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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Oliver Gettell

'Rock of Ages': '80s-inspired musical is off-key, critics say

June 15, 2012 |  3:58 pm

Rock of Ages

"Rock of Ages," adapted from the stage musical of the same name, is set amid the 1980s rock scene on the Sunset Strip — but it's also, to put it in contemporary terms, something of a mash-up, sampling songs from the era (by Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Foreigner), Broadway flourishes and Hollywood tropes (including a "Footloose"-style killjoy). Tom Cruise is the headliner, playing an aggrandized rock god named Stacee Jaxx, and Adam Shankman ("Hairspray") directs.

Although Cruise's outsize performance is earning praise from critics, many reviewers are saying that "Rock of Ages" fails to hit the right notes.

The Times' Kenneth Turan is among the critics giving "Rock of Ages" a positive review, declaring it  "a triumph of genial impudence over good sense and better taste" and "the guiltiest of guilty pleasures." The film succeeds, Turan writes, "because of its unlikely combination of a guileless, thunderously cliched boy-meets-girl plot structure conveyed in a sophisticated, showbiz-savvy style." The acting helps too, with "a sterling group of supporting actors to keep us entertained" and especially "fearless work" by Cruise.

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'Prometheus' comes up short of 'Alien' aspirations, critics say

June 8, 2012 |  3:56 pm

Prometheus
"Prometheus" director Ridley Scott has said, using an aptly biological metaphor, that his latest film shares DNA with his groundbreaking 1979 sci-fi horror show "Alien." The plot involves a group of scientists in space exploring the origins of life on Earth, and the big question surrounding the film is whether it can match "Alien" — or perhaps Scott's other sci-fi landmark, "Blade Runner" (1982). For critics, the answer seems to be: not quite.

The Times' Kenneth Turan writes that although "Prometheus" is "more involving than much of this year's summer blockbuster competition, by the standards set by its wizardly director it's something of a disappointment." While Scott succeeds as a technician — his first-ever use of 3-D is "expert," and he "remains a master creator of alternate worlds" — the director also "pushes too hard for significance" in a film with run-of-the-mill plotting. As far as acting, Charlize Theron is "strong" as an ice-cold corporate bigwig, Noomi Rapace is "hit and miss" as the lead scientist, and Michael Fassbender "excels" as the android David.

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'Django Unchained': Teaser trailer serves up revenge with style

June 6, 2012 |  5:14 pm

Django Unchained
The teaser trailer for "Django Unchained" has been released, offering a first glimpse of Quentin Tarantino's upcoming film about a freed slave-turned-bounty hunter (Jamie Foxx) trying to save his wife from a vicious plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).

True to Tarantino's genre-bending tendencies, the film is styled as a sort of "spaghetti Southern," a revenge tale set in the Deep South but inspired by the westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci (the latter directed 1966's "Django"). From the looks of the teaser, the film promises heaps of violence, striking set pieces and snappy wordplay.

At one point Foxx, taking up the lead role Will Smith reportedly passed on, spouts a catchphrase that's sure to blow up on Twitter: "The D is silent." He's joined by "Inglourious Basterds" star Christoph Waltz, who plays the German doctor responsible for buying Django's freedom and mentoring him in his new line of work. ("How do you like the bounty-hunting business?" Django is asked at one point. "Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What's not to like?" he replies.)

As with "Basterds," "Django" demonstrates that Tarantino isn't afraid to play in the darker corners of history. Neither, it appears, is DiCaprio. His character, the villain Calvin Candie, is said to be a truly despicable one who gets a kick out of watching slaves fight to the death. Viewers who think of DiCaprio primarily as a heartthrob might be in for a surprise, but his talent could go a long way toward making a vile character compelling.

The film, which opens Christmas Day, also stars Kerry Washington, Don Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson.

See the teaser trailer below.

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— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained." Credit: Andrew Cooper / The Weinstein Co.


'Snow White and the Huntsman' is a tale darkly told, critics say

June 1, 2012 |  1:27 pm

"Snow White and the Huntsman" brings a spooky shroud of dread to the Grimm fairy tale, and the resulting film is polarizing critics
"Snow White and the Huntsman," starring Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, takes the opposite tack of this year's earlier adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale, "Mirror Mirror." That film's bubbly fun has been traded for a spooky shroud of dread, and the resulting film is polarizing critics. Many reviewers praise the film's special effects and production design, but a significant portion also find the narrative uneven and overstuffed.

The Times' Betsy Shakey gives a positive review, calling the film "a baroque enchantment filled with dazzling darkness" and "an absolute wonder to watch [that] creates a warrior princess for the ages." Director Rupert Sanders makes a "brilliantly inventive debut," and "the film's Alexander McQueen-esque illusions of grandeur do a very good job of masking its flaws." Perhaps the biggest shortcoming is the anemic love story; as Sharkey says, "what this revisionist fairy tale does not give us is a passionate love." But Hemsworth "has a great screen presence" as the Huntsman, Theron's turn as the evil Queen Ravenna is "chilling," and "none of it would work without Stewart's steely Snow White."

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'Prometheus' offers oozing sci-fi spectacle, early reviews say

May 31, 2012 |  5:30 am

Noomi Rapace in Prometheus

Stateside sci-fi fans will have to wait till June 8 to see "Prometheus," Ridley's Scott's long-awaited oblique prequel to the "Alien" franchise, but some early and international reviews are already in. The story, which involves a space mission investigating the origins of human life going predictably awry, has met with mixed reviews, but critics agree that Scott's film is visually stunning and that Michael Fassbender delivers a scene-stealing performance.

In the Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy writes that "Prometheus" "won't become a genre benchmark" like classics "Alien" and "Blade Runner" "despite its equivalent seriousness and ambition, but it does supply enough visual spectacle, tense action and sticky, slithery monster attacks to hit the spot with thrill-seeking audiences worldwide." Stars Noomi Rapace (of the Swedish version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo") and Charlize Theron perform admirably, and Fassbender, playing a genteel android, "excels as he's allowed to begin injecting droll comedy into his performance."

Variety's Justin Chang says the film "remains earthbound in narrative terms, forever hinting at the existence of a higher intelligence without evincing much of its own." Chang also takes exception to the "stock wise-guy types who spout tired one-liners" and the "orchestral surge of a score," which undermines the film's tension. On the other hand, "Scott and his production crew compensate to some degree with an intricate, immersive visual design that doesn't skimp on futuristic eye-candy or prosthetic splatter."

Like McCarthy, the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw also invokes "Alien" and calls "Prometheus" "something more grandiose, more elaborate — but less interesting." It's also, he suggests, less frightening. On the bright side, it does have Fassbender, who turns in a "terrifically creepy performance" and "steals the film." Ultimately, Bradshaw says, "Prometheus" is "a muddled, intricate, spectacular film, but more or less in control of all its craziness and is very watchable."

The Telegraph's Tim Robey writes that "thanks to richly-designed planetary environments with plenty of H.R. Giger's original art in their DNA, the build-up to inevitable horrors is the most smoothly compelling part of Scott's movie." The movie isn't free of cliches, but Fassbender is "amusingly creepy and constantly interesting," and Rapace "gets better as she goes along."

Total Film's Jonathan Crocker also praises Fassbender's character as "brilliantly constructed" (pun presumably intended). Scott once again proves to have an impeccable eye for sci-fi surfaces ("the movie is "flawlessly designed"), although he's more adept "with Big Spectacle than Big Ideas." All told, "Prometheus" is "exciting, tense and fully impregnated for sequels."

As a touchstone for the "Alien" mythos and a potential new film franchise all its own, it looks as though "Prometheus" could be just the beginning.

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— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Noomi Rapace in "Prometheus." Credit: Kerry Brown / 20th Century Fox


'Men in Black 3' a blast from the past, critics say

May 25, 2012 |  1:18 pm

Men in Black 3

After a 10-year absence from the big screen, agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, respectively) are back to save the world from aliens (yes, again) in "Men in Black 3." After the widely panned "MIB2," this third installment is all about time travel — both in terms of plot and in trying to recapture the quirky fun of the original 1997 film. For many critics, the film has done just that, largely thanks to the addition of Josh Brolin.

The Times' own Betsy Sharkey writes, "'Men in Black 3' has got the MIB mojo back — well, most of it anyway." The film "has recovered some of the brashness and all of the unbridled affection for the weird, wonky otherworldly types that made the initial 1997 cosmic comedy such a kick," and Brolin's turn as K's younger self is "a casting coup." Brolin channels Jones "brilliantly" without sticking to a slavish impersonation, and the end result is "campy fun if not quite a classic."

The New York Times' A.O. Scott finds "MIB3" to be a movie "with no particular agenda. Which may be part of the reason it turns out to be so much fun." Though the film starts slowly, eventually "it swerves into some marvelously silly, unexpectedly witty and genuinely fresh territory," Scott says. Jemaine Clement ("Flight of the Conchords"), playing a time-hopping supervillain, brings "thunderous mock pomposity" to the proceedings, while Brolin is "uncanny and hilarious." Other game cast members include Alice Eve, Bill Hader and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Ty Burr, of the Boston Globe, calls Brolin "the film's most remarkable special effect." His performance, Burr says, "is funny, masterful, confident, and more than a little unsettling." The rest of the film "is about as good as one could hope for from an unnecessary sequel that’s a decade late to the party." Burr agrees with Scott that the first act drags and the story "feels pro forma," but once things get going there are moments of "deft, absurdist entertainment."

Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, deems "MIB3" "better than the first one" and echoes Burr in calling Brolin's young Agent K "the movie's most impressive achievement." The film also offers "an ingenious plot, bizarre monsters [and] audacious cliff-hanging," if that's your thing.

Hearst film critic Amy Biancolli ranks "Men in Black 3" as "not quite as fresh" as the original film but "a heck of a lot better" than the second. "Abundant humor, dabs of heartbreak and a suspenseful, vertiginous climax go a long way toward compensating for any logical lapses or cliches."

A few critics have proved somewhat immune to Brolin's charms, including the Village Voice's Nick Pinkerton, who writes that the actor does "a fair TLJ impersonation." It's not enough to save the film from "ubiquitous timidity" and "bland formula."

Whether J and K will return for future adventures remains to be seen. But in a world populated by aliens and time travelers, stranger things have happened.

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— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black 3." Credit: Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures


'Great Gatsby' trailer: Jazz Age excess with a hip-hop flourish

May 23, 2012 | 10:31 am

The Great Gatsby
This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The first trailer for Baz Luhrmann's star-studded adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" has been released, and it features many of the Australian filmmaker's hallmarks, including spectacular visuals (the film will be in 3-D), modern music in an anachronistic setting and a lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The trailer opens with a voice-over setting the scene ("New York, 1922") and a Jay-Z and Kanye West song setting the mood ("No Church in the Wild," from the duo's "Watch the Throne" album). The Roaring '20s are in full swing, with flappers in sparkling dresses and gents in sharp tuxedos spilling champagne and dancing under falling confetti.

A quick montage of people asking about DiCaprio's mysterious title character sets up one of the story's central questions: Who is Jay Gatsby? Among those who want to know are Tobey Maguire, playing Nick Carraway (the book's narrator); and Carey Mulligan, playing Gatsby's star-crossed love interest Daisy Buchanan.

Other actors glimpsed in the trailer include Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan as the shady businessman Meyer Wolfsheim, Australian actor Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan (Daisy's husband) and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker (Nick's love interest).

Luhrmann's eye for visual flair seems well-suited to the gilded glamour of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, and fans of the book will recognize a few landmarks, including Gatsby's well-manicured lawn, a "valley of ashes" and an ophthalmologist's billboard.

View the full trailer below.

For the record, 10:30 p.m. May 23: A previous version of this post referred to Tom Buchanan as Daisy's wife instead of Daisy's husband, and described the voice over as being by DiCaprio. It is by Maguire.  

 

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— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton in "The Great Gatsby." Credit: Warner Bros.


'The Dictator' offers iron-fisted, ham-handed laughs, critics say

May 16, 2012 |  3:21 pm

"The Dictator"

In "The Dictator," Sacha Baron Cohen combines his knack for absurd characters with the long-standing comedic tradition of skewering despotism on the big screen (see also: Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup," Woody Allen's "Bananas"). Critics mostly agree that "The Dictator," which stars Baron Cohen as the iron-fisted ruler of a fictional North African country, is funny and vulgar, but whether the combination truly works depends on whom you ask.

The Times' Betsy Sharkey says "The Dictator" is "by turns hysterical, heretical, guilty, innocent, silly, sophisticated, teasing and tedious." She adds that in the wake of the Arab Spring, "the satire should feel especially relevant, but there is so much silliness it's hard to take anything here that seriously." Baron Cohen's physical comedy creates some laughs, as does his chemistry with co-star Ben Kingsley, but Anna Faris, playing against type as a crunchy New York hippie, "is the film's standout." In the end, however, Sharkey says it may be time for Baron Cohen to try something new, as "it's hard not to think that this particular joke has gone on too long."

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'Dark Shadows' is short on storytelling, not style, critics say

May 11, 2012 |  3:30 pm

 

Dark Shadows
"Dark Shadows," Tim Burton's adaptation of the cult 1960s soap opera of the same name, features many of the director's trademarks, including a gothic setting, an offbeat sense of humor and Johnny Depp sinking his teeth into the lead role, this time as the temporally displaced vampire Barnabas Collins. Critics' reviews have been mixed, with an underlying current suggesting that one's appreciation of the film will depend on their taste for Burton's idiosyncrasies.

The Times' Kenneth Turan, who calls Burton's filmmaking style "very much an acquired taste," writes that "Dark Shadows" is "an uncertain combination of elements that unsuccessfully tries to be half-scary, half-funny and all strange." The production design, by Burton collaborator Rick Heinrichs, is "wonderful," and "Depp's performance is so unwavering in its commitment to eccentricity that it is hard not to be fitfully entertained." On the other hand, Turan says, the film is tripped up by Burton's "woeful lack of concern with story and drama."

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'On the Road' adaptation gets distribution from IFC, Sundance

May 8, 2012 |  8:10 pm

On the Road
Completing a journey that began in 1978, when filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to Jack Kerouac's classic 1957 Beat novel, "On the Road" is finally headed to U.S. theaters. On Tuesday, AMC Networks announced its acquisition of U.S. rights to the film, which will be jointly distributed by its IFC Films and Sundance Selects labels in the fall.

"On the Road" is directed by the Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, a road-film veteran who helmed "The Motorcycle Diaries," with Coppola serving as executive producer. It stars Sam Riley ("Brighton Rock") as the young writer Sal Paradise and Garrett Hedlund ("Tron: Legacy") as his free-spirited friend Dean Moriarty; Paradise and Moriarty are thinly veiled counterparts of Kerouac and pal Neal Cassady in the largely autobiographical story of cross-country road-tripping.

"Twilight" star Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst (a frequent collaborator with Coppola's daughter, Sofia), Amy Adams ("The Muppets") and Viggo Mortensen ("A Dangerous Method") round out the cast.

Despite the presence of young stars such as Stewart and Dunst, as well as the attachment of a big name like Coppola, "On the Road's" landing at IFC and Sundance could lower expectations for the film's performance, as neither label is known for setting the box office on fire. According to Box Office Mojo, only three IFC or Sundance films have ever surpassed $5 million in total gross: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Cave of Forogtten Dreams."

In a prepared statement, Jonathan Sehring, president of Sundance Selects and IFC Films, said they would put "all our resources together to make this theatrical release into a significant cultural event."

"On the Road" will make its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in the competition section. The festival runs May 16-27.

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— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Sam Riley, left, Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund in "On the Road." Credit: Gregory Smith / MK2


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