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New films: A Good Day to Die Hard, Beautiful Creatures, Safe Haven

New films

For the third week in a row, I find myself recommending the zombie love story “Warm Bodies” over any of the other new 2013 releases – or any of the Oscar best picture nominees that are still playing around town.

A Good Day to Die Hard
Directed by John Moore

I wrote recently about the new Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies and here’s the third leg of the trifecta of aging action stars – although Bruce Willis is the youngest of the three by 8-9 years and, although less massive than the others, actually looks to be in better shape in terms of generally mobility. Sadly, none of the three movies is very good, with this one probably matching “The Last Stand” for some fun moments, ahead of “Bullet to the Head’s” darker onslaught.

One aspect of the “Die Hard” franchise that’s appealing is that John McClane is a character that tends to stumble into trouble, rather than seeking it out – and to some extent it serves the series well as he ages, as we don’t rush to roll our eyes quite so often as with Stallone’s characters eagerly rushing into situations as though he’s still half his age. It’s also neat to see McClane as the father of an action hero of his own – and this could have been an excellent opportunity to pass the torch and transition to the new generation, but there seems to have been an eagerness to throw Willis back to the foreground even in scenes where it was unnecessary or, worse, distracting.

This happens repeatedly early in the movie in what is, admittedly, a fun to watch car chase scene, including sequences with McClane driving a Mercedes SUV* along the top of lines of other vehicles. The action here speaks for itself, or at least it should have been allowed to, and yet almost every time the shot cuts back to Willis, we get a ridiculous one liner shouted at the audience for no better apparent reason than to remind us it’s really Willis’ movie, even though the more central action is taking place further down the road. (*Note that where “The Last Stand” featured multiple GM vehicles in what at times felt like a feature length commercial, “A Good day to Die Hard” has Willis jumping between Daimler AG products, from the Unimog truck, to the Mercedes SUV, to a Maybach sedan – and I can only assume that the folks at Daimler enjoyed watching the production team explode three BMW’s.)

From that moment on, it’s a constant rush of action that doesn’t make much sense but is occasionally fun to look at – such as a scene in which a series of glass ceilings come crashing to the ground. But it’s also a movie that could easily justify wearing earplugs as it reaches its concluding moments.

The “Die Hard” franchise has thrived when at its most simple. Now that we’ve been introduced to the equally tough son, it would be neat to get back to the quasi-claustrophobic single venue, like a locked down building, rather than chasing nuclear secrets across Russia. Bring the action to McClane, rather than having McClane chasing the action – that feels too much like a different franchise.

Beautiful Creatures
Written (screenplay) & Directed by Richard LaGravenese

While this is likely to be the best reviewed of this week’s movies, although still not positively so, I disliked it pretty much from the start. I’ll be honest and admit that I’m easily bothered by actors faking accents they don’t seem entirely comfortable with and this is an accent-faking Smörgåsbord from start to finish, across most of the significant cast. And when you’re dealing with characters who live a magical existence, one wonders why they would have to fake accents at all – just have them speak in their natural voices and have a throwaway line about choosing the way they sound. Otherwise you end up with fine actors like Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson having to worry more about their pronunciation than their material.

Not that the material is that great to begin with – at least not at this moment in time. And, to be fair, the sequencing of movie openings has an effect here – as “Beautiful Creatures” has a tendency to make you think of multiple other franchises as you watch it, never feeling quite original at any moment in the story. But it’s not just the story and how derivative it might feel that’s the problem, it’s the telling of that story and the extent to which it’s permitted to make sense.

It centers around a high school student in a small, insular Southern town who’s drawn to the new girl in school, who just happen to be a member of the local family with all the deep, dark secrets that scare the local good Christian folks. What Ethan soon discovers is that Lena is a “caster” (as in spell caster – which is apparently less offensive than “witch”) – a fact that neither seems to surprise or alarm him as much as one might expect. Naturally, there’s much infighting in the caster family tree, rivalries, a birthday deadline, and more for everybody to deal with.

But within this context, there are scenes that seem either out of order or poorly conceived. For example, Ethan is partially taken care of by Amma, (Viola Davis) who delivers meals for him and his father, who has stayed hidden away since the death of his wife. Amma is, to Ethan, just the local librarian and friend of the family who helps them out. But when Ethan and Lena get wrapped up in some witchy/castery happenings, Amma comments on them in a clearly knowledgeable way without Ethan reacting to her knowledge. It would make sense later in the film, after such a confrontation has occurred, but not at a moment when Amma, from Ethan’s perspective, ought to be out of that loop.

The end result is a film that’s likely to remind audiences of others like the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” series (it’s hard not the think “muggle” when you hear the casters say “mortal”) but which, at best, might rival the weakest of the “Twilight” films (which itself isn’t a high bar to begin with). But when it comes to “normal guy falls in love with a witch” stories, it doesn’t bring much more to the table (even a furiously spinning dining room table at a supremely dysfunctional caster family dinner) than a “Bewitched” marathon on TV.

Safe Haven
Directed by Lasse Hallström

It’s worth noting at the start here that I have nothing against movies of this kind – and I’ve enjoyed prior adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ novels. But this one bothered me throughout much of its running length. For starters, it wants to keep you guessing a little about the main character and what she appears to be running from, yet the character development has very little subtlety and therefore there’s no real mystery involved.

The central romance between Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel is solid, backed up by credible performances by the child actors, but the film deviates from the typical romantic tale by venturing into a different realm. It’s too much of a spoiler to the plot to even hint at what happens – however the outcome is another example of a little too much prior telegraphing. At the point that the movie wants to surprise viewers, the reaction is as likely to be “I had a feeling that was going to happen” as “Wow!” And given that I had already had one of those “Oh please don’t have THAT happen…” moments where I anticipated the ending, I was generally underwhelmed.

My own disappointment comes from having loved much of director Lasse Hallström’s prior work, including “My Life as a Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and last year’s wonderful “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” – although his most successful films are probably “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules.” He’s one of the best directors working and that’s what makes this so surprising – although he isn’t really known for the slow reveal of a hidden mystery, so that may be a part of the problem. I’m guessing that it probably worked a little better on the page than on the screen.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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