Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Toward the end of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as things are starting to go pretty haywire, Indiana Jones says, "I've got a bad feeling about this." There's a bit of action, then the next line is spoken by the villainess: She want to know more, she wants to know everything.

Spoiler alert: Indy lives, and the villainess meets the same face-imploding fate as most of Indy's nemeses do.

The lesson here, kids, is to pay attention to how you feel, and not ask too many questions. That may be a dubious life lesson, but it's a perfect primer on how to enjoy Indy 4--and, really, any of Steven Spielberg's movies. Indy 4 delivers the chills, thrills, and spills, and if you were looking for anything else, well, you were at the wrong movie.

Right off the bat, Indy 4 tests our suspension of disbelief as a psychic, dominatrix-esque KGB agent (Cate Blanchett, who almost maintains a Ukrainian accent) forces Indy to show her where an alien is buried in Area 51. If you can go along with this, you'll enjoy the movie just fine.

Really, though, Indy 4 is no more or less ridiculous than any of its predecessors; it's just less steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But if you can accept an ark that makes an army invincible, or a chalice that grants eternal life, you should be able to accept this.

In addition to eschewing traditional religious iconography, this installment of the Indiana Jones saga also finds itself in 1957, several years after the original 3 (hence KGB as the token baddies, rather than Nazis). A significantly older Dr. Jones gets roped back into the action when a young greaser named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) tells Indy that his old archeology buddy, Professor "Ox" Oxley (John Hurt), and Mutt's mom are in trouble down in South America. There's a map, there's eluding some KGB agents, there's a few flights, there's a tomb raiding (featuring ninja aborigines), there's more eluding KGB agents, and so on.

Actually, the best bits of the film are these early scenes between Indy and Mutt: Mutt's growing appreciation of Indy's prodigious abilities remind us how impressive even the very basic of Indy's skills are--skills such as not quivering in fear while spelunking in a very creepy grave.

And, really, it's myth of Indiana Jones the man--more than the contrivances of plot that he finds himself in--that keep audiences coming back. The wide-ranging knowledge of all sorts of arcane information, the resourcefulness, the fighting skills, the ability to tolerate an absurd amount of pain, the strong moral compass, the unflappability in any situation--like James Bond, he's a projection of an idealized male. And that, for some reason, is something audiences want to see.

And that's why we don't get too upset when he does things that no human should be able to do (like surviving a nuclear blast, as he does in this film). This isn't about what life is like; this is about what life could be like, if you're willing to dream just a little bit. That's what the Indiana Jones saga has always been about, and--unless you have an allergic reaction to CGI--this installment delivers on that promise just as well as any of the others have. It won't change your life, it won't teach you much about history, it won't speak any deep intellectual truths, but it will give you two hours of healthy hero worship and a good shot of adrenaline. In my book, that's worth a 10.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Speed Racer

When writing critical pieces, I like to accentuate the positive, and not tear things down arbitrarily. This in turn leads to probably the highest average review score for me as opposed to my fellow TMBC reviewers. This is mostly because I'm picky as hell about what I watch, and generally have a good idea about what I'll like. But, back on the other hand, I don't love championing things that are generally pretty can feel a bit too safe. Which is why I am taking great pleasure in lauding a movie that is getting widely panned and underperforming at the box office, like many other works of true genius: Speed Racer.
Adapted from the beloved anime series, Speed Racer tells the story of Speed (Emile Hirsch), a young man obsessed with racing. He is the son of Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon) Racer, and older brother to Spritle (Paulie Litt), the original trouble-making little brother, along with his pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim. Rounding out the ersatz family are mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry) and Speed's longtime girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci). Speed grew up idolizing his brother Rex (Scott Porter), who became estranged from the family, and apparently died during a particularly dangerous cross-country rally. Now grown up and a promising driver, Speed is approached by Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam) of Royalton Industries, who wants Speed to join his massive stable of drivers. Of course, Speed turns him down since his father has always been independent and Royalton tells him that the Grand Prix has always been fixed, and Royalton warns Speed that he will never succeed without his backing. Speed is eventually approached for help by Inspector Detector (Benno Furmann) with a conspiracy linking Royalton to mobsters. Guiding and watching over Speed during this time is the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox).
At the heart of the story is love for something, and the importance of family. The crux of that love is racing in its purest form, but it could easily be about a number of things. While the story is solid but nothing that you haven't seen before, I can guarantee you've never seen a visual treat like Speed Racer. The Wachowski Bros wanted to make it a "live-action anime", and they succeed wildly. The only drawback (this is debatable) is that there is so much going on for so long that one needs to have a relatively high threshold for sensory overload. The universe of Speed Racer definitely tends towards cartoon behavior with anime flourishes, speed lines, etc, but wisely keeps one foot in reality, keeping the film grounded. I was a little unsure of this from the previews, but there is more realism there that I had been lead to believe. The cast is extremely instrumental in doing this: there is a lot of love for the characters, and everybody clearly did their character homework. But hands down, the real breakout performance is from Fox, who shines as the enigmatic badass Racer X. I never thought of the Wachowskis as actor's directors, but they have done a fine job with Fox, who obviously worked his ass off. I find it a little ironic that he comes across as so much looser than Dr. Jack Shepherd playing a laconic character like Racer X, but after seeing him in this I lamented what a great job he could have done had he been cast as Cyclops in the X-Men movies. After the ninja fight, I was even convinced that he would have been a great Batman.
But I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. It moves quickly for a film of its length, and I was left slightly exhausted, like the Flash just took me out for a job. Sadly, this movie got crushed in opening weekend by current box-office champ Iron Man, and won't be able to catch up much between Prince Caspian and the imminent release of Indiana Jones 4. But I feel that Speed Racer is a future cult classic and family favorite, and hope that people warm up to it soon, as it is more than worthy. I give Speed Racer a 15 on the 22 scale.

Best Lines:

Trixie: "Oh my god, was that a ninja?"
Pops Racer: "More like a "non"-ja. Terrible what passes for a ninja these days."

Spritle: "I'm going to send that guy some Chim-Chim cookies!"
Pops Racer: "You'll do no such thing!"

Speed: "Get that weak s*** off my track!"

[catching Spritle playing with his chimp in the living room]
Mom: "Hey, what are you two doing?"
Spritle: "Nothing."
Mom: "Was that the same nothing that broke my last couch?"
Spritle: "No, that was a totally different nothing."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

When this movie was recommended to me, it sounded just crazy enough to be really good, but I got stuck on the crazy part. I was told “Ryan Gosling is this guy and he ends up with a doll for a girlfriend. It’s really good.” Yeah, crazy. Straight-jacket wearing, padded-room-dwelling, pink elephant crazy.

But let me lay it out for you. Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a young man living in a small northern town (seems like Minnesota) who is an extremely shy loner. The opening scene shows us Lars standing in the shadows of his small dwelling, surreptitiously watching his neighbor from the window. This woman turns out to be his sister-in-law Karin, and she walks over to his door and pleads with him to come over for breakfast. He’s reluctant, but agrees, and right away we get a very good feeling for what Lars’ life is like and how others see him. He’s very quiet and keeps to himself, and when the caring people around him take such great pains to get him involved and out of his shell, he proves socially awkward at best.

It seems as if there is a history here, but we aren’t pulled into a dark past. Karin is very concerned for Lars, and seems to believe that his actions are getting more and more extreme. Gus, Lars’ brother, seems more or less unconcerned. He passes Lars’ actions off as just a part of who he is, and tries to convince Karin that he doesn’t want or need their help. However, it seems that help may be needed: When Lars is addressed by anyone, he barely responds and hurries away as soon as possible.

Then one day, this quickly shifts. Lars goes to Gus and Karin’s door and asks to speak with both of them. He tells them that he has a visitor, and that he was hoping to introduce her to them. He met her on the internet, and she had come to meet him while on sabbatical from being a missionary. Karin and Gus are thrilled (mostly because he is seeking out human contact) and invite him to bring her for dinner. Cut to the next scene: Gus and Karin staring dumbfounded across the living room at Lars and a giant doll sitting on the couch.

Lars ordered a life-sized sex doll from a website called Real Girls. He names her Bianca, calls her his girlfriend, and seems thoroughly convinced that she is a real person. The following scenes consist of Lars integrating Bianca into his life: taking her out, meeting people, getting to know her, etc. He suddenly becomes happy, friendly and willing to spend time with other people. One might assume that Lars’ relationship with Bianca is just a crazy cover-up so Lars can satisfy his carnal lust. After all, she is a sex doll. But this isn’t the case. In fact, he asks Gus and Karin if Bianca could sleep at their house because she is “very religious.”

The movie goes on as Lars and Bianca’s “relationship” progresses, and as the people in their lives make choices about how to deal with this very inconvenient situation. Ryan Gosling is wonderful as Lars. He accurately reflects the simplicity as well as the complication of his character, and delivers a very moving performance. Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider as Karin and Gus are perfect as family members dealing with the pain of wanting to help Lars but having no idea how to do so. Overall, the roles were very well-cast and each character provided so much depth without needing tons of screen time.

Somehow, this film manages to avoid wackiness and embraces real life. By convincing Lars that Bianca is sick and needs to see a doctor, Karin is able to get him to see a therapist. When Dr. Dagmar (played by a nicely cast Patricia Clarkson) encourages his family to go along with his delusion, they struggle to accept this but eventually see the futility in trying to change him. They meet with neighbors, friends, and fellow church-goers to explain what is going on, and everyone gradually climbs aboard the crazy train. They open their arms to her and by doing so effectively open their arms to Lars.

Rating: 17

This movie is about Lars, but it isn’t about Lars. Yes, he’s the central character whose name is in the title, but the story is about us, people in community, and what we can do to help others. We’re forced to evaluate what we believe to be “normal” and ask ourselves whether or not the word really matters anyway. It has a great balance between seriousness and light-heartedness and isn’t as off its rocker as it originally may seem. Well directed, well acted, thought-provoking and affecting, Lars and the Real Girl is as genuine as it gets.

Monday, May 12, 2008


So close………… This is a feeling I experienced while watching the movie Enchanted.
is the story of Giselle, a fairy tale maiden who has finally met her true love, who just happens to be a prince named Edward. They decide to get married, but Edward’s stepmother has another idea. She knows that if Edward gets married that she will no longer be queen, so she decides to send Giselle to someplace sad where no one lives happily ever after: present day New York City. Giselle must learn how to make it in her new world, with the help of the kind lawyer Robert and his daughter Morgan. Although Giselle wants nothing more than to get back to her home and marry Prince Edward, she soon realizes that her life at home might not be all she thought.
I was very skeptical about this film. It seemed to be treading a very fine line between good idea and extremely campy. However, as it was a musical I felt I must see it. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the film, which seemed to delight in making fun of itself. (For example, Giselle, who was friends with the animals in her fairy tale home, enlists the help of the animals that can be found around New York, such as rats, cockroaches, and pigeons.)
When I first saw the previews for this movie I thought that it was just a typical chick flick, something I was not in the mood for. However, after many recommendations by friends I decided to see it. As I said, I was surprised by the movie, which--while it definitely was a chick flick--had me engaged until the ending, when it succumbed to the typical chick flick trap.
Amy Adams was very charming as the lost Giselle, and Patrick Dempsey did well as Robert, the man who takes Giselle in. However, my favorite character is the chipmunk Pip, who comes to New York to find Giselle. I won't tell you too much about Pip because I don’t want to ruin some great parts of the movie.
Overall, Enchanted was good. I enjoyed the music and the story, and the acting was well done. I was slightly disappointed in the very chick-flick ending, but I don’t know what I expected from a movie called Enchanted. This enchanted movie receives a 9.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Iron Man

There's been a long period of relative inactivity here at TMBC, partly due to sickness, partly due to school, and partly because.....nothing really notable has been out. But we're out of the horse latitudes at last, since the summer movie season began, and it does so in fine form with Iron Man, the best Marvel Comics movie made thus far, in my opinion.
Iron Man follows the story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., in the most high profile role of this career thus far), a genuine prodigy, and head of Stark Industries, a company known mostly for its weapons manufacturing. The film begins in Afghanistan, where Stark is giving a demonstration of his company's deadly new missile. On the way back, the convoy is ambushed, and one of Stark's own weapons blows up in his face. When he comes to, he finds himself in the clutches of the "Ten Rings" terrorist organization, who demand that he build them a version of his new missile. Tony was badly injured in the explosion, and is being kept alive by a jury-rigged pacemaker/electromagnet powered by a car battery made by Stark's fellow captive Yinsen (an excellent Shaun Toub). Stark reflects on his life's work, and proceeds to build his new legacy, a suit of mechanized armor. Once back in America, he continues his moral re-evaluation, flirts with his assistant 'Pepper' Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and clashes with his war-mongering partner Obidiah Stane (an unrecognizable Jeff Bridges).
One thing I've been saying to people for a while is that I suspected this film would do for Robert Downey, Jr what the Pirates of the Caribbean films did for Johnny Depp, and I think the stellar opening weekend gross of Iron Man goes a long way towards proving me right....but he had it coming. As troubled visionary Tony Stark, Downey turns in the single best performance as a hero anybody has turned in since the new wave of comic book films began with the first X-Men film in 1998. He is the complete package, able to handle romance, action, suspense, and comedy with equal virtuosity. The comic beats, in particular, are wonderful and quick-paced without dipping into Jim Carrey-esque wackiness. Watching Downey in Iron Man crashing through walls and monologuing to his workshop droids, one can see why Richard Attenborough cast him as Charlie Chaplin. The other important thing Downey does in his performance is completely sell Stark's manic genius, which other actors have had varying levels of success playing similarly super-intelligent characters (looking at you, Ioan Gruffid.....thanks for screwing Reed Richards up so badly. Next time, do your damn character research.) Even though there are strong performances throughout the film, Downey basically carries it himself. Terence Howard turns in a strong yet quiet performance as Stark's pilot/friend/future War Machine James Rhodes, and Jeff Bridges gives a competent yet unremarkable rendering of the malevolent Obidiah Stane.
The beauty of Iron Man is how it has ground-level accessibility for those unfamiliar with the source material, remains faithful to said material, and manages to get in sly nods and foreshadows for those in the know. As far as the overall package, Iron Man is a hell of a summer film. It moves quickly despite it's two hour, ten minute running time, maintains energy even during talky bits, and rocks like crazy compared to many other stiff Marvel entries. It is artfully, yet appropriately shot by (future) cinematographic legend Matthew Libatique (Pi, Requiem For A Dream), and skillfully directed by Jon Favreau, building on the promise he showed with Elf. There are some sly nods to Robocop in there, for the observant. I consider Iron Man the strongest adaptation of a Marvel comic character yet, just barely edging out Spider-Man 2.
So, stop reading this, don't do that yet. MAKE SURE you stay past the credits to catch an extra scene featuring the appearance of a major player in the Marvel Universe (and a high-profile actor, for you non-Marvel Zombies out there), and portents of things to come. I give Iron Man a titanium-alloy clad 16 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Memorable Quotes:

Tony Stark: "They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once. That's how dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far."

James Rhodes (looking wistfully at a spare set of armor): "Next time, baby."

Tony Stark (testing flight capacity of the suit): "Day 11, Test 37, Configuration 2.0....(looks at droid)...For lack of a better option, Dummy is still on fire safety. (Points at droid) If you douse me again, and I am NOT on fire, I'm donating you to a city college."