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Even The Rock can’t save tired Disney remake

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Posted: Friday, March 20, 2009 10:00 pm

It was kind of a weak week movie-wise, emphasized by the sheer mediocrity of "Race to Witch Mountain" compared to the previous week's energizing and unique "Watchmen." The latter took a huge hit last weekend, suggesting that word-of-mouth advertising will be virtually nil, while the former took the lead at the box office and may well end up out-performing "Watchmen" worldwide. I've said it before and I'll say it again, people: This is why we can't have nice things.

New in theaters

"Race to Witch Mountain"

** (out of four)

2008, Andy Fickman, U.S., PG

About what you would expect, considering it's a Disney remake starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and a couple of alien kids trying to save Earth from destruction. Our hero is his usual likable self, even if his tough-guy cab driver is a carbon copy of nearly every role we've seen him play before. His comic mugging wears thin too soon, though, perhaps because he lacks any real chemistry with his young co-stars, AnnaSophia Robb ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Bridge to Terabithia") and Alexander Ludwig. The film comes up a little short on plausibility as well; obviously, a movie like this can't be taken too seriously, but when The Rock's character still has to be convinced about the existence of alien life forms even after battling a space-age robot alien assassin thing, it begins to get a bit too ridiculous and tiring. It might have helped matters if director Fickman had any kind of eye for the camera; instead, the whole movie is a mishmash of action/fight scenes with some of the worst kinetics I've ever seen - like, to the point where you can't even tell what's going on. Pity poor Ciaran Hinds, who has a supporting role as the evil government agent pursuing the kids. As usual, he gives a very serviceable performance with material that is beneath him.


Sarah Michelle Gellar and Dwayne Johnson star in "Southland Tales." (Courtesy photo)

DVD pick

"Southland Tales"

*** 1/2

2006, Richard Kelly, U.S., R

Here's a strange one: a heady, nearly impenetrable absurdist prophesy about Biblical end times and American celebrity culture, written and directed by "Donnie Darko" auteur Richard Kelly and starring such actors as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Jon Lovitz and Miranda Richardson.

I'm not quite sure what any of it really means, or even if such questions matter - there's something about an action star (Johnson) suffering from amnesia after disappearing in the desert; an L.A. cop (Sean William Scott) embroiled in a conspiracy involving his twin brother; a war vet (Timberlake) who lip-sings Killers tunes; and a porn star (Gellar) trying to reinvent herself as a political pundit. This is all wrapped up in a plot involving alternative energy sources and pseudo-Marxist revolutionaries, and the impulse is to dismiss it all as meaningless garbage. But if you stop trying to make sense out of it allow yourself to fall into the film's warped sense of reality, you might find yourself exhilarated by Kelly's bold approach. Maybe the consensus is correct and "Southland Tales" is nothing more than an ambitious failure. But even if that's the case, then at least it's one of the most provocative and interesting failures that I've ever seen.

Film log

"Generation Kill"

2008, Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones, U.S., Unrated

Creator/writer David Simon's follow-up to his HBO series "The Wire" is, of course, a significant step down from his previous work. But even if this seven-hour mini-series following a group of U.S. soldiers during initial combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom fails to replicate the humbling complexity and astounding scope of "The Wire," then it at least still delivers the kind of stark and uncompromising (but always good-humored) analysis that we've come to expect from anything bearing Simon's name. And "conservatives" (whatever that term even means anymore) shouldn't scoff; although this is an extremely anti-war series, Simon doesn't take the typical "No blood for oil, Bush is Hitler!" approach to the material.

His take is far more measured and probing and, ultimately, accurate. Working from the book from embedded Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright (played by Lee Tergesen of HBO's "Oz"), Simon tackles the more tangible and provable problems with the Iraq war: the near-complete lack of comprehensive strategic planning; the dangerous situations our troops were needlessly placed in, all for the glory of out-of-touch commanders seeking commendations from their superiors; the non-existent exit strategy; and an unstable mission objective that seemed to change with each passing week. No matter what your political stripe is, it's hard to argue against these charges, and Simon lays out his case with expert precision. But despite its clear political agenda, "Generation Kill" never gets bogged down in policy. This is a great, human work filled with diverse and compelling characters, including leads Sgt. Brad "Iceman" Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard, of HBO's "True Blood") and Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone, who played Iggy in season two of "The Wire"), who share great chemistry and play off one another quite well.

The writing is sharp (if a tad confusing, considering all the rapid-fire military jargon) and each of the dozen or so primary characters are well-developed. Skarsgard is particularly effective, and his cool-headed Marine grunt makes for an effective series anchor. This is certainly an ensemble piece, but Colbert is such a pivotal and prolific character that the entire series pretty much rests on Skarsgard's shoulders. He carries it well, and helps ensure a human connection to such weighty material.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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