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Nov 13, 2008

The Mentalist

Here I’m starting a new segment of reviews dealing with what’s worth watching on television. Navigating through the mire of derivative and boring shows can be quite the feat, but maybe with a few tips here and there we can all make sure our time is TiVo spent wisely.

‘The Mentalist’ is a CBS crime drama, but distinguishes itself from the other legions of such shows with interesting characters and situations. Here the emphasis is not so much on an external crime plot, but more about one man facing his personal demons. Add to that an interesting cast, good dialogue, and a complete lack of the crap that passes for jokes on my crime shows, and you get an immensely watchable series.

Simon Baker stars as ex-fake psychic medium Patrick Jane, who manages to solve crimes through a combination of mind tricks and psychology. Some of you might recognize him from a pretty wide array of appearances, but I remembered him from his small but important role in ‘L.A. Confidential’. He was the famous actor that Kevin Spacey busts in the beginning of the film. Playing the Scully to his Mulder is Robin Tunney, who is trotting out her tough girl routine as the leader of their crime solving unit, Teresa Lisbon. One interesting dynamic to their relationship is that the writers do not have her conveniently forget Jane’s skills every episode, while she might not approve of his methods, she does trust his ability. That’s one problem I have with many shows that try to Mulder/Scully dynamic, they forget to have the character see the results and say, ‘Maybe I should start listening to this guy who’s almost always right’.

Also on the team we have three supporting characters who do a very good job in their roles. While the show doesn’t try to be an ensemble, it’s very much about Jane, and to a much lesser degree, Lisbon; it does allow the supporting cast to have their interesting moments. Also the writers manage to inject some life into the guest characters we meet every episode. It is such a breath of fresh air compared to the stereotypes we see in all the ‘CSI & Order: [INSERT CITY]’ shows out there.

We also get to see, in the first episode no less, the central theme of the series which revolves around the murder of Patrick Jane’s wife and daughter some time before the show even starts. This tragedy, and his responsibilty for it, is what drives him away from being a self-involved celebrity faux-psychic and into working for the police. While the actual case involving his wife and daughter does not come up too much, which is a good thing in my opinion, Jane is heavily driven by the reprecussions of that core plot in every episode. This unity of purpose helps lend some gravitas to a show that might otherwise just be a quirky copy of the other ten million cop shows.

For some of the more televisionally erudite readers, there might be some comparisons drawn between this show and ‘Life’, another quirky cop show. While that is true, and I did enjoy ‘Life’ for a while as well, ‘The Mentalist’ is very much its own show and I think it has the potential to be better than ‘Life’ if it keeps progressing well. I’m sure this has much to do with creator Bruno Heller, the amazing writer behind the majority of HBO’s excellent series ‘Rome’. The vast difference between that series and ‘The Mentalist’ just prove how great a writer he is.

So if this sounds interesting, tune in to CBS on tuesdays at 8PM CST and give it a shot. This is really a show with something for everyone, so you will not be disappointed.

Nov 10, 2008

Fallout 3

While it might seem a little out of format at first blush, the gulf between movies and video games grows shorter every year, so reviewing a game is not that big of a stretch. After all, companies are releasing games that can have over 50+ hours of playtime, an epic plotline, and engrossing characters. That being said, here is my review of Fallout 3, bear in mind that I’ve been playing this on the Xbox 360, so PC and PS3 gamers might find a slightly different experience.

Fallout 3 is the long awaited sequel to the two hit games for computer that came out around the turn of the millenia. Both were revolutionary for introducing depth of gameplay that was hard to find at the time, and a role-playing experience that usually only existed in fantasy games. Breaking with tradition, the Fallout series put the player in the post-apocalyptic wasteland following a third world war. With free roaming gameplay, realistic moral choices, and tons of customization the first two Fallout games delivered awesomeness in spades.

Due to a long series of circumstances, the company responsible for the first two games never got around to making part three. Overtime the company started to go under, and the license for the series found its way into the hands of Bethesda, producers of the wonderful Elder Scrolls series, which includes the Xbox 360 title ‘Oblivion’. With extensive work and advertising, word of Fallout 3 reached the fans and the wait began. After an eternity it was released in late October. Fallout 3 takes place in post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. approximately two hundred years after the world war that brough destruction to the world as we know it, or at least a retro futuristic version of our own world.

Fallout 3 is certainly its own game, but it must be stated that there are numerous similarities to Bethesda’s other game Oblivion. Character models, gameplay, interfaces, they are all adapted to the retro future feel of Fallout, but still similar to the ones in Oblivion. Now, if you did not like Oblivion, don’t freak out, Fallout 3 is still a very unique game that should be judged on its own merits.

The first, and most obvious, of these merits is the wide open gameplay available to players. Although you start the game in an underground vault, once you finish that section you could conceivably go anywhere in the world. At least until you were killed by giant radioactive scorpions, merciless raiders, or the very intimidating super mutants that populate downtown Washington D.C. To new players this freedom can be intimidating, at times you might even feel aimless, but with a detailed map with markers and a quest log, it is easy to accumulate tons of things to do.

Another thing that should attract players is the very detailed, read that as graphic, depiction of combat. Regardless of the instrument of destruction, enemies can be dispatched and dismembered in a variety of gruesome ways. One particularly unique aspect of gameplay is the V.A.T.S. system, Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. This is primarily a throwback to the old turn-based nature of the original two games, but creates a very enjoyable dimension of gameplay in Fallout 3. What it does is freeze combat, and allow the player to select specific body parts on enemies to attack, and then set their attacks into motion. To keep this within balance, the game uses ‘action points’ which represent your ability to use the V.A.T.S. system. The system shows hit percentages, slow motion kills, and is so enjoyable that even the most experience first-person shooter player will still enjoy using this part of the game.

Another thing that will easily engross the player is the wide variety of interesting characters that populate the world. With well-constructed A.I. and dialogue that is, usually, well-written it is easy to think of those you meet as real people, capable of the full range of emotions that you yourself feel. Whether you choose to be good, evil, or that place inbetween, the characters will add gravity to your choices just by seeming real.

Finally the biggest selling point for me was the setting of the game, everything shifts constantly between Mad Max-esque wastelands, and remnants of patriotic retro-50s future technology. Bethesda really delivers on this aspect of the game, by having the only ‘real’ radio station in the city play a nice selection of classic upbeat jazz hits. There is nothing like taking off a raider’s head at fifty paces while Ella Fitzgerald croons in the background. Not to mention the now grubby remains of sleek and beautiful art deco futurist designs of our ‘future’.

In the end Fallout 3 delivers on all levels, it is really an impossible task for me to find overt problems with this game. If I were to nitpick, I could complain about the glitches I’ve ran into during my extensive playing of this game. However, anyone who plays a game like this needs to learn the importance of saving frequently, and in multiple slots. Some have also complained about the game not being as long as advertised, but all I have to say is ‘nuts to that’! My first playthrough checked out at over 50+ hours. Sure, if you chase that main storyline to the exclusion of the world then you could easily cut that number in half or more, but that would be cheating yourself. This is a game that needs to be savored like a glass of brandy. Finally, a warning, play to your heart’s content before you finish the main storyline, because there is an ending, the game does not continue after you finish. Aside from that caveat, this is an engrossing and wonderful game that I’d recommend to anyone who likes to play games, it has something for nearly everybody.

So go out and get it already!

Jan 16, 2008

In the Name of the King

“In the Name of the King” is the movie adaptation of a video game called ‘Dungeon Siege’. This particular film is not a direct translation of the game, but is instead only loosely based on the game. Usually this has little bearing on whether or not a movie is good, and that stand true in this case. This movie’s problems stem from a variety of directorial choices instead of any resemblance, or lack thereof, to the video game.

This film takes place in a kingdom ruled by Bert Reynolds. Yes, I am telling it true, Bert Reynolds plays the old king in this film. I spent half the movie humming the theme from “Smokey and the Bandit”. I’m normally the first person to say that an actor can step beyond their older roles and really act, but in this case that is not true. No offense to Mr. Reynolds, but he is just not the type that strikes me as a fantasy king…and he does not get a chance to dispel that notion. In all fairness the reason for that is more due to Uwe Boll’s direction than his own acting ability.

Jason Statham plays ‘Farmer’ our heroic lead, and he does some impressive fighting in that role that brings to mind “The Transporter” only with a sword. His wife is played ably by the lovely Claire Forlani, and his mentor/father figure is all too briefly played by Ron Pearlman. Add to that Leelee Sobieski, and the ever cool John Rhys-Davies. This should have been a cool movie. Then again, we had another casting choice, that was even worse than making Bert Reynolds the king, and that was casting Ray Liotta as the evil magic-user Gallian. He just does not pull off the whole ‘evil master of the mystic arts’ thingy. I kept expecting him to pull out a gun and shoot our hero more than hurl spells at him. Some might argue that having Matthew Lillard in the film was a bad choice as well, but he did a reasonably decent job in his role…then again, it might have just seemed decent since the film itself was so bad.

Really the fault lays with the direct Uwe Boll. Every scene made the same truth even more and more apparent, that the director was amateurish. He cut at the wrong moments, picked the least realistic reactions from his actors, and basically did everything he possibly could to make the film cheesy and tired. Why does this man keep getting work? If one were to look him up at imdb.com they would see that he has movies in production until 2010, and multiple pictures each year! Maybe he’s amazingly quick, or perhaps he knows how to stretch a dollar, but all I know is that he keeps getting work and I’m starting to think that his name should be a warning to movie watchers.

If Uwe Boll is directing, steer clear! This film is no different. Really it’s very disappointing to me, because with the right director this movie could have been an enjoyable action/fantasy romp. Instead it induces so many cringes that I came out of the theater with a cramp in my neck.

The best thing I can say about this movie is that at least it is not as bad as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”. Even still, save your money and pass on this movie.

Dec 20, 2007

I Am Legend

Will Smith’s “I Am Legend” came to theaters with a bang, breaking the opening weekend box office records for December. It unseated “Return of the King” for the title holder of highest grossing weekend for a December release, and appears to still be going strong. Unlike some highly successful movies, this one deserves the success.

For those who are unaware, this is the third adaptation of a book by author Richard Matheson. Of the other two versions, the best known is probably “The Omega Man” which starred Charlton Heston. While this version was closer to the original book than that one, there are still several key differences in the characters and events as they play out. Fortunately this plays out to the benefit of the whole film, rather than detracting from its coherency.

So in this film, the story revolves around Robert Neville (Will Smith), a scientist for the military who was trying to reverse the effects of a virus that spread out of control. Unlike other outbreak films, this virus started as a successful cure for cancer no less, and then it goes airborne. For some reason Neville is immune to the effects of the virus and continues living in the abandoned remains of New York City.

Unfortunately the virus was not universally fatal, there were survivors who were changed somehow into beings resembling animalistic vampires. There are many similarities between them and the creatures of myth, the most notable being their fatal aversion to sunlight. Neville spends his time trying to survive, sending out broadcasts for other survivors, and studying the virus in the laboratory under his house.

During this time there are two things about this movie that made it good, the dog and the mannequins. Neville has a dog named Samantha who keeps him sane during his time alone, and he also has set up mannequins around the places his visits during the daytime. We are never clearly told by the film if he has truly gone insane, or is just dipping a toe in the water, but that makes it all the better as we watch Smith portray a man who has been living completely alone for four years.

Then the first time night falls, and we see him huddled in his bath tub with his dog as the infected survivors scream and hunt outside…it’s just so damn real. That’s what got me about this film. For a movie that uses CGI for the infected people, and that was a mistake if you ask me, it still manages to make it all seem so real that my heart pounded nearly the entire time. The director does not rely on childish jump scares, instead when we see the creatures it is when they are stationary. Instead of making us jump out of our seat, the director makes us squirm as we know that Neville is standing in the same room as a group of monsters.

Finally there is Will Smith. Some people say he is the biggest leading star in Hollywood right now, and others…well they’re not such big fans. Personally I’ve always liked him, and I’ve grown to like him even more as he took on more challenging roles in films like “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness”. So I went into this movie expecting something good from him, and came away being impressed beyond my expectations. Everything we get from Smith is genuinely moving. There are no cheap jokes, and even the humor we do get is tinged with the despair of being completely alone. All the ‘happy’ moments are really sad, and Smith carries that in his performance. No ‘buts’ or anything else, Will Smith delivers an amazing piece of acting here.

If I had to poke holes in anything about this film, it would be the use of CGI for the infected people. While it never looks bad, it could look much better, as in “28 Days Later” where they used real people. Aside from that, if I were being incredibly picky, I might add that the ending seemed a little rushed and a teeny bit cliched. Not really a major complaint, just trying to find something so all the other movies won’t get jealous and start picking on “I Am Legend”.

So, in conclusion, this was an amazing film that watched more like literature than an evening’s diversion. I came away feeling that I had witnessed the depths of one man’s soul, and I am certain that’s what the people involved in this film wanted me to feel. In the end there is nothing else to do but go see this movie right now. Don’t even log out and shut down the computer.

Go.

Now.

Nov 10, 2007

Fred Claus

“Fred Claus” is one of the first of this season’s Christmas movies to hit the theaters, and considering that we haven’t even hit Thanksgiving, we’re getting an early start. Of course this should be far from surprising when you consider that we can hardly kick the pumpkins out of our yards before we’re being bombarded by pre-Christmas advertising. Remember, Christmas is not just a day it’s an entire quarter of the freakin’ year. Anyway…

This film pairs Vince Vaughn as the brother of Santa Claus, Fred Claus, with Paul Giamatti as the big red guy himself. While the majority of the story takes place in a modern setting, we actually do get a medieval-ish intro with Fred and Nick, you know ole Saint Nicholas, growing up alongside one another. We’re also treated to the news that not only do saints cease aging, but their entire family gets to be immortal as well. Neat, eh?

So in the modern day, Fred Claus works for, or owns it’s a little fuzzy, a repo company and is an all-around loser type. Somehow he managed to be ageless for centuries but never put together a viable stock portfolio because he’s strapped for cash. Anyway, he’s caught between raising money to start a mini-casino in Chicago and failing to properly romance his girlfriend Wanda (the beautiful Rachel Weisz).

When Fred decides collect money on the street for a false charity he earns the ire of many Santa Clauses…Clausi…Clauseses, many Santas. In one of the funniest, and regretfully rare, scenes of the film we get to see a chase scene followed by a fight between Fred and maybe a dozen santas. This naturally lands Fred in jail with a five thousand dollar bail, and in the process of asking his brother Santa for the money to get out he tries to fast-talk him into another fifty grand to finance his casino. Mrs. Claus puts her foot down, and so Fred ends up going to the North Pole for the first time to work for his brother temporarily.

Coincidentally, there is an efficiency expert reviewing Santa’s operations with the power to shut down the North Pole if things are not running smoothly. This would be the point where ‘hilarity ensues’, but unfortunately most of the jokes just are not there in this movie. While there were a few chuckleworthy moments, and a few heartwarming moments, this movie is unable to decide on being a comedy or a touching seasonal film. Unfortunately for the viewers it tries to be both, and comes up short on both goals.

Vaughn plays his typical character, fast-talking and charming in a rough sort of manner. Giamatti does a tastefully understated job as Santa. In a movie that almost tries to make us understand how frustrating it would be to have a saint for a brother, we still cannot bring ourselves to resent Nick himself. Sure, the circumstances suck, but Nick is just a wonderfully nice guy. Kevin Spacey is slightly under used as the efficiency expert, despite being in good form as always. The fault is not in the actors, they all do their job, the movie just fails to deliver the laughs and while it is heartwarming, it doesn’t get the job done. In the end this is a mediocre film that might be worth renting, but is not really worth the price of admission.

Oct 3, 2007

The Kingdom

“The Kingdom” is the latest one of those socio-political thriller movies that have been hitting theaters in this new millenium of ours. Basically it falls into that category of being very pro-america, and yet trying to keep itself from being perceived as a patriotic movie by putting in a few major non-american characters. In the end it may attempt to disguise the true message, but for anyone who pays attention it’s clear that the film is saying ‘america is the greatest’. Is that a bad thing for a movie to do? That’s up to you to decide.

Anyway, this film takes place mostly in Saudi Arabia, although the main characters spend a good portion of the time in america before things start moving along. Really there are five primary characters, the four person FBI team led by Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and including Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) as the old hand on the team, Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) the medical forensics gal, and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) as the tech guy. Then our last primary character is Saudi Arabian police leader Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Asharaf Barhom) who seems to be there to remind us that there might be some meaninful people in other countries besides america. All the actors deliver solid performances, with Foxx being given a particularly meaty share of the drama and action as befits his high status in hollywood. Barhom is first in the role of hinderance to the team, but eventually seems to become Foxx’s sidekick, but pulls off his role well without being flashy enough to distract the audience from the important american people. There is a part near the end where it seems like he might possibly steal the limelight away from Foxx, but then the movie manages to turn it from someone else’s tragedy into Foxx’s moment to emote and all is well again.

The plot is simple enough, despite all the complex political manuvering that is hinted at, and begins with a terrorist attack on an american complex in Saudi Arabia. It turns out to be a particularly nasty attack, when after the first attack a bomb is exploded later at a very inopportune time. So in the face of this, Foxx and his team want to go over to ‘the Kingdom’ to investigate, but unfortunately the State department is having none of that. Luckily for us, or the movie would be very boring indeed, Foxx manages to use some slick moves and blackmail to get his team a pass over there without the State department.

Once the team is in Saudi Arabia is when the should have begun, but instead we have more political red tape thrown in the way when the prince who invited them insists that they be protected the entire time. Unfortunately this means they are not allowed to roam around, investigate, or do their job as they would like. Colonel Faris is their opposition at first, but those plucky americans manage to win him over by making him look good in front of the prince. This is when the movie actually begins, about halfway through the picture. Now some of you might say, “Jesse, they’re just illustrating the red tape and frustration of dealing with international politics while trying to do something important like catch terrorists.”

Maybe that’s correct, but it does make the movie seem to drag on forever before we actually get to the interesting part. Once the team actually starts investigating, I started to find myself caught up in what was happening. Then as the movie progressed, and the tension built, there was a cathartic explosion of violence and awesomeness at the end that had me on the edge of my seat. I don’t know, maybe all the waiting slowed me down enough that the action was that much better. Either way, things picked up and were very entertaining, and even the very end which might be a tad melodramatic, is short enough and fairly tasteful so it did not reek of kitsch.

In this end this was an enjoyable movie, despite starting slow, and was worth seeing. On top of that, if you are a fan of politico thrillers and seeing americans in foreign climes, then this might be just the flick for you. Even if that’s not your bag, it should be entertaining enough for a see. So if nothing else is drawing your attention, give ‘The Kingdom’ a chance, it’s worlds better than ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning’.

Sep 30, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction

This is the third installment in the ‘Resident Evil’ movie series, and for a thirdquel it could have been worse. When compared with the resent “Dragon Wars” I found this movie to be–watchable. Aside from that bare distinction, however, it was not good.

For those familiar with the trilogy, it is very loosely based off the game series of the same name, but does not follow the game closely enough to be anything more than a distant relative. While seeing the earlier movies would be helpful, the plot is not complex enough to require them. In fact the director must have realized that fact, because he makes absolutely no effort to fill the audience in on the prior plot. Even when reintroducing a supporting character from the second movie, he does not go into reminiscing, which works in the context of this action packed movie.

Okay, so the plot, such as it is, is as follows. The world has ended, and while we have no figures on how many humans are left, it is very much zombie armageddon. Our heroine Alice, played by the delectable Milla Jovovich, is zooming along on her motorcycle and kicking ass. She seems to be fairly aimless at first, but soon enough finds a journal someone kept of radio transmissions that indicates Alaska might be free of the zombie plague. Also sharing orbit with her, is a ragtag group of nomads who keep on the road to avoid becoming zombie bait. Most of them remain unexplored characters, aside from Carlos Olivera, a character from the previous movie, and Claire Redfield (wearing the face of the lovely Ali Larter of ‘Heroes’ fame) who is very loosely based on the star a ‘Resident Evil’ video game.

Then we have the ‘bad guys’ namely the Umbrella Corporation. Apparently they survived the end of the world by retreating to several underground lab/shelters all over the world. They are laboring to find a way to domesticate the zombies and return to the world, and before you start working about their semi-good goal bear in mind they were the ones who created the zombie virus and failed to contain it as well. Also we find out that they created Alice, something mentioned in the previous films as well, and that her blood holds the key to messing with the zombie virus.

So to make a short story, um, short, Alice runs into the intrepid nomads and tells them about the wonderful world of Alaska, and is spotted by Umbrella in the process. They head to Las Vegas to get supplies for the long trip and are ambushed by beserker zombies that had been air dropped by Umbrella Corp. Also we find out that with their satellites, Umbrella can shut Alice down. Which begs the question, why did they have to send beserker zombies to kill the other humans when they could have just turned her off and snagged her. If it seems like I am giving away too much of the plot, take it as a warning not to waste your money seeing this in the theaters. For the sake of those masochists who are going anyway, or those who want to see it on the movie channels, I’ll stop the synopsis here.

Suffice to say, the movie rushes along at a break neck pace, and instead of being exhilarating it just leaves everything feeling shoddy and insignificant. By the climax at the end of the film, we do not really care about what is happening, and with the cliffhanger ending that is blatantly angling for another sequel it just gets frustrating. Why? Because for those of us who have invested/wasted the time to see all the previous films, there is a mild need to see the end of this series. If only to see that it really is dead for good, and not going to rise from the grave for yet another low-quality sequel. Now, thanks to the ending, the story will either be unfinished forever or we’ll be hear a year or two from now writing about the forthquel.

In conclusion, while this movie hurdles the extremely low bar of being better than ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning’ it is still not worth seeing. Spend your time an money in a more valuable way, and let ‘Resident Evil: Extinction’ fulfill the promise inherent in the title.

Sep 20, 2007

Dragon Wars

“Dragon Wars” was suggested to me as something of a dare. First, one of my friends innocently asked me to give him my opinion on this film, and then casually let slip that he wanted to leave half way through. Then another of my friends balked when I said that as bad as this film looked, I was positive it would not be worse than the horrible “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”. So I decided to put my money where the theater is, and went to see “Dragon Wars”.

It turns out I was right, this was not worse than TCM: the Beginning, but that is not saying a lot.

So let’s start at the beginning, which is not exactly where this film began. “Dragon Wars” concerns a Korean legend about magical giant snakes called Imoogi, and the human woman that is born every five hundred years to turn one of them into a celestial dragon. Naturally this ancient korean legend takes place in modern Los Angeles amongst a cast of nearly every ethnicity aside from korean, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Okay, so to the actual beginning of the movie, which is not really the beginning of the story. So our hero Ethan (Jason Behr of ‘Roswell’) is a reporter for CGNN, notice the “G”, and is walking around some sort of strange natural disaster. Naturally this disaster is never explained, but we do see a giant snake scale. While this means something to the audience, we expect it to mean nothing to our hero, but it turns out he recognizes it as well. How? Well we are treated to a flashback that let’s us find out.

Fifteen years prior, Ethan is at a shop belonging to an antique dealer named Jack (played by Robert Forster of many, many films). His father appears to be trying to sell something he stole, although it might be a family heirloom but is never clearly explained. When Ethan wanders around he just happens to walk by a box that opens to reveal a giant scale inside, just like the one in the beginning of the film. Then there are sparklies and ghostly shapes in the air. Jack realizes this because he fakes a heart attack to get Ethan’s father to leave, and then proceeds to tell young Ethan the ancient korean legend that spawned this film.

So we move onto a flashback within the flashback, one that actually gets more screen time than the first flashback. Anyway, in 1507, a girl is born to a korean lord and bears a red dragon shaped birthmark on her shoulder. Nearby an ancient monk and his student go to investigate the birth of this ‘Yeouijoo’ girl who can turn one of the giant snakes into a celestial dragon. We also learn that there is a good imoogi that has been chosen, and an evil one that wants to steal the power. Time elapses and the monk’s young student grows up and falls in love with the girl. Then we are treated to the forces of evil attacking the village, and if it seems like I am skipping around without connecting things then blame the film and not me.

Apparently, the forces of evil have giant rhino-looking beasts that carry missile launchers on their back…um, in 1507. Yes, I’ll repeat that. The forces of evil have giant beasts carrying missile launchers on their back. In addition they have huge numbers of people wearing shiny armor with magical disappearing/reappearing swords. So after the little korean town is decimated they kill just about everyone and capture the dragon girl. Then we skip to them carrying her away on a dais, a la “The Golden Child”, when Bochun the ancient monk comes flying in and shoots bolts of energy at the bad guys. Yes, I’ll repeat that. He comes flying in and shoots bolts of energy, from his hands, at the bad guys. Then his student Haram grabs the girl and runs away to a ‘hidden’ place where she will be safe. So here comes the ‘surprise’, when he decides to turn his back on the prophecy and run away with her instead of letting her turn the imoogi into a dragon.

Did I mention that the process is supposed to kill her? Well that’s because the movie never clearly mentions that either, at least until later in the film. Until that point it is considered to be common knowledge.

So then we skip back to the more recent flashback, yes we’re still in flashbackville, and see young Ethan talking to Jack. Then we find out that Jack is actually Bochun, the ancient monk who has been alive all that time. I guess the moral is that given enough time, asians evolve into white dudes. Anyway, he tells Ethan that a girl named Sarah was born and would be the next chosen-dragon-girl-thingy.

Then we finally get back to the present where Ethan decides that because of the giant snake scale, that maybe he should start looking for this Sarah chick. Luckily he has his token black friend who manages to help him narrow down his search, but still gets nowhere until a collegue just happens to mention a girl named Sarah who had beat up three football players…and I’ve gotten ahead of myself again.

So yeah, we meet Sarah. First she’s at the gym and then sees the dragon scale on the news and freaks out, runs home, and then plasters her walls with korean protection spells. How does she have these? We never find out, she pulls the book out of a drawer in her kitchen. Then her friend talks her into going out that night, she goes but then reconsiders and leaves, and just happens to be attacked by three drunk ‘football players’. Luckily ye olde Robert Forster, asian monk of legend, pops up to save her and then vanish into the night.

Oh, and a giant evil snake starts stalking around Los Angeles. He eats some elephants, and a zoo keeper ends up in a psych ward because he tries to tell the truth. Naturally they lock him up, and a five hundred foot snake continues to go unnoticed in the city.

And, I’m going to cut to the chase, because just retelling the movie is boring me. Basically things continue and continue and continue, long past the point when the movie should have been shot, with missiles from the backs of rhinos, and then we finally have a battle between two giant snakes and the end. It was a sweet ending. Not the part at the end when the plot comes to a close, but the part after that when the movie stops telling us stuff. That was really sweet.

Okay, so, um, highlights…well…in the flashback of the flashback there was almost some cool fighting. Unfortunately the camera work in the whole movie is so shoddy that all the special effects, and action sequences look really cheesy. Let’s see…*clicking*…the female lead character was pretty hot…but then again she was a really bad actress and never got naked….so not a highlight either. Well it had Robert Forster, and he was in some decent movies like “Lucky Number Sleven” and “Jackie Brown”, and he was korean too, so that was interesting…I guess.

Okay, it was STILL better than “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning”. So if you are wanting…no, scratch that, do not go see this movie under any circumstances. While it was not the worst movie I have ever seen, it is FAR below the mark of being worth seeing. So unless someone puts a gun to your head and asks you to choose between watching this film and TCM: the Beginning, then see this. Then again, if someone put a gun to my head and asked me to choose between TCM and having my testicles slammed beneath a toilet seat ten times, I’d choose the toilet seat, so not really a recommendation. This movie was crap, avoid it at all costs unless you like films like “Frankenfish” and “Mega Snake”.

Sep 8, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

For those unfamiliar with the original, “3:10 to Yuma” was a western starring Glenn Ford and an actor named Van Helfin who is less well-known in current times. Among western fans it has a certain amount of respect for breaking the typical mold of ’50s westerns with their ‘white hats’ and ‘black hats’. 3:10 actually presented the audience with a ‘bad guy’ who was not so bad, and a hero who might have been a little too mild mannered. Considering the era it was semi-revolutionary.

So when I first heard they were remaking the film, I naturally had my concerns about how it would be handled. Most people would be hard pressed to name the last western in theaters. Then I learned that Russell Crowe and Christian Bale would be playing the lead characters, and that made me feel a little better about things. Crowe has a pretty good track record in my opinion, and Bale is one of my favorite actors still making films. On top of that, it is directed by James Mangold who did a little movie called “Walk the Line” and the highly underrated “Cop Land”.

The plot revolves around an outlaw by the name of Ben Wade and his less than merry band of criminals. While his gang are a bunch of animals, Wade is a slick and urbane bad guy, but is still presented as very much a bad guy. On the other side of things we have our ‘hero’, a mild-manner rancher named Dan Evans who lost one of his feet in the Civil War. He is a much simpler character than Wade, at least on the surface, and most of all does not act like the typical western hero for most of the film. In fact he never even shoots his gun until the final act of the movie.

After brutally robbing a money shipment, in fact it is the twenty-second, Wade and his gang get away clean. Only things catch up with Wade when he lingers too long with a saloon girl in town and he ends up getting caught. There is a wonderful encounter with Crowe and Bale’s character here where you almost think he has successfully bribed him to let him leave without a fuss, but you never find out because the marshal and others show up. Even though some of the men want to shoot him, a representative of the railroad offers money to get Wade to prison so he can be tried, convicted, and hanged as an example. Did I neglect to mention that rancher Evans is deeply in debt and in danger of losing his ranch?

So we see the plot set into motion. Bale’s character agrees to help the posse escort Wade to a town called Conviction so he can board the 3:10 train to Yuma. See, it wasn’t some obscure title, it’s actually the plot in bite-sized form!

Instead of your typical western that rushed forward with guns blazing, the main characters spend most of their time talking and exchanging meaningful glances. Even more surprising, that is not a bad thing! It work exceptionally well and creates a much deeper bond with the audience. We actually care what is going to happen to these characters. In fact we care so much that it can be disturbing when the action finally does come around, and all the better that the director can make gun fighting less fun and more disturbing.

For fans of the original, there are a few changes in this version, most particularly around the end. When I first saw the ending it caught me so off-guard that I was angry and disappointed, but after digesting the movie for a while longer it started to sit better and now I can only give kudos to the director for going that direction. Crowe and Bale both deliver wonderful performances, particularly Bale who refrains from playing with too much bravado, or any bravado at all. All the members of the supporting cast do a great job, including Peter Fonda as a rough bounty hunter, Alan Tudyk as the doctor, and Logan Lerman as Bale’s son. At first he was almost annoying in his portrayal of an unruly teenager, but then manages to deliver in several tense scenes opposite Bale and Crowe. Also keep an eye out for Luke Wilson in a small role.

Great acting and directing manage to make this a great movie, whether you are a fan of westerns or not. If a visit to the theater is planned, “3:10 to Yuma” is certainly worth seeing.

Sep 5, 2007

Balls of Fury

Confucius say, man who see movie because it spoofs classic is walking in the shoes of a fool.

That being said, I was slightly prejudiced in favor of this film because it bore certain similarities to “Enter the Dragon”. Being such a huge fan of that film made me extra special appreciative of even the smallest nods in “Balls of Fury”. So I’ll attempt to curb my geekish enthusiasm and give a more accurate review, here goes!

“Balls of Fury” is a comedy in the vein of “Blades of Fury”, which is not so surprising now that I compare their names. While it is not as funny as ‘Blades’, it does manage to deliver a modest number of laughs and prove entertaining enough. The movie begins with the story of child ping pong, or as the chinese say ‘ping pong’, star Randy Daytona working his way towards the gold in the 1988 Olympics. Robert Patrick, better known to the rest of us as the T-1000, has a brief stint as his father and a marine with a gambling problem. He places a huge bet on his son who cracks under the pressure and loses his match against the hilariously serious german player, amusingly played by Thomas Lennon of ‘Reno 911’ and who also co-wrote the film.

Naturally there are consequences of the loss, not the least of which is that Randy’s father ends up being killed by members of the chinese mob. After this cheerful beginning we skip to the present where Randy has grown into a overweight lounge performer in Reno, Nevada. He makes his living putting on ping pong shows while uninterested patrons eat.

When he uses one of the audience members in his show, and the man ends up having a heart attack, Randy is fired from his job. Luckily for him there is a FBI agent waiting to ask him to assist in a special project that calls for his unique skills. George Lopez does a good job as the agent, and later James Bond wannabe. We find, a la “Enter the Dragon”, that there is a secretive chinese mob boss that holds an all champions ping pong tournament every five years, and they need Randy to get inside and find proof of his illegal activities. Unfortunately to get noticed he needs to get back into competitive play, and as we see during an amusing sequence with Patton Oswalt, he has lost some of his skill over the years.

So we skip over to Master Wong, the blind ping pong trainer who happens to be played by James Hong, can anyone say “Big Trouble in Little China”? Assisting him is the beautiful Maggie Wong, played by Maggie Q, who is so attractive that it actually distracted me from the other actors in every scene she did. Luckily the film didn’t bother with anything resembling a coherent plot so I did not have that much trouble keeping up.

Anyway, you probably get the idea of where things went from there, especially if any of you have seen “Enter the Dragon”. There are a few highlights, primarily in some of the supporting cast. Christopher Walken is jaw-droppingly funny as usual, and Diedrich Bader (as Oswald of Drew Carey fame) was even funnier as one of the Concubines of Pleasure. Aisha Tyler appears as the major domo, and even Masi Oka (Hiro of ‘Heroes’) has a small role, and anything that brushes against ‘Heroes’ in even the remotest fashion gets bonus points in my book. Add to that a scary preoccupation with Def Leppard, which is aces for me, and there are certainly some solid laughs in the movie.

However, the film does not deliver on any higher levels and is not really that funny, certainly not as funny as the similar “Blades of Glory” and not even approaching the same galaxy of humor as “Superbad”. So for the frugal movie goer this would be a rental, but for someone with some extra time and money, and who has already seen the better films in theaters, it is not a total waste. I wouldn’t kick this movie out of bed…especially with Maggie Q in the cast. *Growl*

Aug 27, 2007

War

War! What is it good for?

Well in this case it’s good for illustrating a very useful lesson to aspiring writers, whether they work on screenplays or whatever, but I am getting ahead of myself. “War” is the latest movie released stateside by worldwide superstar Jet Li and also co-starring the up and coming Jason Statham.

The plot starts with a bang, so to speak, as Jack Crawford (Statham) and his fellow FBI agent Tom Lone (Terry Chen) are present as an assassin for the Yakuza is killing members of a triad in San Francisco. For those who are curious, the Yakuza is a sort of japanese mafia, while the Triads are the same but chinese instead. Well after a close encounter with the mysterious assassin known as ‘Rogue’ that leaves Crawford injured and the assassin thought dead, the two partners go home for some well earned rest. Unfortunately, someone was pissed at Statham’s partner for injuring Rogue, and he shows up at Lone’s house for a little revenge that involves killing his wife and four-year old child too.

Naturally, Crawford arrives with his own wife and son in time to see the fire and find out what happened. When he finds the evidence that points at the mysterious assassin, the movie cuts to three years later. Jet Li walks into a club, and in typical bad ass fashion, kills all the guys in the back. This leads into a Yojimbo type plot, at least on his end, where he goes to work for the triads when he apparently used to work for the yakuza. However there is a spanner in the works, because when Crawford gets a whiff of his trail he goes balls to the wall trying to get revenge for his dead partner.

So that’s the situation, a three-way war between the yakuza, triads, and FBI. Jet Li, as Rogue, manipulates everyone in a fairly enjoyable way, while Statham plays Crawford as your typical obsessed police officer. This could have easily played out into an equally typical ending, but this movie has a lot more plates spinning than your typical revenge flick. First is in the person of Rogue, Jet Li’s character is played very close to the vest in an effort to constantly keep the audience wondering about his intentions. Secondly, while Jason Statham’s character seems to be very one dimensional, there is a twist thrown in at the end that sheds new light on him as well as Rogue.

Now, am I complaining about an action movie that actually takes the time to insert twists and turns into the plot? Normally the answer would be no, but the problem is that it is handled in a very clumsy sort of way. Returning to what I said at the beginning, the writers make a fundamental mistake in this film. They fail to provide clues that lead the audience to one of the two surprising twists at the end. For those with no background in writing, it might seem unusual that a writer would need to provide clues to a surprise ending instead of just throwing it into the story, but failing to do so is a major faux paus. It is on par with not calling your shots in pool, something only amateurs do and certainly beneath a true professional.

Twisty endings aside, this movie was not bad. I had an enjoyable time watching all the action, and even though I saw the plot twist involving Jet Li, it was still not too much to swallow. It is just the twist involving Jason Statham that seemed campy. So if you’re looking for a decent night of action, then check out “War”, but I would recommend waiting for the video.

Aug 19, 2007

Superbad

Superbad is the type of movie one would get if they crossed any ordinary coming of age high school movie with good writing. A bit harsh towards the plethora of teenaged party/graduation films? Well with good reason when one considers the number of mediocre offerings in that realm.

That being said, I have a confession to make…I secretly love those type of movies. From the iconic “Breakfast Club” to “Can’t Hardly Wait” and so forth. There is something immensely entertaining about movies that deal with that all important time period which, for most of us, passed with a whimper instead of a bang. The same way people want to fly like Superman, they also want to hook up with that high school dream girl just before graduation, or get revenge on that bully, etc.

Anyway, back to the film of the moment, “Superbad”. This jewel was written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan, of “40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” fame. It takes place near the end of senior year for two high school losers that spend most of their time watching porn and hanging out with each other. Seth (Jonah Hill) is the wannabe player who keeps up a steady stream of bullshit to compensate for his own feelings of inadequacy, and his best friend Evan, played with subtle hilarity by Michael Cera of “Arrested Development”, is the yin to Seth’s yang as he is so soft-spoken and shy that he doesn’t even know what he wants. On top of these two we have their mutual friend and third wheel, Fogell, the typical weenie nerd who has an amazing lucky streak. Other notables are Seth Rogan and Bill Hader as the two cops who end up driving Fogell around during the night’s events.

Trying to give a plot synopsis would be nearly as pointless as drawing porn diagrams, the humor is completely in each moment. The writing is snappy and constant, and despite the constant stream of hilarity the characters are engaging and actually make us care for them. Easily this is the funniest movie in theaters since “40 Year Old Virgin” and might even be funnier than that, although I might just be letting my excitement run away with me when I make that claim. Regardless, it is well worth seeing and should make anyone come out of the theater feeling like their chest is a few sizes too small. Go see this movie!

Aug 11, 2007

Stardust

It feels wonderful to have a movie be surprisingly good. So when you go into a movie expecting it to be good, and then it exceeds those expectations, it is hard not to gush. That’s exactly how I am feeling about ‘Stardust’. It looked good, and I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing, so it was supposed to be good, and boy did it deliver!

For those unfamiliar with the book and such, the basic premise is that it takes place in England about one-hundred and fifty years ago in a village called “Wall”. It is so named for the long stone wall that runs the length of the area and blocks a large empty looking valley. As you see in the very beginning of the movie it is not empty at all, but instead holds the magical kingdom of Stormhold, which totally kicks the butt of that other magical kingdom.

After a brief introduction that explains the origin of our protagonist Tristan (Charlie Cox), we skip to him at the age of eighteen and trying to woo the heart of a the most beautiful girl in his village, Victoria (Sienna Miller). Unfortunately for poor Tristan, he is neither rich nor successful enough to have her interest. He is fiercely oblivious to her true feelings for him and is very romantic at heart. There is a little more time in the village until the fateful event happens, wherein our hero Tristan swears to retrieve a fallen star to prove his love.

He plunges into the kingdom of Stormhold without realizing what kind of place it is, and unfortunately for him it seems like nearly everyone else in the kingdom wants the fallen star as well. Apparently in their world, stars fall to earth as beautiful people brimming with magical energy. Tristan is rather surprised when he meets the fallen star, played by Claire Danes so effectively that she hardly needed the special effects to shine.

Over the course of his adventure he meets dozens of colorful characters, many of them played by an interesting assortment of recognizable actors, but out of the supporting cast two deserve special mention. First is Michelle Pfeiffer who plays Lamia, one of the three evil witch sisters who are seeking the star to restore their lost youth. She fluctuates between her normal bewitching appearance, and her natural, in the film, agedly frightening hag look. She is deliciously evil but never decends into campy behavior. Then we have Robert DeNiro playing the hilarious Captain Shakespeare. He steals the show during his apperances, and I don’t want to give away too much, but his character is refreshing and surprising.

Everything culminates in an ending befitting such a marvelous fairy tale, and someone would have to cut out their own heart not to leave the theater feeling light and airy. Maybe I am psychic, because despite not hearing tons of hype about this film I had a very strong feeling that it would be excellent and I was completely right beyond even my own expectations. If you loved “Princess Bride” then see this, there are some similarities, and even if you did not love it still go see this movie because it’s also very much its own film. Really, just go see the movie, that’s all that needs to be said.

Enjoy!

Aug 3, 2007

Fantastic Four 2

Okay, so here is my second “Retroactively Irrelevant Movie Review”!

Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer was the sequel to the rather poorly done first Fantastic Four movie. Considering the time of this review in reference to the release date, anyone reading this has either seen the film or decided that it was worth avoiding forever, or at least until it comes out on video. All that means is that this review is unlikely to change any opinions about the movie, warn anyone away, or draw anyone into seeing it either. So I’ll be focusing more on my opinions of what could be better about this particular movie, and feeling rather entitled to rant considering that I have read most of the Silver Surfer comics and been a fan since long before this came out.

Firstly, I’ll start with one of the smallest flaws with this movie, the way they made Jessica Alba look. Now I’m going to call a spade a spade and point out that it would take some heavy CGI to even make Alba look remotely close to anything unattractive, but the bright blonde hair and big, fake blue eyes were damn distracting. Everytime I saw her eyes I kept expecting her to say “The sleeper has awakened!”. I’m familiar with the comics, I know how Sue Storm is supposed to look, but come on! I mean we expect a little fluctuation, it’s the characterization that matters more than every minute detail of appearance. Anyway, that was just the pinky nail of the problems with this film, but thought I’d point that out.

Where to start, where to start…okay, there were some things I actually liked about this movie. For one, I did not mind the jokes in this superhero film, unlike most others that are eye gougingly painful, the humor in FF2 was entertaining and light hearted enough to get a few chuckles. So good job, that’s something future comic book movie makers should keep in mind as they make their films. Not that it’ll help too much, as the appropriate humor level fluctuates wildly from one comic to the next.

So this movie was short, coming in at a scanty 92 minutes, this movie feels like it hits the ground running. While that is not such a bad thing, it quickly turns into a side-grasping sprint from beginning to end. Nothing is allowed to ‘unfold’, but instead everything seems like it’s forced out of the oven before the cookies are baked. Although the jokes are mildly entertaining in a ‘ha ha’ sort of way, the director never digs any deeper. Even as the most terrible events unfold, potential end of the world and all that rot, no emotion comes into play. It all could be a flipbook, because even with actual moving people, nothing feels like a real, breathing world.

Shallow, that’s the word that describes the movie better than any myriad of details. My description of the flaws in this film are shallow because the movie itself is shallow. Now I don’t mean shallow in the stuffy, foreign-film-loving critic sort of way, I mean shallow in the ‘lack of engaging material’ sort of way. Superhero movies can be engaging, comedies can be engaging, hell even reality television can be engaging at moments…yes, I know, I was shocked to find these extremely rare moments as well! Anyway, for the non-comic-familiar viewers, the movie is just a quick little popcorn-popping-diddle. Nothing terribly memorable, doesn’t leave an impression, and could easily be forgotten before you make it back to your car. For those who are more familiar with the source material, the Silver Surfer more than Fantastic Four, it should be much more weighty! The Surfer is our resident cosmic philosopher, and while to a real philosopher his moral dilemmas might seem simplistic and trite, to kids growing up it was very interesting to see a character with nigh-godlike power who was more focused on understanding things than changing them.

Now, while the movie is terribly shallow, the Silver Surfer and Dr. Doom do a good job of at least being a little more weighty than the others around them. While I don’t think the film even scratched the surface of those characters, by comparison they come off very well. So as a Surfer fan I cannot complain too much about their treatment of the Surfer, at least they did not make him look stupid or anything, but he was certainly under utilized.

Also, on a lighter note, did anyone else think that Galactus looked like a giant, windy cosmic vagina? I mean in the comics his a giant, armor-clad Star God. Of course he’s also purple. Well at least his clothes are. Yeah, I know, purple…not the most dignified or imposing of colors, certainly not my first choice for him, but he pulled it off! Not to mention that in some other portrayals of him, particularly in the Marvel Ultimate Alliance video game, he is in his armor, but in shades of metallic colors, and looks much better. So they went from that to…a giant wind vagina.

“*Ahem* As you might not know, Jesse, that could be seen as an adaptation of Galactus from the Ultimate universe. Or Gah-Lac-Tus as he is called in that series.”

Oh, it’s you! I was wondering if you would show up after Spider-Man 3. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present my Devil’s Advocate!

Yes, I am aware of that, but it still looked like a giant windy vagina. Not to mention that Gah-Lac-Tus was a fleet of ships linked together, not a series of big windy vaginas that eat planets.

Anyway, since I am pragmatic I did not have extremely high expectations for this film, I do not hold nearly as much anger towards it as I do towards Spider-Man 3. I did not expect much from this, and was not really surprised. It would have been nice to get more, but who knows, maybe they’ll do a movie about the Surfer and actually get it right!

Yeah, yeah, and maybe Bush will realize he’s a total prat and resign from office early…then again that’d leave us with Cheney…scary!

So see this if you’d like, it’s not completely useless, and if you’re not a comic fan you might actually think it’s alright.

Aug 3, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Well considering as I am getting around to this review long after it is relevant, I’ll work this as more of a movie critique than a preview-review. So that being said, this will contain some overt spoilers that those who have yet to see the film might want to avoid. You have been warned! Continue reading at your own peril.

Bearing in mind the excellent predecessors, I had very high expectations for Spider-Man 3, and was unfortunately disappointed. While this was nowhere near the horrible fiasco that X-Men 3 was, it was still FAR below the quality threshold I had come to expect from Sam Raimi and his series. While there are many individual elements that could be improved to strengthen the whole, my opinion is that the major problem is that all the effort and time that went into Sandman’s story could have been much better spent on Venom. If Raimi had restrained his desire to make a movie about Sandman and focused on Venom as the villain, then everything would have been much better. Not perfect, but a DRASTIC improvement.

Some of you might say, “But, Jesse, Venom was not that great in the time he did get. Why would we want MORE of him?”

Well the answer is characterization, grasshopper, that is the key to apprciating a character, especially one with such a vivid and treasured history as Venom. While many of the old farts out there might see other villains as Spidey’s biggest nemesis, it’ll always be Venom vs. Spider-Man for those of us under forty. So throwing Sandman into such a pivotal role was a mistake in the first place, and then how Sandman was handled made it even worse. It’s clear that Raimi has a high degree of reverence for the character, but all that does is translate into making him seem stuffy. Most of the viewers couldn’t give two shits about Sandman, so the delicate touch combined with the fact that he’s not even a ‘real’ villain, because the whole ‘daughter-sympathy’ storyline, detracts from our main character’s journey. On top of that Raimi even went so far as to make it turn out that Sandman was the ‘real’ killer of his Uncle Ben, but NATURALLY he had some sort of redeeming side to the story that made him not really so bad. Then at the end Sandman is so bad ass he doesn’t even lose to the hero, but instead decides to pack up and fly away.

Mr. Raimi, if you love Sandman so damn much, make a movie about him, but why did you have to ruin the Spidey-goodness?

“But Jesse, what about Harry? He was really the main bad guy, right?”

Nope. He’s the RIVAL. The person who causes trouble for our hero, but with some slight redeeming characteristic so that later they can team up and be ‘summer-action-buddy-cop-allies’. Harry was Pete’s best friend, thought his father had been killed by him, and just tried to get revenge while dealing with his loss. Not really a bad guy either. At least not completely. So we have Harry as our Darth Vader waiting to be redeemed, and we have Sandman stealing his thunder too! Not only is Sandman taking steam from Venom as the bad guy, but he is taking the sympathy vote from Harry and even Peter!

“No, not Peter! He’s the hero! How could Sandman be stealing his thunder?”

You see, after we swallow the foul horse pill of accepting that Sandman was the one who killed Peter’s uncle, we’re all full of righteous anger and cheering him on during the reasonably cool fight in the subway. Naturally the camera work hints that there might be more to the story, as Sandman is washed away we are encouraged to feel a little sympathy for him. Then later once we find out what is REALLY going on, it makes Peter look foolish for giving Sandy so much trouble. On top of that, the first time we even have Spidey encounter him, it’s after he has a big head from his Spider-Man day celebration where he kissed the very hot looking Gwen Stacy. So Raimi is even setting Sandman up as the conscience for the viewers, there to deflate Spidey when he gets too cocky, and to be the victim of his rage when he goes ‘dark’. In other words, stealing sympathy from our hero!

Raimi, Sandman cannot be all things to all people, damn you!

“Okay, okay, so it SEEMS that Sandman is the root of all suck in this film, but even he wasn’t responsible for the cruddy portrayal of ‘bad’ Peter!”

Well, you have a point. It’s not Sandman’s fault that going bad apparently turns you into a semi-womanizing emo punk with anger issues. While I appreciate a funny musical sequence as much as the next guy, showing us ‘bad’ Peter in such a way really took away all the gravitas. So yes, shame on you Raimi for giving us such weak tea with our hero. Looks like you’ve managed to find a mistake that SEEMS to have nothing to do with Sandman.

“So really, all you’ve proven is that the movie would be alright if not for Sandman. Can’t I just see it and kinda ‘tune’ out the Sandman parts? It should be decent if I do that, right?”

If only, my naive friend, if only. Unfortunately every movie has a life span just like you, me, and every other schlub out on the street. While we might have decades, movies deal in minutes, and every minute spent on futility is one that is lost forever. Sandman sucks up so much of the movie, and emphasis on ‘suck’, that the parts that SHOULD be good are drained of their vitality. Either cut short, or diminished in seriousness, until none of it really matters. What really pisses me off about it is that Raimi made the Sandman storyline SO DAMN SERIOUS, but had no trouble cracking out the big red clown nose when Peter was supposed to be dealing with his darker side. Damn you Raimi!

“Well thanks alot, Jesse, that’s another dream you’ve crushed. Enjoy your attack on the Death Star…jerk!”

All I can say is that if I could go back in time and shake/beat Raimi into making the movie he SHOULD have, I would do it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately all we are left with is the shattered husk of our dreams of the excellent film that could have been. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go drown my sorrow in black clothes, eye shadow, and floppy emo hair.

Apr 22, 2007

Pathfinder

To begin with, ‘Pathfinder’ was slated to be released in theaters over a year before it slid into the box office. I had heard about this movie, Vikings versus Indians as it was explained to me, and it intrigued me. So I started to anticipate this film, not to mention that at the time there was precious little to crave in the film world. Then just before it was to be released they pushed it back a few months.

So I waited.

Then as the time neared once again, it was pushed back.

So I waited.

As I wated this time I started to feel my anticipation grow. The perverse nature of a craving denied, it tends to grow in strength. So now ‘Pathfinder’ had gone from a mildly interesting concept to a movie that I was actively interested in seeing. I downloaded the trailer, put it as the background on my computer for a time, etc.

Then as the release date neared…it was pushed back!

This time I did not wait, I lost interest. I stopped talking about this upcoming movie, deleted the trailer, put up a picture of a ’54 corvette for my background, and life moved on. So then one of my friends tells me that this movie that we had talked about, and anticipated, was finally being release! Apparently it had experienced so many delays because it was being improved. So we went to see the movie…

Yeah, they should have delayed it again.

The story, if you are actually interested in seeing this film, is about a boy that is survives when his father’s viking galley crashed after taking slaves from America. Naturally this takes place some six or seven hundred years before Columbus. This boy is raised by the native americans as a member of their tribe, but he naturally feels like he does not completely fit in with their society. He even still has the sword his father had given him as a boy, although it was not a kind gift as he expected him to kill a young native child.

So Ghost, the name they give him because of his white skin, grows up into a strapping Karl Urban. He live happily among the tribes, and even develops a crush on the beautiful daughter the Pathfinder, an unofficial leader and guide for the people of the tribes, played by the lovely Moon Bloodgood. Before much can come of this, the vikings return to the shores in greater numbers, being led by Gunnar (Clancy Brown of Highlander and Shawshank Redemption fame). They find Ghost’s village while he is away, and kill everyone except for his adopted father, who tries to fend them off with his son’s sword, but fails.

Ghost reaches the village in time to see his father die, and so he takes up the sword and cuts down several vikings in the course of making an escape. This leads into many more fairly exciting fight scenes, and almost non-existant dialogue. The ending is predictable when it comes, and the closing narration is cheesy. Since there is so little dialogue during the film, particularly from Karl Urban, it is tolerable, but will likely seem to drag for many viewers. For someone like myself, who was expecting something good, it was a grand disappointment. If you go in without high expectations then it is on par with most average action flicks. Maybe worth watching if you are bored, but not worth any extra effort.

If this was the result of another year, or more, of reshoots and such then I shudder to think of the original film. Maybe they should have taken another year or two and then we would have had a good movie. I could have stood the wait, I had already stopped caring before the film was even released.

The moral of the story is, do not start advertising until you are ready to release the picture, otherwise you will annoy and alienate your audience.

Apr 7, 2007

Grindhouse (Part Two)

In the second installment of the ‘Special Edition Grindhouse Review’ we’ll discuss more previews and Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof”!

With the finale of the excellent “Planet Terror” I stretched and almost left the theater on pure reflex, but then reminded myself that there was another full movie waiting for me. So I sat back down and braced myself for another action-packed thrill-ride!

I was not disappointed when the screen informed me that there were more previews on the way. First was a piece by Rob Zombie entitled “Werewolf Women of the SS”. All the images that title tends to evoke in the head are explored in this preview, it is actually about werewolf women of the SS. The funniest part for me was the dramatic build up to reveal the part of Fu Manchu was being played by Nicolas Cage! This gore and breast feast did a great job of maintaining the energy from the first film.

Then there is a preview for a movie called “Don’t”. It is a type of British version of the exploitation flicks that went on back in the day, and although I know very little about those films, I’ve been told it did a very good job of duplicating the feel. Directed by Edgar Wright, of the amazing “Shaun of the Dead” and one of my most anticipated upcoming films “Hot Fuzz”, does a hilarious job with this send up. He even worked in Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, stars of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”, although I spotted Nick Frost I did not catch Simon Pegg in the preview. Maybe he was cut, or maybe it was just too quick for me to notice. Of all the previews it is easily the funniest, as for the content, let me just say: if you are thinking about going to the bathroom during this preview…DON’T!

Finally, the last preview is a old-style horror flick done by director Eli Roth and entitled “Thanksgiving”. I’ll be the first to admit that Roth’s work is not terribly impressive to me, so I found myself prepared to be bored by having to watch something he did even for two minutes. Let me just say I was both relieved and mildly surprised when it turned out to actually be entertaining. The scenes portrayed are so horrible, and I believe that was intentional but can’t be sure with Eli Roth, that I could not help laughing. So although it was probably my least favorite of the four previews, it still keep my energy level up for the next feature.

So we moved onto Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof”, a white hot juggernaut at 200 miles per hour! The film begins with stretching and posing of Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), which is nothing to grumble about, but did slow down the pace to which I grown accustomed. Shortly after her two friends, Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd), show up to hang out and score some weed. Somewhere along the way a black car shows up and rumbles by, but instead of doing anything it drives off and leaves us in the mire of inane conversation.

There are many reasons why Tarantino could have taken this approach to the film, an obvious reason might be that he wanted to calm the audience down after the thrills and chills of the previous material, it was for our health! That’s it, he did not want anyone to have a heart attack, very thoughtful. Unfortunately many of the scenes were yawn inducing, and one of my friends who happened to be drinking at the movie tavern where we saw the film, kept falling asleep on my shoulder. So thanks for that, Tarantino, thanks!

Talking too much about the plot of this film gives away the exciting and entertaining twists that follow after the other sixty percent of the movie that is all dialogue, so I’ll be vague for the sake of future audiences. Somewhere near the end of the movie, Kurt Russell, who is a nutjob that can only get off by smashing girls with his car, starts playing around with another group of girls. In the car this time are Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), and Zoe Bell (as herself). For those who do not know, Zoe Bell is a famous female stuntwoman, she did some of Uma Thurman’s stunts in “Kill Bill” for instance. They also have a friend named Lee, played by the eternally gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Of this fabulous foursome, I found myself highly amused and intrigued by Kim (Tracie Thoms) who was not only beautiful, but very cool in the way she handles herself. Naturally Zoe Bell was a very, very capable and cool woman, but I expected that from her because she was a real stuntwoman. Abernathy (Dawson) was less important to what occurrs than I thought she would be when considering her high billing in the previews. Winstead was underused I thought and could have played a larger role, but that was not a big problem.

The break out character in this film is Stuntman Mike, played excellently by Kurt Russell. He shows us a very surprising, and even more amusing, side of his character when dealing with these girls. After the seemingly endless scenes of dialogue, the end action is like that first lungful of air a diver takes when he surfaces. This has the surprising effect of making the action even more entertaining and thrilling. I had been lulled into a feeling of safety, and boredom, so the big car chase even made my palms sweat.

So while “Death Proof” does deliver in a way, I still found myself left with the very obvious feeling that Robert Rodriguez had delivered the better picture in this double feature. If they had been split into single films I would have been glad to see “Planet Terror” and might have avoided “Death Proof”, but as a double it melds into an even more enjoyable whole. So get out there, see “Grindhouse” and form your own opinions on which film was better, either way you should hopefully enjoy the full film!

Apr 7, 2007

Grindhouse (Part One)

Prepare yourself for the “Grindhouse” mega-review, a review that should be as much longer than regular reviews as its subject is longer than regular films!

Grindhouse just came out in theaters, and it is a very interesting throwback to the low-budget double features that graced many of the low rent theaters in cinema’s dark ages. That being said, there is still enough schlock coming out in theaters to keep this from being the Age of Enlightenment, but some of those old movies were horrendously bad. So the obvious question is ‘why would anyone want to recreate those movies’?

Luckily there is a simple answer, because it’s fun!

Grindhouse is two movies and four previews all crammed together in a night of old fashioned entertainment, and it delivers on all parts, even if with varying degrees of quality. The film(s) begin with a preview for “Machete” which features Danny Trejo playing a role that is a throwback to many of his most famous roles, among which is a character he played in the “Spy Kids” movies. In this film he plays a mexican day laborer who is hired for an assassination, and is double crossed and left for dead. So naturally he recruits a friend, Cheech Marin playing a very interesting priest, and goes out looking for revenge. It actually looked like a movie I could have watched, and earned more than a few laughs.

Then we moved into the first feature presentation, a sci-fi/horror thriller by Robert Rodriguez entitled “Planet Terror”. First let me begin by saying that this film has lots of characters, unrevealed backstory, and unanswered questions ‘aplenty! Second let me say that all that takes a backseat to the awesome fun that it delivers, and like the films of that time, that’s the point entirely. The plot begins with Cherry Darling, played so hot that flames were burning my eyes by Rose McGowan, doing her go-go, not cry-cry, dance. She’s a Go-Go dancer, not a stripper, and emphasized the point more than once. So she quits her job, is almost hit by a few trucks heading to the military base, and goes to a diner, best Barbeque anywhere, and sits down for a bit. On the base we are treated to an interesting exchange between a scientist named Abby (Naveen Andrews) who has an interesting way of punishing subordinates who fail him. After this there is an exchange between him and Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) that releases a deadly toxin into the air that apprently transforms most people into pus-ridden zombie-like creatures, but does not affect a small portion of the population. Then into the diner comes El Wray, played by Freddy Rodriguez with a definite action star potential, who apparently is an ex, and offers her a ride. All this while things are brewing with the released gas an the unsuspecting populace of a small Texas town. Without giving too much away, allow me to say that hordes of pussy zombies start chasing a group of survivors who try to get out of town and save their hides, and end up encountering Bruce Willis and his military unit near the end.

Planet Terror is a film with a lot of irons in the fire, but one that still manages to deliver. It was good enough that it could have been a stand alone film, and as part of this double feature was even better. A few highlights include a missing reel that cuts out about twenty or thirty minutes of the film, although there is a brief scrreen where the management apologizes for the lost reel; Rose McGowan, still hot as ever, with a machine gun attached to the spot where her leg used to be, and taking out tons of bad guys; and several supporting characters that add an even greater dimension to the movie. Michael Biehn as the Sheriff, Marley Shelton as the abused doctor-wife of abusive doctor-husband played by Josh Brolin, and Quentin even pops up in a funny cameo as a soldier of all things.

Robert Rodriguez did a great job of creating a fun and entertaining film, while still infusing it with the cheesy flaws of the original genre. Even if “Planet Terror” stood alone it would be worth seeing, but there is even more on top of that, all for the same price!

To be continued in…. Grindhouse (Part Two)!

Apr 2, 2007

300

Well it seems almost superfluous to write a review of this movie, not only is it late but it is hardly needed after considering how many people went to see this film. On top of that it has received amazing word of mouth praise, and while the critics might have been luke warm, I’ll take the word of my friends and the man on the street over their interpretation of what makes a good film.

Noble sentiments from someone who writes movie reviews!

Anyway, this review is for the two people in the world who have not seen ‘300’ or those who just enjoyed the movie so much that they love to see people talk about it. Before launching into the review proper, allow me to state that I’ve never seen the graphic novel and I am also not terribly well versed in the history of the battle of Thermopylae, so I merely rated this movie on my pure enjoyment and not what led into the making.

‘300’ begins with a Spartan telling his fellow warriors a story around a campfire at night. The story begins with brief look at Spartan warrior culture and then quickly leads into the story of King Leonidas and his growth from boy to man to king. Naturally this is done in a very badass sort of way, in this case by showing him as a young man who was sent out into the wilderness to live or die on his own and encountering a giant black wolf. Considering that the story goes on, it should come as no great surprise that he kills the wolf, but the manner in which he does this, by trapping it in a narrow passage, is a fairly obvious hat tip to the main story later.

Then the story progresses to King Leonidas as a man, and king of the Spartan nation. A messenger shows up from the god-king Xerxes, bearing the still crowned skulls of conquered kings, and demands a tribute of earth and water to show the submission of Sparta. Interestingly enough, Leonidas, while not seeming inclined to submit, also seems to be more controlled than some of his wilder warrior companions, as he considers his actions deeply, if briefly, and even looks to his queen for her support before killing the messenger. Of course he kills the messenger in a manner most awesome, by kicking him into a nearly bottomless hole and bellowing, “This is Sparta!”

So then the problem is that a massive horde, and when I say massive I really mean that, is marching towards Greece with ideas of dominion. When the Ephors, inbred and mutated priests, refuse to allow the armies to march to war we are treated to the sight of them being bought off with persian gold. Leonidas is despondent, but with some wifely advice, and a bit of sex, decides to take three hundred of the best warriors in Sparta and march up to hold a mountain pass against Xerxes’ boundless hordes.

Once they get to the pass things start building into a full-blown avalanche. The hordes of Xerxes are corrupt and inhuman things, and the few that are human are pampered and effiminate when compared with the Spartans. Particularly in the person of the god-king Xerxes, a very tall and thin man who looks more like a bondage fetishist than a fearsome ruler. Some might see that as a failing, but it only serves to enhance the experience in my view and make the need to fight against the persian armies that much greater, while also increasing the belief that maybe, just maybe, those Spartans are tough enough to kick all that ass.

Gerard Butler is fearsome as King Leonidas, and looks more solid than a statue throughout most of the film. That was more a comment on his physical condition than his acting skills, he does a very good job as the charismatic leader of the Spartans. Lena Headey is stunning as the beautiful and strong Queen Gorgo, I’m sure that most watchers will find the same satisfaction in her final dealings with a certain slimy politician as I did myself. David Wenham is great as the narrator, and it may take some a bit to realize exactly which Spartan he is, so a helper clue would be to say he’s the one that was in ‘Lord of the Rings’. Finally there were a few supporting actors that did particularly well in their roles and caught my attentions. Vincent Regan plays the Captain and second-in-command, and Leonidas’ best friend with a wonderful panache, and also shows the audience that even Spartans feel emotions during a particularly suprising scene. Tom Wisdom, his interesting name aside, plays his son Astinos who wows us with his prowess and youth. Allow me to say, in a completely heterosexual way, that he is a striking man. *Cough* Anyway…I also really enjoyed Michael Fassbender who plays Stelios, or as most know him, “Then we will fight in the shade!” He does a very good job in a role that might have been fairly minor, but somehow managed to catch my attention rather well. Also he develops a sort of comraderie with Astinos that creates a few chuckle-worthy moments.

Suffice to say I enjoyed this movie more than most, even more than more than most, and highly recommend it to all movie-goers. It is not often that a film comes along that can still arouse nearly the same height of emotions in me ever after multiple viewings, and those movies almost all go on to become classics. So go see ‘300’ immediately, it’s a classical film that’s a classic in the making!

Apr 2, 2007

Blades of Glory

Will Ferrell and Jon Heder team up for a hilarious look at the world of ice skating. In the simplest terms, this movie is funnier than can possibly be described in this review, suffice to say it made me laugh often enough, and loud enough, to draw a few dirty looks from fellow movie goers. On top of that it is relentless in pacing the jokes that keep flying at you, yet still manage to keep at least a decent framwork of a real story.

The story begins with the two stars of men’s singles figure skating: Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) the angelic and technically beautiful skater, and Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell) a sex addicted rock star of a figure skater. No time is wasted getting directly into the story as it begins with both stars competing at the international competition, their backstory is present in the form of a spotlight montage during the coverage of the competition. Naturally both skaters are amazing, and the director actually does a decent job of making it look like the two are doing the skating, even if some of the shots are obviously not them.

So the story kicks into motion when both men tie for the gold medal and, during a scuffle on the ice, set fire to the internation mascot. The fight is incredibly funny, and leads into an equally amusing court room scene that ends with MacElroy and Michaels being banned from men’s figure skating for life. A series of bad turns afterward leave them both in pathetically unhappy circumstances until a stalker/fan, played by the hilarious Nick Swardson of ‘Reno 911’ fame, finds a loophole that will allow MacElroy to compete in pairs figure skating. His former coach, played by the most famous ‘Coach’ of all Craig T. Nelson, dismisses the idea out of hand until he sees MacElroy and Michaels tossing one another around in yet another fight.

This is where the movie really takes off, from a laugh-inducing training montage to our first glimpse of the competition, played by Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as twins Stranz Van Waldenberg and Fairchild Van Waldenberg, who are the number one ranked figure skaters in the world, and scarily more like a couple than siblings, the film does not slow down. Romany Malco, of ’40 Year Old Virgin’ fame, shows up as a choreographer, and Jenna Fischer is stunning and funny as the ignored and mistreated younger sister of the Van Waldenberg twins. We are even treated to a micro-cameo by Luke Wilson as a counselor who is leading a sex addict class that Chazz Michael Michaels attends.

Even with so much hilarity going on, the highlights of the movie are the scenes that take place on the ice. Particularly the two major scenes showing Ferrell and Heder during their figure skating routines. Everything, from the music choice to to the costumes, and especially the movements will draw a laugh from anyone with even the weakest sense of humor. For most people that enjoy a good laugh, and can take a break from being serious, it should be even better. Definitely a must see, and as soon as possible to boot!

Get out there and see it!

Feb 19, 2007

Smokin’ Aces

This film was one of those ‘filler’ movies that falls into the year’s schedule without attracting notice until it is released. At least that is what it was for me. I had not heard about this movie until I came across a preview only a month or so before it came out, so I was not particularly wrapped up with anticipation. Basically I expected something entertaining, a ‘popcorn’ movie.

I was not disappointed.

‘Smokin’ Aces’ is an ensemble piece that revolves around magician turned crime boss Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel, played with flair by Jeremy Piven. Basically the FBI want him to have him roll over on his associates, a group of bounty hunters want him to collect because he skipped out on bond, and numerous assassins want him dead because there is a price on his head. The movie begins by skipping between various groups involved in the plot, and then lets them all slam together in an orgy of pyrotechnics at the end. Normally that would be a sloppy way to make a film, and this is sloppy, but the end result is also pretty…like a firecracker.

The plot, what plot there is, can be summed up by the word FUBAR. Everybody wants Israel and, unsurprisingly, everybody tries to get him at precisely the same time with mixed results. Then at the end there is a twist thrown into the mix, but the adrenaline level is so high that the audience just nods and tries to keep from having a heart attack. No worries, however, it is vaguely foreshadowed and not so clever as to be incomprehensible so most people will figure out what I mean.

A good way to describe this movie is to compare it to a fighting video game. There is a story in there somewhere, and an introduction to the characters, but no bones are made about the fact that everyone is there to see some stuff get messed up. If you are the type of viewer who can appreciate that zen approach to movie watching, then ‘Smokin’ Aces’ could be just the film for you.

On an amusing side note, Ben Affleck appears in this movie, and receives top billing, or maybe just a couple down from the top. Either way he is made out to be a lead character, or one of the lead characters, and that cracked me up when I saw his part in the actual movie. Don’t want to ruin anything, but trust me when I say that his character my surprise you.

There is not a lot more to say about the film. A couple actors do merit special attention for certain reasons. Jason Bateman is terrifically funny in his brief role, he had me in stitches. Nestor Carbonell, best known for ‘Suddenly Susan’ but best loved for playing Batmanuel on ‘The Tick’, is surprisingly creepy as an assassin named Acosta. Finally, Alicia Keys was radiantly beautiful as one of a two-woman hit team that tries to take out Israel, and puts for an impressive action showing as well. Oh, and let’s not forget Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel, played by Jeremy Piven. He puts a very high level of emotional realism into a character that serves, primarily, as a McGuffin for all the other characters. Not since the Maltese Falcon has a superfluous plot device evoked such a range of emotions and that merits special notice.

‘Smokin’ Aces’ is much like a shallow pond with hidden depths, nothing too deep, mind you, but at least a little more than is on the surface. As for the surface itself, there is enough to make an entertaining and successful movie all by itself! So for an exciting action romp, with some decent character acting thrown in to boot, go see it!

Feb 19, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

As with many people between the ages of young and twenty-something I have read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. It is a well written book for young adults that discusses many of the problems facing creative children growing up in poor homes. I enjoyed reading it back in sixth grade and until this movie came out, had not really thought about the book in years. So when I saw a preview for this film I was intrigued and worried at the same time.

Many people could have easily been misled by the previews on television that present this movie to be another “Chronicles of Narnia” or a children’s “Lord of the Rings”. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Terabithia is about a world that could easily be our own, where the only magic exists in the imagination of a young child. Once upon a time that would have been less interesting to me than a good fantasy film, but in this age where fantasy has become more common that reality I found it a nice change of pace.

The story follows fifth grade boy Jesse Aarons, played very adeptly by Josh Hutcherson. He is a young man who is growing up on a farm with his parents and four sisters, two older and two younger. In a family with too little money, too little time, and too hard a reality he is left alone much of the time. So he spends most of his time drawing or running, and he is very good at both of them. At school he is teased for being different and poor, none of the other children like him and none of his teachers notice him. All he has is the pleasure of being fastest in his grade, and that is taken from him when he comes in second place to the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, charmingly portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb of “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.

Leslie is the opposite of everthing Jesse has known at home or in school. She is raised in a bohemian lifestyle by her parents, who are both writers, and left to herself much of the time when they are in the middle of a book. Like her parents she too has a natural gift for writing, as is shown when she makes up a summer scuba diving adventure for class. While Jesse is intrigued by her, it is Leslie who takes a quick liking to him and not the other way around.

It is later when they both become friends that the fantasy starts to come into the movie in the form of an old rope hanging from a tree. They swing on the rope, over a dried up creek, and end up going into the empty woods nearby. While to Jesse and anyone else it looks like a normal wooded area, to Leslie it is the magical kingdom of Terabithia where they are King and Queen. Dragonflies are their warriors, a Dark Lord sends monsters and trolls to plague them at every step, but it is their realm.

Gabor Csupo directs the film with a child-like sense of wonder, but never lets the fantasy overshadow the reality of the children’s lives. For those wanting another ‘Narnia’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ that might be a disappointment, but by that token waking up is a form of disappointment by those standards. Terabithia is about the emotions of the two characters, and how their fantasies help them grow closer and cope with life. For me that made the story that much more interesting. While not as dark or edgy as “Pan’s Labyrinth” this film still manages to evoke a feeling that is real and enjoyable. Fans of one would appreciate the other because of the differences, not inspite. So I recommend seeing this movie to anyone that has some shred of the child they once were.

Feb 19, 2007

Ghost Rider

Finally a superhero movie for Nascar fans!

Speaking as a person who was infinitely grateful that Nicholas Cage was not going to play Superman, I have to confess that my expectations for “Ghost Rider” were underwhelming. Then on top of that I can add that I have never been a great lover of his films. For every movie he did that was half way decent, there was another one that blew monkey nuts. Still as a full-fledged geek I was required by guild rules to see all superhero movies, and so I found myself watching “Ghost Rider”.

Not surprisingly, one of the best parts of the film is the introduction featuring Sam Elliott’s voice over. If there were an Oscar for coolest damn narrator, he should win every year just on sheer principle. Including this film, movies of all qualities have used him as narrator before, and any faults they might have had, that decision was not one of them. Anyway, enough Sam Elliott-love, on with the review!

For those not familiar with the comic, no need to worry the movie’s plot is simple enough to follow without such knowledge. Johnny Blaze (Nic Cage), yes clever name, is a young motorcycle prodigy/carny who works with his father Barton Blaze (Brent Cullen) in a circus stunt show. He also romances young Roxanne Simpson, played by Raquel Alessi, a junior hottie who grows up into tremors-in-my-pants-hottie Eva Mendes. He’s shown to be a cocky hot shot right off the bat, and his father’s cancer is hinted at equally as obviously by a hacking cough.

The plot begins with the young lovers planning to away from the carnival when Roxanne’s father is planning to move her away. Naturally this plan is derailed when Johnny discovers a letter from his father’s doctor that mentions cancer on the horizon. Depressed he goes to dwell on his thoughts, but is interrupted by Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), to avoid major theological discussion just think of him as Satan. While Peter Fonda would not be my first choice for the devil, he does a passable job, at least when compared with certain horrible actors who will be mentioned later *CoughWesBentleyCough*.

Unsurprisingly, young Johnny is offered the chance to save his father’s health for the low, low price of one soul. Interestingly enough, Johnny doesn’t seem to agree, but almost accidentally cuts his finger on the contract and signs in blood. Before he can protest foul play, the devil takes his due and he wakes up in bed the next morning to a hale and healthy father. Happy and confused he goes to prepare to run away with Roxanne. We’re treated to the sight of his father attempting to jump a motorcycle through a ring of fire. When the crash sounds, the audience already knows what to expect before Johnny reaches the tent. His father lays dying, and Mephistopheles stands at the entrance to the tent before fading away with a smile.

With his father dead, Johnny takes off riding angrily, and wrecks as well but is healed by his guardian ang…erm, devil. He’s informed that he will be his rider when the time is ready, and until then he will keep his eye on him. Predictably Johnny feels he was cheated, but the devil brooks no refunds and sends him packing. The intro ends with Johnny driving past the tree where Roxanne stands in the rain waiting for him, but he just keeps riding.

Time morphs and we are treated to an adult Johnny Blaze that is extremely famous. Sort of the Marvel Universe version of Evil Knievel. He performs stunts like jumping an entire football field with six helicopters spinning below him. On top of that, he wipes out several times and is ‘miraculously’ unharmed. When his friend comments that he has an ‘angel’ watching over him, the audience is treated to a bit of the wry humor to be found through the rest of the movie. The rest of the plot is fairly formulaic, but not faulty by any means. Nic Cage does a good job, the jokes are pretty funny at a few spots, and Eva Mendes is majorly hot as usual. Not to mention the Sam Elliott factor. So it should be a good movie? Or at least a decent installment into the superhero movie franchise? Better than ‘Daredevil’, and on the solid level of goodness with ‘The Punisher’, but no ‘Spider Man’. That would be true were it not for a quartet of glaring mistakes, with one outshining his brethren by a huge margin. What mistakes could be tough enough to beat up Ghost Rider? Why casting errors, of course!

The villains in this film are horrible, rotten, stinking, enragingly bad! So what? That’s what they’re supposed to do, right? No, I mean they are so hackneyed, cliched, trite, and annoying that I cannot even respect them enough to cheer on our hero. Bad enough that they look like hell’s version of a men’s wear catalog, but they act poorly as well. The three sub-demons: Gressil, Wallow, and Abigore are summoned to follow their leader, Blackheart, the son of Mephistopheles who wants to find a contract with a thousand souls, one that will make him powerful enough to take over the world and overthrow his father. One that was hidden by the previous Ghost Rider. One that doesn’t matter because the bad guys are so damn cheesy that no one cares! Even more interesting, and by interesting I mean mind-numbingly boring, the worst of them all is their leader Blackheart (Wes Bentley). If his minions are trite and annoying, he is so bad that you want to rip out your own teeth just to have something to throw at the screen.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Wes Bentley came to larger fame in ‘American Beauty’ opposite Kevin Spacey. Well apparently he should stick to video taping plastic bags, because attempting to emote is beyond his reach. I had thought that his blank expression and clipped attitude was part of his character, but he must have been playing himself, because when he tries to be be cocky it comes across as flat, when he tries to be imposing it falls flat, when he…well you get the idea. In essence he was the true villain of this movie because he ruined the experience for me. I wanted to slay him just to pay him back for taking something entertaining and driving it into being annoying.

So while this movie might have been a solid entry into the franchise, it falls short and is not worth seeing in theaters. Leave it to a rental, drink a little beer, and try to ignore Wes Bentley. Then it might be entertaining enough.

Dec 21, 2006

Eragon

With the advent of special effects technology and a desire to see increasingly unrealistic films, fantasy is finding its way onto the big screen more than ever before. It cannot be denied that Lord of the Rings is probably the single most influential ‘fantasy’ series. Because of that, those who attempt to make new films within that genre labor under the yoke of not seeming too similar.

Truthfully that is nearly impossible. Fantasy has a few ‘staple’ elements that are retold throughout the ages. Characters, races, situations, and all the rest can change but some things are going to be similar. Epic battles that are fought with archaic weapons and magic will look similar on film. Also the influence of Hong Kong cinema has called for all fight scenes to have the smooth, kinetic flow of a Kung Fu movie.

Now, the most important question: is this bad? No! People make the mistake of assuming that every film has to remake the wheel. Oh look, large-scale battles with swords and pikes…someone is ripping off ‘Lord of the Rings’. I cannot recount how many times I heard people commenting on ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ by comparing it with the ‘Holy Trilogy of Fantasy’. Before anyone makes that comparison here, allow me to say that ‘Eragon’ is much more like the original ‘Star Wars’ films than ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Synopsis time! In a kingdom once guarded by good and just ‘Dragon Riders’, a darkness has spread across the land in the form of King Galbatorix. He was once a dragon rider but turned to evil and convinced some of them to join him in taking over the good kingdom. They slew the good dragon riders, or at least sent them into hiding, and took control with an iron fist. When the movie begins there is only one rider left, the king himself. We can only assume he killed all the rest, maybe even his allies. He is served by a dark magician and is trying to crush a pesky rebellion. This is sounding similar to the backstory of Star Wars, yes?

So our hero is growing up on an isolated farm. Things are not idyllic, but his farm is far enough away from town to keep him from feeling the major press of the evil Empir…Kingdom, sorry. Durza, the dark magician who works for the king, is the primary adversary in this first installment. He is ably played by Robert Carlyle of naked fame from ‘The Full Monty’. Turns out there is one unhatched dragon egg remaining and he tries to capture it from a beautiful princess, but she magicks it away to the right person…who turns out to be our hero Eragon! Yes, very shocking. He raises the baby dragon, and listens to that crazy old hermit Ben Kenob…Brom, sorry, slipped again.

To cut a long story short, people come looking for him and the dragon, and events are swept into motion that lead Eragon to being a hero. People who compare this movie to ‘Lord of the Rings’ should be kicked in their junk. It is much more similar to ‘Star Wars’, but more importantly it just adheres to the basic principles of fantasy stories. It’s a formula that goes back to ancient mythology, and possible farther, that touches upon those instincts hardwired into the human psyche. Personally I derived more than a little entertainment from this film. With some the obvious flaws of a narrative that moves far too quickly, no character development, aside from the main character, and some cheesy moments; this is still not a bad movie for children, fantasy fans, or people who are not shriveled old crones inside. For all those lacking in child-like wonder, this is a pass, but for the rest of us it could be just the thing for a night’s entertainment.

Dec 21, 2006

Rocky Balboa

Sylvester Stallone mirrors his character in this comeback of mythic proportions.

There are two types of people in the world: those who like the Rocky movies, and those who do not. Naturally those who enjoyed the original films will appreciate this newest addition, but there is also something for those ‘other people’ as well.

For those who did not know, Sylvester wrote every ‘Rocky’ move to ever reach the screen. It’s a fairly well-known fact that he fought long and hard to play the lead role in the original, and against all odds it turned out to be a great success. Most people are in agreement that the first two films were the best, the third and fourth were entertaining popcorn flicks, but the fifth was an undisputed disaster. Even Stallone himself is said to lament the failure of the fifth movie. In a series meant to inspire people to surpass their limits, ending on such a bad note was upsetting.

So fifteen years since the last movie, and a full thirty years from the original, Stallone has returned with another shot at the title. I happen to be one of those people who enjoy the original movies very much, but even I winced upon seeing the preview for this film. Not only because of the unlikely chance of such an old man fighting a heavyweight champion, but because the industry has been rehashing so many older concepts lately that this seemed like a poor joke. A steady decline from the first to the fifth movie made me doubt that Stallone could make anything of this newest attempt, and I usually tend to be an optimist. In retrospect I am astonished that I failed to see the beauty of that scenario.

The underdog installment of the greatest underdog series of all time!

A fairly simple, character driven, plot drives the film. Rocky is much older, much reduced, and living his life as the owner of a small restaurant in Philadelphia. He spends his nights telling stories and taking photos with the patrons, helps out his friends, has a somewhat estranged relationship with his son, and is a generally great sort of guy. As the small scenes play out, the once fire in our champ’s eyes have been reduced to cinders. His wife passed a few years ago, and Rocky is floating through the later years of his life. Naturally he endures it with his typical stoic charm, but the pain he carries is very real. From the ‘tour’ he takes every anniversary of all the places that remind him of his wife, to the way he floats through life, it is painful to watch.

The change comes when a sports channel decides to show a computerized fight between the current champion, Mason Dixon, and former champ, Rocky Balboa. From a brief snippet the audience has already seen that the champ is not well-loved because he has no worthy challengers. With a record of thirty-three wins, zero losses, and thirty knockouts this is a champion that has never had a ‘real’ challenger. So when the computer shows Rocky to be the winner by knockout, everyone is amused. It could have ended there, but when Rocky sees the match and hears a few snide comments afterward, there is a reaction. Those embers start to flare up a little bit.

Like the inspirational equivalent of a brushfire, he applies for a boxing license and gets it after an impressive speech. Dixon’s people jump on the opportunity for publicity and set up an exhibition match for the two. Everyone in the world snickers and scoffs, but Rocky decides to give it a shot. Then we have a beautiful training montage, a throwback to the original, and always my favorite part of all the films. His willingness to go after what he wants nets big in this movie, but for the rest go see it yourself.

Also, while Rocky is fighting on the screen to find his self-respect in a world that passed him by, Stallone is fighting the same battle to remind us what made him great in the first place. Before all the flops, before all the action hits, even before Rambo, there was Rocky. Sylvester Stallone is Rocky Balboa in many ways, and this latest film shows that more than ever. As the movie progressed, it was almost possible to imagine the same sneers and snickers directed at Stallone that were directed at his main character.

‘Nobody ain’t never gonna hit as hard as life’, to quote our boxing philosopher, but this movie proves Rocky and Sylvester can take the hit and keep moving forward. Give cynicism the day off and remember the days when a movie could be unpretentiously inspiring, and I promise you will find this a worthwhile viewing experience.

Dec 8, 2006

Let’s Go to Prison

It’s been said that the one thing men fear above all others is losing their freedom. So in that sense would a person prefer death above a life sentence in prison? After seeing Let’s Go to Prison I think, for me, the answer would be a definite ‘yes’.

That was not even meant to be an insult directed towards the movie. Technically it is like many other screwball comedies out there, such as Beerfest among other, that are not particularly well made, or particularly good, but can be an enjoyable way to kill a few brain cells. Much like choosing to drink heavily one night. It might not be a smart choice, but smart people have been known to do it.

My chief complaint about this movie is that instead of amusing me like it should have done, it made me terrified of prison. This was not my first prison movie, nor the most accurate depiction by far, but for some reason it ended up making me contemplate how horrible it would be to end up in prison. It also made me think on how there is some merit in the idea that our prison system can make normal people into criminals.

Pretty hardy fare for a popcorn comedy?

Naturally the film does not address these concerns in a realistic way, and there is no real merit in viewing this as a realistic depiction of the prison system. Despite that it still made me think about the validity of our current prison society, and that distracted me from the jokes, which made it a less than enjoyable movie watching experience. Not that I have a problem with movies that inspire thought or growth, it was just that this one did neither. It accidentally made me contemplate prison, and then gave me nothing to aid with that.

Anyway, the movie itself is about John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) and Nelson Biederman IV (Will Arnett). Lyshitski is a career felon who has been in and out of jail since his childhood, thanks to a harsh judge named Nelson Biederman III. The movie begins with his release from prison and desire to torment the judge, only to find out that he died just a few days prior. Directionless he wanders to the funeral only to notice the self-important and grossly rude son of the dead judge. In a prank-like stunt he spits in the younger Biederman’s coffee and sprays out the contents of  his inhaler. Later as Biederman is driving, and singing, he tries to use that inhaler but lo and behold it is empty. In the midst of a panic attack he wrecks a Ma and Pa drug store ran by an elderly asian couple. The wife ends up firing a shotgun at him, and he is arrested for assult among other charges.

Biederman’s father was very rich and left a foundation, with his son as the head. Unfortunately for him, they do not like the son very much and put up a token defense. His personality does the rest and soon enough he is sentenced to 3-5 years in prison. Lyshitski is naturally proud of himself, but then begins to feel left out, he wants to torment Biederman himself. So he sells pot to undercover police officers, on purpose, to be thrown back into prison.

The rest of the film is predictible and cliched jokes about being in prison. It is also a remarkable mean-hearted film. Most comedies in the brainless farce genre have an undercurrent of niceness to the world, but this one lacked that for a large portion of the film. Cap it off with a silly and unbelievable ending to make a genuinely bad movie. This movie is worth avoiding, rent at your own risk.

Dec 8, 2006

Casino Royale

An new era has begun in the Bond franchise and after seeing this film that is very good news. Unlike many other people I have never been a particularly avid fan of the James Bond films. Some of them are good, many are bad, and most aren’t worth seeing in the theaters. So when it was announced that there would be a new James Bond I was only mildly interested at best. Then came the news that it was Daniel Craig, an actor with whom I was only passingly familiar.

So as a prelude to watching Casino Royale, I took the time to watch Layer Cake. It was a very good movie and Daniel Craig did an excellent job in the starring role. Naturally that led me to reconsider my indifference to his upcoming Bond movie. Some of the Bond lovers out there may shoot me for this, but Casino Royale was the most enjoyable and well-made entry into this franchise that I have ever seen.

The movie begins with a younger James Bond. One who has just been promoted to 007. It was never made clear whether he was the only James Bond, or if he was a new agent to take on that name. Personally I hope that it turns out he is the latest in a series of James Bonds, it would add a sense of pedigree to the movies. Regardless of that small point, Craig’s portrayal of Bond is much more geniune and realistic than any of the others.

His Bond is an emotionally damaged man who has gone from being an assassin to a superspy. At certain points during the movie we get to see the conflict between the killer who can solve any problem with death, and 007 who solves problems with finesse. This Bond is not perfect, and he even makes a mistake or two during the film. All of which made it that much better.

The plot is simple enough. Big money laundering guy takes his client’s money and gambles on the stock market, trying to blow up a prototype airliner to make his gamble a sure thing. Bond gets wise and stops it so that the guy loses his client’s money. By the way, did I mention that his clients are terrorists and third-world warlords? Not the sort of people you want to make angry. So this guy, let’s call him Le Chiffre, might also be the best poker player in the world. Let’s also say there is a private, high-stakes tournament coming up in Europe. Finally let’s say that Bond has to go there, beat him so he cannot win the money he lost, and then turn him over to the British authorities so they can use him to get everyone else.

As with most Bond flicks, this one is not about the plot. The plot is almost incidental, but the immense cool that Daniel Craig radiates made an unimportant plot…well, unimportant. Aside from one extremely disturbing scene involving torture, and a lead in to the ending that goes on perhaps a little too long, there were no glaring flaws. With great action, beatiful girls, beautiful men, beautiful cars…oh, God, beautiful cars; this movie is about wish fulfillment, kids, go on and enjoy.

Nov 22, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

If anyone is living this review as I type it, I promise you do not die at the end. So please keep reading!

On that note I’ll launch into my discussion of ‘Stranger Than Fiction’. This movie is very upfront about the premise. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is living his life by the numbers, quite literally, when a sudden narration throws his life into disarray. He starts hearing a voice in his head that narrates what he is thinking and doing. Naturally this causes him a great deal of confusion and makes for some amusing scenes. Will Ferrell is charmingly funny as usual and does a great job of playing up the comedic aspects of the film.

So as he hears the narrator, who is a morose writer by the name of Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), Harold bumbles along until he overhears the words “Little did he know it would lead to his imminent death.” For some reason this knowledge causes him a certain degree of anxiety. He sails through a mid-life crisis and right into a full-blown binge of carpe diem-isms. Harold plays guitar. Harold woos a passionate young woman. Harold takes time off from work.

Unfortunately his new appreciate of life does nothing to hinder the specter of death so he seeks professional help. First with a psychiatrist, who has no advice to offer aside from taking drugs, until he is directed to Professor Jules Hilbert played wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman. With a very understandable skepticism, Hilbert brushes Harold off until he hears the words ‘little did he know’. The use of third person omniscient catches his literary interest and he becomes an advisor to the wayward hero.

Life goes on and Harold figures out that he needs to track down his writer. Throughout the movie I  was expecting that meeting to be very near the end. In fact it occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film. For some reason everyone who finds out about his situation comes to believe him, but they do exhibit enough disbelief or astonishment to keep it from being completely out of character.

At this point in the film it changes from a quirky comedy to something more dramatic. Fatalistic would be a better word. I was very impressed by Will Ferrell’s portrayal of his character. While at first he is playing something very familiar, a shallow but lovable doofus, he moves into something much more realistic and touching. Unlike many other comedic actors who attempt to break into drama, Will Ferrell stayed true to himself but also managed to play a character with substance. All of the supporting actors were superb as well. Maggie Gyllenhaal was adorable as his tormetor and love interest, Emma Thompson is amusingly depressed and frumpy as the tortured author, and Dustin Hoffman pulled off his role with unsurpassed charm.

The only problem with this movie is that Will Ferrell’s typical audience might be disappointed by the dramatic substance. While there are funny moments it is not what I would call a comedy, at least not the modern interpretation of that. So do not go in expecting ‘Anchorman’ or ‘Talladega Nights’. Aside from that do give this movie a chance.

Nov 14, 2006

The Prestige

If we needed any new proof that Christopher Nolan is a magnificent director, ‘The Prestige’ drives that point home. With a small, but very impressive, number of movies under his belt I am rapidly coming to expect great things from him. ‘Memento’ and ‘Batman Begins’ are excellent films, with ‘Insomnia’ being a good movie in its own right. So I went into the theater with high expectations. Without giving too much away I’ll say that I was not disappointed.

The movie begins with the story of our two main characters: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Both are aspiring magicians working under Cutter (Michael Caine). From the beginning there are very clear differences between the two men. Borden seems interested in pushing the boundaries of magic, while Angier is an american from a rich family who is studying magic almost on a lark. While accomplished and serious, he does not seem to have the same drive for success as Borden. When an accident occurs involving the woman Angier loves, and has secretly married, he becomes obsessed with ruining Borden’s life. On the other hand, Borden embarks upon a career and life of his own.

This story is told in the frame work of an older Angier who is hounding Nikola Tesla, the famous scientist of the early 20th century who worked with electricity. Tesla is presented as a scientist who can do things beyond the ken of mortal man, a true ‘wizard’. Angier spares no effort or expense on enlisting the man in creating a device for him to perform a spectacular trick that made Borden famous.

Prior to that, the rivalry between the two men got off to a quick start. Angier engineers an accident where Borden is hurt, and in turn Borden makes Angier look like a fool on stage. Despite their problems, Angier goes on to become the most successful magician in all of London. At the same time, Borden attempts to continue with his own rise to fame. It is slow going, but he comes out with an amazing trick that does the job, “The Transported Man”. In essence he is able to step into one closet and come out of another across the stage. His skill is immense, but he lacks the showmanship to rise any further.

This changes when, obsessed with how Borden pulls off the trick, Angier sends his beautiful assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) to be his spy. Instead she falls in love with Borden and helps him to become a true showman. The rivalry continues, and gets nasty along the way. Angier is obsessive, and Borden is manic when off-stage, alternating between a kind and loving husband, and a cold, adulterer with his lovely assistant.

As the story hops between ‘past’ and ‘present’ the audience is treated to the wonderful character acting in this film. Nearly every major character is well acted and very believable. Without giving away too much, let me just say that this film will amaze and entrance the audience. Like the best magicians, the secrets of ‘The Prestige’ are well guarded and will not be revealed until the end of the movie. Normally I can predict what will happen in a plot, but I was second guessing myself until it was over. Whether a fan of period films or just good movies in general, this is a must see.

Oct 19, 2006

The Departed

…or “Mark Wahlberg is freaking cool!”

I have to admit that sometimes I feel a certain degree of reticence discussing the work of an extremely big name director. Mostly because I possess a degree of prejudice towards the idea of canonizing people based on what they did instead of what they do. My immense love for the Indiana Jones films did not make me enjoy ‘A.I.’. No matter how much I try I cannot enjoy ‘The Godfather’, even though I did find ‘Apocalypse Now’ to my liking. So when I heard about Martin Scorsese’s new film I was reluctant to partake.

With hindsight fully working, I am glad I did. It turned out to be an enjoyable and suspenseful character study. Although the film seems to be more about who the characters are, rather than what they do, that does not diminish it in anyway. Instead we are left with a long movie that almost completely justifies that length, in an decade when so few really do.

We begin with Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), an up and coming gangster carving out a domain in Boston. In the process of setting himself up, he runs across young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) who is being raised a father. Through a series of cunning time shifts we see as Costello becomes that father for him, and then as Sullivan graduates from police academy to join the State Police. From the start the audience knows that Sullivan is in with Costello.

Along with Sullivan’s rise, we are also treated to a wonderful performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan, another smart cookie that gets into the State Police. While Sullivan becomes a detective, and politics his way up the ladder, Costigan is brought in as a deep cover officer. We’re also treated to a modestly impressive performance by Martin Sheen as his captain, Oliver Queenan; and a kick ass Mark Wahlberg as Sgt. Dignam. They are the only ones who will know that Costigan is working for them as an undercover.

Time is elapsed as Costigan is put in prison for trumped up charges, and serves enough time to make it seem like he was really convicted. Sullivan rises through the ranks quickly as the department golden boy. Eventually the main plot of the movie begins, which is a complex tug of war between Costigan who is openly working for Frank Costello (Nicholson), but really working for the police, and Sullivan who is openly working for the police, but really working for Costello.

Eventually things come to a head, naturally, and a series of surprising events unfold. As someone who can normally sit in a film and see every twist, this caught me by surprise. All I’ll say about the ending is that Mark Wahlberg rocks the shit out of that movie, and it’s worth seeing! So stop wasting your time reading, go watch this movie!

Oct 19, 2006

Fearless

Okay this review has been a long time in coming, but don’t let that dimenish the power of this message. ‘Fearless’ was an excellent martial arts film. Granted I’ve a think for wuxia films, I also very much enjoyed Jet Li’s other film ‘Hero’. That being said I have to say that I highly recommend this movie for anyone who enjoys a good story, not just fans of the martial arts side of things.

This is a semi-true story based on the life and events of Huo Yuan Jia, the founder of the Chin Woo Federation. Not being extremely familiar with the true story I cannot testify to the accuracy of this film, but to me that is less important than the core message of the film. Jet Li has always been at his best when playing a character who comes into wisdom to match his martial skills, and that is the spirit of this film.

We open up on a huge building housing an arena. There are hundreds of cheering people as the announcer sets the stage. A fight between Huo Yuan Jia, representing China, and four foreign fighters — say that three times fast. Then in a flash the first fight is on. Jet Li tears through his first three opponents with a precision and grace that is beautiful to watch. Serenely he fights them, never hurting any, but still showing his superior skills. Upon defeating the third opponent, he takes a rest and we see the camera sets up the last match, with a Japanese swordsman who looks more dangerous than all the rest combined. Before they can fight, we’re whisked away to the past…

The story really begins with Huo as a boy in Tianjin. His father is a fighter of great repute but refuses to instruct his son in the martial arts. Instead he tries to make him spent his time in more scholarly pursuits. Naturally the young boy is stubborn and has his bookish friend do his schoolwork for him while he practices kung fu. These scenes with him as a boy are very charming without being sappy, and do a wonderful job of leading into the next stage of his life. Most importantly he observes his father in a duel of sorts win, but hold back the killing blow. Which will be VERY important later in the movie.

Time moves on and Huo has grown into an adult. He has a daughter, but no wife, we must assume she died somehow, and also lives with his mother. Not in the too-long-in-college sense, but in the he has become master of the estate and his mother still lives there sense. Also he has become an amazing fighter, undefeated in fact. His childhood friend, Nong Jinsun, owns and operates a restaurant, and is very successful. Huo engages in many fights, all of which he wins, drinks heavily after each one, and gains a great number of followers. Unfortunately he is also very brash, and despite his zest for life, has none of the wisdom of his father.

His primary rival is a somewhat older master of another school. They encounter each other in the street one day and swagger. It seems the Jet Li is the more brash of the two, but also seems that he comes out second in their social confrontation. Before they fight however, one of Huo’s many ‘students’, who really just joined for free drinks and food after his victories, stumbles into the school beaten. He and his friends claim that the rival master beat him without provocation. Furiously, Huo and his gang stomp over to his friend’s teahouse where the rival master is having a birthday party.

Publicly challenging him, the master agrees to fight tomorrow but not that night during their celebration. Huo is very rude towards him, enough to make me wince, and refuses to leave, sitting down across the room. When the other master’s nephew comes over to politely ask Huo and the others to leave, he is knocked to the floor and held there humiliatingly. Angered, the other master finally agrees to the duel. Jinsun begs him to leave again, but Huo is very angry shouts that he’ll pay for the damages to his restaurant. Then everyone leaves as a very impressive fight ensues, destroying the restaurant around them. It’s a very close fight, and I will not ruin it here. Nor will I reveal the other shocking outcomes, but let me just say that Huo suffers great losses for his pride, and then gains great wisdom which leads into the ending.

When watching the last fight and the ending, just remember that Huo’s father always held back the killing blow. Before going to the fight, at his father’s grave, Huo says he understands, and at the end we see that is true.

If this is Jet Li’s final martial arts epic, then it is a worthy ending. He instilled in me a great sense of national pride, and I’m not even chinese! If you enjoy the martial arts then I don’t have to tell you to see this, but if you enjoy a moving story then consider this worth seeing. A wonderful film and one I look forward to owning.

Oct 19, 2006

Employee of the Month

As I walked into ‘Employee of the Month’ my expectations were not terribly high, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the movie. It was, as far as I know, comedian Dane Cook’s first attempt to star in a film and in my opinion he pulls it off. With an entertaining supporting cast, this movie is successful at being funny. Not blow milk out of your nose funny, but quite a few chuckles funny.

The plot revolves around Zack (Dane Cook) who works at ‘Super Club’ a fictional version of Costco. He is a charming slacker who is liked by almost everyone that works with him. Notice I said almost because we have his rival Vince (Dax Shepard) who is the #1 cashier, and thereby has near-rock star status. He is the typical character who takes himself way too seriously, and is none too bright. Vince resents Zack for his natural charisma and disregard for the rules, not to mention his popularity among the workers. Naturally Zack is also to blame for their relationship as he takes every opportunity to deflate the pompous cashier with amusing humiliations.

Things start moving when Amy (Jessica Simpson) transfers from another locations to be a cashier. Naturally she attracts attention, and Zack learns that she supposedly has a thing for the ‘Employee of the Month’. Let me add that Vince, by this point, has been employee of the month for the last seventeen months and upon making it for the eighteenth time he breaks the Super Club record. His wonderful prizes include a party and a ‘new-ish’ Chevrolet Malibu.

Of course they compete over the girl and that grows into a competition for employee of the month. Towards the end it transitions into a focus on Zack’s personal growth, as many comedies about a shallow competition tend to do, but still keeps the laughs high. Best of all the characters are believable, even if amusingly stupid.

Simpson does a good job of being present, being hot, but not taking up too much screen time. The director uses her just the right amount and doesn’t set up gratuituous shots of her ‘hotness’. Shepard is very funny as the rival for her affections and plays the role of self-important cashier to the hilt. Most of all, Dane Cook proves that he’s a likeable leading man. As a fan of his stand up comedy I was very happy to see he could pull off starring in a movie.

While lacking the charm of such amazing comedies as ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’ or ‘Wedding Crashers’; this movie manages to hold its own and is one of the funnier ones out this year. I hope that we’ll see more of Dane Cook in the movies, and I’d recommend seeing this one. If you’re not a common theater goer, however, it’s one that can wait for video.

Oct 14, 2006

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

I am not a horror fan.

By prefacing my review I want hardcore horror fans to keep that in mind as I discuss this movie. Of course I try to watch every movie as an open minded fan of that genre, but sometimes it’s difficult. As I found out when seeing this movie, sometimes it’s impossible. I’ll begin by saying that I understand why many people appreciate the original ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’; it’s one part enjoyment and two parts nostalgia. My own love of ‘Bloodsport’, ‘Transformers: The Movie’, ‘Magnum P.I.’, and many others are along the same lines. So I went to this movie with my friend, who happens to be a consummate horror fan. Being the psychic leech that I am, I figured to feed off his enjoyment.

Unfortunately such was not the case as this movie is almost EXACTLY like all the other ‘Chainsaw’ movies, minus the nostalgia of the original. It’s like if they went back and made another ‘Bloodsport’, same plot devices and everything, but said, “In this version his pants are blue, not black! It’s completely different.”

My friend paid for me to see this movie, and I ended up paying him so that I could leave early without feeling guilty. When he left alongside me, not uttering a single regret, I knew that it was not just my innate dislike of horror movies that made this steaming pile so pungent.

For those of you who endured my little rant, I will enlighten you with what I saw until about halfway through when I left. The movie opens in 1939 at a slaughterhouse in a small Texas town. It’s the sort of place that has made me a vegetarian for the rest of this month at least. Almost immediately we’re treated to the sight of a very obese woman clenching her stomach and asking for a bathroom break. Naturally our ‘boss’ is a skinny, glasses-wearing fellow that ignores her pleas until she drops onto the floor. After the lovely sight of urine, blood, and other fluids trickling down her legs a baby pops out like magic. We only see half of the deformed infant’s face but it’s clear by the music that an evil legend was born. Skip to the back, a manky old lady digging in the garbage and eating rancid meat from the dumpster finds this baby, cradles him to her bosom, and walks home.

Luckily I was not seeing this at a Movie Tavern. Anyway…

We also have a separate narrative about a small Texas town dying in the midst of stagflation of the late sixties into the early seventies. So if we pay attention to this, our Leatherface isn’t an evil man, he’s just a victim of an economy that kept the working man down. Tommy, the future Leatherface, is a ‘tard (their term, not mine) of imposing bulk who works in the same slaughterhouse as his surprisingly short, and now dead, mother. May I also add that this is probably the single darkest and shadowy slaughterhouse I’ve ever seen. Oh, and dirty…I mean really dirty. Imagine if you traveled to the end of time and all that was left was funk, and not the good kind either, that would be this place. When the place is shutdown our kind-hearted boss sends his flunky to run off the ‘overgrown retard’. Suspense is built, but Tommy (Leatherface) drops his cleaver with a slow-motion clang that reminds us of a cop turning in his badge.

Some small time later the boss is alone in his office when somehow, the giant Leatherface has snuck into his office without being noticed. The camera reveals him first, shadows covering his face, and then the soon-to-be-victim notices. I guess he’s a Texas Ninja Serial Killer. Hmmmm, Texas Ninja Chainsaw Massacre…might’ve been more interesting than this. So he kills the guy, I’d provide more details but I’m almost falling asleep just recounting the movie. Sheriff comes, and the wonderful R. Lee Ermey is not named Hoyt, his name is Charlie or something. As the Sheriff faces down ‘Tommy’ we see Mr. Ermey grab his shotgun and come up behind to blow his head off. Later he’s dressed as sheriff, they dine on the previous one and according to him “We’ll never go hungry again”.

If I was bored before, I was pissed now…a ‘Gone to the Wind’ reference in this fetid pile?

Later, four young people in 1969 are travelling across Texas because the younger of the two brothers was drafted. The older brother had already been to Vietnam, an extremely handsome and un-grizzled looking vet of maybe twenty-four years. His younger brother is a sunned pretty boy with a gorgeous blonde girlfriend that convinces him to burn his draft card and go to Mexico. Of course if I had a girlfriend who looked like her I might be inclined to do the same. Naturally the girlfriend of the older brother is a radiantly beautiful brunette that understands him well enough to not be bitter about his going back voluntarily to war, at least not openly.

Make a long story short, foursome shows up, they hit a cow in a high speed car chase, get captured by the Sheriff. Horrible things happen to them all, except for the pretty brunette who hides and finds a biker later to infiltrate. They almost escape but foul it up, no surprise there, and I walked out with the pretty blond having been stabbed in the chest by a hook, with a piece of glass in her side from the wreck, tied to a bed and raped by Hoyt. Our younger male lead tied up outside while his substantially more heroic older brother is nailed to a table downstairs and skinned before being killed. At least that’s what they were leading up to, I didn’t stick around to see it all come to fruition.

I paid my friend back for the ticket, we walked out, and then back to his place so I could play with his new PSP for a few minutes. So here is my idea…if any of you want to throw away your money on this shit-bomb just send the money to me and I’ll put it towards a PSP. Then I’ll go and let each of you play it for five minutes, because I had a million times more fun doing that than suffering through this movie.

Oct 1, 2006

Crank

Jason Statham’s newest action offering since ‘The Transporter 2’ and he doesn’t let us down!

After seeing Jason Statham for the first time in Jet Li’s ‘The One’ I though he had a lot of action potential. He just oozes that sort of asskickery that makes action stars work. So when he came out with ‘The Transporter’ I was facinated by the genesis of a new action star. This was followed up with the sequel to that movie which, while full of action, was not quite as good as the original.

Now we have ‘Crank’ which I think is much better than either ‘Transporter’ movies. Although he was definately good at martial arts fight scenes, this movie focuses more on him being a general bad ass than a wire-work bad ass. Considering Mr. Statham’s presence I think this was a good choice.

Playing an assassin named Chev Chelios, an awesome name if I’ve ever heard one, the movie begins immediately. No winding build up, no pointless reflection, we just have a very brief explanation and then running, screaming, pulse-pounding action…and that does not stop for any significant amount of time until the end of the movie.

Let me reinterate that: NON-STOP ACTION.

I try to stay away from writing in all caps as it makes me feel like I should be taking medication and wearing a safety helmet, but this movie calls for it. While the plot can be summarized briefly, a man is given a drug that cuts off his adrenaline and now he must keep moving or die, the effects of this fill a movie that will make you need to take a nap afterwards. ‘Crank’ manages to go from kick ass, to funny, to sexy, and back to kick ass in a matter of moments. I’m sure that, like myself, many fans will find themselves having to shift in their seat during a certain scene between Mr. Statham and Amy Smart in Chinatown…and that’s all I’m saying about that, go see it for yourself if you’re curious!

Definately a movie that delivers everything it advertises and more. On top of break-neck speed this movie offers some interesting use of music and cinematography. Yes, an action movie that is very pretty. From open until close, ‘Crank’ will keep it up…your adrenaline I mean. Pervert.

Check it out!

Oct 1, 2006

“L.A. Confidential’s mentally handicapped little brother”…

…or as it is also called, “The Black Dahlia”

First let me establish something, I absolutely adore ‘L.A. Confidential’! It is one of my favorite movies, I own it, and I could pull it out any day of the week and happily watch it. That movie deserved all the praise it received and much, much more. So I had high hopes for ‘The Black Dahlia’. Unfortunately I was disappointed by what I found.

The characters are introduced in the midst of a riot. As people go crazy around him, two beat cops run into one another while busting a criminal and holding up inside an abandoned shop for the night. To their surprised they find out that both are former prizefighters turned police officers. A friendship is formed. Then time passes and we see the idea of a boxing match come up between them to help pass a bill to raise the pay of police officers.

Our two cops for this movie are Sgt. Leland “Lee” Blanchard, or Mr. Fire, and Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, Mr. Ice. They are played by Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett respectively. Mr. Hartnett is the true main character and despite my misgivings about the movie, he plays a decent noir ‘hero’. One who possesses flaws in equal, or greater, part to his strengths. Mr. Eckhart is the faceman, a handsome scamp who everyone loves, the ‘hero cop’ of Mr. Elroy’s works that usually turn out corrupt. Scarlett Johansson plays the wife of Blanchard who, of course, falls in love with Bucky and him with her. Hilary Swank does a good job as the damaged, beautiful dame there to temp our hero away from what is right.

So if the actors and actresses are not inherently flawed then where does the movie go wrong? I think the greatest problem people will have with this movie is that it pretends to be a mystery when it is really a character study. The true plot of the movie is not solving poor Ms. Elizabeth Short’s murder but understanding the flaws and motivations of our main character ‘Bucky’. He is a true friend, despite falling in love with his partner’s wife, and not unintelligent even if he is easily swayed by a gorgeous woman. In the end he solves the crime only to leave it unsolved, and tried to find a way to live his life.

Much like ‘L.A. Confidential’ it is a study of chracter growth and how to be a good person in the midst of corruption. The only problem is that in all ways it is a much smaller, less impressive version. If ‘L.A.’ is the deluxe model, ‘Dahlia’ would be the substandard economy that barely passed safety guidelines, let alone is fun or intriguing.

If I were able to judge this move on it’s own merits, without thinking of the much better predecessor, then I might find it passable, but when I see this story unfold all I think about is how much more menacing Russell Crowe was, how much more intelligence Guy Pearce showed, and how much more completely Kevin Spacey charmed the audience. Unfortunately ‘The Black Dahlia’ will always live in the shadow of it’s far superior older brother. Wait for this on video, if you bother to see it at all.

Sep 12, 2006

The Protector

Is there any action star currently on the world market who needs a decent script better than Tony Jaa? My answers is no. His latest movie “The Protector” is a movie of jaw-dropping highs and laughable lows. While some might fault the plot, being a sentimental story about a boy who grew up raising elephants in Thailand and then goes to get them back when they are kidnapped for a rich and powerful corporation owner, the fault lays in the execution of the movie. Overlooking the cheesy english dub on many of the actors and actresses, I still appreciate that they did not dub Tony Jaa. He only speaks Thai in the movie, and you have to read subtitles for him. That’s a good choice. One of the only good choices.

The characters lack verisimilitude, in other words they do not act believably. People take actions for seemingly stupid reasons, regardless of how unlikely it would be in real life. At one point there is a strangely executed plot to frame someone for a murder, yet the way it goes down leaves no real physical evidence that the person was responsible. However the next news report shows that the authorities are sure that person did it. Everything that happened in the movie was leading into the next fight, not a bad thing in this case, but definately not engaging the audience. Most of us felt little or no sympathy for the characters, we just wanted to see more ass-kickery.

All that being said, the action was…astonishing. I do not feel cheated in seeing this movie just for the sheer adrenaline boost of watching Tony Jaa fight. I don’t think he used any wire-work for the amazing moves he did, but if I’m wrong feel free to correct me. Yet considering what he was capable of doing…well, just let me say that it will surprise many viewers what the human body can accomplish. Of everything, two fights stand out in my mind. The first is in a temple where Tony Jaa fights a man in dreadlocks who uses capoeira, a South American martial art that looks dance-like but apparently can be quite effective. Of everyone in the movie, that man is the only one who seems to be an ‘even’ match for Mr. Jaa. After that the second fight would be in an office building with Jaa vs. an insane number of men in black suits, or as I like to call it, ‘The scene of a 1000 breaks”. You’ll be amazed, astonished, and entranced by how many ways a person can break something on another. It was like a ballet…only to the sound of breaking bones. Of all the fights, the one that is probably the most gimmicky would be between Mr. Jaa and several large men. Starting first with him unable to harm them, given their large size, but then with him discovering a clever means of taking them out.

To the makers of ‘The Protector’ I’d like to make two points: a man cannot throw an elephant, no matter how pumped up; and swinging large objects does not automatically mean there is extra force unless the person swinging is strong enough to swing that fast. In other words, I found the last major fight to be difficult to swallow…mostly.

All in all, it was a bad movie. On every count that makes a good movie it fails except in the sense of a large spectacle, it delivers a 10 in that catagory. So if you’re someone who can appreciate beautiful and deadly movement, then see this.

As for Tony Jaa, he is amazing and I would really like to see him in a movie that could win an american audience.

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