Running On Fumes

Vin Diesel’s vanity saga sputters along

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

RiddickRiddick
Galaxy Theatre
2 out of 5

For its first 15 minutes, Riddick threatened to blow my expectations (low at best, obviously) out of the water. It’s fast paced, suspenseful, visually enthralling — hell, even the hard-nosed narration (“I’m used to being left for dead”) is amusing.

But this being a Vin Diesel vehicle, you just knew it couldn’t last. And it didn’t.

Based on the relative success of the low-budget sci-fi thriller Pitch Black, the Riddick saga exists only because of the sheer stubbornness of Diesel and director David Twohy. In 2005, the duo blew over US $105 million on The Chronicles of Riddick (Judi Dench doesn’t sell out for peanuts, you know) and didn’t make even half of it back. Still, the ongoing success of Diesel in the Fast and Furious series was enough to get this further sequel made, although for a much lower price tag.

Much closer to the spirit of Pitch Black than to Chronicles’ excess, Riddick is at its best whenever it’s about dealing with a hostile environment. We re-encounter the hero buried under a rock slide, after being predictably betrayed by the Necromongers. Abandoned on an inhospitable planet where pretty much everything wants to kill him, a severely injured Riddick thrives. (He even adopts a “puppy,” which looks like a cross between a zebra and a hyena.)

Once he’s ready to return to civilization, Riddick alerts two competing teams of bounty hunters to come and get him. One’s a grimy lot led by the fierce if ineffectual Santana (Jordi Mollá, Bad Boys II); the other is more high-tech, and has a bone to pick with the Most Wanted Man in the Universe.

The arrival of the mercenaries marks a turning point in the film. Up to that point, Riddick is a more effective After Earth. The extraterrestrial creatures are clever and menacing, the planet is an overlit nightmare, and Diesel’s imposing physique — and even his limited acting skills — is put to good use.

Then, the movie falls apart. The bounty hunters are stock characters grossly underserved by the script. (A game Katee Sackhoff goes to utter waste, for example.) When WWE wrestler Dave Bautista is the most nuanced character of the bunch, you know you have a problem.

Even more responsible for obliterating the mood is the awful dialogue — I often found myself feeling sorry for Mollá and Sackhoff as they were forced to deliver allegedly badass lines that just sound ridiculous. (“Leave God out of this. He wants no part of what happens next.” Ugh.)

Towards the end, as the troops dwindle and Riddick is finally challenged, the film regains some of its initial oomph, but the horridly long and wearisome middle section has done too much damage to recover from.

A sense of thwarted ambition permeates every movie in the Riddick saga: Diesel and Twohy clearly want to create an R-rated Star Wars, with a complex mythology and intergalactic power struggles to boot, but everything they put out works far better as a B-movie. Maybe if they accepted their obvious limitations and let someone else write the next script, the saga could start to match their ambitions.

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Unfinished Song
Sept. 12-15
RPL Film Theatre
2 out of 5

Often a forgotten segment of the audience, seniors seldom get movies tailored to their tastes.

With any luck, one flick per season caters to their preferences. Last year, said film was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (I’m not counting Amour, probably the last movie I would want to watch if I was pushing 70).

Unfinished Song comes along to fill that spot this year and sadly, it’s not anywhere near Marigold, which wasn’t a great film to start with. A stoic Terence Stamp stars as Arthur, a retiree who can’t bear to watch his wife’s deterioration. Arthur’s instinctive response is to become overprotective and a control freak, but his spouse (Vanessa Redgrave) would have none of it. She wants to spend her last days singing in a seniors’ choir.

Arthur’s standoffish relationship with the music director (the comely Gemma Arterton) takes a turn when his wife passes and his son sees no reason to continue a relationship with him. As it happens, under layers of grumpiness and flannel, Arthur hides a passable singing voice.

Stamp certainly deserves to headline films but he’d be better with something more like The Limey and less like Grumpy Cat: The Movie. Unfinished Song is for the most part a cavalcade of clichés that loses it’s only sliver of an emotional factor the moment Vanessa Redgrave walks off the screen. The acting isn’t the problem, it’s the relentless patronizing: Just because someone gets older doesn’t automatically mean they become dumber or cuter.

Once every so often, Unfinished Song hits it’s desired spot, entirely thanks to Redgrave and Stamp. Their renditions of “True Colors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl” are harrowing enough to prompt a tear or two.

Which is immediately followed by self-loathing for crying in a movie this mediocre. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo

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Much Ado About Nothing
Opens September 5
RPL
3.5 out of 5

On a break from shooting The Avengers, director Joss Whedon summoned his troupe of favourite actors to his mansion for a 12-day project: A modern-day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The outcome is not at the level of Kenneth Branagh’s work, but it succeeds overall thanks to Whedon’s trademark levity and strong performances from actors we’ve only known from staking vampires and cracking wise.

Set over a weekend wedding, Whedon streamlines the play to the two core romances: Beatrice and Benedict (Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, both from Angel), and Hero and Claudio (Jillian Morgese and Fran Kranz, The Cabin in the Woods). While the latter is still a bit of a downer — their nuptials are easily undone by Don John, Claudio says horrible things to Hero, she still takes him back — the Beatrice and Benedict banter gains on depth and heartache thanks to a bit of backstory invented by Whedon.

You heard that right: The creator of Buffy made Shakespeare better.

By straying from the classic approach and turning the play into a screwball comedy (hence the black and white cinematography), Whedon crafted a version of Much Ado About Nothing more palatable to the masses. Even though the cast is uniformly sturdy, the MVP is Nathan Fillion (Firefly) in the scene-stealing role of Dogberry. Turned bumbling policeman for the occasion, Fillion showcases his stellar comic timing; sadly amiss while slumming it in Castle.

Given the reduced production time, there are plenty of flaws that lessen the experience (the production design leaves a lot to be desired). That said, Much Ado About Nothing assures us Whedon can have a career beyond genre flicks and comic heroes. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo

2013-09-05

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