Friday, 5 February 2010

G.I Joe: The Rise Of Cobra (2009) + Inkheart (2008) + Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans (2009)



I don't always have time to write full reviews of every movie I watch, so I'm going to start packaging reviews together that would ordinarily just get forgotten about; posting them in a conjoined, condensed form. We'll start with a trio: action-adventure G.I Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, children's fantasy Inkheart, and horror-actioner Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans...

Stephen Sommers' G.I Joe: The Rise Of Cobra is another adaptation of a popular '80s toy-line (joining Hasbro's Transformers 2 in the multiplexes last summer), although it was only ever a household name in the States. Sommers was the purveyor of the diminishing Mummy movies and the overburdened Van Helsing, and G.I Joe ploughs a similar furrow of excessive CGI and childish theatrics...

A common defense against effects-laden movies like this is that they succeed in their simple ambition to entertain and amuse a young age group. Trouble is, while I'm sure many kids will be glued to action sequences that involve "accelerator suits" turning men into supermen, the destruction of the Eiffel Tower (in one of many echoes to satirical puppet-action satire Team America), and underwater battles involving dozens of submersibles, I'm willing to bet none are actively engaging with the story or characters. This is a fleeting distraction of sound and light; no better than an extended effects showreel, really. Still, at least the screenwriters didn't make Transformers 2's fatal mistake and remembered to keep things comprehensible and progressed by cause-and-effect...

James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston, wishing he'd stuck with Doctor Who) is the Scottish descendent of a medieval arms dealer -- don't worry, that and the weird prologue will get a bizarre pay-off. As the founder of arms manufacturer M.A.R.S, his company's recently created nanotechnology that can devour entire cities in a green swarm of "nanites". Two of his four warheads are sold to NATO, which are swiftly stolen in transit by leather-clad villain "The Baroness" (Sienna Miller), to the consternation of NATO grunts "Duke" (Channing Tatum) and "Ripcord" (Marlon Wayans), who are subsequently rescued from the melee by soldiers from elite taskforce G.I Joe. Unsurprisingly, Duke and Ripcord are desperate to be recruited as "Joes" themselves by stoical leader General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), once they see the awesome weaponry, vehicles and gadgets that are available to play with. It helps that Duke recognizes The Baroness as his old fiancé, who appears to have taken their split very badly.

There are a lot of toys for Sommers to have fun with here, which is ultimately the sole reason for G.I Joe's existence. It's the kind of film where even the "normal" people have names like "Ripcord", where Star Wars' Ray Park again performs silently from behind a mask (outfitted with ironic "lips"?), where an English babe pours herself into a cat-suit for the delectation of dad's, and CGI floods the screen so regularly that you quickly become inured to the explosions, missiles and gunfire. Someone should confiscate Sommers' toys for awhile. Director: Stephen Sommers / Cast: Channing Tatum, Dennis Quaid, Sienna Miller, Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Christopher Eccleston / Running Time: 118 mins. / Budget: $170m


Adapted from the first in a trilogy by the exquisitely-named German author Cornelia Funke, Inkheart is a functional children's fantasy, but one that feels like a magpie's nest of ideas. It blurs the divide between reality and fiction (a la The Pagemaster), features an imaginary despot escaped into the real world (a la Last Action Hero), and there's even an apocalyptic Shadow that devours everything in its path (a la The Never Ending Story). Brendan Fraser's presence makes Inkheart feel like one of his interchangeable family flicks where he's a single parent, giving a performance indistinguishable from his last.

Mo (Fraser) is a "silver-tongue"; that is, someone who can read books aloud and bring characters and items from the page into the real world. It's a skill he didn't realize he had until middle-age (huh?!), and has sworn never to use again after accidentally dragging the evil Capricon (Andy Serkis) into reality from the book "Inkheart" and consequently losing his wife Ressa (Sienna Guillory) in their existential swap (shades of Jumanji?) Mo's now a "book doctor" traveling Europe with his teenage daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett), who's unaware of the truth behind her mum's disappearance, or the fact her dad's looking for another copy of the rare "Inkheart" to rescue his spouse. Mo and Meggie soon cross paths with fire-juggler Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), another "Inkheart" evacuee who wants to be returned home, before meeting up with their Aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren), just as Capricorn's cronies kidnap the family, intending to force Mo into conjuring a dreaded Shadow creature into being.

Inkheart is well-meaning but infrequently entertaining fluff, never quite managing to live up to the huge potential behind its premise. The primarily British cast are all strong, especially Bettany's fickle vagrant and newcomer Bennett, while you can't argue with Brendan's casting because the author based the character on him. There's also additional fun for British audiences in spotting minor celebs in small roles (Cold Feet's John Thomson as stuttering silver-tongue Darius, Peep Show's Matt King as a ratty henchman), and Jim Broadbent predictably steals the show as eccentric author Fenoglio who gets to meet his own creations. However, while the Anglo casting is strong and the premise has legs, the film feels rather low-key and the prospect of witnessing fiction and reality collide is reduced to glimpses of Peter Pan's ticking crocodile, a Minotaur, Cinderella's glass slippers, Aladdin's gold, etc. The only classic book that gets extensive and interesting use is "The Wizard Of Oz", with a flying monkeys attack, a tornado-assisted castle escape, and a yapping Toto for a canine sidekick.

Still, there are some interesting Nazi overtones sprinkled about by director Iain Softley, perhaps stemming from Funke's nationality: Capricorn's black-clad gang burn piles of books, and the Indiana Jones-esque finale's set around a castle adorned with blood red banners. Plus there are the expected references to the spoken word being a very powerful thing in the wrong hands (Hitler was a great orator, no?), which all helps inject Inkheart's otherwise middling tone with some vim. It just doesn't beg for sequels (and none are in the pipeline), meaning Inkheart perhaps joins Lemony Snicket, The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Golden Compass as another would-be movie franchise that arrived stillborn. Director: Iain Softley / Cast: Brendan Fraser, Helen Mirren, Paul Bettany, Jim Broadbent, Andy Serkis & Eliza Bennett / Running Time: 106 mins. / Budget: $60m


Erroneously considered the best of this "vampires vs. werewolves" saga by fanboys, Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans' status as a lower-budget prequel directed by a special-effects maestro flags it as direct-to-video drivel (a la Starship Troopers 2) that probably only got a theatrical release because Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy both deigned to reprise their roles. Rise Of The Lycans tells the rote, predictable story of how enslaved wolf-boy Lucian (Sheen) -- the first "Lycan" (i.e. a big bad wolf able to transform into a human) -- fell out of favour with his vampire adopted father Viktor (Nighy), eventually leading a lupine revolt that started a centuries-long blood feud...

What else is there to say? Patrick Tatopoulos (the French production designer for Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla and The Chronicles Of Riddick, amongst others) has paid enough attention on film sets to make a decent stab at helming his directorial debut -- but he coats the film in a dark blue miasma, the script's few imaginative action sequences are rendered incomprehensible thanks to his inexperience, and the whole aesthetic is heavily indebted to the Helm's Deep battle from Lord Of The Rings.

Unexpectedly, Rhona Mitra's character of fanged "death dealer" Sonya (cadaverous Viktor's beloved daughter, who's secretly sleeping with Lucian in a trite Romeo & Juliet riff), isn't anywhere near as pertinent as you'd expect from the marketing, or assumptions the ex-Lara Croft was cast because she's an older, tougher, duller doppelganger of absent franchise star Kate Beckinsale (who provides an opening voice-over.)

It's all very leaden and tedious, not least because there isn't really much vampire-vs-werewolf fisticuffs compared to the previous movies (to at least satiate an adolescent craving from gore and mayhem), and setting it in the Olde Worlde isn't as refreshing as it should have been. But it's main problem is there's nothing covered here that (a) wasn't already clear thanks previous flashbacks/monologues, or (b) you simply couldn't have guessed yourself. That's the problem with prequels: they have to spin a compelling yarn from what's essentially dull back-story the original movies didn't concentrate on for good reason. Rise Of The Lycans feels like the opening text scroll of a low-budget B-movie has been brought to pointless, deadening life over 92 gloomy minutes. Director: Patrick Tatopoulos / Cast: Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Rhona Mitra, Kevin Grevioux & Steven Mackintosh / Running Time: 92 mins. / Budget: $35m
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