Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls

Fair warning; there is only one part of this post you should read before seeing the movie:If you have never read ""Leinengen Versus the Ants" then you should do so before you go see Indiana.

*********** Spoiler alert *************** the remainder of this will talk heavily about key events so...unless you have seen it, stop now, go see it, then come back.

The movie starts out a bit more brutally than the old ones. But it quickly segues into familiar ground...Indy has information the bad guys (or, in this case, girl) want, he is captured, loses a valuable artifact, big chase, lots of outrageous action. Think the Die Hard franchise crossed with the National Treasure franchise. Of course, the Indiana Jones franchise came first...

Anyhow, after the classic chase/battle/escape, Indy makes his way into a small town that turns out to be populated by foam people. At the last second before the nuclear bomb is tested he jumps into a refrigerator which protects him from the explosion, though it does fling him for hundreds of yards inside said fridge. In a homage to the old serials, he escapes unharmed.

In another reference, McCarthy-like agents suspect the oft-decorated Indy of being a Communist double agent and say nobody can be trusted. They couch a critique of anti-terrorist hysteria in terms of the Red Scare.

In some ways there is some legitimacy to this critique but in other ways it is just another mindless attack by certain elements of the left on anybody who does not toe their line and conform to their ideals.

Meanwhile, the movie itself is great fun. It proceeds along with preposterous premises, outstanding action scenes that are just high-octane thrill rides, and make their way through a variety of exotic locations while following another cryptic treasure map.

The impetus of the story is the tension between Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and "Mutt" Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Along the way they rescue Mutt's mother Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen). In a twist that surprised me not one soon as Mutt mentioned his mother's name was "Mary" I had it nailed...Indy is Mutt's father. However, the woman behind me must have been shocked because she said, "Oh my!" when that revelation popped forth.

As they move along, alternately escaping and being recaptured by the Russians, then engaging in a long, entertaining chase/fight that references Leninger Versus the Ants before heading into a big finale where the skull is revealed to have been from an X-Files type alien.

The climax felt like a jump the shark moment when watching it, but in retrospect it fits the franchise very well. And it brings the Jones mythology to a satisfying conclusion. We still have a "Henry Jones" to keep the name going, Shia has done some action/adventure stuff, and Indy is happy at last.

This film, if you take expectations of reality, is one you will hate. But if you just relax and enjoy it is non-stop fun from beginning to end and a fitting addition to the Indiana Jones tales.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Speed Racer

Like many other 30-somethings I have vaguely fond memories of Speed Racer, the cartoon series. I don't remember much...lots of running around with his mouth open, "speed lines" showing how fast he was running, and him driving the Mach 5 in races. When I heard Speed Racer (2008) was coming out I briefly considered renting or buying the cartoon series as a refresher. Then I remembered how poorly the other 80s shows have held up...when I made the mistake of going back and watching an old A-Team or Chips episode, a Smurfs episode...they do not stand up well. So I eschewed that torture and, with lots of reservations and an expectation of seeing a horrific movie, I headed off to the theatre.

If you have seen any of the previews you know it is full of vibrant pastels. The color scheme is bright and gives a sense of fun much as they did in Dick Tracy (1990).

The visuals come fast and furious but the movie is too full of flashbacks. On rare occasions...say, Iron Man (2008), there is a valid point to a flashback. Since I don't recall the cartoon, it could be that the flashbacks are a callback to the series. However, they are so prevalent that at times, even though the plot is very simple and straightforward (evil big business moguls cheating to keep racing fixed to manipulate their stocks while hero tries to bring them down) you can get a bit lost figuring out if you are watching the present or the past.

The acting is deliberately cheesy, the dialogue weak, and the story pedestrian. But the movie is pure fun. There are a lot of great visuals...the look of Speed (Emile Hirsch) racing the ghost of his brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter), and so forth...including the best joke in the entire movie.

Spritle (Paulie Litt), the youngest Racer, hangs out with Chim Chim (Willie), a chimpanzee. They are always seen together, usually hiding out, stowing away, etc. At one point the camera cuts to Spritle in his pajamas. The pajamas are covered with pictures of a monkey face. Cut to Chim Chim whose pajamas are covered with pictures of Spritle. Great visual joke.

Anyhow, the racing is great fun to watch as long as you ignore physics...regular use of "special features" on the cars, though the rapid overlays of other features can get a bit annoying.

But the most disturbing thing is the sexual heat. It is NOT, as one might expect, between Trixie (Christina Ricci) and Speed but rather between Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Speed. Her breathy "Some of the things you do take my breath away" does not come across as a proud mother but rather a love-struck paramour. Very disturbing.

And open memo to Christina Ricci; that hair cut does NOT work for you in any way, shape or form. Just sayin'...

But for all the plot holes, bizarre editing, and basic story line, the movie provides two huge positives:

1) the visuals are outstanding and great fun to watch
2) it is a very, very fun movie.

I went in expecting crap on the level of Vanilla Sky (2001), one of the 10 worst movies of all time. But it was actually pretty enjoyable, far better than expected.

Friday, May 16, 2008


The lightly marketed Redbelt (2008) is a lightly distributed, heavy tale of Jiu Jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetal Ejiafor) and his teaching methods. The pacing is extremely slow. The viewer is introduced to his very quiet, laid back method of instruction. After his star pupil Joe Ryan (Max Martini) performs poorly in an exercise he has his assistant Snowflake (Jose Pablo Cantillo) give Joe a black belt fight where we are introduced to his method of potentially handicapping one fighter or the other.

After the fight, distraught lawyer Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) comes into the dojo. In a bizarre scene where Joe, Mike and his wife Sondra Terry (Alice Braga) pseudo-ignore her while trying to take her coat off for no apparent reason, Laura grabs and fires Joe's gun, breaking the front window. Snowflake rolls back in to see what happened.

Joe says to say wind blew in the window so attempted murder charges won't be fired. Since this incident is the plot point on which the entire story will soon hinge, that is pretty shoddy writing since it is not ever clear she was firing even in his general direction...or that she even meant to fire.

Be that as it may, it turns out the dojo is in deep financial straits with checks bouncing. Sondra convinces Mike to go to her brother, a seedy club owner.

When he arrives there Mike finds out Joe quit working at the job Mike got him there as a bouncer because the brother wasn't paying Joe. He confronts the brother about that and is then unable to ask about the loan.

Meanwhile, famed actor Chet Frank (Tim Allen) comes into the bar and gets into a fight. Mike rescues him which leads to an invitation to dinner.

The invitation includes an expensive watch. Mike, feeling indebted to Joe over the pay issue, takes a black belt to reward Joe, and gives him the watch, telling him to hawk it.

At dinner, both Terrys make a splash. She talks to the women about design, Mike to the men about martial arts. Just before they leave Chet asks Mike to join him on set the next day and the women make a deal to import Sondra's fabrics. Then Sandra has Mike show them his training gimmick with the 3 marbles.

The next day Mike becomes co-producer of the movie. When he gets home he is told by Joe that the watch was "hot" so Joe has been suspended. He calls Marty Brown (Ricky Jay), Chet's rep, to get it fixed. He gets left high and dry in the restaurant.

Meanwhile, he has begun teaching Laura. She offers her lawyer service when they see his marble routine was stolen by the IFA. In the confrontation it becomes obvious there is a huge conspiracy aimed at A) getting Mike to fight in competition, a move he has always rejected, and B) to make mass amounts of money for their organization, the IFA.

When Mike and Laura are winning, suddenly new evidence is produced; from somewhere the promoters got a hold of the spent chamber from the bullet Laura fired and they show other evidence, then blackmail them that if he does not fight. The threat is they will all go to prison; she for attempted murder, Mike and Jo for covering up the crime.

They say they will see them in court. When he gets to the dojo Snowflake sends him to Joes house. Arriving there he finds that Joe has shot himself in shame.

To be honest...I thought this was going to be the "plot twist". Everything to here was pointing to 2 things; 1) Joe had shown a couple character flaws, so he might have been setting Mike up and 2) money troubles had Sondra pushing him to fight. Her walk past Joe had earlier distracted him. So there was a build-up to maybe them having an affair and setting Mike up to fight. Now it seemed maybe it would turn out he had been murdered. Nope...that was the last mention of Joe in the movie. Kind of like the way Chet Frank disappeared. Was he part of the mass conspiracy or not? Irrelevant...he was a "Hand of God" character to move Mike to where they needed Mike to be.

When he gets home from Joe's, Mike finds out Sondra borrowed 30K from a loan shark to purchase fabrics and now can't get a hold of the women who had surrounded Chet at the dinner.

Desperate for money Mike finally agrees to fight on the under card of the big fight between Taketa Morisaki (Enson Inoue) and Jean Jaques Machado (himself). There he sees the professor, the only living Red Belt, who apparently had taught him. He then learns all the fights are fixed to ensure the "proper" fighter is handicapped in the fights, he being chosen to run the table. He quits the tournament. Then he finds out it was Sondra who set him up with the blackmail stuff, gave away his marble gimmick, and more.

When he finds that Machado is going to throw the fight to set up a money-making rematch he threatens to go to the ring and reveal all to everyone. He fights through the security guards. Then he fights Machado...and it gets picked up by the cameras so EVERYONE sees the fight.

He wins against Machado in the street fight. Morisaki honors him by giving him the belt that was to be the prize in the main event. Mike makes his way into the ring, calls for the microphone. He looks up to see the Professor bowing and giving him the red belt that he himself had received a few minutes previously.

And then the credits roll.


The credits roll.

Now, right or wrong I like my movies to have resolution. I consider myself a talented author and, when I want to write my own ending, I write my own story. I don't mind the occasional question in movies...will Tony Stark and Pepper Potts get it on, for example...will Los Angeles ever achieve racial harmony (Crash), and will Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) hook up with Nicky Parsons ( Julia Stiles)...but I don't want there to be NOTHING but questions.

Does Mike tell the crowd the truth? Do the guys who set up he and Joe get punished? What was Chet's role? And many, many more. Instead we don't know where he stands financially, we suspect he is getting with Laura and divorcing Sondra...does she REALLY owe the money?, we don't know what he is going to say to the crowd...

In other words, the movie mires itself in ambiguity.

There are people out there who praise this sort of movie as if it is greatness and stuff like Iron Man (2008) sucks because many people enjoy the latter, few the former. It is some sort of badge of honor for small numbers of people to like things, as if the fewer people who like it, the better it is.


Redbelt was on the verge of being a great, great movie. They just ended it 20 minutes before it finished. They started a bunch of story threads and left them laying around. Was it bad writing? Bad editing? I don't know.

Oddly, I still recommend seeing this movie. It is a bit dreary in colors and mood yet is also an interesting indictment of the MMA routine. Repeatedly they intimate...and once explicitly state...that any time 2 men are fighting for money in a ring it is a fixed fight. The presence of Randy "The Natural" Couture, the Gresham Oregon based MMA fighter as an announcer lends a certain credibility to that approach, even though he is distinctly an actor in the flick.

It is also all about teaching "There is always a way out" and using the opponent's force against him...something Mike Terry teaches but struggles to actually DO...

I am very conflicted over this movie. I wanted to love it. I enjoyed myself during it...right up until the credits rolled. But the story wasn't over...only the movie was.

That is NOT what I want in my movies. So it certainly knocked it down a peg. It gets my first ever multiple rating.

Monday, May 12, 2008

What Happens in Vegas

Sometimes you see a preview and know the flick is going to be a train wreck but, for whatever reason, decide to see it anyway. For example, what if you saw a preview that screamed, "Predictable, formulaic plot where the ending is a foregone conclusion and you know most of the road map; very few laughs to be expected", would you go see that movie?

I would.

And do. With regularity. For example, I will go on record here and now that Speed Racer (2008) is an insipid bit of banality unfit for human consumption. I plan to see it either Tuesday or Saturday.

Anyhow, Friday after work...extended hours, no less...the Goose and I were pondering our evening. Sadly, the following is a pretty typical conversation for us. Only the names of the movies have been changed because those are what were available.

"Okay, which one?"
"What's playing?"
"Well, we have seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Forbidden Kingdom, Baby Mama, and Iron Man. That leaves Made of Honor..."
"No interest."
"Good, me either. Redbelt, which I want to see but is not playing any time soon, Speed Racer which is going to be terrible..."
"Yeah, I know you want to see that one but I just can't do it."
"...and What Happens in Vegas".
"Which one is that?"
"You know...get dumped/fired, go to Vegas, get drunk, get married, have problems, get divorced, realize they were in love and get together."
"Oh, yeah, let's see that."

So off we went to the landmark 11th different theatre I have seen a new release in this year, and 25th movie...ouch. Someone has a serious addiction...

There we meet slacker/non-worker Jack Fuller (Ashton Kutcher) getting fired for laziness and incompetence by his Dad Jack Fuller Sr. (Treat Williams) while uptight over planner Joy McNally (Cameron Diaz) is getting dumped by Mason (Jason Sudeikis). So Vegas hater Joy, her best friend Tipper (Lake Bell) in one half, Jack and his best friend/lawyer Hater (Rob Corddry) in the other half, elect to go to Vagas where a computer snafu puts them in the same room. Soon, drunk, Joy & Jack find common ground, a ton of alcohol, and an all-night chapel where they get married.

Next morning the first amiably agree to get an annulment, then the split becomes heated as each tries to get in aa sharper barb. As they split Jack drops Joy's quarter in the slot, wins 3 million...and the war is on.

Their divorce request is in front of Judge Whopper (Dennis Miller), a marriage loving guy who sentences them to "6 months hard marriage" and orders them to try. To ensure genuine effort they have court-ordered meetings with psychiatrist Dr. Twitchell (Queen Latifah).

Of course, if either can appear to be making a good-faith effort to make the marriage work while the other is not, they get the whole 3 million.

So they try everything...stripper parties to get the other to cheat, lying about when the psychiatrist appointments are...basically, everything except trying to get along.

And in Hollywood, where arguing and fighting = love...that has the expected results, though of course immediately before realizing they are in love they have to have the "final split".

On leaving the movie I asked the Goose, "Were there any plot "twists" we missed before we went in?"

So yeah, it was predictable.

But it was also pretty funny. Sure, they gave you the whole story and a number of the better jokes in the was still amusing. And there were some stellar lines.

And there was more to it. This movie actually showed some warmth along the way...Joy doesn't just pull, "I like being with a butt head" out of nowhere. She sees some things along the nothing Jack does is ever good enough for his Dad which, in movie terms, is saying it isn't his fault he doesn't finish things. How good he is with kids. And she starts liking him.

For his part, Jack does not so much see her specialness, he just sees what a bonehead he has been. Well, partially incorrect. With her encouragement, he starts...and finishes...building a piece of furniture. He has a moment set up for a crushing of her and instead turns it into a sweet "first dance". He becomes...likable. Responsible. Caring.

I think the role he played as Kelso on That 70s Show almost stereotyped him. And he has sort of fallen into it. He played the same role in Just Married (2003) opposite the always looking stoned Brittany Murphy, the same role in Guess Who (2005) and now in What Happens in Vegas (2008). But he is good at it.

And I am going to say something here that will have "serious" critics rolling over in their snoots.

He is good at it because he brings something extra to it. He creates roles that, on the surface, seem identical but he differentiates them, he brings warmth to some...I have seen the other 2 romcoms mentioned above and seen him in the unspeakably bad Dude, Where's My Car and there is growth. He is more complete in this role even though the movie plot is nearly as insipid as that of Dude. Somehow, he gets you to care about a chowderhead and make it believable. He does not draw attention to the changes his character goes through yet when you see the results and look back, you sort of nod your head and say "I see where that came from".

With say...a Jim Carrey in the role, these character changes would have been in a shouting, overacted histrionic way. With Kuther they actually seem natural and real. His acting...and the able work by Diaz as well...turn a stupid, formulaic bit of fluff into an enjoyable bit of diversion. Not something I thought I would ever say about "Kelso".

Monday, May 5, 2008

Iron Man

Well, here I am 24 movies into the year and along comes one of my most anticipated...Iron Man (2008). It has been an interesting year. There have been 6 complete dreck "Weasel is Hungry" flicks which weigh nicely against the 6 "Weasel is Full" flicks (which, a bit of simple arithmetic tells us, means there are 12 "The Weasel is Satisfied". Probably my favorite so far this year was The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) by which admission I just invalidated this entire blog...then again, I also have a rom-com in my top 6 so far, the Katherine Heigl vehicle 27 Dresses (2008) which if I were to go back in time I would probably down-grade a bit to Weasel is Satisfied...along with several other favorites. They just don't hold up well in the memory bank.

Welcome to my new favorite, Iron Man. I had low expectations going in. The pre-views did not grab me...they actually kind of annoyed me. But hey...I wanted to see a superhero flick so off I went with the brother, his wife and kids, my wife, and Kevin.

Early on I was nervous. The opening was...well, first off, you have seen all you need to see of the first 10 minutes in the theatres. and the way Morton Downey Jr. was playing Tony Stark was...well...boring. He was SO dry it was boring, not charming.

But as they went into the flashback he became more likable and fun. It started to fit and make sense.

Now, some people heavily criticize the flashback use as "writing for people who don't know how to write." However, in this case it was brilliant because it allows the action movie to start out know...action. Otherwise there would have been 15 minutes of character establishment before you got the first action. It was brilliantly done.

So then we get into the movie proper. Short form; builds suit, escapes bad guys with it, is rescued, goes home, decides should not sell weapons any more, builds better suit in his high tech garage, learns how to use it, wipes out Afghan terrorists with it, fights air force, wins, bad guy builds bigger, stronger, better suit, Tony outsmarts him, bad guy dies.

First, the bad; plot holes galore and not enough Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
1) why would the bad guys not have a guard INSIDE the chamber?
2) why does the Air Force attack someone who HELPED them?
3) the business with his heart magnet...
4) It was pretty obvious early on who the "secret" villain was.
this is just a small sampling of the most egregious examples. There were more.
Have you seen Gwyneth Paltrow in heels, tight dress, and made up? More Pepper is not a bad idea...

Second, the good.
Everything else.

And finally, the great:
The War Machine reference.
The interplay with Jarvis the machine...especially the fire extinguisher.
The battles.

Admittedly, the final battle with Obadiah Stane, the Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges) is a bit short...but they did such a good job of setting it up that it is hard to complain. It has everything the American movie-goer looks for; an outgunned underdog hero overcoming the odds to outsmart and defeat a physically superior opponent. The suit integrity issues are awesome.

And ultimately, this movie delivers one thing first and foremost; fun. Lots of fun.

Is it believable or realistic? Not even close. But should you care? Smurf no, this is the world superheroes show up in. And it rules. From beginning to end. This one is an opening DVD release day purchase. And probably worth seeing a second time in the theatre whether you know the Iron Man mythology or not.