24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Critical Mass

'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" 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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'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.


'Prometheus': Damon Lindelof promises an epic

R rating for 'Prometheus': Will it hurt the film commercially?

Meet David the android from Ridley Scott's upcoming 'Prometheus'

— 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.


'Men in Black 3' was no easy sequel to make

'Men in Black 3': Rick Baker’s ongoing search for alien life

Movie Projector: 'Men in Black 3' debut to take out 'Avengers'

— Oliver Gettell

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

'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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'The Avengers': Superhero fun for many critics, and Fury for one

May 3, 2012 |  6:18 pm

The Avengers
You'd think a tough guy like super-spy Nick Fury, the ringleader of the titular all-star superhero team in "The Avengers," would have pretty thick skin. But it turns out Fury, or at least the actor who plays him, Samuel L. Jackson, took exception to the New York Times' mixed review of the Marvel comic adaptation, in which A.O. Scott wrote that the film's "failures are significant and dispiriting." Scott added that the film is dragged down by "grinding, hectic emptiness" and "bloated cynicism."

In response, Jackson wrote the following tweet: "#Avengers fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let's help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!"

Jackson needn't get too worked up, as many critics are finding "The Avengers" to be an entertaining comic book romp. The Times' own Kenneth Turan writes that "this film just might make a believer of you" — even if you've been frustrated by previous Marvel adaptations or generally uninterested in them. Turan says writer-director Joss Whedon "is the key reason why this $220-million behemoth of a movie is smartly thought out and executed with verve and precision. It may be overly long at two hours, 23 minutes, but so much is going on you might not even notice." The action scenes are "crisply done," the dialogue is often "genuinely funny," and the chemistry is "pleasantly convincing."

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'The Raven' is macabre and muddled, quoth the critics

April 28, 2012 |  8:00 am

The Raven

"The Raven," a new mystery thriller that imagines Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) helping police solve a series of murders inspired by his stories, follows in the footsteps of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies, combining 19th century literary figures and Hollywood flair. Alas, many movie critics have found the result scattered and silly.

In a mixed review, The Times' Betsy Sharkey calls the film "more pulp fiction than macabre masterpiece," though she does concede that it has "a nifty idea" at its center. What's lacking most, Sharkey says, "is the tightly constructed tension-building that Poe did so unsettlingly and inventively well." On the plus side, Luke Evans is "excellent" as the detective who teams up with Poe, and style points are awarded to cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann and costume designer Carlo Poggioli.

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'The Lucky One': Zac Efron romance unlucky with most critics

April 20, 2012 |  2:11 pm

The Lucky One
The new romance "The Lucky One," starring Zac Efron as a weary Marine and Taylor Schilling as a beautiful stranger, is the latest in a line of film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks' weepy novels. (In case you've forgotten, the list includes "Dear John," "The Last Song" and most famously "The Notebook.") As is often the case with Sparks' movies and their imitators (including "The Vow" earlier this year), critics agree that "The Lucky One" is a tear-jerker best left to hard-core romance fans.

In one of the more positive reviews, the Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey calls "The Lucky One" a "sweet but not too syrupy romance" and "the best Sparks-inspired film to come along since 'The Notebook.' " It's certainly not perfect: "Without much tension, the film becomes more of an extended music video of Logan and Beth's [Efron and Schilling's characters] rocky road to love," Sharkey writes. But the film is "beautifully captured by director of photography Alar Kivilo," she says, while Efron is "in his wheelhouse," Schilling is "moving," and director Scott Hicks "keeps 'The Lucky One' from turning into complete mush."

The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday is less impressed and describes the film as a "tepid, inert enterprise." "The Lucky One," she continues, is "devoid of genuine tension, conflict or combustible chemistry between its two stars," and "just prettily sits there." So does Efron, for that matter: "The role of a stoic, expressionless philosopher-soldier requires that he tamp down his natural exuberance and physical grace, a regrettable misuse of his native talents." Invoking "The Notebook," Hornaday concludes that "'The Lucky One' tries hard to re-bottle that lightning, to no avail."

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