This week’s new films reviewed

Astro, Ella Wahlestedt,  Reese Hartwig and Teo Halm in Earth to Echo
Astro, Ella Wahlestedt, Reese Hartwig and Teo Halm in Earth to Echo
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School friends help an alien return home in Earth to Echo

EARTH TO ECHO (PG)

In 1982, ET phoned home and now another stranded extra-terrestrial requires assistance from pint-sized heroes to safely return to the stars in Dave Green’s fantastical family-oriented adventure.

Earth To Echo begs obvious similarities to Steven Spielberg’s classic coming-of-age story and the 1987 fantasy *Batteries Not Included.

Green’s special effects-laden picture lacks the emotional wallop of the former and the unabashed charm of the latter, but does tread a familiar path through fresh eyes by employing the found footage format a la Paranormal Activity.

Characters address an omnipresent video camera, verbalising their excitement and fear as a night-time bicycle ride into the desert becomes a rescue mission of galactic proportions.

“I’m Reginald. I’m a bit of an acquired taste... that’s what my mom says,” confesses one of the boys in his endearingly nervous introduction.

Like all examples of the genre, the lens invariably points in the right direction, regardless of realism, to capture important conversations and push forward the storyline.

“What you’re about to see is what happened to me and my friends one year ago,” explains Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley).

In fragmented footage, we meet Tuck’s best friends Alex (Teo Halm) and Reginald aka Munch (Reese Hartwig) after they learn that a highway construction project is going to tear apart their community of Clark County, Nevada.

The lads will have to relocate to different parts of the country, signalling the end of their balmy childhood.

On their last night together, the boys follow strange signals on their mobile phones into the desert.

“I never understood why people like the outdoors,” wheezes Munch.

They uncover a friendly robot, who has become stranded on Earth, and the boys pledge to help their otherworldly friend locate the missing parts of his spaceship so he can return home.

Plucky classmate Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) joins the trio as they evade shady government officials led by Dr Lawrence Masden (Jason Gray-Stanford), who are also hunting Echo.

“He just wants to go home!” pleads one of the children.

“That will not happen,” sneers Masden, “that thing is far too valuable.”

Earth To Echo is a state-of-the-art ode to ET and its imitators that ups the technical ante for a generation that prefers to swipe at tablets and smart phones rather than go outside and play.

Green employs special effects at key junctures, but, for the most part, he’s reliant on the young cast to carry his film.

Halm, Bradley and Hartwig are appealing without being too winsomely cute, and there are some genuinely touching scenes of the boys choking back emotion as the enormity of the situation, and the risks, become clear.

The titular robot’s personality is encapsulated in a few beeps and trills that should, if nothing else, remind audiences to keep their mobile devices switched off for the duration.

RATING: 6/10

HERCULES (12A)

Classical Greek mythology gets a campy, testosterone-pumped rewrite in Brett Ratner’s swaggering swords ‘n’ sandals romp.

Based on the comic book series Hercules: The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore, this laboured re-imaging of the demigod son of Zeus boasts slow-motion action sequences reminiscent of 300, albeit with reduced on-screen bloodshed to secure a 12A certificate.

Parents should exercise caution.

These ancient civilisations are predisposed to outbursts of bad language that escape the wrath of Olympus, and when the film’s lone female warrior is verbally dissed by a compatriot, she lowers the tone by sniping, “If only your manhood was as long as your tongue”.

The minds of screenwriters Ryan J Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos remain in the gutter when it comes to the two-dimensional women that festoon the screen.

These wenches swoon helplessly in Hercules’ presence or encourage his valour with the promise of personal services.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s girlfriend, Russian model Irina Shayk, makes fleeting appearances in flashbacks as Hercules’ wife, who casually drops her robes for a gratuitous flash of her pert derriere.

“You think you know the truth about [Hercules]? You know nothing...” growls the narrator as he transports us back to a time when power was seized with swords rather than diplomacy.

Hercules (Johnson) has completed his 12 labours, which included slaying a hydra and defeating the mighty Nemean Lion, and now this muscle-bound man of myth roams the land as a mercenary for hire.

His band of travelling companions includes soothsayer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), warrior Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), mute orphan Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), Amazonian archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and silver-tongued storyteller Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), who is also Hercules’ cousin.

Lord Cotys (John Hurt), the ailing King of Thrace, promises Hercules and his company their weight in gold if they can train his farm hands to become an army and bring to an end a bitter civil war with rebel leader Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).

The king’s daughter Eugenia (Rebecca Ferguson) is wary of Hercules, so too is Cotys’ loyal general Sitacles (Peter Mullan), but he cannot fail to be impressed as the king’s weakling subjects are transformed into a well-drilled fighting machine.

Directed with destruction-oriented bombast by Ratner (Rush Hour), Hercules is undecided whether to take itself seriously or descend into tongue-wedged pantomime.

Certainly, Sewell and McShane seem to be having a ball and Johnson trots out a couple of droll one-liners.

The set pieces are orchestrated at full pelt with a generous three-figure body count but once the screaming ends, deficiencies in the script are exposed.

When the truth about Hercules’ tragic past is revealed, Johnson’s wail of anguish in close-up epitomises the film’s heavy-handed approach to matters of the heart: more volume, less palpable emotion.

RATING: 5/10

THE PURGE: ANARCHY (15)

Released in the summer of 2013, The Purge was a guilty and twisted pleasure.

Set in a dystopian future America, which has legalised murder for one night of the year, James DeMonaco’s home invasion thriller milked every drop of gut-wrenching tension from its fiendishly simple premise.

At the box office, which is Hollywood’s trusted barometer of success, the film took almost 30 times its modest three-million dollar budget.

For the inevitable sequel, written and directed once again by DeMonaco, the action moves forward 12 months onto the streets of Los Angeles, where the divide between rich and poor, hunter and hunted is even more pronounced.

The elderly and sick sell themselves to the upper class families as human sacrifices on Purge night in exchange for a paltry fee for their loved ones and an underground anti-Purge movement has declared war on the New Founding Fathers of America.

March 21, 2023, 4.34pm.

The denizens of LA slowly make their way home, preparing to batten down the hatches.

Diner waitress Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) fails to secure a pay rise to pay for drugs for her terminally ill father (John Beasley).

She returns to her apartment crestfallen and forlornly prepares dinner for the old man and her daughter Cali (Zoe Soul).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, a grief-stricken father called Sergeant (Frank Grillo) prepares to slay the drunk driver responsible for killing his young son.

A siren sounds announcing the start of the Purge at 7pm and Sergeant takes to the streets in his armour-plated car, bound for the driver’s home with an arsenal of weapons in the boot.

En route, he crosses paths with a stricken Eva and Cali, and a bickering couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), whose car has broken down.

Against his better judgement, Sergeant allows these four terrified strangers to seek refuge in the car.

“He’s out here voluntarily,” loudly whispers one of the group. “That means he’s out here to do something nasty.”

Like its predecessor, The Purge: Anarchy trades in nail-biting suspense rather than gratuitous gore.

The anticipation of a senseless kill - any time, any place - is more important than the actual dismemberment.

In the absence of obvious star names in the cast, DeMonaco relishes the luxury of being able to slice and dice his characters at will, heightening our sense of unease since there’s no guarantee any of them will make it to 7am unscathed.

The underlying social commentary about the class and wealth divide is poorly developed and strains credibility on a wider canvas.

However, as an unabashed adrenaline rush, DeMonaco’s sequel comes close to replicating the nail-biting thrills and blood spills of the original.

RATING: 6/10

THE HOUSE OF MAGIC (U)

Curiosity almost kills the cat in The House Of Magic.

Set largely within the confines of an ageing conjurer’s home, Jeremy Degruson and Ben Stassen’s undemanding computer-animated fantasy centres on a discarded feline, whose pluck and determination overcome adversity.

The film doesn’t overstay its welcome at a brisk 85 minutes and boasts flashes of visual brio.

That inventiveness is shoe-horned into lively opening sequences, which cut back and forth between a traditional third-person perspective and the four-legged hero’s point of view as he clambers up a tree or cowers beneath oncoming traffic.

There’s a quickening of the pulse, especially in 3D, as the camera replicates the tentative scamper of the cat along a branch as the animal prepares to leap the divide to an open window.

Sadly, Degruson and Stassen lose the will to push visual boundaries as the story unfolds and the grand finale, involving a snivelling villain and a wrecking ball, is an anti-climax.

Ginger tabby cat Thunder (voiced by Murray Blue) is abandoned by his owners at the roadside.

“You must have done something wrong because they chucked you like a cheap burrito,” growls a passing dog (Joey Carmen).

The heavens open and Thunder seeks refuge from the downpour in a ramshackle mansion owned by a retired magician called Lawrence, who performed under the moniker The Illustrious Lorenzo.

The magician’s two performing animals, Jack the rabbit (George Babbit) and Maggie the mouse (Shanelle Gray), view Thunder as a threat and they attempt to shoo the pussy back into the storm.

Once their moggie-loving master catches sight of Thunder, he welcomes the homeless kitty to his new home.

Lawrence is subsequently involved in a traffic accident and recuperates in hospital.

The old man’s scheming nephew Daniel (Grant George) hatches a scheme to despatch his uncle to Rhode Island Senior Retirement Home and sell the house for vast profit.

Luckily, Daniel is allergic to cats, and the magician’s other animals and fantastical mechanised creations, including doves Carlo (Babbit again) and Carla (Kathleen Browers), sabotage viewings of the house and attack potential buyers.

“As long as I’m here, you’re all safe,” naively purrs Thunder.

With its bright colours and linear narrative, The House Of Magic should engage younger audiences.

Parents should be prepared for tears and screams before bedtime though when a snarling Doberman, which is chasing Thunder through undergrowth, appears to burst out of the screen and snaps its hungry jaws.

Older children will have to amuse themselves because the animation lacks the sophistication of Pixar, while the script operates on a single unchallenging level.

Solid vocal performances complement the archetypal characters, with fleeting comic relief from Carmen’s pooch, who boldly claims to be “the Marlon Brando of Chihuahuas”.

RATING: 5/10