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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel and Gretel witch hunters

The important thing to learn about killing witches is that they don’t like it when you set their collective ass on fire. Or, to put it another way, when film-makers set out to do fairy stories, they’d better do it with a sense of humour or the film will die on its ass. So here we go with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). Our orphaned brother and sister team, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), are cast into the roles of protectors of the innocent and specialist witch exterminators. For the purposes of this film, they are hired by the Mayor of Augsburg to deal with a rash of disappearances. Children, whose faces are plastered on to the local milk bottles (the film is making an effort to mirror contemporary sensibilities, particularly through Gretel’s willingness to swear like a trooper in this pre-Enlightenment, postmodern version of a Germanic township before the electric lightbulb, but not the milk bottle, has been invented) have been spirited away in anticipation of a “blood moon” event due in three days time (always give your heroes a deadline — pun intended). So our heroes go off into the nearest pub to mingle and pick up the local gossip which enables them to meet Ben (Thomas Mann) their biggest fan. This is the ultimate nerd who’s been obsessively collecting their press clippings and now oozes enthusiasm in the hope of getting them to sign his book. Meanwhile Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare), the spooky local witchfinder with Wild West aspirations to greatness in law enforcement, is paying the greedy rubes to form a posse and go out searching for the missing children at night. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but they always say food tastes better when it walks into the forest fresh.

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton ready for battle

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton ready for battle

 

Now a few thoughts about the backstory. Isn’t it just weird when a father takes his two children off into the woods and, after ensuring they are thoroughly lost, blows out the candle in his lantern and disappears? And all that “gingerbread” the witch had Hansel eat. . . That would give him a really bad case of diabetes, wouldn’t it? And why would the children be immune to the spells cast by the witches they now hunt as adults? Hmmm. Some deep mysteries on display here including where the insulin is coming from to keep Hansel alive and how come they’ve developed this array of firearms before their time. Ah, such are the problems when you take your fairy stories into a kind of steampunk fantasy version of history. Everything gets all mixed up. And, so long as it’s all done with a sense of style and fun, we go along for the ride. Which brings me to the nub of the problem. At its heart, this is a straightforward action adventure with two heroes rescuing twelve children from some bad witches. So what market is this simple story aiming at? Obviously not the children’s market because there a fairly consistent pattern of swearing and some of the violence is fairly graphic. It’s not played for shock value as a horror movie. There are jokes and no attempts to produce boo moments. The tone is very matter-of-fact. Shoot this witch, decapitate that one.

Peter Stormare and Pihla Viitala ready for the execution

Peter Stormare and Pihla Viitala ready for the execution

 

As an aside, this is a witch-heavy film which makes me wonder what a film has to do to be considered misogynistic. The aim of the script is to show us violence against women on a fairly epic scale. Both the good and the bad females come in for a steady battering or eviscerating as the minutes tick by. All the major women are killed with the exception of Gretel. She gets to be an honorary man, swearing like it’s about to go out of fashion, senselessly violent, and wandering off with the three surviving men at the end to kill more women (none of whom get an open casket funeral when she’s finished with them). What does it say about a film when the only woman who survives does so at the price of killing as many other women as she can?

 

Then, of course, we come to the “love interests”. Gretel has the nerd and Edward (Derek Mears) a troll, in hot pursuit, i.e. she doesn’t get anyone normal to lust after her. Hansel is very taken by Mina (Pihla Viitala), a young lady accused of being a witch. They have a very chaste encounter in the woods for all the partial nudity. Yet Hansel seems strangely unaffected by this sexual encounter. He’s one of these love ‘em and leave ‘em types who seems uninterested in the romantic side of love. Which leaves us with Muriel (Famke Janssen) the ringleader of the coven who doesn’t have anyone to love but is able to do all the usual witchy things like fly around on bits of twig, cast spells, and look entirely human when she feels the need. And herein lies the real failure to engage the audience.

Famke Janssen going witchy

Famke Janssen going witchy

 

I’m all for magic systems that work. That’s the lynchpin of true fantasy. I also have no problem with black and white systems to use the magical force. It seems eminently reasonable that if there’s a source of magic available to people with the right sensitivities, they should be able to choose how to use it. But this film fails to develop any kind of coherent explanation of who witches are and, more importantly, whether they pass on their powers to their children. Indeed, the characterisation of witches is almost at the level of a cartoon or comic book. They gibber, caper around and fight when cornered. There’s very little effort to make them frightening. They’re just there and because pesky humans can overpower the weaker members of the coven, they want to develop the ability to resist fire. That way, they can walk away from the burning as soon as the retaining ropes are destroyed by the flames. I suppose this means they can already withstand the removal of head and/or heart, being pulled apart by four strong horses, and so on (and that no-one uses chains to hold them in the fire).

 

Yet, despite all these manifest failures, this is not a bad film. It’s just a film that fails to realise its potential. There’s an underlying sense of fun about it and, with a running time (not counting the extended opening and closing credits, of about 80 minutes, it knows when to quit before we all run out of patience. I suppose this means, in modern terms, it’s not very good value for money if you walk through the cinema door at full price, but I’ve watched the DVD as a rental and it’s excellent value. For the record, it seems to have collected $225 million at the box office on a production budget of $50 million. Since that represents a profit before the downloads and DVD sales come in, there’s already talk of a sequel. I’m not sure this would be a good idea but you can’t argue with the profit-driven when they scent more profit. Hence, if you can access Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters for a few dollars, lay in some popcorn and prepare for a blast of fun brainlessness.

 

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

With The Bourne Legacy (2012), the studio had a tricky problem to solve. Unlike other franchises, it was not thought possible to reboot the Bourne trilogy by doing an origin story of the hero using a different actor. Trying to make a new actor sympathetic when his character is a stone-cold assassin is not going to be successful. Equally, it’s not really possible to drop a new actor into the continuing series as Jason Bourne. For better or worse, Matt Damon has become indelibly associated with the role in the public’s imagination. Unlike James Bond who has been rather like Dr Who in going through reincarnations with different actors, the only way to continue was to move sideways. In this, the script has a clever idea. It assumes that Operation Treadstone was one of many projects involving the creation of “supersoldiers”. Divided like a spy cell system, each unit was unaware of the others. Only at senior levels within government was the overall plan known. With Jason Bourne potentially able to blow the whistle on at least one cell, contingency plans are put in place to shut down the other units as and when their existence may be revealed. So far, this is working well and, since we notionally overlap the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, we can bring back some of the key government players to give us continuity into the parallel series.

 

Somewhere in all this, there was a really good story waiting to be told. Unfortunately, what we actually see is a train wreck. I propose to discuss what goes wrong so stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers.

Jeremy Renner proves pleasingly competent as an action hero

 

The whole benefit of Operation Treadstone was that the agents were trained to kill but make the deaths look accidental. That way, the US could always give itself deniability and maintain the appearance of remaining a morally superior state. With the loss of the Operation Treadstone unit, however, the US has to make a decision as to how best to deal with any public disclosures. The first challenge comes from a British journalist who’s planning to publish a story about Operation Treadstone in The Guardian. Since any kind of diplomatic overture to the editor would confirm the existence of Operation Treadstone, the Americans decide this journalist has to go. But it’s the manner of his termination that sets the trend to complete absurdity. A sniper shoots him dead in a London railway station! What would the police and intelligence services make of that? More to the point, is it to be assumed this loyal employee of a newspaper with an international reputation did not have all his research notes and drafts available to the editor? How can the Americans have gone from subtle to stupid in so short a time?

 

Then they decide to take out an entire group of people working in a lab no-one has tagged as engaged in secret work. Unfortunately having a crazed gunman execute everyone is the best possible way to focus everyone’s attention on this lab and for people to ask what the scientists were doing. Worse, when the token woman escapes death, a cover story is put out that she was messing with dangerous viruses and her home must be quarantined. This is just pouring oil on the flames. Why not take a squad of trusted operatives and talk the scientists into quietly changing identities and moving elsewhere. There can be cover stories for their disappearance. Later, they can be gassed and their bodies dropped down a crevasse in Alaska. Having them disappear is better than this high-profile rerunning of another gun massacre. All these supposed experts are doing is calling attention to what should be kept quiet. More importantly, the film is portraying the American government as having gone way beyond the bounds of ordinary morality and acting with complete disregard to state, federal and international laws.

Rachel Weisz woefully underused as the token woman

 

We then come to the Manilla sequence which, frankly, is interminable. They con their way into the secret basement except we see absolutely nothing like a lab there. Even in CSI, they give their scientists a microscope through which to view the sexy viruses. This superscientist can go into an apparently empty basement, cook up a virus within ten minutes, and give it to our hero. It acts within a few hours to return him to maximum intelligence. He just needs to sleep it off. Even nutty science fiction films manage the pretence of science better than this. So instead of giving us a blow-by-blow account of our hero’s decline to the low level of intelligence he had when he joined the army, which would have given him a more sympathetic quality, he goes from brainy hero to zero and back to brainy hero in about eight hours.

 

The arrival of the other supersoldier was also wasted. All they do is run across a few rooftops, climb around a bit and then chase each other on motorbikes until the “other one” hits a concrete pillar. What a waste of an opportunity for some real fighting action. In this, Jeremy Renner is actually impressive as an action hero but, yet again, poor Rachel Weisz is relegated to the role of token woman in an action film. All she gets to do is swan about a lab in a white coat looking medical and then run, sometimes screaming, for the rest of the film. Although she does run very prettily, this is not the ideal way to use the female acting talent. There’s no point in mentioning any of the other actors. They all mooch around darkly, doing their damnedest to kill the hero and the female sidekick without stepping out from behind their office desks. There’s quite a lot of collateral damage with several wolves killed and one drone shot down. I hope none of the Talaban in Afghanistan see this and realise how easy it is to shoot down drones. The producers of this film would be aiding the enemy.

 

So overall The Bourne Legacy is almost completely brainless from start to finish, and although one or two of the action scenes in the first half are well done, the final chase sequence is edited too choppily to make sense and stretched into complete boredom. If you are desperate to escape scorching sun or torrential rain, this will fill your time until the weather calms down. Otherwise, forget it.

 

The Avengers (2012)

As those of you who read these reviews will know, I often pick a theme by way of introduction. This time, it’s the tried and tested idiom, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Some like to attribute this insight to Aristotle, others to some more recent philosophers. No matter. It represent a nice idea to chew on when you have a moment to ruminate. Essentially, you can take it at a metaphorical level and say that a watch is only a physical device but it has a higher purpose in telling you what time it is. Or you can use it to refer to a team. Individually, they may not be strong but, when you put them together in the right way, you get synergy. Well, starting off with the watch metaphor, this film is like someone strapping Big Ben to your wrist and then enthusing about how it not only tells the time but also has these great chimes. Having just sat through 142 minutes, the first word that comes to mind is ponderous. If you think this is a reference to the massive, if not lumbering, quality of the Hulk, you’d be mistaken. Almost everything about this film is laborious.

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow

 

This is not to deny that parts of the film are actually very good. It’s just that, when it’s all put together and you have to sit through all the rubbish to get to the good bits, it all feels a bit tiresome. So let’s do a quick recap. Back in the land owned by Marvel Comics, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Captain America are renegades from WWII. While the Captain is snoozing under the ice, Nick is setting up SHIELD, the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card to be played when superhuman threats are about to overwhelm our defences. Jackson is actually credible even though asked to do obviously silly things. He brings an unexpected gravitas to the role even when responding to Loki emerging into one of SHIELD’s secret underground installations, capturing the McGuffin and kidnapping two key people who will guard and use the McGuffin to open a portal and let in the alien army. To give his newly acquired minions time to achieve their allotted tasks, Earth’s enemy allows himself to be captured and then sets about trying to undermine the morale of the Avengers. None of them like to work as part of a team so, at one time or another, they all have to fight each other. Instead of disagreeing and holding a debate, they tend to settle arguments with whatever weapons are to hand. Except for Dr Banner, of course. It’s better not to make him angry.

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye

 

So after a few impressive opening scenes, the first hour or so is all rather tedious except for one or two pleasing moments. I confess to being completely taken by Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow and, despite the fact the supply of arrows seems inexhaustible, Jeremy Renner makes an interesting Hawkeye. It’s a shame we’re not allowed to see much of him. I find the idea of mere humans outperforming all-comers intriguing and, just as Batman uses intelligence with technology in support, it’s the spirit that prevails. This would apply to Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark except he’s Tony Stark and an arrogant SOB. Chris Evans is very one-dimensional as Steve Rogers and, in the second half, that becomes the right dimension so he comes good by staying who he is. Chris Hemsworth is completely pigheaded as Thor and the most annoying of the heroes. Which leaves us with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. This is a big improvement on previous attempts at creating the Hulk on screen. As a walking-talking example of humility, he actually tones down Tony Stark in the scenes they share. Incidentally, the cameo argument with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pott is better than anything in the earlier Iron Man films. This almost makes the relationship credible. Which leaves us with Tom Hiddleston as a surprisingly pleasing Loki. He’s a good trickster but should not be seen dead in that horned hat.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner

 

The special effects are, for once, special. SHIELD’s helicarrier actually looks as though it might work although the invisibility shield is the usual silly project-a-picture-of-the-sky on to the hull variety. It’s far better than the equivalent in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The jet fighters and transports are also beautifully rendered with VTOL and manoeuvring beating anything the Harrier jump jet has been able to achieve. The final battle is very well structured and beautifully paced. It could have become very repetitive, but manages to keep everything fresh as each hero is allowed a few moments to hold a position, fight a corner or try to disable the McGuffin. I was particularly impressed by the animatronic alien landing craft. They manage to look simultaneously impractical but, from the point of view of a mere human observer, completely intimidating. The Hulk’s leaping ability and smash-through-anything approach is hilariously over-the-top and through-the-bottom as well. The Iron Man suit yet again demonstrates a level of invincibility above and beyond the call of duty. Quite how Stark is supposed to emerge in one piece is beyond understanding. That made it good to get back to basics with the Black Widow beating those pesky aliens in hand-to-hand combat. As one woman said as she was about to be incinerated by aliens, Captain America can rescue me anytime he wants. He’s just dogged and, even though no-one asks him to take on the role, he makes a natural leader. Thor pitches in but, for someone supposed to have godlike powers, he’s rather cut down to size by the weight of numbers coming through the portal. Indeed, the heroes might have lost had Earth’s governments, in their wisdom, not decided to send a different kind of help.

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans looking for more to fight

 

So The Avengers has good patches that increase in frequency as the film develops leading to a superior fight at the end. This means you should pack sandwiches and a flask of hot tea to see you through the opening section. You can break out the popcorn and coke nearer the end and so finish on a high. I suppose this film will make several tons of money. The marketing hype has generated the interest and, if the intended market is anything like the people who surrounded me when I saw the film, teen boys will flock to this like bees to a honey pot. It has their demographic most skillfully written all over it by director Joss Whedon who has probably done as well with the plot as anyone could. Once you have to have this crowd of principals assemble and then give each a fair amount of screen time, it’s going to get ponderous until they are forced to drop their differences and start fighting the real enemies. So if there’s an inner teen lurking inside you or, like me, you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, you should probably see this. Otherwise wait for it to come on television and enjoy the battle at the end.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Your mission, Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), should you choose to accept it, is to infiltrate the tired old IMF team and, when no-one is looking, take the mickey out of the whole thing. Should this fail, the secretary and her boss will deny all knowledge of you. Presumably because the offer came with rather more zeros on the end of it than our Simon has previously enjoyed, he accepted. For this, we should all be profoundly grateful. What might otherwise have been a rather tedious enterprise (yes, he also played Scotty in the reboot of Star Trek) now has some genuine laugh-out-loud moments to make us all feel better about spending 133 minutes in the presence of Tom Cruise who, let’s face it, can be rather tiresome.

Tom Cruise goes for a walk in the Dubai park

 

At this point, I need to say a few words about Brad Bird whose name appears as the director of the whole shooting-match. This man has cut his creative teeth in comedy, being part of the creative team at Pixar that brought us Toy Story 3 and Up. More importantly, he has years of experience on The Simpsons. This is not to say Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is played entirely for laughs. That would rather run counter to the spirit of the MI brand which is supposedly high-octane, adrenalin-pumping action throughout. But even when the camera is on Tom Cruise, there’s a faintly irreverent tendency to play with expectations and make us smile just before he does something spectacular or there are explosions to get us back on track. This allowed a rather hackneyed plot to get through to the end with only a few boring moments.

Jeremy Renner showing his good profile

 

So here we go again with the megalomanic who thinks it would be a salutary lesson for humanity to provoke the superpowers into exchanging a few nuclear warheads. He starts the ball rolling by blowing up a part of the Kremlin and then gets into the more serious business of launching a nuclear strike at Seattle. The only thing standing between us and nuclear armageddon is the rump of the IMF. That’s Benji Dunn on his first real mission after qualifying for fieldwork, Jane (Paula Patton) who’s aggressively physical but an emotional wreck after her previous field boss was assassinated, and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who’s also somewhat emotionally suspect given his last outing in the field left the woman he was supposed to protect dead.

 

In the best traditions of Mission Impossible, we start with a little backstory on Jane and then get into the rescue of Ethan Hunt from a Russian jail. They then have a few hours to infiltrate the Kremlin to steal information about the megalomaniac who’s only known by his code name. This is the usual excuse for Tom Cruise to walk through all the security checks as a Russian General and then break into the archives where the information is supposed to be stored. There’s a nice use of technology with Simon Pegg alongside to ensure it doesn’t always work properly and, with five minutes too much added value, the Kremlin blows up. In total, I estimate the whole film could benefit from being cut by between fifteen and twenty minutes. The MI production team just can’t resist adding just a little bit more to most sequences when less would have been better.

Paula Patton gets ready to beat up a Bollywood star

 

It’s the same when we get to Dubai. The action sequences on the outside of the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building and a spectacular hotel — are jaw-dropping. There’s a wonderful sense of depth to the way this has been filmed and, as one never happy with heights, this is a tense moment for me. But, with the joke about the malfunctioning technology wearing thin, it’s all plotted as excuses for Tom Cruise to climb up and come down rather quicker, for there be be a cunning and more reliable use of technology until it gives them away, and then fights and chases. But for the location shots, this is generic thriller filler with the MI twist. The big fight at the end in the automated carpark is also tedious as we intercut with different team members trying to beat the odds as the missile flies towards Seattle. I feel very sorry for Michael Nyqvist as the villain. He was probably added in the hope it would boost the international box office takings after his success in Stieg Larsson’s “Girl” movies as Mikael Blomkvist, but he gets no real screen time to establish himself as a credible character. It could have been played by anyone and, in the fight sequences, probably was a stunt double most of the time.

Simon Pegg without the dilithium crystals in view

 

Taking a broader view, this would have been significantly improved by more discipline in the cutting room. Given what we are left with, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is one of the better thrillers of the year if only because it’s not taking itself too seriously. Although I can’t see it justifying more films in the franchise, it’s markedly better than the last two MIs and worth seeing assuming you like Hollywood-style, somewhat brainless adventure stuff. As a final thought, there’s a rather nice element running through this which I will not spoil but which does show a slightly more human side to the otherwise mechanical Ethan Hunt.

 

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