Johnson is a rock in otherwise predictable ‘Hercules’

There is no doubt that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has a commanding physical presence. Whether or nor he can act is debatable, but put him into a role in which he can exploit his superb physicality and the result can be an entertaining if not a particularly deep movie.

In “Hercules,” Johnson is the perfect match for title character: muscular, adept at wielding the weapons of the day — and his fists as well — to vanquish foes, as he assumes the glare that was part of his professional wrestling persona.  Just do not expect any dramatic flair from him.

This version of Hercules is based upon the radical comic from Steve Moore, adapted for the screen by Ryan Condal (his first major screenplay) and Evan Spiliotopoulos, who has written several straight-to-video scripts, and directed by Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour”).

Hercules as presented here is the son of the god king Zeus, and upon enduring the 12 perilous labors, and haunted by personal tragedy, has formed a small group of mercenaries who hire out to fight battles. With no allegiances, Hercules and his group can go into battle and efficiently prevail. Hercules is hoping to soon earn enough gold pieces to secure a serene retirement.

Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt), leader of Thrace, seeks help from Hercules to save their country from imminent attack from a conquering horde. Upon arriving at Thrace, Hercules and his band face the task of training a novice army of farmers from the depleted ranks of able-bodied men in the kingdom. The first foray into battle has mixed results, so the training continues but before long, Hercules and his group have molded this band into a formidable army.

Unfortunately, Hercules and company are thrown into a dilemma, wondering if they were duped into building an army designed for aggression rather than defense, forcing them to shed their objectivity and pursue what they believe is right.

Between the chaotic battle scenes are the side stories to help build character. Offering some humorous moments is Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, the oldest of Hercules’ group and a man who is devoted to the gods’ prophesies despite their lack of clarity or accuracy. Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) is a young cousin of Hercules, tasked with telling stories of the exploits of Hercules while pining to go into battle, something Hercules continues to deny.

Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) and the mute, animalistic Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) are diehard loyalists to Hercules, having battled side-by-side with him for years. And Ingrid Bosol Berdal is Atalanta, the lone woman of the group, a proficient archer, looking like she came straight out of a “Xena Warrior Princess” episode, and is one of those with an endless supply of arrows.

This is all fantasy, of course, so the viewer needs to dismiss such issues as to how, despite a mounting body count in the battles, there never seems to be a depletion of people, along with the almost laughable way Atalanta always has an ample arsenal of arrows, never needing a timeout to go grab some more.

The battle scenes are fantastic, with some great aerial shots that vividly display the scope of the action. Joseph Fiennes (as King Eurystheus) and Hurt get moments to go Shakespearean and portray the evil of power gone mad.

“Hercules” will not drill the viewer with any plot twists, and it rolls noisily to a conclusion that will surprise nobody. All in all, it is a summer popcorn movie, with a lot of action and not much in the way of searing drama.


‘The Purge: Anarchy’ views perilous hours on the streets

Writer-director James DeMonaco has said a road-rage incident with a drunken driver, and a muttering by his wife in the immediate aftermath about a chance to get even, planted the seed for the idea that developed into “The Purge,” a sleeper hit of 2013. The premise was that in the near future in the United States, the New Founders of America have sanctioned a 12-hour period in which all crime, including murder, is legal. This is ostensibly to allow people to work out their aggression, but obviously there is a more sinister society-cleansing objective involved.

Because of budget limitations, DeMonaco had to pare his story down and focus on one family, James and Mary Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) and their two children. James Sandin has become wealthy as a seller of home security systems necessary to survive The Purge. But when his daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) provides sanctuary for a desperate man targeted by killers, he learns that even with all the technology at hand, everything can break down because of human failings.

The success of the movie resulted in more financial muscle for DeMonaco, and he was able to move the action out to the streets in “The Purge: Anarchy,” and tell the story of those who do not have the the means to turn their homes into fortresses. The result is a high-tension horror show that explores the worst, and best, in humans.

“Anarchy” focuses on five people who find themselves with no safe haven as darkness falls on the day of the annual purge. Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) is a single mom of a teen girl, Cali (Zoe Soul), struggling to make ends meet as a server at a coffee shop. Shane and Liz (real-life couple Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) are having financial and marital difficulties and while en route to Shane’s sister’s house their car breaks down, leaving them stranded as The Purge commences.

The fifth person is Leo, also known as Sergeant (Frank Grillo), the only one of the group who voluntarily is on the streets, armed and on some sort of a revenge mission.

Not surprisingly, The Purge also becomes a source of entertainment and amusement for those with the monetary resources to pay for such services. Thus, people like Eva and Cali who don’t have secure homes are vulnerable to invasions and purgings.

Luckily, Eva and Cali, and Shane and Liz encounter Leo, who has to set aside his own objectives and help the four people get through the night.

And what a night it is. But not a fun one for these five people. Lethal danger lurks around every corner. There are a few deranged loners intent on picking off people via sniper strategies,  a gang of masked marauders who have set their sights on Shane and Liz, and a menacing guy named Big Daddy (Jack Conley), cruising around in an 18-wheeler loaded with weaponry and technology that has tapped into surveillance cameras, and accompanied by armed goons on motorcycles.

Leo’s weapons do not match these deadly adversaries, so he has to be resourceful, and it gets even crazier when supposedly safe sanctuaries turn perilous.

DeMonaco keeps the suspense in high gear while also providing a sobering message about decent people in the lower class that are deemed expendable. As the movie ends, The Purge is over for now but seems embedded in the new reality of this future America.

In an interview with Fangoria magazine, DeMonaco was asked if there was a third “Purge” in the works. He declined to comment, saying he did not want to jinx anything. But “The Purge” gets a grip on you, and fans will heartily welcome another installment, especially with an additional story line that is left open.

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ a worthy sequel

Andy Serkis, who despite being under layers of makeup, managed to make us weep for King Kong and freaked us out as Gollum. Now he has scored again as Caesar, the intelligent chimpanzee who leads the simian colony in the superb sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote the screenplay for the reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” are joined by Mark Bomback (“Wolverine”) in picking up the story, which ended with the ominous possibility of a lethal virus being spread worldwide while Caesar, the super intelligent chimp, is leading his simian group, immune to the virus, to set up residence in the woods outside of San Francisco.

“Dawn” opens with a montage of grim images covering about 10 years as the ALZ-113 virus, originally developed to battle Alzheimer’s, has decimated the human population to possible extinction.

Caesar is now married to Cornelia (Judy Greer) and they have a son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) who is likely a teenager in chimp years, and a new son is soon born. Caesar is the undisputed leader of the simian colony and uses sign language to communicate with most of the colony. He and his lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), also can speak.

One day Blue Eyes and his friend Ash (Doc Shaw) stumble upon a human, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who in a panic shoots and wounds Ash. The gunfire draws not only Caesar, Koba and others but a group of humans of which Carver is a member. Malcolm (Jason Clarke from “Lawless”) is the leader of the humans and is fortunately a cool head, who along with Caesar, manages to extinguish a tense situation. But Caesar demands that the humans leave.

The humans, however, need to get through the woods to a nearby dam where a dormant generator can be reactivated to provide much needed energy to a colony of people in the city.

Now aware that humans still exist and needing to keep his colony from panicking, Caesar leads a huge group of simians to the city in a show of power and tells the humans that although they want no war, they will fight if the humans try to come into their territory. As a gesture of faith, Caesar returns a satchel dropped by Malcolm’s teen son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee)  while fleeing the forest.

The human colony is led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who also would prefer not to go to war but realizes they must get the power plant operational. Malcolm pleads with Dreyfus to give him three days to go back and negotiate with Caesar. Dreyfus OKs this but as a backup plan has some of his men go to an armory where weapons are stored and to prepare for possible armed fighting.

Caesar and Malcolm work out a fragile peace that allows the humans on the power plant detail a chance to work on the power plant, on the condition they surrender their weapons.

But as happens there are loose cannons among the cool heads. Carver is discovered to have an additional gun stored away. And among the simians, Koba, carrying scars and distrust of humans after being subjected to their cruelty, takes a couple of apes with him on a reconnaissance mission to the city, where he sees two men testing weapons outside an armory full of weaponry and ammunition.

Koba reports his findings to Caesar, who is concerned but still believes allowing the humans to work on the plant is the best option to assure peace. Koba concedes but with reluctance.

Malcolm banishes Carver from the power plant project, but this enables Koba to manipulate things to trigger animosities. When Caesar is shot and apparently killed, Koba is easily able to rally the simians to attack the human colony.

Director Mark Reeves, whose previous works includes “Cloverfield,” is skilled in creating action scenes loaded with chaos, violence, panic and heroism, and the trio of writers have created a story that highlights the conflict within each faction. Caesar has seen the best and worst in mankind, and in Malcolm he slowly develops a trust akin to that of which he had with Will Rodman (James Franco), who raised him. Koba is a destructive force but he has legitimate reasons to hate the humans. Blue Eyes is at the stage of life where he questions his father but ultimately realizes Caesar’s wisdom and compassion.

Malcolm is supported by Ellie (Keri Russell), a woman he met after losing his wife to the virus and who becomes his lover. Her medical expertise comes in handy when she is able to treat the ill Cornelia, an action that seals the trust between Caesar and Malcolm. Another touching development is the friendship between the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), who is steadfastly loyal to Caesar, and Malcom’s son Alexander.

Even Drefus is given a moment to reflect the tragedy he suffered and why he is driven by his obligations to protect the people he now leads. This creates an effective drama amid the action. For all the trouble they cause, Koba and Dreyfus are worthy of sympathy.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” ends with a sobering realization that despite some real bonding between key members of the simian and human colonies, conflict is inevitable. But the movie also sprinkles a little hope among the grim realities.

For Roger Ebert, ‘Life Itself’ was a grand adventure

For millions of people, the lasting impression of film critic Roger Ebert was that of a heavy-set man, looking like an academic — the kind of person who knew all the answers in class and jacked up the grading curves with his ridiculously high scores. He wore glasses and was every school’s top nerd. He also was charismatic and charming in his own way.

For years people would tune into a show, “Sneak Previews,” that starred Ebert and his co-host Gene Siskel as they offered critiques of the latest movies. The show featured clips of the movies being reviewed, and if you were lucky, an intense disagreement between the two hosts on the merits and flaws of the films.

This was a formula that worked for years and added a spontaneity and human element. It also made Siskel and Ebert the most famous film critics ever. But it all was a compromise, because of those who watched these two on TV, initially very few had access in those days to reading their material in print.

Fortunately, via syndication, book publishing and Internet archives, the writings of Siskel and Ebert have been made available, and with the touching and informative documentary “Life Itself,” now in theaters and soon to hit the pay TV and DVD/Blu-ray market, interest may spike in people seeking their print work.

“Life Itself” is based on Ebert’s autobiography and it is a rich collection of history and commentary on the life of a man who was born to write.

Directed by Steve James, “Life Itself” has a lot of footage that is difficult to watch, following Ebert in the final months of his life in late 2012 and early 2013, almost entirely in the hospital. The ravages of the cancer he had battled for years had deformed his face, making his mouth virtually useless. He could no longer talk or eat.

Thus, the laptop keyboard became his mouthpiece, and despite the miseries he suffered, he was able to exude an inner strength, dignity and humor that is inspiring.

Between these emotionally draining scenes, James puts together a biography of Ebert, rich in photos and clippings, along with recollections from Ebert’s friends and colleagues, including some surprising insights by director Martin Scorsese (who along with screenwriter Steven Zaillian served as executive producer for this film).

Roger Ebert knew at an early age that he was a writer, and as a child he published his own neighborhood paper, and delivered it door-to-door.

He was a driving force at his college newspaper and already had accumulated an impressive portfolio of work when he was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1960s. When the paper’s film reviewer retired, Ebert was assigned to replace him. Ebert settled into this niche nicely and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his film commentary.

While he excelled in his work, he also became seduced by the night life in Chicago, an indulgence that led to the realization he was an alcoholic. He quit drinking, and with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous was able to stay sober the rest of his life.

The core of “Life Itself” centers around the two biggest forces in his life — his late-in-life marriage to Chaz, an inter-racial union that made Ebert instantly a stepfather and step-grandfather; and his many years co-hosting his show with Siskel.

Chaz was 10 years younger than Ebert and they hit it off and were married in 1992, when Ebert was 50. Although an only child and a bachelor for a half-century, Ebert thrived as a family man — in one segment, Ebert fondly recalls (Stephen Stanton provides the voice-over in reciting Ebert’s words) taking long walks with his step grandson.

The Eberts’ love story is richly displayed here, with photos from their life together, and especially in the sobering footage of Chaz at Ebert’s side during his hospitalization, not showing pity but a reinforcing support. Even after some procedures that are clearly uncomfortable, Chaz could read when Ebert was ready to move on and continue working.

Also of great interest is the detailing of the Siskel and Ebert collaboration. In the beginning it had possibilities of being a failure. Siskel and Ebert were competitors: Ebert writing for the working-class Sun-Times and Siskel for the powerful Chicago Tribune. Siskel, before marrying and settling down, was a jet-setter and part of the inner circle at the Playboy mansion.

There are some wickedly funny outtakes from the Siskel and Ebert shows, with these two competitive and driven men taking verbal — and often profane — swipes at each other. Comments from others conceded that although Ebert could hold over Siskel that he had a Pulitzer, and although Ebert was older, Siskel seemed to be the big brother in their relationship.

Initially, the show was not offered in the major markets of Los Angeles and New York, and was a hard sell, with two men sitting in a mock theater, and dressed casually (like clowns, one commentator noted). But when L.A. and New York picked up the show, it really took off.

These were two strong personalities and clashes were constant. Both men were coy when asked how it was decided that Siskel’s named would precede Ebert’s. Despite their disagreements, a true bond developed between them. Siskel’s two daughters served as flower girls at the Ebert wedding in 1992.

When Siskel learned he had a terminal brain tumor, he did not let Ebert know, to Ebert’s dismay. It also motivated Ebert, when he became ill, not to conceal it, which is why he allowed his battle with cancer to be widely known.

In the end, as Siskel’s wife, Marlene, noted, Siskel and Ebert respected each other, “and I believe they loved each other.”

Although he was robbed of his voice, Ebert became a stalwart of the Internet and social media, continuing to write reviews as long as he could, and filing a blog up until the final days of his life.

“Life Itself” does conclude with Ebert’s passing on April 4, 2013, and his funeral, but  uplifting is that he died at peace with his life, holding Chaz’s hand. And we are left with the  knowledge that his writing will be out there for all time. Yes, Ebert had a likable TV presence, but his writing was truly his gift to the world.