his band for invasion with a simple motive to be in power to the end. On paper, its routine but John’s performance makes it unique starting off noble and Shakespearean and only going over the top for the end when needed. Had the movie gone this route of being serious, maybe it wouldn’t feel a tad forgettable.

As “Hercules” stands, the production value looks nice and the actors do their job well keeping the viewer entertained. But if your expecting a grand telling of the myth, you will be disappointed. I have no problems with a modernized take just as long as its evened out and enjoyable. Its risky to balance between making a story of the past and give it a modern take and while it doesn’t feel too dated, it makes you wish this was taken more seriously considering the scope and scale of the visual elements. But I can’t deny entertainment value when I see it. Only worth it for those elements listed above and if you really need some mindless fun.

Rental Corner: “Expendables 3” packs action but little boom

They say the third is never as good as the previous two....and this is sadly proof

They say the third is never as good as the previous two….and this is sadly proof

While I’m not a big fan of “The Expendables” franchise, what I do admire is how they are taking well-known action stars and crossing them over. The plots are nothing special as they tread cliche storylines from movies like Rambo or Die Hard. The franchise concerns a group of mercenaries that are set out to do missions outside the American soil to avoid terrorism and stuff like that. The first film was explosive seeing Sylvester Stallone work with Jet Li or Jason Statham along with how much effort it took to get these stars together. The series itself is very tounge-in-cheek but not to the point where its too “wink to the camera.” The third one on the hand has some good ideas and concepts but feels lacking.

Barney Ross (Stallone) returns as they plan to track down a new baddie played by Mel Gibson who is targeted for a never-ending line of war crimes. But when one of his crew mates gets injured close to death, Barney has no choice but to rely on a new crew to try and take out the wanted fiend. And this is where my main problem comes in. Not the concept of having a new crew but where they take it. Maybe its because I’m not up to date with the current trend of today’s action stars but I found Barney’s new members forgettable. They are all labeled by their personalities and what they do than rather let them be diverse. But isn’t that the point of a team? They have to have different abilities in order to feel like an important part. True but there’s nothing outside of what they do that makes then stand out. Jason Statham’s character of Lee Christmas was more than a knife expert as he was always fun to watch for his angry personality but knew when to be serious and kid around. Outside of knowing technology, there is nothing else I remember.

The worst of the batch being Antonio Banderas who is surprisingly the only one I recall but for the wrong reasons. His character Galgo only exists to be annoying comic relief but to the max. Every time he’s on screen, he doesn’t remain silent. Every ounce of his dialouge can be summed up as being typed by Jar Jar Binks and acted out by Chris Tucker. In fact, if this character was played by Chris Tucker or Eddie Murphy, then I can see the comedy working for a comedic actor that be annoying but likable. But it doesn’t work knowing how slick and fast Antonio can be. This is Zorro here and all he does in this movie is talk about having social issues and constantly hitting on one of the new recruits during a raid near the end. Nothing personal as Banderas is trying to have fun with the role but I just found him unfortunately obnoxious.

The only outstanding thing outside of the action scenes, the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger says “get to the chopper,” and we get to see Harrison Ford fly a fighter jet, is that Mel Gibson gets to play a villain right. This is his second time being the antagonist and I think he does a great job here. There’s one scene when he tries to get inside Barney’s head and manipulate him that is effectively creepy and intense. Every time he was on screen, I felt engaged by his personality and menaced by his Hannibal psychology. Its a shame there’s not enough of him in it to save the movie.

Maybe the idea was to parody how lackluster the “third” film can be, but even that can be a huge risk. Satire is fine as long as viewers are rewarded. The only reward here is mindless action and seeing there was some effort in character depth here, I felt somewhat cheated. I know “The Expendables” franchise is all explosion and less brain but it doesn’t hurt to have both. “Die Hard with a Vengeance” was able to pull that off with McClaine’s character pitted against a bitter Samuel L. Jackson that made up for some great comedic moments while being entertaining. I just wish the story was stronger and the cast of new recruits were more than just a plot element or at least interesting. I don’t care if you get Wesley Snipes tossing knives or have exploding buildings. I know its an action movie but it feels too routine and one-note for me to recommend.