Tuesday, November 24, 2015
“Pretty Woman” superstar Julia Roberts shatters her glamorous image in the grim but surprising police procedural thriller “Secret in Their Eyes” (*** OUT OF ****), co-starring Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman, Oscar nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Emmy-nominated actor Alfred Molina. This occasionally gripping but often conventional film is a remake of the superb 2009 Argentinean opus “The Secret in Their Eyes.” Scripted originally with a man in mind, Roberts’ steps into the rewritten supporting role as a grieving single-mom who happens to be a veteran detective determined not only to take the law into her own hands but also exact vengeance on the suspected murderer of her daughter. Furthermore, the man in the Argentinean movie was not a pistol-packing policeman, but a statistics-minded bank clerk! Reportedly, “Shattered Glass” writer & director Billy Ray rewrote the role specifically for Julia Roberts. Incidentally, Ray is best known for scripting movies such as “Flightplan,” “Captain Phillips,” and “The Hunger Games.” Of course, it remains to be seen whether Julia Roberts’ loyal fans will accept the “Erin Brockovich” actress as a plain-Jane, tomboy with a sadistic streak. In contrast, murder mystery aficionados who thrive on grisly melodramas may have a tough time imagining Roberts as such a demented soul. Mind you, entertaining as this formulaic American crime saga is, it isn’t as imaginative as its distinguished predecessor that took home the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2010. Appropriately enough, the director who helmed the inspired original film, Juan José Campanella, served as the executive director for “Secret in Their Eyes.” Presumably, Campanella must have conferred his blessing on the Hollywood adaptation by supervising it as an executive director.
FBI agent Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “American Gangster”) has been reassigned to Los Angeles. He has been dispatched to assist a special anti-terrorist task force in the aftermath of New York City’s 9/11 catastrophe. Ray has grown chummy with two investigators, Jess Cobb (Julia Roberts) and Bumpy Willis (Dean Norris of “Lethal Weapon 2”), but District Attorney Martin Morales (Alfred Molina of “Spider-Man 2”) and gimlet-eyed Detective Reg Siefert (Michael Kelly of “Man of Steel”) infuriate him. Morales has just recruited a new deputy D.A., Claire Sloan (Nicole Kidman of “Australia”), who is an statuesque blonde. Everybody, particularly Jess, soon realizes Ray is infatuated with Claire. Claire remains as cool as a glacier as she moves around Ray. Nevertheless, she is doesn’t entirely ignore him. Meantime, Ray has been conducting surveillance on a mosque when a report reaches him about a Jane Doe corpse in a nearby dumpster. Everybody assembles at the mosque where the police have set-up a crime scene. Ray is the first detective to gaze into the dumpster. Horror overwhelms him when he recognizes the corpse; the dead girl, Carolyn Cobb (Zoe Graham of “Boyhood”), is none other than Jess’s daughter. Distraught beyond description, Jess climbs into the dumpster and cradles her dead daughter in her arms.
Eventually, Ray ferrets out an enigmatic suspect, Marzin (Joe Cole of “Offender”), on the basis of a company picnic photo. The villain is shown staring at Carolyn in the picture. Later, Ray discovers that Marzin had been hanging around the mosque. Inevitably, Ray clashes with an abrasive Morales about his conduct. Ray is an defiant FBI agent who ignores boundaries when they interfere with his objectives. Launching his own investigation, Ray refuses to share either evidence or leads with the detectives assigned to the case. Ray provokes Morales’ wrath because the loose cannon FBI agent has been neglecting his prime directive. He is supposed to monitor potential terrorist threats to Los Angeles. Morales threatens to notify the FBI about Ray’s insubordination and have him recalled. Nothing Morales does, however, derails Ray’s obstinate search for Carolyn’s murderer. At one point, Claire finds herself drawn into his investigation. Together, they expose Marzin as the killer, but events beyond their control prevent them from prosecuting this dastard.
“Secret in Their Eyes” inherited its flashback-riddled narrative structure from the original. The remake unfolds 13 years after Carolyn’s unsolved murder as Ray shows up Los Angeles to convince Claire—now the District Attorney— that she must reopen the case because he has new evidence about the identity of the suspect. Comparatively, in the original, the hero revisited his old stomping ground 25 years afterward because he is using Carolyn’s homicide as the subject for a novel. The two films switch back and forth between past and present with nimble abandon. This hopscotch technique could confuse audiences accustomed to straightforward chronological yarns. In this respect, the American version takes advantage of these incessant shifts in time to accentuate the suspense and the surprises. Whereas the Argentinean cop was not personally acquainted with the murder victim, the FBI agent worked closely with the daughter’s mother as a colleague.
The American remake suffers primarily from the changes that Billy Ray has made with certain characters. First, the incendiary FBI agent explodes like a powder keg and emerges as his own worst enemy. The investigator in the original rarely lost his temper. Second, the hero’s partner in the Spanish film mustered greater charisma than the hero’s crippled counterpart in the remake. Third, the hero’s antagonist boss is neither as eloquent nor as profane as the hero’s superior in the original. Fourth, the motive for the hero to return in the remake is more contrived than the hero’s reappearance in the first film. Fifth, a “Gone in 60 Seconds” stolen car chop-shop scene qualifies as hopelessly gratuitous with its standard-issue shootout. Despite the flawed characters and the uneven scenes, the remake successfully duplicates more scenes from the original than it wrecks. The best example occurs when Kidman and Ejiofor collaborate to dupe the villain into confessing his crime. Unfortunately, Kidman and Ejiofor generate little chemistry as a couple supposedly attracted to each other. Altogether, “Secret in Their Eyes” doesn’t surpass its infinitely superior predecessor “The Secret in Their Eyes.” Nevertheless, Julia Roberts manages to broaden her acting repertoire.
Monday, November 2, 2015
“The Last Witch Hunter” (* OUT OF ****) casts spells that are far from inspired and mediocre at best. “Dungeons & Dragons” aficionado Vin Diesel toplines this ponderous, PG-13 rated pabulum as an 800-year old protagonist who struggles with the help of the Catholic Church to preserve a precarious peace between witches and mankind. Not only does Diesel appear incredibly miscast as an immortal “Highlander” type medieval warrior careening around contemporary New York City in a sports car, but also this witchy washy yarn doesn’t surpass superior witchcraft fantasies such as “Snow White and The Huntsman” (2012) and “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” (2013). The chief problem with this lavishly-produced, CGI-laden extravaganza is that it takes itself far too seriously. Apart from its dire shortage of humor, this dreary potboiler suffers from a dearth of quotable dialogue, banal adversaries, and second-rate supporting characters. Gifted thespians like Oscar-winner Michael Caine and Elijah Wood shrivel in lackluster roles as our hero’s sidekicks who are designated as ‘Dolans.’ “Sahara” director Breck Eisner and three scenarists, Cory Goodman of “Priest” along with Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless of “Dracula Untold,” have conjured up a synthetic storyline that generates neither charisma nor spectacle. Actually, they appear to have imitated the sensational Wesley Snipes’ vampire saga “Blade” right down to its rebirth of an ancient blood demon. Similarly, “The Last Witch Hunter” should have bristled with non-stop momentum, violently outlandish combat sequences, and a coherently contrived mythology. Instead, it degenerates into a dreary mumbo-jumbo melodrama. The most ambitious CGI scene pits our hero against a clumsy beast known as ‘the Sentinel,’ and he destroys behemoth with a sword as if he were a bullfighter straddling it. This unruly creature resembles a huge tiger that appears as it if were assembled from wicker and features a jet engine afterburner for its gullet. Our hero’s chief adversary is a hideous Witch Queen swarming with creepy crawlies who looks like she has spent too many centuries in a mud bath. Moreover, she boasts none of the imaginative flamboyance of Charlize Theron’s enchantress in “Snow White and the Huntsman.”
“The Last Witch Hunter” unfolds during the chilly Middle Ages. A group of stalwart souls armed with swords trudge through snow-swept, mountainous terrain to storm an eerie cluster of haunted trees. A despicable looking dame known as the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht of the TV mini-series “The Strain”) inhabits this stronghold raging with fire and brimstone. Predictably, she isn’t glad to see these bearded gate-crashers with their religious iconography. This homicidal hag with her hatred for mankind has already decimated humanity with a black plague and incurred our hero’s wrath. The Witch Queen’s pestilence exterminated our hero’s wife and daughter, and his happier times with them are recounted in several flashbacks. When Kaulder (Vin Diesel with dwarfish dreadlocks) and the Witch Queen tangle, our fearless witch hunter skewers her with his flaming sword and finishes her off. Ironically, Kaulder survives this trial by combat, but his survival becomes a tribulation. “I curse you,” howls the wounded witch. “You’ll never know peace. You will never die.”
Afterward, “The Last Witch Hunter” shifts its setting from the 13th century to the 21st century. Our brawny, shaven-headed hero with neither dwarfish facial fuzz nor noggin fur prowls a passenger jet as it encounters foul weather. Actually, an ignorant young witch has smuggled a dangerous collection of runes aboard the aircraft, and she is to blame for the increment weather. Naturally, our erudite hero invokes his age-old wisdom and defuses these volatile artifacts. Nothing about this scene creates either suspense or excitement. As his own personal reward, Kaulder seduces a nubile stewardess before he sits down for the last time with his 36th Dolan (Michael Caine of “The Dark Knight”), a revered Catholic cleric who has spent the last 50 years chronicling our protagonist’s escapades for posterity. Incidentally, Dolans are members of a covert Axe and Cross society within the Catholic Church. Like Kaulder, they have devoted themselves to maintaining an uneasy truce between humans and witches. In “The Last Witch Hunter,” witches walk the earth with mankind, just as vampires did in “Blade,” but few people know about their phantasmagorical presence. Kaulder and the clerics act as intermediaries who work alongside the crafty Witch Counsel to keep these necromancers in line. Kaulder captures witches who illegally practice black magic, and the Witch Counsel entomb them in a maze of caves.
The 36th Dolan is poised to retire, and the 37th Dolan (Elijah Wood of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) prepares to replace him. Although he saved the 37th Dolan from a coven of witches, Kaulder doesn’t immediately recognize this newcomer. Meantime, dramatic complications occur when the 36th Dolan appears to have been murdered under mysterious circumstances by a shape-shifting sorcerer. Kaulder discovers black magic at the scene of the crime and suspects that his ancient adversary, the Witch Queen, may have been playing possum all those years. Along the way, Kaulder recruits a ‘good’ witch Chloe (Rose Leslie from “Game of Thrones”) to help him sort out the mystery. Chloe’s claim to fame is her ability to cavort in dreams. Happily, she rescues Kaulder from one disastrous dream after another when the Witch Queen’s evil cronies attack him on several occasions. Our hero believes the solution to his quandary lies within his “Matrix” like dreams.
Ultimately, “The Last Witch Hunter” is largely incomprehensible gobbledygook. Eisner and his scribes have enormous problems mapping out their complex witchcraft mythology. They sprinkle bread crumbs of information about these conjurers throughout the muddled melodramatics, but seldom does anything about them come across as palatable. Two surprises occur during these sluggish shenanigans, but neither are genuine revelations if you have paid attention to the formulaic plot. The villains don’t stand out from the background, and the Witch Queen is stuck in the mud from the start. Eisner orchestrates several big-budget action scenes, but these emerge as sloppy exercises. Altogether, “The Last Witch Hunter” qualifies as hex-rated rubbish.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Historians have chronicled the events during the intervening fifty-three years in director Steven Spielberg’s gripping Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies” (**** OUT OF ****), so little comes as a complete surprise. Despite the conspicuous absence of suspense, this lavishly produced, persuasively acted, and thoroughly engrossing film remains utterly captivating. Working from a screenplay by Matt Charman, rewritten by Joel and Ethan Cohen of “Fargo” fame, Spielberg makes largely minor departures from the actual occurrences as they unfolded and recreates history with nimble spontaneity. (The theft of the hero's overcoat is an example of fabrication. According to the real James Donovan, who wrote about these events in his book "Strangers on a Bridge," he caught a cold from the drafty room that he slept in in West Berlin.) Tom Hanks plays the congenial central character in this literate chess game of international espionage that opens with the arrest of a Soviet spy in America and culminates on a lonely Berlin bridge at dawn with rival world superpowers swapping the spy for captured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Spielberg doesn’t squander a second in this atmospheric narrative and shoehorns a plethora of action into 135 minutes without resorting to glamorous heroics and gratuitous pyrotechnics. Everybody always raves about the magnitude of story above all else, and “Bridge of Spies” exemplifies why a good, solid story—even one that has been well-documented in the international press at the time—can still yield an immensely satisfying film. Each character stands out dramatically and each has been etched with sympathy so we are concerned about their welfare even though everything is a foregone conclusion. At the heart of the matter, “Bridge of Spies” qualifies as a credible, bona fide “Mission Impossible” when you consider all the variables that the unseen hand of history brought to the table. What makes it doubly interesting is that only a singular incident like this could have ushered these individuals to each other’s company.
“Bridge of Spies” unfolds with the FBI arresting Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance of “Prospero's Books”) in Brooklyn during 1957. Abel had maintained a low-profile as one of the top Soviet spies in America. Masquerading as an artist, he was able to collect information without calling attention to himself. The Soviets relied on what are known as dead letter mail boxes. Information could be stashed and retrieved, without it being apparent to most people, in innocuous places. Abel sat on a bench one day to paint a picture of a bridge. As he adjusted his easel, he felt under the bench and found a hollowed coin containing a coded message. Later, after the Feds raided his studio apartment, Abel destroyed the message under their noses while they ransacked his premises for incriminating evidence. At this point, Brooklyn insurance claims attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks of “Forrest Gump”) enters the arena. The law firm where he is a partner informs him that the New York Bar Association wants him to serve as Abel’s pro-bono counsel so nobody can impugn American justice. Mind you, everybody but Donovan considers Abel’s conviction a foregone conclusion. Of course, he concedes he has been chosen to defend the most hated man in America. “Everyone will hate me,” Donovan laments, “but at least I’ll lose.” Neither Donovan’s wife, Mary (Amy Ryan of “Capote”), nor his children share his idealistic, high-flown principles. Nevertheless, Donovan goes into court swinging with everything that he has, and he discovers the deck has been stacked against him. Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews of “Thirteen Days”) refuses to grant Donovan adequate time to prepare Abel’s defense. Later, when Donovan advises Byers that the FBI had no search warrant so all the evidence should be banned, the judge ignores him. Inevitably, despite his noble efforts, Donovan cannot clear Abel. Later, Donovan visits the judge at his honor’s residence and persuades the crusty old jurist to display some good ole American compassion and sentence the Soviet to prison rather than the electric chair. “If we send this guy to his death,” Donovan opines, “we leave ourselves wide open. No policy in our back pocket for when the storm comes.” Byers heeds Donovan’s sage wisdom despite frenzied public opinion that greets him during his verdict.
In the meantime, the CIA recruits U.S.A.F. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell of “Whiplash”) to fly a high altitude jet to conduct aerial reconnaissance over the U.S.S.R. During his first flight for the CIA designated ‘Operation Grand Slam’ on May 1, 1960, Powers encounters trouble. A Soviet surface-to-air missile cripples Power’s plane. His canopy cracks open, and he is swept out onto the fuselage, dangling from the umbilical cord of his air hose. Despite his best efforts to destroy his U2 plane, Powers can reach the destruct switch. This qualifies as the most suspenseful moment in “Bridge of Spies.” As he deploys his chute, Powers narrowly avoids being struck by the debris of his falling plane. Of course, the Soviet capture Powers, convict him as a spy, and sentence him to three years in prison and seven more at hard labor.. Not long afterward, Donovan receives a letter from the Soviets and finds himself flying to Berlin as a private citizen to arrange a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers. Donovan gets the royal runaround from the Soviets as well as the East Berlin authorities with their conflicting political agendas. Nonetheless, he proves himself to be a shrewd man with a bargain, and he pits the Soviets against East Berlin. Ultimately, he never gives ground during these tense negotiations. The catch is he must negotiate between the superpowers as a private individual. Read Donovan’s insightful memoir “Strangers on the Bridge,” and you’ll have a new appreciation for this wily attorney. Another excellent book to read about this incident is Giles Whittell’s informative “Bridge of Spies,” which doesn’t appear in the credits as the source for Spielberg’s movie.
Hanks brings an ingratiating ‘aw shucks’ Jimmy Stewart charm to his portrayal of Donovan. Literally, “Bridge of Spies” could be seen as “Mr. Smith Goes to Berlin.” Hanks looks like a paunchy, unassuming figure without a clue, but he emerges as the sharpest tack in the box. Donovan’s history is pretty amazing when you think about what he accomplished. Meantime, Mark Rylance distinguishes himself as the enigmatic Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and he overshadows Hanks with a ‘less is more’ performance. Repeatedly, Donovan makes comments about Abel’s apparent lack of anxiety. Facing certain death, the imperturbable Abel refuses to let the pressure affect him. “Would it help?” he queries Donovan to worry about his fate. Austin Stowell reminded me of cub reporter Jimmy Olsen from the 1950s’ “Superman” TV show. He epitomizes the wholesome, clean-cut, square-jawed, but ambitious American who refused to commit suicide and struggled to make the best of a dreadful predicament.
Spielberg does an admirable job of condensing and cross-cutting these events. Budgeted at $40 million, “Bridge of Spies” looks authentic with its multiple period locations in American and Europe. Indisputably, “Bridge of Spies” couldn’t have been made during the Cold War because objectivity would have been severely compromised. Spielberg’s historical reenactment is relevant because contemporary American democracy faces similar challenges.
Sunday, October 25, 2015
“Prisoners” director Denis Villeneuve’s menacing manhunt melodrama “Sicario” (**** OUT OF ****) treats the war against drug cartels and their smuggling operations with even greater cynicism than even the recent David Ayer’s opus “Sabotage” with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Imagine combining “Silence of the Lambs” with “Zero Dark Thirty,” and you’ve got the essence of this no-nonsense, atmospheric epic that boasts more shades of gray than black and white. Emily Blunt plays a by-the-book FBI agent who wades into the murky depths of corruption and evil that threaten to undermine her sanity. Josh Brolin and Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro co-star as the hardcases who need her shield so their shady business doesn’t violate the letter of the law. “Sicario” isn’t a slick, superficial, standard-issue, shoot’em up with sensational stunts. Primarily, “Sicario” argues that the best way to eliminate drug cartels is to fight fire with fire. Similarly, “Sabotage” appropriated that attitude toward the cartels, but it lacked the credibility that “Sicario” delivers. The good guys don’t wear white hats in “Sicario.” They display the same conspicuous lack of regard for human life that their adversaries espouse. You don’t walk out of “Sicario” feeling relieved so much as horrified by what it takes to conquer the evil that cartels do. This spartan crime thriller features enough twists and turns to keep you guessing right up to its ending that may abrade your sense of moral rectitude.
“Sicario” opens with a bang as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt of “Edge of Tomorrow”), her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), and the Bureau’s Kidnap Response Team smash into a residence in a sleepy little subdivision in sunny Arizona and discover the cartel has been using it as stash house. They scramble inside to rescue hostages, but they find the walls of the house conceal 42 corpses like a contemporary catacomb. Two agents tamper with a booby-trapped outside tool shed, and the explosion shreds them and flattens everybody else. Afterward, a nonchalant guy in flip-flops, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin of “Gangster Squad”), schedules a meeting with Macer’s superior, Dave Jennings (Victor Gaber of “Argo”), and invites Kate to accompany an inter-agency task force bound for Mexico to pick up a cartel informant. Macer signs up. Later, she watches in horror as Graver and a convoy of black government SUVs careen into Juárez, Mexico. Graver’s tight-lipped, second-in-command, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro of “Savages”), warns Kate not to trust their Mexican Federal Police escort. The naked bodies of dangling corpses garnish the perimeter of this eerie setting. Everything boils down to pulling one individual, Guillermo Diaz (Edgar Arreola of “Machete”), out of a safe house and hauling him back across the border for interrogation. Not surprisingly, the trip into Mexico is a picnic compared with the trip out. The Task Force finds themselves snarled up in a traffic jam at the border crossing. They aren’t entirely surprised when they spot cartel gunmen itching to waste them, and an inevitable shootout ensues. Just as Alejandro warned Kate, the corrupt Mexican Federal Police side with the cartel gunmen and our anxious heroine takes out an MFP officer with well-aimed shots. As suddenly as the shootout erupted, it concludes.
All is not what it appears, and Kate suspects that Graver is a really a CIA agent and Alejandro is a freelance enforcer. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” Alejandro assures Kate. “And you will doubt everything that we do. But in the end you will understand.” Eventually, she realizes she is being used to lend Graver’s operation a semblance of legality. When she confides her fears to his superior, Dave reassures Kate that everything is above-aboard and Graver’s mission has the blessings of highly placed elected officials. Graver explains that Alejandro and he aim to create so much chaos within cartel ranks that the Mexicans will turn on themselves and start killing their own men. This strategy is designed to flush out an anonymous cartel chief whose identity remains a closely guarded secret. Alejandro promises Kate that exposure of this figure will prove catastrophic for this coldblooded criminal organization. The biggest action scene in “Sicario” has Kate and company entering a covert cartel tunnel, shades of the Vin Diesel thriller “Fast Five,” and wiping out cartel henchmen in those subterranean depths with a clandestine army of SWAT shooters equipped with night vision technology.
“Sicario” qualifies as an impressive, but cynical crime movie. Apart from the heroine and her partner, the protagonists are as unscrupulous as the villains that they keep in their gun sights. Meantime, Kate Macer cannot believe that she has gotten herself trapped in this web of amorality. As idealistic as she is, Kate believes in the rule of law, but she emerges tarnished mentally if not physically by the experience with Graver and Alejandro. Although the talented Emily Blunt toplines this law & order saga, an unshaven Benicio Del Toro claims top honors as a PTSD-afflicted gunman. He plays a former Mexican prosecutor who has suffered more than anybody. The cartel decapitated his wife and drowned his young daughter in a vat of acid, so he shoots first unless he has to ask questions before he obliterates his enemies with lead. Del Toro gives a smoldering performance. Josh Brolin isn’t far behind as an enigmatic CIA agent who deals with every encounter with his adversaries as if he were a surfer gauging waves at the beach. Nothing in “Sicario” comes off feeling contrived, glamour, and formulaic. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve stages the action scenes at the border crossing and the tunnel with an impersonal air of solemnity. British cinematographer Roger Deakins of “No Country for Old Men” depicts these escapades in dark, muted colors reminiscent of the classic Dutch painter Rembrandt that effectively captures the moral depravity perpetrated by the principals. Watching a movie like “Sicario,” you have to wonder whether the wholesale legalization of narcotics—repellent as a solution might seem--wouldn’t offer greater salvation as a whole for everybody rather than futile free-for-all combat.
Whether on the big-screen or the small screen, the media has venerated Scottish writer J.M. Barrie’s classic 1904 play and 1911 novel about a rambunctious boy who refused to grow up. Paramount Pictures produced the first and only silent movie about Peter Pan in 1924 with Barrie’s approval and cast Betty Bronson as the adolescent hellion. About 29 years later, Walt Disney appropriated the property and produced an animated epic with a 15-year old boy voicing Peter Pan. In the 1954 telecast of “Producers' Showcase: Peter Pan,” actress Mary Martin impersonated Peter. This broadcast was aired again in 1963, then again in both 1966 and 1973. NBC broadcast the Hallmark Hall of Fame television adaptation in 1976 with Mia Farrow as the eternal youth. In 1987, Soviet television aired its own unauthorized adaptation, while in 1988 the Australians rendered their own unauthorized direct-to-video version. Steven Spielberg cast Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan in “Hook” (1991) with Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell. Captain Hook kidnaps Peter’s two children to lure a reluctant Peter back to Neverland. About ten years later, Disney released an animated sequel “Return to Never Land” (2002) to its 1953 original.” “Return to Never Land” occurs during World War II, and dastardly Captain Hook battles British fighter aircraft over London when he invades air space with his pirate-ship that he flies by means of pixie-dust. In 2003, P.J. Hogan helmed a traditional version of Barrie’s “Peter Pan” with a boy playing the protagonist, unlike a girl in two earlier versions. Indie film director Damion Dietz reimagined Barrie’s play in “Neverland” (2003) with Peter as an older teen confused about his gender, while Captain Hook was a homosexual, and Tiger Lily was a cross-dresser. More recently, the SyFy Channel produced its own mini-series “Neverland” (2011) with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys as thieves picking pockets galore in England around 1906 in a Charles Dickins spin on their footloose shenanigans.
“Atonement” director Joe Wright and “Ice Age: Continental Drift” scenarist Jason Fuchs have borrowed more from Charles Dickens than James Barrie for their ‘origins’ epic “Pan” (** OUT OF ****) that looks like it was designed to fuel a franchise. Basically, Wright and Fuchs introduce us to Peter before the boy could fly. The action unfolds in the late 1920s as Peter’s mother Mary (Amanda Seyfried of “Gone”) abandons her infant child mysteriously on the doorstep of an oppressive Catholic orphanage. Presided over by the corrupt, gluttonous Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke), the Sisters of Eternal Prudence rule the Lambeth School for Boys as harshly as a penitentiary. Inexorably, time elapses, and the year is now 1939. World War II has erupted, and the Nazis have embarked on a massive aerial bombing campaign against the British. The Sisters horde food and conceal more treasure than you could find at the end of a rainbow. Ironically, Mother Barnabas keeps a statue of Mary in her room. All she has to do is twist Mary’s delicate snout, and a partition in the floor opens to reveal everything that the sisters have hidden. Furthermore, the good Mother has been selling orphans to pirates passing in the night. Twelve- year old Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) has become such a thorn in the Mother’s side that she sells him to those pirates. Specifically, the pirate passing in the night is the infamous Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman of “Wolverine”) and he cruises in on an 18th century sailing ship that charts its path through the stars. In other words, he flies his ship across the same skies that Hitler’s Luftwaffe uses to bomb London. Blackbeard’s men descend through the orphanage skylights in the dead of night and snatch the boys Mother Barnabas has sold him. Imagine bungee-cording into a building and bouncing back aboard a ship in the sky, and you’ve got an idea how Blackbeard stages these abductions.
Blackbeard escapes the British RAF fighter pilots prowling the night skies, ascends above the clouds, and wings his way back to Neverland. He employs these poor youngsters as slaves to mine for pixim. Essentially, pixim is ‘fairy dust,’ and the villainous Blackbeard uses it keep his ships aloft. The first time we are shown Blackbeard’s kingdom with its massive quarries where the mining is done, the premises resemble the citadel in the fourth Mad Max movie “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Incredibly, after Blackbeard arrives with his latest conscripts, the children that he has already imprisoned serenade them with the Nirvana song “Smells like Teen Spirit.” When he isn’t conscripting lads for labor, Blackbeard has to contend with the quarrelsome natives who look nothing like Barrie’s “redskins” but more like Pacific Island natives. Later, Peter accuses an older miner of stealing the pixim that our hero has chiseled out of the quarry. The guards take him before Blackbeard and Peter finds himself poised on a plank sticking out of Blackbeard’s ship high above the quarry. During this sequence, Wright has the slave children warbling the Ramones’ song “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Miraculously, Peter doesn’t plunge to his death, and this impossibility bothers Blackbeard because he fears the youth may be ‘the chosen one’ sent to topple him. While Peter toils in the mines, he meets James Hook (Garrett Hedlund of “TRON: Legacy”), and this time around Hook is a good guy. Hook and Peter manage to escape from Blackbeard and lead an uprising that eventually deposes Blackbeard.
Anybody familiar with Barrie’s “Peter Pan” will wince at the liberties that “Pan” takes. Wright and Fuchs have omitted ninety percent of Barrie’s book. Wendy, John, and Michael Darling who flew out the window with Peter in Barrie’s book have been left out of this cinematic version as have their bereft parents. Hook’s only close encounter with a crocodile occurs when one leaps over the raft that Peter and he share with Tiger Lily. Furthermore, Hook isn’t even a pirate. He looks more like Indiana Jones than a miner. If you’re wondering about Blackbeard’s presence, Barrie mentioned him only once in his novel. Meantime, Wright and Fuchs have expanded his minor role considerably. Hugh Jackson is horribly miscast as the notorious pirate. He looks like a refugee from the 1970s’ disco group The Village People. Mysteriously enough, in one scene, we see Blackbeard inhaling an enigmatic gas to keep from growing old. Worse, compared with most fantasy villains, Jackman’s Blackbeard isn’t particularly treacherous. Rooney Mara of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” looks just as ridiculous as Tiger Lily. The people who produced “Pan” have spared no expense with their lavish $150 million budget. Nothing about “Pan” looks cheap. The computer-generated special effects are flawless, and the 3-D version will knock your eyes out. Additionally, composer John Powell has contributed an exhilarating orchestral theme, but nothing can compensate for the hopelessly predictable plot. Nevertheless, the less you know about the literary “Peter Pan,” the more you may enjoy this outlandish half-baked hokum.