Rewind Review: Escape from Witch Mountain

It’s very hard as a moviegoer to resist the temptation to watch something on opening weekend. However, there will come weekends when there’s no new release that you care to see. So what do you do?

Well, this is where my Monday review comes in. I’ll review something I’ve seen over the weekend that I think you should see next weekend if the batch of new releases doesn’t entice you.

This weekend I watched Race to Witch Mountain, I personally judge every remake, reimagining and rehash on its own individual merits. However, my rule of thumb typically is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Conversely if it was never really that good to begin with, why not?

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The original pair of Witch Mountain films fall into the latter category. They were slow-moving, not very interesting, and couldn’t even be saved by Bette Davis, one of if not the greatest actress who ever lived.

There are many, many things that work well in Race, and those that don’t are minor and don’t detract from the overall experience.

The Pros:

Pace – The move really gets humming, and I was clutching the edge of my seat at times. At the beginning the kids are involved in a chase and you think it’s going to be a two-hour trek to Witch Mountain.

Race

Editing – Amidst all the action the cuts are fast and well-timed; however, I was never left befuddled by what I was looking at in the frame, like in Quantum of Solace.

Dwayne Johnson – Yes, that’s right I said it The Rock. Not only has he steadily improved, and look every bit the part of ‘action hero’, he is also great with a one-liner – which is crucial for any action star. The Rock actually even emoted, some, in the dramatic farewell. Does this day something bad about actors or film? Not necessarily, considering he was always a performer he just needed to learn to transition. Of course, that doesn’t mean every wrestler, singer, rapper and reality star should do it. There needs to be some ability, talent, constant improvement and the intangible like-ability. I’d take Dwayne Johnson over Vin Diesel in a part any day.

The Young Stars – If you haven’t noticed Dakota Fanning isn’t Dakota Fanning anymore. That slot now goes to AnnaSophia Robb. You’ve probably seen her, and just haven’t put a name to her face. She was in Bridge to Terabithia, Because of Winn-Dixie, and other films, and she is excellent. It’s not easy playing a well-spoken, smart, deadpan alien and she did wonderfully, as did Alexander Ludwig, who already proved he could carry a would-be franchise in The Seeker, a film whose box-office failed its concept.

Race to Witch Mountain

Last but certainly not least is Carla Gugino – It was good seeing her on screen again. I’ve always felt she was slightly underestimated in the ‘Spy Kids’ films.

The Cons:

The FBI agent – Played by Ciarán Hinds, the agent seemed like a poor-man’s attempt at Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.

Garry Marshall – As the nutty alien scientist who helps them find the mountain Marshall seemed out of place. It was a comedic role, and it feels odd that it was.

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The Syphon – The assassin sent after the kids from their home planet to thwart their mission is ultimately more of a con than a plus. It does look creepy with its helmet off, but you end up forgetting about it until it shows up to throw a monkey-wrench into the equation.

Overall: cool locations, pretty good effects and a steady level of tension through make Race to Witch Mountain worth seeing, it’s not your parents Witch Mountain or your childhood’s for that matter- and in this case that’s a good thing.

 8/10

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Best Films of 2013: 20-16

The easy question to ask is: “why do a list at all when you already have an awards slate on your site?” It’s a good question and I finally may have formulated the best response to it yet. Basically, it’s a less comparative discussion on each film that you feel marked the year fro you. In writing a list you discuss each film and a only every few numbers or so get bogged down in discussing placement.

I will try my best to avoid redundancy and will link and self-quote where I deem necessary but it was in re-watching something that I came upon the aforementioned truth. Awards with their winners and fellow nominees and then snub-ees can be read as a slight, though that is never the intent. A list as celebratory, if not more so because of the insularity of conversation.

Now 30 is a high number and I could’ve increased it. I saw the most eligible titles ever this year, but I wanted to further honor these films by having the percentile they represent be a smaller fraction than prior lists.

Let us continue with 20 to 16…

20. Philomena

Philomena (2013, The Weinstein Company)

This year, perhaps more than others, had some great surprises in it. I think that always has to play a role. And by surprises I don’t just mean exceeding expectations but really I mean coming out of nowhere unexpectedly. This film did that for me.

Based on the commercials you knew the basic premise: an elderly woman seeks to discover the fate of the child she put up for adoption 50 years prior. It plays it up like it’s going to be all giggles and a heartwarming “human interest story” as Steve Coogan’s character would’ve derisively put it at the beginning of the film. But much like that journalist we are treated to, yes, some laughs, quite a few surprises (both good an bad) and some tears. The film has some touches to it like its montages of home video that foreshadow the child’s life being learned about and the weaving through time Philomena’s memory occasionally does. Judi Dench is positively marvelous, as is Steve Coogan who plays against type and wore many hats to help make this film happen.

19. Mud

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Every so often I seem to with no great pre-meditation happen upon a double-feature, one entirely of my and my viewing partner’s own devising, that really stands out. This year it was viewing Mud and Disconnect back-to-back at Philly Landmark Theatres.

Here Jeff Nichols strikes again with another great film. The scary thing is that he really makes it look fairly easy when we all know it’s not. There’s a lot more to Mud than meets the eye such as coming-of-age, a classic tale of unrequited love, a southern Gothic tale of river-life with just an allusion to recent realities treated in nearly a magical realist way. It’s a film that just may grow over time both with myself and in the public consciousness.

18. The Counselor

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If there was one prediction I had going into Awards season, and “List Season”, it was that I’d see The Counselor on a Best and a Worst list. I did. This is one of those films where I get the arguments against it. It’s one of those films where you either go along for the ride and appreciate it or you can just never get into it for any number of reasons. It certainly settles itself into the world its building eschewing getting over-concerned with the intricacies of the illegal activities being planned, and also builds a world prior to more firmly entrenching its characters. It’s got a unique brand of dialogue you’ll love or loath; all that and more are things I too as part of why enjoyed this film. Aside from the stories within the story that matter and the introspective, philosophizing criminals.

I’ve seen quite a few of Ridley Scott’s films and he never tried anything like this and it’s worth looking in to for that fact alone.

17. The Way, Way Back

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I like to send out a one tweet reaction to almost all the films I see. Part of why that is, is that I’m attempting to succinctly encapsulate my thoughts and preserve them for later reference.

Here’s what I said with regards to The Way, Way Back:

“The Way, Way Back” is quite exceptional. It’s hilarious, heartfelt, dramatic and full of wonderful performances by a spot-on cast.

In many ways this is a film that’s traveling well-trod ground, not that most of it isn’t at this date and time. However, there is a freshness and a truth to it. You have at the center of it Duncan (Liam James) who faces many familiar influences a first love, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb); a mother (Toni Collette); an over-bearing new pseudo-stepfather, Trent (Steve Carell); and an adoptive father figure, Owen (Sam Rockwell). It’s the way these things blend, how the film achieves the aforementioned superlatives that make it stand out.

16. The Old Man

The Old Man (2012, Kazakhfilm)

This film is a testament to quite a few things: seeing films on the big screen (which I didn’t get a chance to), the power of cultural specificity and transliterating a story and the universality that can be found in such specificity. It’s a Kazakh version of the Old Man and the Sea that works brilliantly well.

This film is called Shal, when transliterated from its native language. In English it’s just referred to as The Old Man. In short, the sea does not apply to this tale instead the film is landlocked and tells the tale of an old shepherd. The wilderness he battles is the Eurasian steppe rather than the sea, which brings wolves into play. Thus, aside from the source material it brought to mind the recent film The Grey. However, I feel this film excels far more than that one did in its man versus nature elements because it’s defenestrated to a greater degree. There are fewer affectations of traditional action films and more human drama, more philosophy, more searingly gorgeous imagery and even further respect for the beasts of prey as there is the added element of the old man protecting his herd.

This is also a generational tale wherein quietly the Old Man’s grandson who he tongue-in-cheekily calls Sheitan-bek, translated as “dickens,” comes to a newfound maturity and shows his respect for his grandfather, and thus his elders. The setup of the generational divide is well-executed and though very steeped in indigenous culture and religious mores does have a universal quality to it. One example of it would be that though in rural Kazakhstan the grandfather’s passion for football knows no borders and he struggles with poor television reception to watch Barça and names all his sheep after members of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team.

Review- Soul Surfer

AnnaSophia Robb in Soul Surfer (Tristar Pictures)

Soul Surfer is an interesting film that may not yet have found its audience yet for a number of reasons but if I were a betting man, and there were bets on such things, I might be inclined to back this film as one that would find an audience through video over the years to come. It’s kind of a weird property looking at it from afar: a surfing film, which is also a biopic with a religious element to it being released in April. It’s essentially a summer film that didn’t want get buried amidst blockbusters and is trying to make some waves (yes, I can be punny, sue me) in a rather tranquil time.

None of the above is meant to sound like an indictment of the film. The fact of the matter is I truly enjoyed how multi-faceted I found the film to be. When you try and tackle too much in a film it can turn into a mess but when you can connect on disparate elements and tie them together then you’ve got something really good on your hands.

Looking at it from each perspective let’s see how the film works: firstly, there’s the surfing element under the larger umbrella of sports film. As has been said frequently, the best sports films aren’t really about the game, thus, they can hit home with the largest possible audience. However, it must be said that this movie is a sneaky good sports film. Due to the different things the film is trying to accomplish there isn’t a tremendous amount of time dedicated to the varying facets of a sports film but they get it spot on with the most important one: this film communicates in spades the love of the game and it’s mostly through cinematography, sound editing and a really well-written opening voice over, which stands head-and-shoulders above the voice over opening from the Best Picture nominee The Blind Side.

There’s also a sports rivalry, which as a subplot can either add depth or become an encumbrance on the narrative, it does the former and never gets in the way too much. As does the very chaste and timid love interest, just a little more humanity without over-complicating things. The ultimate example of its excelling in its sport movie mold is that it emphasizes, in the end, the joy of competing over that of victory better than most.

The personal journey works as well to fit the biopic mold. The stasis is well-established and then shattered and a new reality must be dealt with. There is also a very brief and practically perfect amount of time spent in the woe-is-me phase of her story. You also get a refreshingly good self-improvement montage and wonderful, if foreseeable, epiphany.

With regards to the religious aspect of the film it’s there, it’s a motivating factor in her recovery, it’s something Bethany questions and leans on. The film handles this very well not only in keeping it and making it a more true biography but adding some depth to the character and avoiding getting overly preachy and pedantic. Some films it seems can’t deal with any type of spirituality in it without it becoming a spiritual film. It’s an element that folds in very well.

If there’s anything that can be said against the narrative it’s just that there is a certain amount of evenness to it. The three facets while working well together allow you to stay on a rather even keel until the final competition. Yet it’s still a fun film to watch regardless of your investment level.

There is also some very impressive CG work done with the missing limb, it’s the best kind of CG work because it’s functional and doesn’t become the film. The sequence of the accident is also rather stunning and one of a few very well-handled and dramatically-rendered sequences in the film.

Much of the cast in this film does very well and the performances run rather deep down the line. You get three very strong performances just out of the family. AnnaSophia Robb has been mostly unseen since Race to Witch Mountain and before that Bridge to Terabithia but she shows here a rather seamless and graceful transformation to an adult role, and a leading one at that. It’s also wonderful to see Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid not just working but doing great and in a quality project. They each have their own moments to shine here. Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu play the usually jovial, supportive brothers but do have their dramatic moments. Kevin Sorbo also plays a refreshingly low-key and sympathetic character here and Jeremy Sumpter has a small part but plays one big scene wherein he shows flashes of greatness and how he is one of the most under-utilized young actors in films today.

Soul Surfer is a very enjoyable film that you should try to see on the big screen before it’s theatrical run ends.

8/10