by Jeff Boam
Opening This Weekend
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton
In a city full of dreamers, it only makes sense that fairy tales would become one of the hottest commodities, however fractured. Blame director Terry Gilliam. Ever since The Brothers Grimm bowed in 2005, Hollywood has been taking a lot of pages from, well, Grimms’ Fairy Tales. In 2011, Catherine Hardwicke directed Amanda Seyfried in a Gothic re-imagining of Red Riding Hood. Next, Julia Leigh directed Emily Browning in a very adult re-telling of Sleeping Beauty. Then came two takes on Snow White in 2012, broken dud Mirror Mirror and the ridiculously successful Snow White & the Huntsman. Now, moviegoers have Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, the first project from MTV Films to be released in the IMAX 3D format. In this PG-13-rated adventure comedy, siblings Hansel and Gretel (Renner, Arterton) take vengeance on the witch who tried to cook and eat them in a gingerbread house 15 years after the incident. The Plus: The players. Renner is burning hot after starring in back (The Hurt Locker) to back (The Town) to back (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol) smash hits. After warm (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) and warmer (The Clash of the Titans) turns, Arterton is also due a hot streak. The Minus: The odds. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was first set to bow in March, 2012. First, it got moved to Jan. 11, but then got delayed again to avoid competition with Gangster Squad. It doesn’t sound like Paramount, the studio releasing the picture, has much faith in their product.
Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez
Wake the kids and call the neighbors! It’s time for action star Jason Statham to squint and kick people in the head again! In his very own franchises (The Transporter, Crank), stand-alone actioners (Death Race, The Mechanic), or working with an ass-kicking team (The Italian Job, The Expendables), the Stath seeks out revenge better than any shaven-head Brit working Hollywood today. In director Taylor Hackford’s (Ray) R-rated crime-thriller Parker, a thief with a unique code of professional ethics (Statham) gets double-crossed by his crew and left for dead, so he assumes a new disguise and forms an unlikely alliance with a woman on the inside (Lopez) as he looks to hijack the score of the crew’s latest heist. The Plus: The players. There’s a reason why Statham gets offered these blunt-force parts. The Stath does action quite well, especially if he stays in his wheelhouse (Snatch, The Bank Job). Here, he joins Lopez (Out of Sight, Ice Age: Continental Drift), Michael Chiklis (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, NBC’s Vegas), Bobby Canavale (Win Win, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), and Patti Lupone (Sweeney Todd, NBC’s 30 Rock). The Minus: The odds. His involvement in the ensemble Expendables 2 notwithstanding, Statham’s Blitz (2012) went straight to video and the two actioners that followed probably should have followed suit (Killer Elite, Safe). Teaming him with Lopez, whose recent run is nothing to write Hollywood about (The Back-up Plan, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), doesn’t raise hopes for this go-round, especially after Schwarzenegger’s comeback tanked last week (The Last Stand).
Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe
Neither a shining City on a hill nor a movie Broken beyond repair, Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe’s solid collaboration holds a lot of political clout and landslide potential but ultimately just ekes out a slim victory. Granted, it’s a victory nonetheless, boasting A-list talent that stands and delivers. Throughout the nearly 2-hour running time, the performance of all involved — director, cast and screenwriter — feels more vainglory than gutsy as if they felt that their involvement alone warranted a slam dunk with both critics and moviegoers. While watching Broken City, there are times the flick feels as if it’s “this close” to becoming a way-better-than-expected star-studded thriller along the lines of Fracture, State of Play and The Lincoln Lawyer. Truly the stakes feel high and the tone remains consistently suspenseful. By the third act, however, the pieces fall predictably into place and there’s no 11th hour X-Factor to give it some standout oomph. In this R-rated political thriller, an ex-cop in a city rife with corruption (Wahlberg) trails the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of the mayor (Crowe) only to find himself embroiled in a larger scandal. After developing an above average CV with his brother, Albert (Menace II Society, From Hell, The Book of Eli), Allen Hughes goes it alone with a lot of skill but little style. Still, everything runs like clockwork and he cranks out some respectably pot-boiling scenes. Working from Brian Tucker’s semi-decent script, Wahlberg, Crowe, and Zeta-Jones stay firmly in their wheelhouse without breaking a sweat. Bottom line: The City that sometimes sleeps.
Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Though far from being the mother of all creature features, Mama scares up some hair-raising thrills thanks to a frighteningly freaky ghoul and fearless lead performance. Creepy kids always seem to do the trick for horror-loving audiences. Thankfully, this maternal monster movie features two feral lil’ wild children crawling, speaking in tongues, eating bugs, jumping out unexpectedly, and communing with an evil spirit. Oh, this is certainly not the most unique addition to the cinematic halls of horror. After all, The Omen, The Ring and Look Who’s Talking all capitalized on using pint-sized evil to equal adult-sized terror. Here, however, such scare tactics unfortunately get rooted in so many horrific cliches that it’s almost all for naught-y. In the PG-13-rated horror flick Mama, a young couple (Chastain, Coster-Waldau) gets faced with the challenge of raising their two young nieces that were left alone in the forest for five years … only they begin to wonder “How alone were they?” Writer/director Andres Muschetti’s short version of Mama reportedly wowed producer Guillermo del Toro, who green-lit this full-length go-round. In short doses, this first-time feature filmmaker shows promise as a true scaremaker. This expansion of his story and style also pushes his shortcomings to the forefront, however. Sadly, he shrouds every setting in darkness — including daytime scenes. There’s also the matter of his crazy ending, which turns a scary antagonist into somewhat of a Scooby Doo villain. Chastain stands out as his ace card, selling through some believable screams and a terrorizing specter that’s often a mother of a faintmaker. Bottom line: Mother drecker.
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz
Unchained, unleaded, and unforgettable, Quentin Tarantino and Jamie Foxx’s ace Southern-fried collaboration rides high despite a minor saddle sore or two. In this R-rated revisionist Wagner-tinged western, a German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) helps gun-slinging former slave Django (Foxx) to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). For 20 years now, game-changing filmmaker Tarantino has spoken and even helped rewrite the language of world cinema. It comes as a pleasing surprise then that, in tackling the American-born but European-bred genre called the western, he doesn’t stray too far from the Rosetta Stone primer, straight-talking and straight-shooting his way through a straight-ahead, engrossing, giddy, and bloody revenge tale from the Spaghetti West that doesn’t entirely reinvent the wagon wheel. Indeed, it rides into a sunset filled with some indelible aesthetics and pitch-perfect performances. Bottom line: A fistful of hollas.
Josh Brolin, Sean Penn
Over-stylized to the point of almost having no substance, Gangster Squad amounts to being bullspit in a Chinatown shop. In this PG-13-rated 1949 LA-set crime thriller, a diverse crew of LAPD outsiders (Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick) try taking down a ruthless mob king (Penn). The real events on which this flick is based are well worth dramatizing … just not to this staggeringly arch degree. The takedown of Mickey Cohen gets turned into such a cliched cops ‘n’ gangsters tale that the Inglorious Basterds gunning down Hitler at a bogus film premiere suddenly doesn’t seem like such a historic diversion. Except for Penn, whose cartoonish Mickey comes across more Mouse than Cohen, the cast performs to the best of their abilities despite the script hardboiling down some potentially riveting moments. Bottom line: The Big Nowhere.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan
Despite its title, An Unexpected Journey thankfully delivers more of the same epic adventure as a certain Three-Rings extravaganza. In this PG-13-rated fantasy, Bilbo Baggins gets swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from a fearsome dragon. Truthfully, it feels, looks, and plays out like a seamless prequel to the Lord of the Rings. Unlike the candy-coated Star Wars prequels, which seem as linked to their much superior predecessors as Adam West’s Batman is to Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, this first of three film series roots itself firmly in Peter Jackson’s overly-stuffed interpretation of writer J.R.R. Tolkien’s words. Try as they might, the stakes never feel as high as with LOTR, but it’s still a journey worth taking. Bottom line: More middle of the road than Middle Earth.
Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe
Despite being bleaker than Bleak House, this movingly soul-stirring film adaptation of a musical adaptation of a book adaptation of Les Miserables is truly master of the movie house. In this PG-13-rated 19th-century France-set musical, ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Jackman) seeks redemption with a ruthless policeman (Crowe) on his trail. From the opening salvo, all involved dream a dream of greatness, which is vaulted air. It could’ve gone the way of overly produced stage to screen heart-wrung-out Hollywood pomp like Rent and Nine. Instead, sung in-the-moment — not lip-synched — and framed in beguilingly intimate close-ups, Les Miserables proves to be a deeply emotional journey for the audience. Tear-swept filmgoing at its most heartfelt, the musical easily ranks with Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret and Chicago as a genre high-note even if it’s less toe-tapping and more gut-wrenching. Bottom line: Sings for its super.
Texas Chainsaw 3D
Alexandra Daddario, Scott Eastwood
Despite Chain-linking itself to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, this Texas-fried thriller sputters to a stop when it comes to slapping Leatherface. In this R-rated horror sequel, a young woman (Daddario) inherits a Texas estate only to find a chainsaw-wielding maniac imprisoned in the cellar. Cabin in the Woods made fun of this template, regardless of the fact that it still holds up if all involved know how to wink and nod. Instead, we have director John Luessenhop and three screenwriters trying to take this slasher series in a wild 11th hour direction but the scares are weak and the batpoop-crazy twist just isn’t unique enough to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Despite a frame-for-frame Psycho-tic refilming of the original’s climax, this subpar follow-up just chainsaw massacres the hopes of horror fans looking for a proper continuance. Bottom Line: Leather defaced.
Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton
Zero-ing in on an incendiary true story with documentary-like realism, this Dark narrative film demonstrates powerhouse filmmaking that’ll burn the audience’s britches as much as burns itself into their retina. In this R-rated thriller, an elite team of black ops intelligence and military operatives (Chastain, Edgerton, Jason Clarke) attempt to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. Fully immersing the filmgoer into a morally ambiguous world of torture, war profiteering, and death mongering by their Achilles heel, this project might raise questions as to human rights violations, but it succeeds in painting a clear picture of nefarious work. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was just a practice run for this dogged detective story, warts and all. Jessica Chastain’s unwavering commitment to the hunt-obsessed main character is so chillingly dead-on that you think the actress truly lost her soul. Bottom line: The awards Lock ’er.