Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Senior Skip Day Review

Perhaps it's from 2500 words on Indiana Jones wearing me down but I just don't have much of anything to say about this one. Very easily this could have been an American Pie direct-to-DVD sequel in plot and sense of humor (which isn't praise really, just an observation). Gary Lundy, who looks like Ryan Reynolds crossed with someone who plays Dungeons and Dragons for six hours a day, seems to be trying to channel Van Wilder-style humor, and gets the occasional laugh. Whiny Tara Reid appears in a glorified cameo, unsurprisingly she's still a bad actress. Anyone else think she regrets complaining about returning to the American Pie sequel now? Lea Thompson is also present though she doesn't do much other than remind me how cute she was in Back to the Future. The rest of the supporting players are pretty terrible. The flick also, distractingly, constantly breaks the fourth wall, each time to the effect of killing whatever minimal immersion it had achieved. I guess it's not the worst teen-sex comedy I've ever seen, but I can't really recommend it at all.

Overall Score: 3/10

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Review

Note: I should mention up front that at times in this review I'm going to go into detail that will certainly ruin the surprises the film as to offer. The first section of the review will be basically spoiler free.

Appropriate Reading Music for Your Enjoyment

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

While rewatching the prior Indiana Jones films in the days leading up to the release of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it dawned on me that I fell in love with the movies watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Released when I was four years old, Last Crusade is probably my earliest theater going memory. It's funny for me to watch it today and remember my feelings from when I was actually in the theater - the Princeton Garden Theater on Nassau Street in Princeton, NJ - so many years ago. I remember Indy cracking open the library floor timed perfectly with the librarian's book stamping, the flood of the rats running from the grail knights' fire, "I love Venice" and, most of all, when, in the film's climax, Indy is seemingly thrown over the edge of a cliff on a Nazi tank. In fact I'm pretty sure the elderly couple seated behind me remembers too as I'm quite certain they'd have happily seen me drawn and quartered for my histrionic outburst. There's a magic in this series that is far greater than each film's objective quality.

Is there a more emblematic visage than Dr. Jones in a fedora? A more loved, or fitting, film theme than John Williams' rousing Raiders March? A more perfect casting that Harrison Ford as Indiana? Hell even the lettering of the logo has become symbolic. It goes without saying that nineteen years is one hell of a long layoff for a film franchise. Actors age, tastes evolve and moments so effective decades ago come off poorly now (melting faces in Raiders I'm talking to you). I was somewhat bolstered by the relative creative success of resurrections Rocky Balboa (a 16 year layoff for the series) and Live Free or Die Hard (12 years away). Still neither Rocky nor John McClane hold a place in my heart quite like Henry Jones Jr. and a hell of a lot can go wrong with nineteen years off (not to mention numerous ill internet rumors that cropped up over the years of production). So it was with a mix of glee and trepidation (though certainly more glee) that I approached Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I am overjoyed to be able to say I genuinely enjoyed the movie. Is it perfect? No. Is a worthy addition to the Indiana Jones canon? Absolutely.

Spielberg's first great decision here is that the first real shot of Indy isn't of Ford but rather of the emblematic silhouette of the jacket and fedora. I know I wasn’t alone in the audience when I felt a stirring in my chest at the image. And from there we’re off on another true Indy adventure. Harrison Ford effortlessly steps back into the role of Indiana Jones. The character has been allowed to age and just enough ‘old man’ humor is injected that it really doesn’t feel all that ridiculous for Dr. Jones to take up the whip again. The interplay between Karen Allen and Ford has every bit the life it did in 1981 and hers is a welcome return to the series. The film’s new setting, 1957, works far better than I would have expected. Shia LaBeouf is quite good and comes off convincingly as a 50s greaser and Cate Blanchett is very solid as the heavy. My biggest criticism is the use of digital effects, but they’re prevalence is nowhere near enough to hinder my enjoyment of the whole affair. All of this will be addressed more thoroughly below, but I definitely recommend taking another adventure with Indiana Jones.

*Massive Spoilers Below*

Now I’d like to get into a bit of analysis on what I think really hits and misses in Crystal Skull. Perhaps it would be wise to get the things I didn’t like out of the way first.

My first, and biggest, issue with the film is the ending segment. Not only is the film’s climax somewhat nonsensical but it’s horribly made. Though I wasn’t too keen on the idea of aliens in an Indiana Jones movie, when you think about it they really aren’t all that ridiculous compared to a 700 year old grail knight, the wrath of God melting the Nazis and Mola Rom tearing people’s hearts out, so I’m willing to give them a pass on the general concept. However, the film’s final scene is horribly made, not only is it confusing and preposterous but the visual effects are horrific (not to mention the fact that the whole scene feels rather derivate of the conclusion to the putrid Predator 2). The actual alien – who, strangely, seems to be the result of the thirteen crystal skeletons melding together? – is one of the worst CGI creations I’ve ever seen. I sort of felt like crying during the last scene, it felt as though all my enjoyment of the prior hundred minutes or so was being ripped away like so much scenery. Thank God for the final wedding scene and the Junior scene on the ruins afterwards which reminded what a good time I had been having. I’m appalled that the director of two of the greatest extra terrestrial movies ever, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the creator of the most beloved science fiction series ever, Star Wars, were incapable of creating a competent alien scene.

This, of course, leads into my other biggest problem with the film: the prevalence of far too much CGI. There are numerous moments where the CGI detracts from the overall experience: chiefly among them Mutt swinging through the trees (a concept misbegotten in every way), the treble waterfalls, the ants, Mutt’s balancing act between the two jeeps, and anything to do with the aliens. What didn’t help the effects either was Janusz Kaminski’s overly washed out coloration and lighting of the film. I’m also somewhat disturbed by how derivative of The Mummy’s scarab beetles Indy’s killer ants feel. Much in the way that Star Wars: A New Hope looks more ‘real’ today than it’s twenty-two year younger successor, The Phantom Menace, I worry that Last Crusade’s action may actually hold up better than Crystal Skull’s into the future. For as much progress as CGI has made, it’s still nowhere near the point where I’m ever entirely unaware I’m watching it.

My last complaint is that the film’s last act seems a bit overstuffed with characters with Indy, Mutt, Marion, Oxley and Mac all in the adventuring party. With so many actors and only two hours to tell a story it feels like some of the characters are rather underdeveloped (Ray Winstone’s Mac) or unnecessary (John Hurt’s Oxley). Also I’m, at least on only one viewing, somewhat disappointed by John Williams’ score. As one of my favorite composers I expect great things, especially considering his spectacular recent work in the Star Wars prequel trilogy – Duel of the Fates from Phantom Menace, the gorgeous Across the Stars from Attack of the Clones and the exciting Battle of the Heroes from Revenge of the Sith all stand out as spectacular new additions to the series’ musical library. Nothing in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so far stands out like that.

Ok, no more negativity, I want to talk about the many things that worked in this. For me the most satisfying moment of the entire film came from Indiana Jones facial expression when he first lays eyes on Marion Ravenwood again. It’s such an impressive display of genuine emotion and glee that it felt like everyone in the theater experience it. Having suffered through a traitorous Nazi and ::shudder:: Kate Capshaw since we last saw Marion, her presence is magical. Ford and Allen pick up their great repartee from their first moment on screen and the chemistry between the two remains twenty seven years later. It’s nice that the still pretty Allen, now 56, has aged normally. I shudder to think of Marion Ravenwood losing her great smile to the devastating effect of facelifts on her ability to properly emote (ala Meg Ryan). The film’s wedding ending was tremendously satisfying as well, Indy was always meant to be with Marion.

As far as I’m concerned Harrison Ford is as great an action star as will ever walk the planet. His resume speaks for itself in regard to action. He brings a great swagger to his roles and always looks believably tough, as a spy, an adventurer or even a gritty president. Also important is his physical ability in these roles, I’ve seen it said before that no actor takes a punch better than Harrison Ford and I certainly think that’s the case, even at the age of 65. Indiana Jones is one of the iconic characters in film history thanks to Ford.

Cate Blanchett plays a pretty great villain here. I was terrified of Blanchett playing a somewhat ridiculous character with an accent here after her putrid work in Soderbergh’s God-awful The Good German, but I’m glad I was wrong. Her Irina Spalko would not feel out of place in a Bond movie and I don’t think that’s a bad thing for an Indiana Jones in the 50s. It’s a fun role and Blanchett makes the best of it. Her predictable demise is made silly by the construction of the film’s final scene but it doesn’t take away from what a solid job she’s done.

I feel that Shia LaBeouf is getting a bad rep lately and I’m not sure why. He was the target of rampant internet criticism for his role in Crystal Skull – before anyone had seen even a single minute of the film, mind you – as Indy’s Jar Jar Binks (et al similar criticism). People, guys at least, just don’t seem to like him very much. Perhaps it’s because he is something of a dorky everyman looking type who is playing very cool characters or, perhaps, it’s because people choose to prejudge his talent by his Even Stevens and I, Robot performances. All I can say is that Spielberg believes in him and so do I. I liked his work in mediocre films Bobby, Constantine and The Greatest Game Ever Played. Disturbia was impressive work as he was tasked to single-handedly carry a pretty silly concept, which he did to such an effective level that it made the movie not only a surprise hit, but also a success with critics. I really enjoyed Transformers and I thought LaBeouf’s tremendous comedic timing really helped make the movie click. Here LaBeouf plays a really solid action hero in training. His great comedic timing is on display again – “what’re you 80?” – and he did nice work with the action scenes. His sword fight with Spalko between two moving jeeps is one of the best parts of the movie. LaBeouf really looks the part as well, from his hairdo down to his facial features he makes for a great greaser. Having put on 15-20 pounds of muscle for the role, LaBeouf seems tougher and manlier than in earlier roles which helps sell him as Indy’s son. The current buzz is that the Indiana Jones series may continue with Ford gradually giving way to LaBeouf over the next movie or two (so gradually, be it in one movie or more, Ford will move more into the role occupied by Sean Connery in Last Crusade and cede the primary role to LaBeouf). Alas Mutt Williams or Mutt Jones doesn’t have quite the same feel as Indiana Jones…

Something else the film did exceptionally well is capture the 1950s. The meticulous makeover of New Haven, Connecticut into the 1950s (Yale was the filming locating for Indy’s fictional Marshall College) is absolutely superb. During the motorcycle escape scene, one of the film’s simplest yet most exciting action sequences, I found myself looking around the background and I came away consistently impressed by how well the film fits the image of the 50s. Though the scene was somewhat silly, I got a kick out of Indy surviving the nuclear test as well. What’s especially scary is that it isn’t all that ridiculous for Indy to be that close to a detonation (might I recommend tracking down the superb 1982 documentary The Atomic Café for terrifying vintage footage of American troops on training missions beneath mushroom clouds). Even the casting fit well for the 50s, Neil Flynn, Janitor on Scrubs, in horn-rimmed glasses is perfectly cast as a McCarthy era fear monger. The quick and funny jocks versus greasers fight in the town café was a small touch of genius as well.

I could keep going ad nauseum about things I liked in the film so I’ll go with a quick list of moments that stood out to me (aside from the ones mentioned already).
- I loved the idea that Indy was an OSS agent during World War II; it fits perfectly with the character.
- The fact that LaBeouf’s character is named Mutt, a great play on the Indiana was the dog’s name joke from Last Crusade.
- The small tributes to Marcus Brody (the actor who played him, Denholm Elliot, has passed away) and Henry Jones Sr. (Connery is retired).
- “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!” prior to the aliens appearing was the perfect way to throw in a small Star Wars joke.
- The great moment at the end of the wedding when LaBeouf is about to put on the fedora only to have Indy snag it on the way out.

I’m grateful to have Indiana Jones back in my life. My love of film is, in large part, inspired by the series. If they make more, so be it, but I’m glad to have Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my favorite moment in the whole movie – I nearly cried I was laughing so hard – was when Indy is forced to use the snake as a rope to escape from the sand pit. What a great character. Time again with Indy and Marion was worth the wait.

Overall Score: 8/10

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Teaser

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Trailer

Raiders of the Lost Ark Trailer

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Trailer

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Trailer

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mad Money Review

I'm usually a sucker for a heist movie, both the good (Catch Me If Your Can) and not so good (After the Sunset), but Mad Money tried even my tolerance. It's a by-the-numbers affair with mediocre performances and poor production values. Foolish is the filmmaker' s decision to open the film with the various players already in police custody. Not only does the film lose that wonderful sense of 'can they really get away with it?!?' you hope for in a heist flick but it just makes everything so damn joyless - which is especially problematic in a heist film meant to be humorous.

Diane Keaton comes off as neither disinterested in the material not particularly invested in it. Her character is foolhardy, frustrating and basically unlikeable. I'm not so sure that anyone could have done anything with this role to save it. Queen Latifah, though she has a few moments that merit interest - when she lectures her children about not growing up to be criminals for instance - but on the whole is just playing herself. Much my to my shock the cyborg that has replaced Katie Holmes actually gives the best performance. Playing a free-spirited, though not particularly aloof, heist member, Holmes actually breathes life into her scenes. Her sense of comedic timing is spot on and helps make the whole ordeal somewhat tolerable. The supporting players are awful, with the exception of Roger Cross (Curtis Manning on 24) who at least seems to try. Ted Danson's performance as Keaton's recently jobless husband is embarrassing, especially considering his strong recent work on F/X's Damages.

Though it seems to be positioning itself as some sort of female empowerment film, Mad Money fails horribly in that regard. The film's moral seems to be that by acting amorally, but sticking it to the men, opens the route to a woman's success and independence. Now I'm not a woman, but that fails to really seem like the message you want to deliver. I can't really recommend this to anyone, not to heist fans, not to fans of the actors involved and certainly not to the average filmgoer.

Overall Score: 3/10

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian Review

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one of my least favorite movies of 2005. I felt trapped in the theater for the film's overlong 143 running time. From the CGI animals to the stilted child actors the first Narnia film just didn't work for me at all. Having learned the three most enjoyable elements of Wardrobe were either absent (James McAvoy as Tumnus, the children's guide) or greatly reduced (Liam Neeson's voicework as Christly lion Aslan and, most importantly, Tilda Swinton's delightfully evil White Witch), I approached Prince Caspian with a masochistic sense of duty.

Much to my surprise I actually enjoyed Prince Caspian a lot more than its predecessor, perhaps because of the darker themes. Gone are the 'good' Narnians (fauns, CGI animals) fighting 'bad' Narnians (minotaurs, etc) and in their place are an evil bunch of humans who have all but committed genocide on Narnians. The plot here, set centuries, in Narnian years, after Wardrobe, is much more mature, dealing with the political intrigues of the ruling empire. Affairs are set in motion by the attempts of the evil King Miraz to replace rightful heir, Prince Caspian, with his own son. While I found this plot somewhat more compelling, it was far from special. Eragon cribbed the Lord of the Rings just as effectively as Caspian.

One of the areas that helped Prince Caspian, for me at least, was in the slight de-emphasis on CGI characters. While plenty are still present they don't hold as frequently important roles here as in Wardrobe. While CGI has come a long way, it is still very rare that it goes unnoticed (which is the ultimate goal). Many directors would be wise to look at the Star Wars series for inspiration in this regard: A New Hope, made in 1977 with intricate costumes and scale models, holds up better today than The Phantom Menace, which was made full of the latest CGI trickery less than a decade ago in 1999.

The battle scenes here, important to any epic, are a mixed bag. The film's climactic battle scene, feeling like it lasts forty or fifty minutes, is extrapolated from a mere three pages of Lewis' source material. Perhaps, Andrew Adamson missed what Lewis was goig for? The scene is mercilessly drawn out. Two action scenes come off more memorably. First is a one-on-one duel between eldest Pevensie, Peter, and the leader of the evil empire. William Moseley (Peter) acquits himself well as a swordsman but the scene is marred by problems in production and editing. Most effective of all action scenes is the attempted to infiltration of the evil empire's castle. The scene is not only visceral and exciting, but leaves the viewer with genuine emotion in its immediate aftermath. It is far more effective than the film's climax.

As in the first film the child actors fail to make much of an impression. Most effective of the bunch is Georgie Henley as the Pevensie sibling, Lucy, though I remain uncertain if her work is particularly better than her fellow child actors or if her character is just more appealing. Peter Dinklage makes the best impression of the supporting players here. Playing somewhat against type, Dinklage (Death at a Funeral, Find Me Guilty), as dwarf Trumpkin, delivers a wonderfully gruff performance. His delivery works both as a stone-faced comedic reprieve - more effectively even that Jackson's occasional comedic use of Gimli in Lord of the Rings - and as the soulful heart of the movie. If any impression is made from the acting here, it is certainly from Dinklage. Heavily hyped Ben Barnes is nothing special at all. Looking something like a long-haired Timothy Olyphant, Barnes lacks the gravitas to play this sort of character effectively. In much the same way criticism is pointed at Orlando Bloom in the Pirates series for not 'feeling' manly enough for the part, Barnes lacks that special something necessary to be an action hero. Why Brit actor Ben Barnes dons a foolish Spanish accent - he sounds like he's doing a ridiculous Antonio Banderas impersonation - is beyond me, none of his fellow evil empire-types speak with as ludicrous an accent. The quasi-relationship between Caspian and eldest Pevensie girl Susan also feels terribly misguided. In addition to the obvious age gap (Barnes is seven years Anna Popplewell's senior), Caspian's character seems like a 'man' while Susan is still a 'girl,' which make the flirting scenes somewhat uncomfortable to watch.

Like in Wardrobe, I struggled with the overt proselytizing of Prince Caspian. Why is it necessary to have Aslan ramble ceaselessly for the film's final fifteen mintues about courage, faith, self sacrifice and resisting tempation? Is the average filmgoer so inane that these worthy messages can't be gleamed from the film itself? Perhaps the film's most effective scene is when Peter is tempted to turn to the evil White Witch for help after a set back, does this scene not deliver the message of resisting the easy road? Does not Lucy's doe-eyed faith in Aslan, despite his long absense and the misgivings of her friends and family, effectively deliver the message of not doubting your beliefs? The last fifteen minutes of the film were so unbearable as to mar the entire experience for me.

Strangely, I actually hold hope for the next Narnia film (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Much like the Harry Potter series moving from a lesser director to a far superior one may help the series to grow. The first two Potter films were directed by Christpher Columbus and while they were adequate adaptations they were far from special, it took a far superior director in Alfonso Cuaron taking over to bring the series to its current heights (not to mention crafting one of the best fantasy movies of the decade). Perhaps Michael Apted (Amazing Grace) replacing Andrew Adamson (who prior to Narnia had only co-directed the first two Shrek films) will be the boost the Narnia series needs.

Overall Score: 5/10

Prince Caspian Trailer

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What Happens in Vegas... Review

Yikes, I feel guilty to admit this but I really kind of enjoyed this movie. The film is far stronger in the early going as it embraces a really enjoyable mean streak that makes the otherwise mundane material more than tolerable. It's also marred by a sophomoric - actually, what's below sophomoric? freshmonic? - script and poor production values, but is saved by some really nice energy and some laughs. At the very least the film's concept is somewhat different (though just as contrived) as other recent romantic comedies which make the early acts feel a bit fresher.

Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher have really great chemistry here, which helps make everything click. Their performances are far from taxing or award worthy but are certainly amusing enough. The biggest laughs here actually come from the co-stars: Lake Bell and Rob Corddry. Corddry, who I've never found funny before, gets a lot of the best lines as Kutcher's inept lawyer buddy. Bell, who was tolerable in the awful Over Her Dead Body, plays a delightfully nasty character and leaves the best impression of all the players. The smaller players, among them Dennis Miller, Queen Latifah and Dennis Farina, all deliver occasional laughs, but none does anything of note with the material.

The film's biggest problem is in the final act where it abandons the battle of the sexes mentality to disastrous results. Vegas falls directly into the cliche plotlines of every other recent American romantic comedy; oh no they're split up for some misunderstood and foolish reason? I wonder if the offending party will ever be redeemed by some melodramatic gesture... I found myself desperately wishing that the film would end pleasantly fifteen minutes earlier if only to avoid the inevitable cliched climax. The film is also rife with brutal product placement - why must every character conspicuously hold every logo on every product directly in view of the camera - and is, on the whole, poorly made in every aspect from editing to lighting to camera placement. Despite these many deep flaws I enjoyed What Happens in Vegas for the guilty pleasure it is.

Overall Score: 6/10

What Happens in Vegas... Trailer

Redbelt Review

There's something very detached and methodical about Redbelt that somehow manages to feel very long despite a running time of less than an hour and forty minutes. David Mamet, director of the superb Spartan with Val Kilmer, here directs a story of jiu jitsu gym leader whose principles are tested by all the corruption around him, elements of a legal thriller and a revenge flick are in play as well. In some ways the film's biggest problem is that the entire story is the effective of one event, an accidental discharge of a gun breaking a window in Ejiofor's gym, that is so poorly constructed and actualized that the whole project loses credibility.

Unsurprisingly the film's strongest aspect is the lead performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor. Throughout his career Ejiofor has consistently been a bright spot in films of a variety of styles and genres, despite frequently holding undersized roles. Children of Men, Serenity, American Gangster, Talk to Me, Inside Man and even shlock like Four Brothers have shown his skill. Here, present in nearly every scene, Ejiofor is superb. His character, who so easily could have become Mr. Miyagi, is believably pricipled and highly compelling. The rest of the film's acting is solid if unspectacular, of note is Emily Mortimer who is quite good as a lawyer with some issues (unfortunately she is the principle aspect of the aforementioned ill-conceived scene). Much to my shock the best supporting player here may actually be Tim Allen. Playing a privileged movie star, Allen brings a lot of life to his scenes; his verbal reparte with Ejiofor is surprisingly compelling.

The film's action scenes are at times short and brutally effective yet the longer fight scenes, especially the film's climactic battle, are overly drawn out and poorly constructed. Despite the strong lead performance, Redbelt sort of fell flat for me on the whole, however, and I have trouble particularly recommending it.

Overall Score: 5/10

Redbelt Trailer

Monday, May 12, 2008

Speed Racer Review

What the hell were the Wachowski's thinking? The 'masterminds' behind the Matrix fall further into decline with Speed Racer. The film is seemingly, from its immature humor, aimed at boys from the age of maybe 7-12, yet has a strangely dark worldview and really seems to push the PG boundaries (use of the word 'shit', use of middle finger, general violence). The Wachowski's really seem to struggle to balance humor aimed at the kiddies and the more mature plot elements at work; they'd have been better off making up their mind one way or the other and coming out as either a new sort of Spy Kids or going the other way towards the content level of a comic book movie. Further along these lines, who wants to take little kids to a two hour and fifteen minute movie? To say it drags along the way would be a momentous understatement.

The performances in the film are surprisingly strong, however. Emile Hirsch, who bores me generally, does a decent enough job making the lead role work. Christina Ricci, who keeps growing more and more attractive as she ages, breathes life into each of her scenes and seems to really have fun with the material. Matthew Fox is fine, but, in fairness, doesn't really have much to do while hidden behind a campy leather mask, likewise John Goodman is adequate if unremarkable. Susan Sarandon is actually quite good here; after a number of bored commercial performances of late (Enchanted, Rescue Me, Mr. Woodcock) I was surprised to see her do so well with this material. Scott Porter, of Friday Night Lights, makes an impact in his far too small role as the lost older brother Speed grew up idolizing. Again, the material he has to work with is junky, but Porter seems to make the best of it (as he did in the recent Prom Night). I'm telling you, Porter would make a great Superman in the future.

As I've already touched upon the film's length is highly problematic, running about forty-five minutes too long. The screenplay is garbage. The childish humor, often led by horrible young actor Paulie Litt (Speed's youngest brother, Spridle), garner hardly any laughs at my screening and served mainly to undercut the performances and the drama of the scenes in which they're inserted.

Aside from the surprisingly strong acting the film does have a few other positives. First of all is the film's wonderful sense of design and style. Crafted entirely on green screens and created in computers, the Wachowski's have designed a stupendous world filled with well designed cities and race tracks. I found their use of an almost dizzying array of colors to be an immensely exciting and stylish way to depict this world. Some may rightfully knock it for being garish without purpose, but I really think the extreme use of color helps bring the world to life. The editing and transitions are quite unlike other movies and also fit the style well, most effectively when the camera zooms in to one driver's cockpit then zips out of the first driver's car and into another's without the need for a cut; it's an exciting way to transition in action scenes (though I must say some of their other transitions, like talking head screen-wipes, are far less effective). Finally, as would be expected from the creators of The Matrix, the action scenes are exciting, superbly done and, considering the extreme visual style, are surprisingly easy to follow.

It's not the worst movie I've ever seen, but Speed Racer is deeply flawed. If you have any intention of seeing it I'd recommend catching it theaters and especially on an IMAX screen for the optimal picture quality and immersion.

Overall Score: 4/10

Speed Racer Trailer

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Teeth Review

Being a guy I have to say that this may be the most disturbing concept for a horror movie I've ever seen...the story of a girl with teeth in her...well, you know.

The film is, at its core, about female sexual empowerment told through a strange mish-mash of disturbing horror and absurd comedy. I've included both prevelant Teeth posters to help show just how undecided the film's crew is on what story they're telling. One poster is a comedic, almost lighthearted, take on the story with emphasis on bright easy colors and a humorous "Sex Changes Everything" t-shirt. On the other hand is Teeth's horror inspired poster of star Jess Weixler mostly submerged in a tub accompanied by the film's distrubing yet really amusing tagline "Every Rose Has Its Thorns." I found the horror elements, especially as a guy, to be really deeply disturbing and effective; unfortunately I found the humor generally missed the mark. Feeling not dissimilar from a Grindhouse movie in some places, I think the film's comedic elements sort of undercut lead Jess Weixler's superb performance.

Jess Weixler is a revelation here adeptly balancing a meh screenplay, the horror-comedy dilemma and a believable portrayal of a young woman struggling with her growing sexuality. Weixler's character, not so subtlely named Dawn, is a leader of a school 'chastity club' respected by some peers and ridiculed by many others. Weixler's ease at making her potential (and, to her at least, disturbing) feelings for another classmate a believable emotional battle, generally without needing words to convey a vast array of emotions. Her performance is easily the most effective element of teeth.

The supporting players range in skill from tolerable to awful. Some of the actors, as an aside, are undercut in their performances by Lichtenstein's comedic elements. The most problematic performance is John Hensley (generally a decent enough, if relatively unlikeable, actor in the consistently disturbing F/X drama Nip/Tuck) as Dawn's step-brother. His character is so absurdly asinine and intolerable that his scenes consistently drag the film down.

It's an interesting movie, worth seeing once for Weixler's performance and for some actual creative horror (a rarity in the genre); just don't expect greatness. This is Mitchell Lichtenstein's first directorial effort and I certainly look forward to seeing what he can accomplish in the future.

Overall Score: 5/10

Teeth Review

Monday, May 5, 2008

Upcoming Marvel Film Slate Casting Ideas

Today Marvel officially announced the pending release of a few films: Iron Man 2 and Thor in 2010, Captain America (also titled The First Avenger...presumably for foreign markets) and The Avengers for 2011 and Ant Man for an undisclosed date somewhere in that range. So I found myself wondering who I'd like to see in each of these roles.

Iron Man 2 will, I imagine, add in Jim Rhodes's role as War Machine (as was hinted in the first movie). I would imagine the villain will be Mandarin, Iron Man's arch-nemesis. Obviously for the film version Mandarin can't be at his most ridiculous so I think we need to modernize the character a bit, perhaps as an evil Asian business man funding terrorism. Iron Man has also, hopefully, taught us that having a 'name' actor isn't what's important; a strong story and performance is.
My choice for Mandarin: Daniel Dae Kim of Lost and 24.

Thor is a tougher role to fill. Our hero needs to be gruff, well built and capable of delivering some fairly ridiculous lines without embarassing himself. Kevin McKidd from HBO's Rome seems perfectly suited for the role. I don't think he can act enough for the role but the WWF's Triple H (also from Blade Trinity) really looks the part.

Captain America is also a difficult role to fill. Our character needs to be both believable dorky (for the artist origin) and heroically principled. I think actor Brad Beyer from Jericho would be a great fit. I think he has a nice Americana look to him, necessary for Captain America, with the build to play a superhero. I wonder, of course, if Marvel would be willing to go with such an unknown for a character who will, more or less, have to carry two movies. Plotwise I'd LOVE to see Captain America set in the 40s with Cap facing off against Nazis and Red Skull. Ideally this movie would end with Cap somehow being frozen in an ice drift and the Avengers movie would begin with Nick Fury et al finding and thawing him out, thus allowing him to keep the innocent idealism that makes the character appealing. I also think it'll be easier for an international audience to accept Captain America the WWII hero over Captain America the current hero. Alternately, perhaps, the modern day discovery could be set part way through the movie allowing Marvel to use Samuel L. Jackson's name (as Nick Fury) to help promote alongside unknown Beyer. I would also cast a relatively well known actor as archnemesis Red Skull, similar to the tactic taken by the original Superman movies: unknown Christopher Reeves paired with Academy Award winner Gene Hackman. Perhaps Bruce Willis would make a good Red Skull (if he can pull off a German accent I'd be happy with that casting). They also need to cut his sidekick Bucky out of it (would Batman Begins have worked so well with Robin thrown in? I think not) and come up with some sort of satisfactory explanation for the Super Soldier Serum (what makes Steve Rogers into Cap) as something that's basically a steroid might not be the best idea for the root of Captain America in today's society. Other ideas of note: Paul Walker (I know he isn't much of an actor but Captain America isn't exactly Cicero, probably my preferred casting of a 'star' for the role), Jensen Ackles from Supernatural (maybe a bit too 'pretty' looking), the guy who is Titan on American Gladiators (probably can't act), Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights (I think he'd make a better Superman), Scott Speedman (not quite right facially) and Tahmoh Penikett from Battlestar Galactice (same issue as Speedman).

The last role to fill for now is Ant Man. Based on the selection of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright and the fact that we're dealing with a character who can shrink to the size of a bug and communicate with insects, Ant Man is almost certain to be an action-comedy (and a comic relief character in the Avengers movie). An obvious selection is, of course, Wright's usual collaborator Simon Pegg. While I think it's an ok selection Pegg will already have the Star Trek reboot franchise on his resume and I think the character needs to be somewhat more serious than what I imagine Pegg brings to the role. I also think it would help the box office if the actor is at least somewhat well known, to that end I suggest Arrested Development's Jason Bateman (also in films of box office note in The Kingdom, Juno and Hancock). Bateman has shown both the ability for serious acting and the comedic chops that will be necessary for the role. I imagine, though it has no date yet set, this coming out sometime around President's or Valentine's Day 2010 or 2011, giving the actor plenty of time to reprise his role in The Avengers. I don't know a whole lot about the character but I imagine it would have to the Hank Pym version (who also becomes a number of other heroes including Giant Man and Yellowjacket based on the science experiments that allowed him to become Ant Man). I'd also be ok with Alan Tudyk of Serenity and Death at a Funeral in the lead role.

This gives us a preliminary Avengers roster of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Brad Beyer), War Machine (Terrence Howard), Ant Man (Jason Bateman), Thor (Kevin McKidd) and Hulk (Edward Norton). Hulk, set out of control, might also make for an ideal villain for an Avengers movie. We'd also likely need at least one female team member so that gives us either She-Hulk (Jennifer Morrison from House?), Black Widow (Isla Fisher?), Ms. Marvel (Kristin Chenoweth from Pushing Daisies?, Malin Ackerman? Diane Kruger?) or, the best choice, Scarlet Witch (Michelle Ryan from Bionic Woman would work nicely) who could be set up in the Captain America movie as options. Other possible Avengers include Dr. Strange (Sean Penn would be perfect), Namor the Submariner (Jamie Bamber? The Rock?), Hawkeye (Casey Affleck? Nathan Fillion?), Black Panther (Chiwetel Ejiofor?), Luke Cage (Tyrese Gibson?) and, unlikely due to commitments to other series and studios, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire or Jim Sturgess).

Friday, May 2, 2008

Iron Man Review

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark
Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes
Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Directed by Jon Favreau

2008 finally has a good event movie, thank God. Check that, it's not just good, it's tremendous. After suffering through the dregs of Vantage Point, 10,000 BC and Jumper, 2008's prior 'big guns', I was begining to lose faith in major action releases. Though I was excited for Iron Man my expectations weren't exactly through the roof, much to my surprise the director of Elf and Zathura has more than delivered.

In a lot of ways Iron Man is, to me, a far more interesting character than some of the comic book usual suspects. He isn't the angst ridden and guilt driven Spider-Man or Batman, he isn't the invincible Superman struggling with identity, heck he doesn't even really have a superpower. Tony Stark, Iron Man's human half, is a billionaire playboy, weapons manufacturer and science genius. At least initially far more concerned with his next drink and his next woman, Stark is a character quite unlike most other superheroes. The film tells his origin story (of course) and modernizes it quite effectively to see Stark inspired to fight the ill effects of his arms dealing by his capture at the hands of terrorists, though not of the fundamentalist variety (in the comics he was captured by communists in Vietnam).

The casting of this lead role is absolutely critical, moreso than in most any other comic book movie, as the actor needs to turn something of a womanizing billionaire into a likeable character for whom we can root. Jon Favreau and Marvel productions could not have conceivably come up with a better Tony Stark than Robert Downey Jr. Downey has a remarkable sense of comedic timing here and a manner of making a sarcastic and sardonic character seem so empathetic. What makes Downey all the more effective is his ability to deliver some truly mediocre lines with an incredible understated potency, when he tells his assisstant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) that she's all he has Downey manages to make it work on a base emotional level that the line, frankly, doesn't deserve.

Favreau made the wise decision to select highly skilled actors, as opposed to popular ones, for the supporting roles. Much to my shock Gwyneth Paltrow delivers easily her best performance this decade in the should've been thankless role as Stark's assisstant and potential girlfriend. Paltrow seems to have really gotten into the role and there is a wonderful crackle of energy and life to her interactions with Downey's Stark that really help propel the movie forward. Terrence Howard plays Jim Rhodes, Stark's best (only?) friend and a military man. Howard brings gravitas to the role and, as a remarkable facial actor, especially in his eyes, makes the best of a smaller part. I look forward to his increased role in the inevitable sequel. Jeff Bridges is cast wonderfully against type as Stark's business partner and the film's eventual villain. It comes as no surprise that Bridges character betrays Stark (one look at the film's poster should tell you that it's coming), but the wonderful lived-in nature of the interactions between the actors still make it emotionally effective

I have to give Jon Favreau immense amounts of credit. While his direction here is adequate but unspectacular, he has made the best possible design decision for this (or for that matter any) action movie: keep the special effects in check. Instead of a constant barrage of CGI, Favreau works with elaborate costumes to whatever extent possible. Obviously effects are a big part of a movie like this but Favreau manages to incorporate them subtlely and effective so the film mercifully lacks many grown inducing special f/x shots. While he doesn't always seem to know where or how to situation the camera I can certainly forgive and forget considering his smart use of CGI and the wonderful performances he's gotten from his cast.

Iron Man isn't perfect. As mentioned before the direction is good but not great. The soundtrack can be somewhat grating, both in the score and the alt-rock song selection. The writing is only mediocre and is large part saved from notice by the great performances. And Iron Man's climactic action scene is only decent, which is disheartening after some inspired earlier action. My last criticism is really praise, at 126 minutes I feel like Iron Man ran too short. When the film ended I was upset to see it finish and was hoping for a bit more resolution. I am already anticipating the sequel.

I have to give Iron Man credit for something else, it manages to subtlely set-up all the necessary elements for the sequel. As comic fans know Jim Rhodes will go on to become Iron Man-esque War Machine and Favreau gives us a little *wink wink* line towards the end of the movie to make sure the audience knows it's coming in the future. The terrorist group who abducts Stark is named Ten Rings which is a link to Iron Man's archnemesis, Mandarin. And, if you stay until the end of the credits you'll get another sequel/spin-off surprise.

As of right now, and obviously these things need some time to sink in, I'm inclined to rank Iron Man as one of the best comic book movies ever made. I put it only behind Batman Begins (for my money the best comic book movie ever made) and Spider-Man 2 and just ahead of Spider-Man, X2: X-Men United and Batman. I struggled with giving Iron Man an 8 or a 9, but in the end does it really matter all that much? Is the movie perfect? Not at all. But it may well be the best time I've had at a movie all year and for that I'm thankful.

Overall Score: 9/10

Teaser Trailer

Full Trailer

Robert Downey Jr. on Letterman

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Outpost Review

If you only see one movie about evil zombie Nazi supersoldiers this year, make sure it's Outpost! While it's far from a masterpiece, Outpost is a pretty enjoyable, if all together asinine, time. Yes this movie is actualy about the ghosts/zombies of Nazi soldiers who come back from the dead to murder those who dare defile their bunker. Surprisingly it's actually pretty exciting thanks to stunningly competent direction and a wonderful understanding of how cramped space can create terror, not disimilar from the effect in The Descent. The film is likewise bolstered by Ray Stevenson, who was tremendous in HBO's Rome, lead turn as the head of the squad of mercenaries forced to fight the undead. The film is hurt by poor supporting characters (and performances), an overbearing score and an altogether silly climax that manages to waste all the built up tension. Far from perfect, Outpost is still enjoyable enough and should certainly be rented before any of the recent Asian horror remakes, like One Missed Call, if you're in the mood for scares.

Overall Score: 5/10

27 Dresses Review

Oh boy! Another cliched by-the-numbers American romantic comedy, just what I was hoping for! Why is it that nearly every recent American romantic comedy forces not only the same plot on us, but the same reliance on a silly quirk to further the plot. Here we have the woman who has been a bridesmaid 27 times but never a bride (just the next in the line of silly quirks used by the genre), I wonder if she'll fall in love, have a fallout with that love and, eventually, end up getting married?!? There's even a silly karaoke-type scene where our leads sing Elton John at a bar that feels ripped straight from - I'm about to lose man-points here - My Best Friend's Wedding. Katherine Heigl is tolerable enough I guess, but consider me the minority as I just don't quite get the appeal with her. She was fine but unspectacular in Knocked Up and is certainly less fine here (though in fairness it's worse material). Edward Burns, who was also terrible in One Missed Call, seems thankful someone paid him to put in this bored performance. Malin Akerman, who came off unredeemingly and painfully annoying in Ben Stiller's The Heartbreak Kid, gives nearly the exact same frustrating performance here. She's pretty but isn't much of an actress based on what little I've seen. This movie gets a 4/10 for two main reasons, Judy Greer and James Marsden. Greer (of Arrested Development, 13 Going on 30 and, recently, The TV Set) does a good job making tolerable the second-banana friend role with some amusing dry delivery and good comedic timing. James Marsden is probably the best part of this one. Seemingly always cast as the cuckold (The Notebook, The X-Men series, Superman Returns, Enchanted) Marsden finally gets the girl, so to speak, and his performance does everything possible with underdeveloped material to assure he'll get a few more chances as a leading man. Despite an absolute lack of chemistry with Heigl, Marsden's wonderful wry delivery and winning performance made this whole movie tolerable. It's not the worst romantic comedy I've ever seen, but it sure feels that way compared to this year's better rom-coms, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Definitely, Maybe.

Overall Score: 4/10