‘The November Man’ pushes all the right buttons for a spy caper

The spy thriller enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s, thanks mostly to James Bond, but still endures five decades later because it provides everything viewers want in their entertainment: action, suspense, sometimes colorful villains, great spy vs. spy posturing and sex appeal.

Pierce Brosnan has earned his “license to kill,” having done a term as James Bond and also starred in less fanciful but engrossing political thriller films such as “The Tailor of Panama.” In “The November Man” he fits in comfortably as Devereaux, an ex-CIA operative trying to live a quiet life as a restaurant owner who is called back into the game by a former colleague. He is asked to conduct what seems to be a simple extraction mission but it turns out to be a complicated entanglement that involves high politics and ends up putting a big, fat bulls-eye on the back of Devereaux.

Like most heroes in such adventures, Devereaux was exceptional in his job performance, a real asset to the company. Also, as a familiar plot element, it is tragedy of a mission gone wrong that likely led to his retirement.

“November Man” opens with a sequence in 2008 in which Devereaux, on a mission to thwart a potential assassination, is working with a younger operative, Mason (Luke Bracey), whose disobedience of an order by Devereaux results in unintended collateral damage.

Five years later, the retired Devereaux is visited by one of his former handlers, Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), who informs the ex-operative that some other agents in the field are being picked off by a coldly efficient killer, Elexa (Amila Terzimehic), and one of those in danger is a woman, Natalia (Mediha Musliovic), with whom Devereaux has had a history and now as an undercover agent is a close associate of the man expected to be the next president of Russia, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). Hanley claims that Natalia’s cover has been compromised, and she specifically requested Devereaux for the extraction mission.

Although Devereaux does manage to pick up Natalia, he learns things are not what they seem. Natalia was not expecting him after all, and soon the two are being pursued by some unknown people. Things wind up bloodily, and Devereaux learns that he and Natalia are being targeted by the CIA, with Mason as part of that team.

Natalia had provided Devereaux with the identity of a woman who has information that could not only destroy Federov’s political ambitions but also have him put away for war crimes. Devereaux soon hooks up with Alice (Olga Kurylenko), who may be able help him track down this woman before others find her and kill her.

Of course, now Devereaux is a marked man, by the agency that previous employed him. In addition, the professional killer Elexa also hot in pursuit.

“The November Man” becomes a story of two people being hunted by dangerous people with a lot of resources at hand. So the odds are against Devereaux and Alice, and the added touch is the now adversarial relationship between an old pro and his former pupil.

Director Roger Donaldson, who worked with Brosnan previously on “Dante’s Peak,” maintains a lively pace, and the script by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek — based upon a novel by Bill Granger — does a good job of keeping the viewer guessing. There are the usual twists and betrayals and finger-biting scenes of potential disaster to keep the audience taut.

Brosnan presents Devereaux as a world-weary man who once again has to rely on his instincts and skills to survive. Realistic elements include the man’s need to calm his nerves via alcohol and the revelation that Devereaux, when training Mason, in one vital aspect did not practice what he preached.

‘And things were going so well’: Lackluster box-office may send ‘Sin City’ to morgue

The movie-viewing audience stayed away in droves for the opening weekend of “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” How bad was the box-office draw? Well, it pulled in only $900,000 more than “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a nice little movie that will not pack the houses, and is in its third week of release.

This sobering box-office take could dampen enthusiasm for more movies based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels. The brain trust no doubt is grappling for answers as to why this film, written by Miller and co-directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez and the second in a visually innovative screen adaptation, has fizzled.

There was a downgrade in the critical consensus, which was to be expected, given what the original “Sin City” delivered in style and wallop when it hit the screens nine years ago. What was astounding in 2005 is not going to generate as much of an impression in 2014. While “more of the same” can be a profitable blueprint in many movie series, “Sin City” seemed elevated above that. It set a new tone, and building on that is a tough task.

For the most part “A Dame to Kill For” scores above average. Its animated-live action mix, shot in black and white with selective color, again is a stunning presentation. The breakdowns in the film occur in the stories, character development and mood.

Noticeably absent in “A Dame to Kill For” is the macabre humor. Even some of the minor bad guy roles had their shining moments in the original — such as the sigh of resignation from the thug who gets an arrow through the head, shot by Miho (Devon Aoki). In “A Dame to Kill For,” villains are dispatched by the handful and not one of them stands out like that guy did.

On the plus side, fans of Marv (Mickey Rourke) will be happy because he is the most dominant character in “A Dame to Kill For.” This hulking creature with a hideous face who viciously hands out his own justice is back, offering viewers a look at some of his previous adventures before he put it all on the line in the original “Sin City” to avenge the death of the hooker Goldie (Jaime King).

“A Dame to Kill For” opens with a great sequence in which Marv, sitting in the aftermath of some terrible violence, now has to rely on his medication to help him remember what just happened. A quick review of the bloody action shows that Marv was administering his usual brutal justice, this time to college punks picking on the weak.

Marv then has vital supporting roles in two of the other stories in the film, coming to the aid of friends. Here it is not personal for Marv. He’s just helping his buddies, and enjoying every minute of it.

The rest of the movie has mixed results. Josh Brolin takes over for Clive Owen in the role of Dwight, and Brolin’s version is darker, more brooding, and not as colorful nor resourceful. While doing private detective work — gathering evidence of infidelity on the part of a successful businessman — Dwight gets a call from Ava (Eva Green), a woman who stole his heart and decimated it by dumping him and marrying a wealthy man. Against better judgment, Dwight meets with her and although she claims all she wants from him is forgiveness, he is not buying it. But darn it, he just cannot seem to resist Ava and is lured back into her life, rendered vulnerable by his passions.

Green has earned some critical acclaim for her work as Vanessa Ives in “Penny Dreadful,” and as tempting as it is to say she is dreadful in “A Dame to Kill For,” that is a bit extreme. But Green, who spends most of her screen time out of her clothes, gives a performance that is almost parody as she tries to portray a manipulative femme fatale. Some of her scenes are broadly over the top, and if this was the intention, it falls flat, making it hard to digest that her overt phoniness would work in getting men to do whatever she asks.

Luckily for Dwight, he has Marv, Gail (Rosario Dawson)  and Miho (played here by Jamie Chung) for support and if it were not for them, he never would have survived to have his hilariously dark encounters later with dirty cop Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro).

The other two stories in “A Dame to Kill For” are the weak points in the movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt  plays Johnny, a gambling wizard who takes on the powerful and corrupt Sen. Roark (Powers Boothe reprising his role) in a high-stakes poker game. He learns brutally that Roark is a poor loser. Battered, Johnny vows revenge but the promise of a nasty bit of getting even completely wimps out.

The other story centers around Nancy (Jessica Alba), the bar dancer who took on a new identity as she was a witness as a child to a crime that could bring Sen. Roark down. Nancy is not doing too well now that the police officer Hartigan (Bruce Willis), whom she loved, sacrificed himself so she could live on without fear of Roark tracking her down. She bitterly talks to the ghost of Hartigan, pouts, cuts short her dance routines, drinks and night after night cannot bring herself to shoot Roark even though he is in a neighboring room playing poker. She does wise up and drafts Marv to help her finally go after the sinister politician.

As with the original “Sin City,” each story will have its fans and detractors, but as a whole, “A Dame to Kill For” does not match its predecessor. Most ardent fans of “Sin City” will find things to like about this second entry, but if it weren’t for Marv and Gail, “A Dame to Kill For” would be a much weaker follow-up. As it is, unless it manages to hang in there at the box office and recoups costs in DVD/Blu-Ray releases, the “Sin City” franchise could end up like most of the bad guys in these movies — dead and gone.

In ‘The Expendables 3,’ the new blood dilutes the power

Sequel-itis is sometimes painful to watch. A movie connects with people critically and/or commercially and the green light stays on for more of the same. The horror genre can thrive on this because its fans readily embrace the continuation of the outrageous plot devices — Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger cannot be destroyed and those pesky paranormal entities just remain active — and are more interested in who will get killed first and how hideously.

In the more mainstream movies, keeping a franchise going, especially if it is not a Marvel or DC super hero, presents difficult challenges that often lead to disasters. Sylvester Stallone apparently did not learn anything with the decline of the “Rocky” series. They were pleasant enough movies but obviously were pushing the envelope in credulity. Also, the recent misfires from the “Die Hard” and “Red” films should have served as warnings.

In 2010, Stallone came up with a certified hit in “The Expendables.” The concept of Stallone teaming up with other action stars like Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Dolph Lungren and Jet Li to form a crack unit of mercenaries to bring down bad guys was a winning one, especially with Arnold Schwarzenegger thrown into the mix in a nod to the Sly vs. Arnold as action icons of the 1970s-80s going face to face. Its $100-plus million take at the box office made it a no-brainer that the Expendables were not finished.

The second Expendables movie in 2012 added Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bruce Willis to the cast list, and there was an inevitable decline in box-office power, $85 million. Still that was enough to guarantee “The Expendables 3.”

As a co-writer, along with Creighton Rothenberger (“Olympus Has Fallen”), Stallone felt the need to inject more into the story than the usual high-body-count, heavy-weaponry action. So he and Rothenberger went with an “out with the old, in with the new” plot device. Not necessarily a miscalculation, but it was mishandled.

“The Expendables 3″ starts strongly with a sequence in which Stallone as Barney Ross and his group free a former colleague of Barney’s, Doc (Wesley Snipes), from a heavily fortified foreign prison, an operation involving a speeding train, a helicopter and lots of ammo.

The Expendables are mostly here: Christmas (Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), Toll Road (Couture) and Caesar (Terry Crews). Only missing initially is Yin Yang (Li). Now with Doc on board, the Expendables go on another mission that ends disastrously with one of them seriously injured and Barney learning that Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who along with Barney formed the Expendables but went to the dark side and became an arms trader, is alive and thriving. Barney had believed he killed Stonebanks earlier.

Back home and licking his wounds, Barney decides to retire his group despite still under contract with Drummer (Harrison Ford) at the CIA to bring Stonebanks back alive.

So Barney goes on a recruiting tour with his recruiting agent Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) and signs up four young people: Thorn (Glenn Powell), Mars (Victor Ortiz), Smiley (Kellan Lutz) and Luna (Rhonda Rousey, a mixed martial arts competitor who was trending on Twitter over “The Expendables 3″ opening weekend for her involvement with World Wrestling Entertainment’s Summer Slam show). These four up-and-comers are more tech savvy but still have an appreciation and expertise in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat.

Unfortunately, Stallone and Rothenberger created characters here who are bland and not only lack chemistry and camaraderie among themselves but do not deliver any punch in providing a real threat to the older Expendables. On the plus side, Barney does reluctantly sign up Galgo (Antonio Banderas), another mercenary past his prime but eager to work. He is the most colorful of the newbies, although his exuberance and verbosity tend to get annoying.

While the idled Expendables sit around glumly, Barney and his new group, with Trench (Schwarzenegger) in tow, manage to capture Stonebanks without a hitch — it is too easy and the potential for things to go awry weighs heavily in the air. There is a void here that only can be filled with the return of Christmas, Gunner and the others.

Like the astronaut movie “Space Cowboys,” “The Expendables 3″ then  becomes a story of the old guys still having enough spark to stand and fight side by side with the next generation.

This movie does have its positive points. The action is well choreographed, and the interplay between the original Expendables is lively. There are bits of inside jokes throughout and the movie even pokes fun at the ludicrous nature of these kinds of action flicks wherein only the good guys can hit their targets.

Aside from Banderas, the new members of the group have no qualities that make them stand out, although Rousey gets to show off her martial arts skills. The show stealer is Gibson. Although his personal image has  blown up in recent years, he seems to have progressed smoothly from an anti-hero as Mad Max, to flawed hero as Martin Riggs in the “Lethal Weapon” movies and now seems comfortable strutting around as a well-dressed but vicious villain (he was seen last year as Voz, an arms dealer in “Machete Kills”).

An “Expendables 4″ has been announced and hard-core fans of the franchise are expressing concerns that Stallone has taken it too far off the tracks. He can recover if he sees the weak points and fixes them.


‘The Hundred-Foot Journey embraces food and family

Those wishing to see a relaxing and pleasant film in the middle of the hot and heavy summer movie season should enjoy “The Hundred-Foot Journey.”

With such notables attached to the project as Stephen Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey as executive producers, Lasse Hallstrom as director and Helen Mirren in a lead role, the potential for quality is high.

Based upon the novel by Richard C. Morais and adapted for the screen by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises”), “The Hundred-Foot Journey” thrives under the guidance of Hallstrom, a proven director with an impressive list of films that includes “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules.”

‘Journey” is the story of the Hadam family, which while in the second generation of operating a restaurant in India suffer tragedy and loss during a post-election uprising. The family flees to London but cannot fit in there, and takes to the road looking for a new home.

The leader of the family is Papa (Om Puri), a gentle but stubborn father. One of his sons, Hassan (Manish Dayal), has shown exceptional potential to be a chef of Indian cuisine, so Papa hopes to settle the family somewhere and start anew in the restaurant business.

Fate lands them in the outskirts of the town of Lumiere near the French Alps, where the Hadams are temporarily taken in by young Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). In this town  Papa finds an old closed-down restaurant facility for sale and despite the warnings of his children, purchases the property.

There is a problem, however. This property is located right across the street from a renowned French restaurant owned and operated by the steadfast and disciplined Madame Mallory (Mirren), a perfectionist and one whose eatery serves as a training ground for superb chefs.

Amid the negativity around him, Papa is optimistic his restaurant can draw customers because it will offer Indian rather than French cuisine. Naturally, Madame Mallory does not take kindly the intrusion upon her restaurant monopoly — and her pursuit of attaining a two-star or more Michelin rating, sort of like the Oscars of the restaurant business — thus the butting of heads between her and Papa, two obstinate people, commences, with the mayor (Michel Blanc) caught in the middle — but well fed as each owner plies him with tasty entrees.

The other story focuses on Hassan and Marguerite, where an obvious attraction is stymied because she is employed in Madame Mallory’s restaurant, thus are friendly foes. The relationship is strained more because both are striving to become master chefs, and as Hassan’s talents become more recognized, Marguerite is torn between her affection for the young man and her envy of him.

Hallstrom uses scenes of food preparation — which can whet appetites — to symbolize the intense competition between Mallory and the Hadams. In one clever sequence, the act of chopping up ingredients during food preparation illustrates the urgency of each restaurant to excel and beat the other.

The interplay between the characters is the key to this movie, with Puri and Mirren splendidly portraying two people accustomed to being in charge and getting their way. Yet as they engage in a war of wits, mutual respect, and more, seems inevitable.

Le Bon and Dayal also show chemistry as two young people struggling with their attachment to each other while other factors prevent them from realizing affection for one another.

A beautifully photographed film, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” has the right emotional touches, along with humor and psychological insight. It is wonderfully cast, and yes, the food serves as a yummy supporting star.

They’re back! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles primed for action in reboot

Thirty years ago, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, two avid fans of adventure comics, put their heads together and created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a franchise of graphic comics, animated series and movies that has thrived for three decades.
A trilogy of live action movies came out in 1990-93, followed 14 years later by “TMNT,” a computer-animated film. Now, for the summer of 2014, a reboot is hitting the screens in a flurry of releases the past few months that has revisited Captain America, the Amazing Spider-Man, Godzilla, X-Men and Planet of the Apes.
Amid the pre-release build-up of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” there have been lively social media debates focusing on red flags that have gone up regarding Michael Bay’s involvement — who serves as a producer, not as director and who has his share of detractors because of the “Transformers” series, despite its massive success  — along with concerns about director Jonathan Liebesman, whose previous efforts — “Wrath of the Titans,” “Battle Los Angeles” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” — have taken their hits from critics and viewers. Then there is the casting of Megan Fox, whose depth as an actress has been questioned, in the pivotal role of April O’Neil.
The good news is that under Liebesman’s direction, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a visually spectacular summer action movie. It follows the usual blueprint of the good-versus-evil story, with the heroes facing overwhelming odds but who are able to summon the courage, skill and resourcefulness to vanquish a foe.
The opening segment gives nod to the early graphic comic version, with those artistic renderings used as a backdrop while Splinter (Danny Woodburn, but voiced  by Tony Shalhoub), the genetically-enhanced and intelligent rat, presents a voice-over, recalling how he raised the four turtles, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello, since they were babies and how he used the ninja principles to instill discipline as well as physical preparation in the turtles.
Still residing incognito in the sewers of New York, the four turtles are eager to battle bad guys despite Splinter’s assessment that they are not ready yet, and sneak off to right wrongs, knowing they probably will endure the wrath of Splinter when they return.
The screenwriting team of Josh Applebaum (“Alias”), Andre Nemec (“Alias”) and Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) has the turtles going up against their usual enemies: the Shredder and his Foot Clan that have a grip on New York City.
Fox’s April O’Neil is a TV reporter for a local news agency who, along with her cameraman/colleague Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) go around the city covering fluff stories (or “froth stories” as Vernon calls them) while April pines to handle hard news stories.  One night she witnesses the thwarting of a Foot Clan burglary on the docks by four mysterious beings, but her story is met with skepticism by her boss, Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg). Even after Fox survives a hostage situation that is diffused by the turtles she cannot find anybody to believe her story, not even Vernon.
Doing research on her own, she discovers the secret of the turtles, and her own involvement years earlier, and with nowhere else to go, she takes the information to Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), a scientist colleague of her late father.
Nothing, however, can stop the inevitable battles between the four teenage turtles and the Shredder, with April and Vernon — in the role of the reluctant hero — in the middle of things.
With the standard plot line and the usual chase and fight scenes and constant peril, the writing team needed to inject character into the story. And here is where “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is elevated. The writers captured the essence of the four turtle brothers, each with a unique personality, and the very real interplay one would expect from teenage siblings.
Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), the free spirit, has the showiest scenes via his overt flirting with April. Leonardo (Peter Ploszek and voiced by Johnny Knoxville) is the leader of the group, the tactical designer, protective of his brothers and dedicated sensei student. Raphael (Alan Ritchson) is the aggressive one who can be sarcastic. Donatello (Jeremy Howard) is the inventor and technical genius. They all are mentored by Splinter, who passed on what he has learned to his adoptive sons.
 The turtles engage in verbal interplay, even in the midst of mortal danger, that is full of wit and playful digs at each other.
As for the humans, Fox is fine as April in a role that demands more physical than emotional action, leaving open the possibility of deeper character development in the likely sequel or two. Arnett’s character also lacks any true development other than being pulled into incredible situations because of his affection for April.
In the end, it is the bond between the four teenage mutant ninja turtles and the way they feed off each other — when not gnawing on pizza — that in this movie, as well as in other media, makes these characters so astonishingly popular.
Hoffman at his best in intricate “A Most Wanted Man”
John LeCarre’s novels are woven with complexity and require a tenacious attention span. Whenever his stories are adapted for a screen presentation, the challenges are the same for the viewers.
A Most Wanted Man,” aside from being our last chance for a big-screen presentation showcasing the enormous talents of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a complex spy tale for our times, when intelligence agencies face the daunting challenge of keeping tabs not only other governments, but also on rogue groups of people that blend in but are committed to kill for their cause.
Smartly adapted for the screen by Andrew Bovell (“Edge of Darkness”) and directed by Anton Corbijn, “A Most Wanted Man” can be classified as an art-house spy thriller. This is not James Bond, with neat high-tech gadgets, eccentric villains, chases, gunplay and exotic locations and women. This is a story that takes place in the trenches.
Much like his earlier “The American” that featured George Clooney, Corbijn presents a somber world where the main characters go about their lives with a gloomy persistence, totally committed to their mission, leaving little time for anything else, including a normal life.
“A Most Wanted Man” focuses on a post-9-11 world where the most dangerous person could be someone standing right next to you. Responding to lessons learned from the 9-11 attacks, in which rivalries and an unwillingness to share information between intelligence entities allowed the terrorists to carry out their attacks, the German government has set up an under-the-radar group led by Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) that has set up shop in an underground garage in Hamburg with its surveillance gear and hits the streets to track down potential terrorists by building allies and recruiting informants.
Bachmann, a man haunted by an operation in Beirut that went horribly wrong because of that fatal lack of cooperation between agencies, is a driven man who considers grooming a secondary concern. He smokes incessantly and  drinks hard liquor, even on the job. In one of the rare scenes in which he is home, one can sense that place also is secondary among his priorities — his home is in that underground facility, and his colleagues are his family.
Bachmann has been tenaciously tracking Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy, high-profile Muslim who publicly decries the actions of terrorists and  has a network of charities. While most of the funds reach these charities, some of it goes missing and Bachmann suspects it is being diverted to help terrorists obtain weapons.
When a Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), illegally immigrates to Hamburg and it is learned he is the son of Chechen leader who committed atrocities but built up a nice financial next egg to pass on, Bachmann sees an opportunity to catch Abdullah in a sting.
Bachmann and his colleagues — Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), Maximilian (Daniel Brühl), Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Rasheed (Kostja Ullman) — are a 24-hour operation, and their quest includes working Karpov’s legal sponsor Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), owner of the bank where the Karpov fortune is held in an account, to cooperate.
The film, despite its slow pace, remains gripping as Bachmann and company engage in psychological and persuasive tactics to achieve the goal. Meanwhile, Bachmann also must deal with other agencies of high power and influence while forming a tenuous, barely trusting association with Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), working for U.S. intelligence.
In Bachmann, Hoffman leaves us with a memorable portrayal of man who invests so much of himself “to make the world safer” that he has become a person who, without his work, is just a hollow existence.
“A Most Wanted Man” is a nice break from the noisy popcorn movies of the summer. Despite its gloominess it is an entertaining exercise, succeeding in being suspenseful while relying solely on dramatic interplay. It is also a grim reflection on the world today and the toll it can take on those on the front lines of the fight against terrorism.

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.


A simple story in ‘The Rover,’ but it sticks with you

The lead character in the Australian import “The Rover” does not speak until about 15 minutes into the movie, and this sets the tone for this grim but surprisingly engrossing film, directed by David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”).

The character is named Eric and is played with a quiet intensity by Guy Pearce. His name is Eric, but the only way the audience learns that is by seeing it in the credits.

Michod wrote the screenplay, based on a story on which he collaborated with actor Joel Edgerton (“The Odd Life of Timonty Green”). The film moves slowly and requires patience but before long it is easy to get hooked.

The story takes place in Australia “ten years after the collapse.” What collapsed is not elaborated but as the narrative unfolds it seems to be a breakdown of the economy and infrastructure throughout the country. In the opening moments, Eric is seen sitting silently and solemnly in his dusty car. He eventually exits the car and shuffles into an old rundown building, which turns out to be a karaoke bar.

While he is gloomily having a drink, the scene cuts to a speeding pickup truck in which three excitable and armed men are fleeing from what probably was a botched robbery. One of the men, Henry (Scoot McNairy), is upset because they had to leave his brother Rey behind, possibly dead from gunshot wounds. The activity in the vehicle gets so intense and out of the control that the truck goes into a roll and ends up tangled in debris right outside the karaoke bar.

The three men climb out of the truck, spot Eric’s car, hot-wire it and drive on.

By the time Eric sees what is going on and runs outside, the three bandits have sped off in his car. He climbs into the wrecked truck and finds it still runs and manages to free it from the debris. He goes after his stolen car and follows it until the armed men stop and confront him. Eric demands they return his car and gets knocked cold and left by the road.

Meanwhile, Rey (Robert Pattinson from the “Twilight” series) is not dead. He regains consciousness and manages to stagger to a Humvee used by the military unit now serving as law enforcement, and drives off, nursing a wound to his left side.

Eric awakes to find that at least the thieves left him the truck. He continues on, making stops at whatever settlements he finds in this vast, mostly uninhabited Outback area of Australia, asking if the car with three men passed through. He also obtains a gun in a rather abrupt and bloody way.

During one of Eric’s stops, Rey also pulls into the area and seeing the truck thinks it is his brother and partners in crime, only to learn it is now in the possession of Eric.

Eric, upon learning Rey is a brother of one of the criminals, takes the man to a doctor (Susan Prior) for treatment, and afterward demands that Rey take him to wherever his brother and partners are hiding out. Rey is a bit handicapped mentally and is easily taken under control by Eric, who eventually convinces him that his brother must not have cared much for him if he was willing to leave him for dead.

Eric and Rey develop an uneasy alliance, and it is the interplay between these two men that captures the viewer’s attention. Eric is a man of few words and we learn very little of his background. Rey soon is revealed as a simple-minded man who is coerced with little difficulty. When he is rebuffed impatiently by Eric for talking about things in his past, he pouts and says, “not everything has to mean something.”

Another gripping aspect of the movie is why Eric is so obsessed with getting his car back. Because he has the truck, which serves just as efficiently for transportation as a car, there must be more to the stolen vehicle than just a possession.

Along the way, Eric mostly has to take charge of situations, only to be surprised when Rey proves resourceful at times.

Serving as a backdrop to shaky association between Eric and Rey is the gorgeous but unforgiving landscape of remote Australian Outback territory. During their journey, the two men encounter desperate people torn between trusting others as a means of survival or just fending for themselves.

Michod tracks the story along so that it is impossible to figure out what will happen if and when Eric and Rey catch up to the thieves. In the end, the viewer has been treated to a very simple story, yet the character development is so skillful, using minimal dialogue, that “The Rover” will rattle around in the viewer’s mind for a while.