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SANCTUM Review

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James Cameron keeps trying to make the case for 3D but perhaps he should work harder in making the case for quality stories.  As a producer on Alister Grierson’s new 3D film Sanctum, Cameron is essentially putting his name on the picture and giving it his stamp of approval.  That’s a big mistake since the 3D highlights the shortcomings of the film’s visual effects and does nothing to make us care more about the characters and their fight for survival.  At best, the 3D makes the underwater caves of Sanctum slightly more immersive, but I don’t go to movies so I can be somewhat impressed by underwater caves.

 

At the heart of Sanctum lies an important question that we will all have to face at one point or another: how many people have to die for a son to bond with his father?  The movie centers on Josh (Rhys Wakefield) who is working on his father Frank’s (Richard Roxburgh) expedition into an unexplored cave system.  Footing the bill for the expensive project is Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) although the film doesn’t bother with providing Carl’s financial-incentive.  At best, Carl just wants to pay millions of dollars for his own spelunking adventure (even though Frank is the real adventurer).  Carl visits the site with his irritating girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) and decides that since she and him have both climbed Everest, this big hole in the ground shouldn’t be a problem.

And then a storm hits and Josh, Frank, Carl, Victoria, and Frank’s assistant George (Dan Wyllie) become trapped.  There’s also a non-white character but he gets knocked off with disturbing speed.  Actually, half of his face gets knocked away, he breaks every bone in his body, and then Frank decides to end the guy’s suffering through a charming practice I have chosen to dub “mercy-drowning.”  While it’s established that the cavers have knives, Frank thinks drowning is the kinder way to end this poor man’s suffering.

So we have an entitled rich ass-hole (can’t have a James Cameron movie without one of those), his shrill girlfriend, and a guy who not only drowns people as a way to end their suffering, but Frank also blames Josh when another diver drowns earlier in the film because Josh forgot to bring back-up air-tanks.  The film wants us to want these people to survive.

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While Cameron may be enamored of his 3D technology, he and Grierson should have realized that if you want us to root for people to survive, make them likable.  Instead, when the cave begins to flood and since Victoria doesn’t have a wetsuit, Frank suggests she takes the suit of a dead female diver.  Victoria shrieks, “I am not wearing the suit of a dead-woman!” as if Frank asked her to wear the dead diver’s skin.  So now we’re not wondering if Victoria is going to make it.  We’re hoping that she doesn’t.  It doesn’t help that Gruffudd forgot how to act and talk in an American accent or that Roxburgh decides to growl all of his lines.

But as long as the 3D works, then at least it’s a fun visual spectacle, right?  It could’ve been, butSanctum’s 3D only serves to show that this movie’s low visual effects budget. The opening scenes inside the cave look wretched as the 3D highlights the distance between the foreground and the green screen behind the actors.  There’s an ugly attempt to connect the two with light bouncing off the water, but that just makes the problem worse.  When Sanctum finally moves underwater and into cramped spaces, the 3D starts to click, but by then you no longer care because you’re not invested in the whiny characters and their struggle to survive.

James Cameron can champion 3D all he wants and in theory, Sanctum isn’t a bad film to get the 3D treatment.  One of the major criticisms of 3D is how it makes everything look dim, but that works inSanctum because the story dictates the limited amount of light available to the characters.  It also makes sense to use 3D’s infinite depth of field for a movie about characters moving through various underwater depths.  Unfortunately, the eagle-eye of 3D also picks up on the movie’s shoddy visual effects and even when it moves past the poor green screen work, we don’t really care if these losers make it back to the surface.  Sanctum may have an added visual dimension, but the story and characters are painfully flat.

Rating: D

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THE RITE Review

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The Rite is a prime case of a film without endurance. While the first half is often strong, intriguing, and full of humor, the movie stumbles and lurches through the finish. The exorcism genre has seen resurgence of late, but not many films in that line can boast about Anthony Hopkins playing a wily, unconventional exorcist. Unfortunately, the perfect casting of Hopkins is spoiled with the uneven tone. When director Mikael Håfström finally tries to tie up the loose ends in the film, it gives in to an unenthusiastic finale that feels rushed and diluted. The idea of possession versus dementia has been done before–with satisfying results–but here it feels mishandled. If coughing up a handful of iron spikes doesn’t convince someone, you know there isn’t much hope.

Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) is a skeptic looking to escape from the mortician family career but has limited funds. Choosing to attend seminary school with the intention of dropping out before going through with priesthood seems like a rash decision, but he goes for it anyways. Right before his dine and dash education is complete, he is given the opportunity to attend a new program the Vatican has recently opened to train exorcists–the ultimate unbeliever-buster Christianity has. But hey, it’s Rome. How bad can it be? When Michael is tasked to study under the unconventional and troubled exorcist, Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), his skepticism is pushed to the edge. As the exorcisms become increasingly extreme, he finds himself an unwilling pawn in a battle between good and evil.

Working off of a script by Michael Petroni that is based on a book by Matt Baglio, Håfström gives the fine gloss one would expect of a Hollywood film. The use of the Vatican City setting provides intrigue, but The Rite confines it to a springboard for the adventure. As the film continues, we become privy to the predictable foreshadowing as the signs of demonic possession are given in a class led by Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds), including a tremor in a limb. But just as the adventure seems to be stalling, Father Lucas is introduced and we are reeled back in.

Father Lucas is troubled by his years of exorcisms. Instead of a quick battle with a demon, exorcisms are described as continual wars that ratchet up in intensity over months. But don’t expect spinning heads or pea soup, Father Lucas quips. Yet, as the events become convincing for the audience, including a subject revealing secrets about Michael’s past, he remains steadfast in his disbelief. That theme is stretched beyond its limit as he continually disregards events that he simply cannot explain, and throws faulty logic at the few he challenges as psychotic behavior. When he finally starts to come around, it feels unnaturally sudden.

the-rite-image-alice-braga-Colin-O-Donoghue-02While the finale is fumbled and the themes are underutilized, the supporting cast provides one redeeming quality. Familiar faces like Hinds and Rutger Hauer populate the background and give their all to their shamefully small roles. Meanwhile, Hopkins continually shines even when the film is falling down around him. His witty banter as Father Lucas is smooth and effortless, while the dry humor is a continual home run with the audience. He is casual about the exorcism procedures, and his lackadaisical approach provides unexpected laughs. He even gets to stretch his creepy demeanor, though that, like the supporting cast, is criminally underused. Although Hopkins manages to turn in an intriguing and creative performance, the film focuses on O’Donoghue’s character and suffers for it. A bland and often uninteresting main character can crack the foundations of the best films–which no one would mistake The Rite. The transformation of Michael has to have authenticity, but comes off as harried. Even with a more capable actor in the role of Michael, it’s hard to say if the film would have been saved.

As it stands, The Rite throws everything it has to keep the audience interested in the beginning but leaves little to satisfy as it races towards the finish. Exorcisms have built in mystery and the film attempts to throw in new wrinkles with mixed results. This sub-genre rarely finds a supporting cast of this caliber, which is all the more frustrating when the pieces don’t combine to form something more worthwhile. January is often a wasteland for films that just can’t seem to pull it together despite solid ingredients; The Rite is no exception. The film opens everywhere today.

Score: C-

 

 

THE GREEN HORNET Review

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The Green Hornet is a film that succeeds in spite of itself and it’s a happy drunk that won’t leave you with too much of a hangover (despite the unnecessary 3D).

 

Britt Reid (Rogen) is the wealthy playboy son of newspaper magnate James Reid (Tom Wilkinson).  When his father dies from an apparent bee sting, Reid is grieving and in his grief wants to know why his morning coffee tastes like shit.  A maid mentions that Britt fired his father’s staff (in a scene we never see for a reason that’s never explained), which included his father’s mechanic and chief coffee-maker, Kato (Jay Chou).  Reid summons Kato to the mansion and the two begin a friendship where we see that Kato can pretty much do anything.  The two agree that James was kind of a dick and they go to cut the head off his father’s statue.  That little misadventure leads them to accidentally protecting a couple from a gang of muggers.  Giddy from the thrill, the two decide to become undercover superheroes.  Their plan: pretend to be bad guys so that they can get in close with the real bad guys and take them down.

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So how does Britt plan to make a name for his alter ego, The Green Hornet?  By using his pull as his newspaper’s new owner to manipulate the news and demand front-page Green Hornet coverage.  In the meantime, Kato, who is also a martial arts expert, will pimp out the cars, and Britt will pick out the outfits.  It’s a fun twist on the superhero story: the character’s main motivation doesn’t come out of a deep-seated desire for justice and his sidekick is the real hero.  But they’re both kind of petty and childish and if it weren’t for Kato’s martial arts ability and Britt’s resources, they would be ridiculously out of their depth.

The film is really about the relationship between Britt and Kato, but someone along the way must have said “Superhero movies need a villain and a love interest.”  Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg seem less-than-interested in those ideas, so the result is underdeveloped baddie Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) and female lead Lenore (Cameron Diaz).  Waltz seems to lack direction and his approach to the character seems a disheartening mixture of boredom, insecurity, and sociopathy.  It’s a disappointment to see him go from playing one of cinema’s all-time great villains in Inglourious Basterds to a bad guy who is so forgettable.  Diaz fares slightly better since her character, who has degrees in journalism and criminology, inadvertently gives hints to Britt and Kato about what crimes they should commit next.  While both characters vie for her romantic affections, the film seems disinterested in giving either of them a real emotional connection with Lenore.

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The picture’s real interest is in the burgeoning bromance between Britt and Kato.  Rogen and Chou have strong on-screen chemistry, but it mostly falls to Kato to be the straight man while Rogen goes completely off-the-wall with his excitement.  Rogen brings a childlike enthusiasm to the character who honestly believes he’s the hero even though his contributions to The Green Hornetplan are mostly superficial (he doesn’t even come up with the name “The Green Hornet”; his original idea is “The Green Bee”, which everyone at the newspaper hates and it’s Kato who comes up with “Hornet”).  But because you can see Rogen having so much fun with the character, that enthusiasm carries the film through its slower moments.  While some superhero properties are trying to go dark and gritty, The Green Hornet wants to goof off and have a good time.  That light-heartedness and Rogen’s charisma keeps you rooting for Britt even though he’s not particularly good at anything and kind of a dick.

Gondry contributes to that spirit but in a restrained manner that shows he has a knack for action and big-budget theatrics while not losing his mischievous lo-tech camera tricks.  There are times when Gondry’s films can OD on whimsy (I’m looking at you, The Science of Sleep), but the director strikes a fun balance and knows when to deliver a blockbuster punch of pyrotechnics and when to have a little fun and throw in some animation or editing tricks.  It all comes together beautifully in “Kato-Vision”, which is how Kato interprets battles and proceeds to fight them.  It’s a mix of time-distortion and reality-distortion.  For example, one car can become five cars which allows Kato to pick up speed and deliver a flying kick to a thug’s face.

It’s during “Kato-Vision” where the 3D works best.  Unfortunately, for the rest of the film, it’s mostly unnecessary.  As far as 3D post-conversions go, the presentation isn’t awful, but there’s nothing that demands you shell out the extra money to see an added dimension to this film.  What makes The Green Hornet work is Rogen’s terrific performance and Gondry’s upbeat direction.  And even when you realize that Britt’s major moral revelation is complete hypocrisy, you’ll be having too much fun to care.

Rating: B-

 

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