Friday, August 31, 2007

Balls of Fury

For some reason spoofs always suck me in. Possibly this is because the first few I saw were all so good...Top Secret (1984), Rustler's Rhapsody (1985)...they had me in stitches. But in the last few years they have been getting progressively worse. Oh, not in previews...the Scary Movie franchise had some great moments in the previews, and the first movie actually had a few laughs...but it got progressively lamer and stupider as it went on. Epic Movie (2007) seemed, from the previews, to think that merely referencing a popular movie was a joke in and of itself. The previews were so unfunny that I could not be sucked into seeing it at all.

There have been a few parodies in the last few years that had good previews and sucked me into their bleak, humorless world of time wasting...sometimes they even had the odd laugh, but were never as good as the previews. More exactly, essentially every laugh in the movie was already seen a hundred times in previews before entering the theatre, thus rendering the watching pointless.

Still, somehow, Balls of Fury (2007) sucked me in. So with popcorn and cookie dough bites in hand, root beer by our side, the Goose and I settled into our seats. Sadly, the previews were all old, including the live action Bee Movie (2007) Seinfeld preview that is so bad I am having a hard time getting buzzed for the forthcoming animated picture. So I might not have been in the right frame of mind.

Regardless, the movie starts out strong. There are a few light laughs during the opening Olympic competition, largely revolving around A)caricaturing the fanatical behavior of some fans in regular sports...painting their bodies, making signs, swooning... and B) caricaturing the self-indulgent behavior of athletes. The posturing and trash-talking are at times hysterical, at others banal.

The movie progresses to a scene of Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) working an off-strip show in Vegas. His routine is hilarious. Sadly, the overdone "lethargic crowd" bit never seems to end which stretches the scene out long past its shelf life. And that becomes a theme. Jokes are funny momentarily, but much like the way the shine comes off a magic trick as soon as you are shown the secret...the jokes that are left on the screen too long lose their punch and become retroactively less funny.

The film builds and builds towards a hug, hilarious finale...all the elements are in place with a strong cast, interesting characters, and an excellent setting. However, somewhere along the way, it just loses its way and never delivers the finale.

So it becomes a series of mild laughs interspersed with missed opportunities. In the end, it is better than a lot of spoofs and almost everyone should get a few chuckles out of it but somehow it missed the mark.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

War (2007)

Not to long ago Huo Juan Jia aka Fearless (2006) was touted as Jet Li's final martial arts movie. For fans of his work in Romeo Must Die (2000), Cradle to the Grave (2003), The One (2001), Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and a host of other movies of varying quality, this was a sad moment. The slightly built Jet Li has a different style than other martial arts stars such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal, etc. that is quite entertaining. He also brings a different "feel" to his movies.

Fortunately, in War (2007) he provides us a glimpse of what we have watched for so many years. Here is at least one more opportunity to catch glimpses of one of the most entertaining martial arts movie stars of the last two decades.

War starts out showing the easy camaraderie and friendship of Tom Lone (Terry Chen) and Jack Crawford (Jason Statham). They smoothly and seamlessly enter a combat zone. With ruthless efficiency they shoot enemy after enemy, working as a smooth, well-oiled team. Then they get separated. Crawford is shot by Rogue (Jet Li). As he lays wounded, Rogue approaches to finish him off. However, before Rogue can finish him, Lone shoots Rogue in the face, knocking him into the water from which his body will never be recovered.

While Crawford is recovering, the Crawford and Lone families plan to attend a football game together. However, while the Crawfords are traveling to the Lone residence Rogue returns, killing the Lone family and then disappearing.

The movie skips the ensuing three years but brief exposition catches us up. In the aftermath of the Lone deaths Crawford has become obsessed with finding the ghost-like Rogue who, however, seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. Meanwhile, Crawford has become the lead FBI man trying to take down the rival Triad and Yakuza crime families.

Suddenly Rogue reappears, bouncing back and forth between the families as he plays them off against each other which, in turn, causes an escalating war between those two entities.

This creates a situation where Crawford chases Rogue, the Triad, and the Yakuza while the Yakuza chases the Triad and Rogue and the the Triad chases the Yakuza and Rogue.

In a bloody an intense finale Rogue achieves his goals before coming face to face with Crawford for a final confrontation to resolve their differences and allow vengeance to be had.

There are several plot twists which are foreshadowed from early on, but never so obviously that you know what is going to happen or why Rogue is doing what he is doing. They are well-written and well-acted so you never leave the moment.

Statham is building a solid resume as an action hero with movies such as The Transporter (2002) and even the hideous Crank (2006) in which, despite the horrific plot, he still provides a credible performance as someone who can kick your butt in any kind of fight. War does nothing to slow this down as he is quite credible as a violent, capable combatant who is a worthy foe for anyone from highly trained Yakuza gangsters right up to Jet Li himself.

The crime bosses are sadly one dimensional, falling into the hackneyed movie roles almost all crime bosses have...but since they ultimately are a sideline story to the resolution of the Rogue versus Crawford conflict, this is a minor quibble indeed.

There is a car chase between Crawford and Rogue that is shorter than some we have seen and has little to offer as far as originality. It is no better and no worse than many other car chases we have seen and you might get the feeling, "Yes, I have seen all this before."

We do get to see a different side of Devon Aki. In the movie she plays crime daughter Kira and is a potentially lethal opponent of whom we do not see nearly enough. She seems more capable, more deadly, and a better opponent than anyone but Rogue and her final scene indeed provides plenty of fuel for a sequel where she seeks revenge.

In the end it was a quite satisfying movie that anyone with an interest in personal combat should see.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Last Legion (2007)

The legends of King Arthur are a popular topic for movies. They have everything you could ask for...idealism, individual heroes, a band of close companions, action, romance...including, one must admit, the lure of forbidden romance...rugged, masculine men and an era where things were perceived to be more cut and dried about what was good and what was evil.

Just a couple years after the disappointing King Arthur (2004) we have another venture into the realm of the Arthurian legends, this time a look at pre-Arthur in The Last Legion (2007).

It is somewhat ironic that the high-idealed Arthurian legend is framed as deriving from the ideals of the Roman Caesars, particularly Julius Caesar. He was a man who violated every principle of the Republic and turned Rome from an Empire that at least gave lip service to justice into the Imperialistic expansion machine noted throughout the known world for its cruelty. However, in The Last Legion those ideals sort of work.

There are three distinct sub-plots within the story. The first follows Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley) who is seeking both the mystical sword of Julius Caesar and the man who would wield it. His search led him to Rome where he takes on the role of teacher to future Caesar Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster).

Upon the ascension to Caesar of his young pupil Ambrosinus is ejected from Rome. However, after the fall of Rome he reappears to save the life of Romulus. Together they are imprisoned, rescued, and travel to Britannia where one final battle allows Ambrosinus to fulfill his goals...and much to the surprise of nobody paying attention, reveal himself to be Merlin.

The second story arc follows Aurelius (Colin Firth), a man with the heart and soul of the idealistic Rome imagined by writers Jez and Tom Butterworth. Recalled from front line duty to defend the Caesar, he proves himself early to be a man of honor. His moment of crisis comes when he is faced with betrayal by his best friend Nestor (John Hannah). Meanwhile, he finds love and a duty that allows him to find fulfillment in proving his worth and fidelity to the Roman ideal.

Naturally, the primary story arc is that of Romulus. This is a name replete with sub-text. Romulus and Remus were the names of the twins credited with the founding of Rome. Romulus was the more meaningful as he slew Remus in a battle over the honor of Rome and was hailed as the founder, indeed the most important figure in Roman history until the fall of the Republic when Julius Caesar took up the role of dictator instead of co-consul.

Romulus must learn to take responsibility, deal with the murder of his parents, and become a uniting force for the Dragon Legion of Britannia. Along the way he must learn to be self-sufficient at times and stay out of the way of better qualified people at others.

For the most part The Last Legion is beautifully acted. John Hannah is uncharacteristically cheesy, but otherwise you are quite able to lose yourself in this world. Everything makes sense and nothing stands out as not fitting.

The story draws you in, makes you care about the characters, both heroic and villains. You develop a stake in the outcome. The cinematography is beautiful with memorable locations and excellent shots.

And the movie takes a bold step, introducing us to Mira (Aishwarya Rai). Mira is no shrinking violet. She is quite possibly the most lethal, capable warrior in the entire film. This is a refreshing role. She is not mere eye candy or a seemingly capable fighter who inevitably needs the help of some male to rescuer. At one point in the final battle she tells Romulus to stay close to her and my immediate thought was, "That sounds like pretty good advice. That is about as well as he can be protected."

The movie leaves a natural opening for a sequel and leaves it open to each individuals interpretation as to whether the story Merlin related was true or a lie...a deliberate attempt by Merlin to create legend. The closing shot, however, provides a pretty clear clue which way they would like you to lean. Since it is a bit of a spoiler, I will leave it to you to discover when you watch the movie...a course of action I highly recommend.

If there is a criticism of the movie, I would say it was somewhat predictable. I anticipated several events which it appeared may have been designed as plot twists...the gender of the mysterious ally sent with Aurelius, the identity of Merlin, certain betrayals...but that is a minor quibble that in no way detracted from my enjoyment. This was time well spent.

Superbad (2007)

When I first saw the previews for Superbad (2007) I thought it looked...well...super stupid. Then again...I am hardly the prime audience target for a movie centered on high school seniors trying to get laid. But the commercials grew on me so off we went to view the teen flick.

And teen flick is where it is at. I am not sure how old writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are. From Knocked Up (2007) I would guess early 20s...but Rogen still has a pretty firm grip on the late teen years.

The plot is fairly simple; Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are just a few weeks from graduation and want to ready themselves for college life by getting laid. Each has a girl he is infatuated with who he thinks is out of his league so the best way to get with them is to get them drunk. Of course, there are a few obstacles betweeen Seth getting with Jules (Emma Stone) and Evan getting with Becca (Martha MacIsaac)...such as Seth and Evan being told not to attend any parties by the school tough boy slacker bully so they are never in the same place, the total social ineptitude of Seth and Evan, and the vast disparity in "hotness" between our intrepid heroes and their dream girls.

They come to the conclusion their best bet to get with Jules and Becca is to get them drunk and take advantage of them. Fortuitously, super-nerd Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has just obtained a fake idea using the single name McLovin. Fogell and Evan have a vague friendship that runs counter to acid-tongued Seth's sensibilities. Seth takes every possible opportunity to run down Fogell....and, often enough, even his "best friend" Seth.

Seth seems bitter and angry. He is at once a complete failure...he is academically incompetent, as athletic as a tree stump, and has the personality of a bear-baiter...and completely full of himself, thinking he has the right recipe to get laid with any girl he wants if people will just do things his way. It is actually a pretty good representation of a lot of high school kids who can't figure anything out yet are brimming with confidence.

Meanwhile Evan and Fogell lay low, achieve good grades and are easily able to attain their scholastic dreams (admission to Dartmouth). It makes sense for Seth to be bitter and angry. He never develops camaraderie with classmates like Evan does in Home Ec but instead spends his time mocking the class. There is a lesson here somewhere but it would sound far too preachy to mention it.

The movie really hits its stride when Fogell, to be known as McLovin for the rest of the movie (and review) goes into a liquor store to stock up for the party. A robber appears, lays out McLovin and steals the cash register. This brings in the bumbling cops Officer Slater (Bill Hader) and Officer Michaels (Seth Rogen). For the rest of the movie they take McLovin on a variety of misadventures trying to show him cops can be cool too while Seth and Evan try to find alcohol without any money or ID...both of which were held by McLovin.

Near the end of the scene the three friends reunite, have the alcohol, and make it to the party. Once there they figure out their perceptions were wrong.

Seth discovers Jules is interested in him, just not when he is drunk...and she herself does not drink. Thus his own unwillingness to even talk to her in the past prevented him from having many opportunities to hang out with her. Meanwhile, Evan discovers Becca has liked him for a long time and likes him whether she is drunk or sober. McLovin also finds success, apparently predicated on his ability to tell time.

In a nice final scene at the mall the different paths their lives will now take are represented as Seth and Jules take the escalator down while Evan and Becca remain on the upper level, heading in the other direction. They now have other interests in their lives and things are better.

The movie had a lot of laughs in it. An unfortunately large number of them are based on profanity or prurient sex jokes...those revolving the research and selections of summer porn site purchases come to mind. Indeed, this was one of the most profanity-laced movies I have ever seen and it did not need to be that way. The movie was good enough to stand on its own merits and the constant obscenities spewing from every mouth were more annoying than hilarious or entertaining.

In the end it was a diverting 114 minutes of my life, but not one I feel compelled to see again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

TMNT (2007)

In the mid 80s a friend introduced me to an underground comic. It was drawn in black and white and was by some small fly by night comic book company I had never heard of (Mirage, the creation of the two writers, Eastman & Laird. Together they had developed a concept and taken it to the biggest audience they could find...the underground comic collectors. Hardly anyone had heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and those who had guarded the secret closely. It felt kind of cool to be on the fringe of the avauntgard for a change, knowing about something the general public did not.

Of course, Turtle Mania exploded with huge lines of toys, mainstream color comics, movies, and television programs. In the process, the "feel" of the turtles changed several times to adapt to the audience.This is neither good nor bad, it simply "is". On the dark side, if you fell in love with the gritty, edgy black and white Turtles then the sometimes saccharin and cheesy cartoons probably irritated you. Conversely, if you just liked the concept then the constant innovation might work to keep them "fresh" and entertaining.

The second movie I ever saw in a theatre was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and it was a version of the Turtles that I loved. It was full of hilarious one-liners, a threatening villain, interesting sub-plots and, with the cheesy fighting rat scene excepted, very well done in the special effects department. The two sequels had their good parts...and their misses. The wise cracks were worse, the cheese factor higher, and how well can you rate a movie reprising "Ice, Ice Baby" with lyrics such as "Go Ninja, go Ninja, Go!" in it? They were still entertaining..but nowhere near the quality of the first one and the franchise faded away. Recently it has been reinvigorated with new cartoons, new themes, and a new era so we now have the CGI TMNT (2007).

As a long time Turtle fan it is no surprise I was there to see it. From the first preview I was excited...I recognized their silhouettes as they crept across a span. And I only got more excited with every preview. The graphics were amazing and the cut of the plane's landing gear descending to reveal Leonardo holding on to it was spectacular.

Unfortunately, anticipation like that is seldom justified. In the last few years perhaps only The Simpsons Movie (2007) has managed to exceed unrealistic expectations. Indeed, when I first saw TMNT I was disappointed. It was an okay movie...but nowhere near what I had built it up to. Fortunately, I am willing to give things a second chance.

When it was released on DVD on August 7th I picked it up along with The Simpsons Season 10 and sat down to watch it.

This time I approached it more reasonably, without the pent-up anticipation. And it proved to be exactly what it should...a rollicking good time that made excellent use of the history and variety of the Turtles franchise. Back were classic one-liners, the intense yet entertaining fight scenes, and yes...even the bigger than life extra-terrestrial villains. To kids who grew up on the Turtles versus the Foot Clan and never experienced Baxter in his glory with the Mousers as actual credible opponents or who never saw the story arcs with the TCRI aliens, this was in many ways a throwback to a time when visible death was part of the Turtle universe.

The movie does a good job of tying together various aspects of the Turtle continuity. When Casey finds "The Night Watcher", aka Raphael, on the roof the meeting echoes their initial movie meeting in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When Raphael knows Leonardo was captured because of his temper he recreates the primal roar from the same movie. Even the final line of the movie is almost a direct quote..."I love being a Turtle!"

It also does a nice job of showing very different personalities for all the Turtles with Leo introspective and angst-ridden, Raphael angry and very much a loner, Michelangelo more interested in having a good time than taking things seriously, and Donatello more interested in his gadgetry than interacting with his brothers.

The fights were very well done. They had a lot of what was fun about the first couple of movies with Turtle team-up moves, lots of superhuman attacks and hits, and classic lines. For example, Michelangelo had been bragging on the Night Watcher and how he had cool equipment including jet packs. When they are battling the first of the 13 monsters and are backed up against the edge of the structure with nowhere to go he says, "See? This is why we need jet packs!" It is a classic moment.

The movie does a good job of mixing action with moving the story along as Winters strives to undo the damage he did 3000 years before (although for monsters who have "plagued mankind to this day", the monsters seem pretty docile and unimportant), the Foot and Turtles re encounter one another, the Turtles strive to re-unite, and the audience gets to remember what makes the Turtles so much fun.

The graphics are incredible. The animators really must be commended for an exceptional job. So, too did the story writers do well to provide us all with a few moments with our favorite Turtle as all of them have their chance to shine at various points in the movie.

All in all it is a visual feast and a very diverting couple of hours.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

I love action movies, I just prefer them to have a modicum of intelligence to them. A mindless, pointless action movie...for instance, many of the Kung-Fu genre...might have its charm but really, what was more enjoyable...the taut technological thriller of Mission Impossible (1996) or the chase/crash/explosions that replaced the plot of Mission Impossible III (2006)?

It is only fair to point out...I did enjoy MI III but nowhere near as much as the first...or even second which, while inferior to I still had more plot and suspense than III.

With that said, when The Bourne Identity (2002) was everything I look for in an action movie. It had suspense, an intriguing and interesting story line, mystery, intelligence, believable and intense action scenes, and managed to do all that while making sense. There was no dodging of bullets with superhuman speed or anything like that which makes no sense in the world created. I don't object to those things when they make sense...for instance, in the world created for The Terminator (1984) it made perfect sense for Arnold to take a shotgun blast without being knocked down or to involve himself in a car crash and walk away unscathed. Those were the rules and physics established for that world. It makes much less sense in a world where "real life" physics are supposed to be in play...for instance, in xXx (2002) when Xander Cage bunny hops a motorcycle over a 15' tall barb-wire fence it makes no sense...he is supposed to be living in the "real" world. It is just so stupid it removes the suspension of disbelief and turns what could be a great action movie into a so-so bit of cinema.

When The Bourne Identity rolled around it created a believable world. Everything looked and acted familiar. There were no instances where you looked and thought, "Oh, this is an alternate universe."

It continued in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) with a solid storyline, believable action sequences, and characters you cared about. They were well-rounded with motives that make sense for them as people instead of as plot devices.

With such a strong background I was really looking forward to The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). It had the same solid pedigree, from being based on Robert Ludlum's novels to the same solid actors...this is a movie that cannot fail to meet my expectations of a good action flick.

The story line is solid. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) wants to know who he is and why he became a killer. Noah Vosen (David Stathairn) is afraid Bourne can blow the cover off his secret, illegal, and by inference, highly unethical training programs. The unstated thesis is the program has gone rogue while trying to follow its charter, a sin of execution rather than intention. And that leads back to my earlier assertion...these are complex, believable characters. Vosen is not a stereotypical villain, out for personal money and power. He genuinely is trying to do his job, protect the country, and be a great citizen. He simply has lost touch with our mores and core beliefs.

This character taps into the current political climate with the over zealousness many people perceive with wire-tapping, torture, and a host of other intrusions on things we always believed were rights that the current administration seems to view as privileges. 10 years ago this character would not have been as apropos.

Alongside that, the acting is outstanding. Damon becomes Bourne. It is easy to see him as Jason Bourne, not Matt Damon playing Jason Bourne. Contrast that with Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). Nicky's role in this movie seems to be two-fold; 1, to create a continuity with characters Bourne interacts with face to face and 2, to get Julia Stiles screen time. That time is Julia Stiles playing Nicky Parsons, not Parsons inhabiting the world created for movie-goers. Fortunately, her stilted appearances are few, far between, and do not detract from the overall experience. She provides a great plot device to maneuver Bourne into a fine through and above the streets chase scene that ends in a fight that would have been much better with better camera work. Director Paul Greengrass fell in love with a jarring hand-held with jump-cuts galore that left you mystified as to what was happening in the fight. Despite that quibble it was a magnificent scene.

There were a few moments in this one that had me scratching my head. For a series that started so intelligently, there were some reality and physics defying moments that simply did not fit. Bourne slams his car into reverse through a concrete wall off a parking structure...and walks away. In fact, he is impervious to car-crash related injuries. While the parking structure crash was hilarious, it did not fit with the carefully structured world I was enjoying, nor did the final Toureg v. Police Car crash at the end.

Plot wise, the one disappointment was they were too heavy-handed in revealing how deeply involved the CIA director was. What should have been a shocking revelation was given away quite early in the movie.

Those minor quibbles aside, it was a very, very entertaining and watchable movie. Its watch ability was somewhat hurt by the unbelievably high standard set by the previous two entries in the Bourne franchise but it was still a very good movie that any action fan can walk out of glad they went to see it.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

No Reservations (2007)

One cliche frequently found in the romantic and romantic comedy genres is the somewhat difficult to like protagonist made likable by the likable member of the opposite genre who "rescues" them. As a general rule, you meet the likable one early on.

No Reservations (2007) dares to break this rule. Several minutes are spent introducing Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who is cold-hearted, hard to work for, overly driven, with no soft edges...and is thoroughly unlikable. In fact, the only reason audiences can possibly like Kate is because she is played by the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones. Even with mouth drawn in a firm, hard line, yelling at her underlings for some imagined slight or castigating a restaurant customer for having the temerity to express their own taste, Jones is lovely to look at. However, as a character, Kate gives you nothing to like, no reason to pull for her.

She illustrates her cold-heartedness early. She is leaving her room for work when she hears her downstairs neighbor Sean (Brian F. O'Byrne) coming in. She hastily tries to return to her room but he says something to her. After a brief conversation, as she starts back down the stairs he points out that she had forgotten something so sh returns upstairs, opens the door, waits for Sean to enter his own apartment, then shuts the door and continues on her way.

In other words, she wants to avoid him. Yet later when she needs a babysitter she turns to Sean, telling love interest Nick (Aaron Eckhart) how sweet he is. In retrospect, this makes her even more unlikable. Here is a man clearly trying to be friendly and helpful (at one point he leaves Thai food on her doorstep in case she gets hungry) whom she relies on when she needs him but will give nothing, not even a smile.

And this is our heroine.

Meanwhile, we have the potentially touching story of Zoe (Abigail Breslin), Kate's recently orphaned niece who has come to live with Kate. However, a potentially edge-softening tool in Zoe becomes simply a device to continually bring Kate and Nick together. Nick inexplicably falls instantly and completely for Kate despite her mood killing ways at work, harsh attitudes in the kitchen, and all around orneriness.

However, eventually Kate comes to her senses, gives up on the high powered fancy food restaurant life and opens a casual bistro with Nick and Zoe to give you the requisite happy finale.

It sounds like I did like the movie but that is patently not true. It had some very nice moments and, once likable characters such as Nick and, to some extent, the hapless but pointless psychiatrist "Therapist" (Bob Balaban) (and for an example of his pointlessness...he is not even given a name! The movie cut corners with names, giving nobody complete first and last names), it is enjoyable with a few moments designed to pull at the heartstrings.

Additionally, in one of those delicious ironies in life, it is a movie about extremely fancy foods you can watch while crushing a bucket of butter and salt laden popcorn and slurping a soda. Try not to think about it to much...but it really does not make sense to do that.