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Movie Review: 'Journey 2: Mysterious Island' and 'Safe House'

Travel with low expectations or come for the cartoon.

 

Cinema Siren is here to help. I really am. I'm also first and foremost a movie lover, who happens to have become a critic to try to get you back into the movie theaters to enjoy that most rewarding of escapist pleasures. Cinema on the big screen is where you might be transported for two hours into another world, guided by artists who aspire to elevate, enliven, transform, or change us with their work. That's my hope.

They can't all be winners. I stand by my belief that all movies start out with those involved having aspirations of making something great, promoting the talents of the artists involved…or at least making something fun.

"Journey 2: Mysterious Island" is fun…The kid from "Journey to the Center of the Earth," (Josh Hutcherson) searches for and finds the Mysterious Island with would-be stepdad (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) after getting coordinates from long lost grandpa (Michael Caine), dragging helicopter pilot and daughter (Luis Guzman and Vanessa Hudgens) along for the ride. "Danger," teen crushes, googly eyes, and a race against time ensue.

Innocuous 3-D family film that it is, the actors all seem to know they are there just for the enjoyment of it. To heck with invention and surprise. Going into the theater with low expectations is the best way to enjoy this colorful fluffernutter of a film. "Vernians" as they are called, (that is, the obsessive fans of Jules Verne who believe all his books are based in fact) might celebrate the production designs that include items and bits from his books like the teeny elephants and huge rideable bumble bees (creatures that populate the Mysterious Island are of opposite proportion to the norm), and other recognizable "Vernisms."  

Fans of good scripting and plot twists should run away as from an erupting volcano. In fairness, if you're looking for something to take kids to that won't make your eyes or ears bleed ("Smurfs" and "Chipmunks," I'm talking to you!) there are worse ways to spend two hours.

Steampunk jumped the shark when it was featured in the Justin Bieber "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" video. I guess the filmmakers for "Mysterious Island" didn't get that memo. Between the hyper-colorized flora and fauna and the ode to MacGyver that is Grandpa Caine's makeshift treehouse, though, there's a reasonable amount of visual interest for both kids and grown-ups. The oft-played "Peck Pop of Love" from the preview is indicative of how seriously they all take themselves in the proceedings, but they all play their characters earnestly and do a respectable job when they could all have just phoned in their performances.

Note: The best part of going to see "Journey 2," and almost reason itself, is the cartoon before the feature, "Daffy's Rhapsody," which the studio tells us is the first 3D depiction of Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck. The reason to get excited, however, is it uses the voice of Mel Blanc originally recorded for a kids' record in the 1950s. I had the honor of meeting Mel Blanc years ago through my gallery ArtInsights, hosting him for a Looney Tunes art show, and he was a gentleman of grace, wit, and charm. No surprise there. Anytime we lovers of animation get to experience the vocal genius of Mel Blanc is a great day for the world of cartoons and a great day in the world of film.

Also opening this weekend: "Safe House"
"Safe House" is a pairing of favorite hotties. One for the 30-something set (Ryan Reynolds) and one for the 40-something set (Denzel Washington doing a Bourne knock off). It has the level of acting you'd expect from the two of them. Using their talent in this retread feels like shooting a Bazooka at a buzzing mosquito.

The dialogue vacillates from expertly written to amateurish (could improv be responsible for the better moments?), whereas the entire plot feels as worn as the tires on Jason Bourne's Mini Cooper. I can see how the two A-list actors could have been seduced into the project, and they lend enough star power and gravitas to make it a spy chase-and-shoot 'em up you'll be able to sit through, and in rare moments, even enjoy. The weaker aspects of the film, however, make the most intense acting scenes seem like a rescue mission that has little chance of success.

A warning to those prone to motion sickness: I wanted to beat the camera man to death with his own equipment. For a film not based in the construct of the "found footage documentary," the perpetually jolty, jerky, headache-inducing camera work felt like an uninventive cheap trick.

Both the characters and the actors fight the good fight. The actors fight to keep the film afloat, the characters fight each other, fight to save themselves, and fight to access top secret information. The actors lose. To find which characters win or lose, you'll have to see it yourself. Bring some Dramamine.

Meanwhile...
Perhaps you'd rather see something truly great in the way of movies with lots of action and violence…. Perhaps you'd like to be reminded of just how great an actor Michael Caine can be. Let's do both at the same time!

Michael Caine's life is an inspiration to those who want to believe anything is possible, since he was born to poverty and refused to give up until he found success as an actor. He was told his looks and accent made his rise impossible.

He went from poverty to being knighted in 2000 by the Queen in recognition of his contribution to cinema.

Caine's Best:

"Zulu" (1964)
The film that gave Caine his first starring role, it tells the story of the battle of Rorke's Drift during the late 19th center Anglo-Zulu war. Most of Zulu was shot on location in South Africa and there are some amazing scenes with local tribespeople, as well as lots of fighting. The film is a mix of fiction and fact, so watch it for Caine and other fine Brit actors' performances, not for historical accuracy.  (Streaming on Netflix and DVD)

"The Ipcress File" (1965) This BAFTA award-winning film is one of Caine's best, and is his first appearance as Harry Palmer. It was meant to be an alternative portrait from Bond of the British spy. Unlike Bond, there's little glamour in his job, and Palmer is not from the upper class. Caine plays to his roots as a Cockney from the bad part of town. His character is fascinating and the script is very complicated, keeping you in thrall 'til the very end.  (on DVD)

"Get Carter" (1971) This is a violent and stark look at revenge featuring Caine on a vicious rampage. A favorite of Caine's fans as it shows him coming into his own and flexing his considerable acting talent. Even as he shows no mercy, Caine finds a way to make his character sympathetic to the audience. Not a film you'll walk away from feeling optimistic, but the script and action are riveting. (on DVD)

"Sleuth" (1972) Director Joseph L. Manciewicz turned out this stylish cult thriller of wit and suspense starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, alone together for the lion's share of screen time, in a deadly game of cat and mouse. The action here is largely of the verbal sparring kind, as adapted from his own stage play by Anthony Shaffer. There are lots of plot twists to keep you paying close attention, and is worth seeing for the set decoration alone.  (on DVD)

"The Man Who Would Be King" (1975) One of my absolute favorite movies, this very exciting and extremely well written film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's short story stars Caine and Sean Connery (the men who played Bond and Palmer, together at last!) as a pair of swashbuckling rogues trying to dupe an Afghan village into thinking they're gods. Directed by John Huston, a must for all lovers of adventure movies. Look for Caine's longtime wife Shakira, who plays a supporting role as "Roxanne." (on DVD)

Throwing in a twist:
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (1988) No violence, just delicious, hilarious absurdity.

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