All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

Redbelt: David Mamet’s Martial Arts Film Stings Like a Butterfly, Floats Like a Bee!

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David Mamet has studied Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for several years and, with Redbelt, he brings this side of his life to silver screen in a story that features his usual briskly vulgar language and crosses, double-crosses and scams – only in the staging of a martial arts movie.

The protagonist, Mike Terry [Chiwetal Ejiofor], is an instructor/studio owner whose business is suffering and really only survives because of the income provided by his wife, Sondra’s [Alice Braga] boutique garment business. When he comes to the aid of a movie star, Chet Frank [Tim Allen], in a bar fight, he winds up getting sucked into a series of cons that result in his finally having to enter a mixed martial arts tournament to save his studio and his wife’s business – and that doesn’t even take into account the messed up lady lawyer and an unfortunate accident…

With Redbelt, Mamet does a better job as director than as writer. Sure, we’ve got the typical Mamet wheels-within-wheels series of scams/cons and double-crosses – and the film plays to the idea of purity of mind in martial arts versus the crass commercialism of professional mixed martial arts. Unfortunately, after giving us some extremely good set-up, Mamet allows the film to fall onto a kind of clichéd physical battle between Terry and the man behind the tournament – with the master of his art in attendance, no less. The film could easily have ended before the final scene, though. That was a bit too much.

Overall, though, Redbelt is better-than-average Mamet [which is better than most writer/directors best]. He gets fine performances from his cast [many of whom, like Mantegna, Rebecca Pidgeon and David Paymer] are part of his repertory company. He balances the dialogue and action masterfully, and has a knack for making the most of his small budget. Some mixed martial arts fans in the row behind me said “Awesome!” more than once during the movie, so I guess the fight sequences were as good as they seemed. Redbelt is one of Mamet’s lesser works, but it’s certainly worth checking out – even for those who don’t really care about martial arts.

Final Grade: B-

Iron Man: Marvel’s Right Wing Superhero Soars!

Battle-Scarred MK III

Tony Stark [Robert Downey Jr.] is a hedonistic billionaire weapons manufacturer until a trip to Afghanistan for a weapons demonstration ends with him in the hands of terrorists. He builds himself a suit of iron armor to escape and goes on to put together a more refined version to enable him to save the people who have been put in harm’s way by his company’s weapons.

Iron Man is about a lot of things: a modern knight in shining armor; crazed ambition; superheroics; even innovative CGI [check out Stark manipulating CG plans as if they were the real thing]. Oddly enough, despite its political ramifications and good old-fashioned superheroic fun, in the end, Iron Man is about a guy who goes through a kind of reverse mid-life crisis. The hedonistic, irresponsible Stark metamorphoses into a more – dare I say – mature adult by deciding to kill his company’s weapons making business in favor of some thing more planet friendly.

Downey isn’t working in a vacuum, either. It’s been a while since Gwyneth Paltrow has glowed so brightly on the big screen – here playing Stark’s right-hand person with considerable aplomb [watching her keep Stark on his toes is a delight]. Jeff Bridges makes for an affably deceptive villain and Terrence Howard makes his small role as Stark’s best friend shine.

While the action scenes aren’t as accomplished as something by Michael Bay, they come off better because director Jon Favreau understands that it’s the characters that make everything else in the film work. He keeps the pace high enough to prevent lessening of interest and knows how to make the film’s effects serve the story. This is a film with surprising wit and genuine intelligence.

Final Grade: A-

Battlestar Galactica: Escape Velocity – The Day After The Day After

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Escape Velocity opens with Chief Tyrol given a poignant eulogy at Cally’s funeral and ends with Gaius Baltar in a [for him] most unusual position. In between, this is one of Galactica’s most intense episodes – even though there are no great Cylon battles or even much action at all.

Continue reading Battlestar Galactica: Escape Velocity – The Day After The Day After

Harold and Kumar: The Stoner Hope & Crosby!

Harold, Kumar & Friend

In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, the pair’s craving for a specific kind of fast food was turned into an epic quest – call it the stoner version of Homer’s Odyssey. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay turns them into the mutant spawn of The Fugitive and Hope & Crosby’s “Road” movies.

When Harold [John Cho] and Kumar [Kal Penn] head for Amsterdam hours after the first movie’s conclusion, they are victimized by racial profiling and mistaken for terrorists when Kumar’s high tech bong is mistaken for a bomb. After being tossed into Guantanamo Bay, they escape – with idiot Homeland Security Agent Ron Fox [Rob Corddry] hot on their heels. Throughout, Kumar fills the Bob Hope role by getting the pair into further difficulties, while Harold is the sensible one.

While taking accurate shots at aspects of the current political situation, Escape From Guantanamo Bay’s funniest gag is that these absolutely normal American guys could be getting into all this trouble just because they want to smoke a bit o’ weed and find their One True Loves. Throw in Neil Patrick Harris – once again playing the Bizarro World version of himself – shattered and reinforced redneck stereotypes and a delightful take on Dubya [here, he may not speak real good English, but he’s slyer, smarter and mellower than we are expecting] and the result is a solidly funny movie that Says Something more by highlighting the characters of Harold and Kumar than by the political jokes.

Somehow, the crude, lewd and grotesque bits that are meant to be funny actually are funny – and the relationships [buddies Harold and Kumar; each of them and their OTLs] work because, at its heart, there is an innocent [yes, innocent] charm to these guys.

Final Grade: B

Six Joins Burn Notice!!!

Six & D'Anna

Regardless of her character’s fate on Battlestar Galactica, sexy Cylon, Tricia Helfer [above left] will join USA Network’s acclaimed spy dramedy, Burn Notice, in its upcoming second season.

Previously heard only in vaguely threatening phone calls, Helfer will bring the mysterious Carla out of the shadows. The extremely intelligent and incredibly sexy Carla is Michael’s [Jeffrey Donovan] only contact with the shadowy group that got him burned.

According to a USA press release, Carla has “plans for him and various “assignments” for him to take care of, and she’s not taking no for an answer. Michael’s trapped in a deadly game with Carla where the only way he can keep his family safe, and find out more about her, is to play along and look for the opening he needs to take her on.”

Burn Notice returns to USA this summer.

Cloverfield Stomps Onto DVD!

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The innovative Cloverfield, which brought a whole new, personal style to monster movies, fares even better on DVD than it did in the theater. That’s because the film was shot as if by a guy who happened to have a camcorder with him when the monster appeared in Manhattan. Of course, even on the small screen, Cloverfield remains a truly intense experience, with its visual references to 9/11, its monster lice, and its very “old gods” looking beastie.

Cloverfield is unique as monster movies go in that it takes much more time to establish its characters than the average genre effort. This is because we have to know these people before we are plunged into the action with them. Since the only view of the action we get is from the point of view of the guy with the camera, we only catch glimpses of the monster – but are right there when one character gets mauled by one of the lice. The attempt to rescue someone we’ve seen only briefly on a bit of recording and for a few minutes at a party only makes sense if we know these people.

Overall, Cloverfield is a pretty special achievement in the monster movie genre, with its almost constant intensity and the intimacy of being right there with “The Man on the Street” as it were. The FX are amazing – and although we never quite see the whole monster at any one time, we see enough bits to be able to figure out its appearance.

Features include: Audio Commentary with Director Matt Reeves; Deleted Scenes; Document 01.18.08: The Making of Cloverfield; Cloverfield Visual effects; I Saw IT! It’s Huge! It’s Alive!; Clover Fun; Deleted Scenes; Alternate Endings, and www.cloverfieldfiles.com.

Grade: Cloverfield – A+

Grade: Features – A+

Final Grade: A+

$%#% Me Gently With a Chainsaw! 20 Years Later Heathers is Still So Very!

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It’s been twenty years since Heathers was released by a dying New World to critical acclaim and some box office success. Now, Anchor Bay has released the dark high school comedy as part of its Cult Classic Film Series. The film’s indictment of kids who will do anything to be popular – and become the ultimate jerks once they achieve it – is as grotesquely funny today as it was when it was first released.

Veronika [Wynona Ryder] is one of the Heathers – the most popular girls in school [the other three are all named Heather] – and the least ruthless. About the same time as she reaches her limit with her so-called friends, she meets a charismatic new guy in school, J.D. [Christian Slater] and becomes in embroiled in a series of murders that the two stage as suicides.

First-time director Michael Lehman and first-time writer Daniel Waters produced a terrific film with its own peculiarly daring sense of humor – and its own slang. With its budget constraints, what propels Heathers is the energy of its performances. Ryder and Slater have, frankly, never been better – And Shannen Doherty stands out as the shyest of the Heathers.

Features include: Audio Commentary by Lehman, Waters and Producer Denise DiNovi; Swatch Dogs and Diet-Coke Heads [a 30-minute of reminiscences by the cast, director, writer, producer and editor]; Trialer; Screenply Excerpt; Original Ending, and Talent Bios.

Grade: Heathers – A

Grade: Features – A-

Final Grade: A

Earth Day Inspires Green Programming on the Documentary Channel!

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This evening, beginning with Earth, Wind & Fire at 7/6C, the Documentary Channel will be airing five consecutive hours of documentaries that deal with alternative power sources; the effect of pollution on nature; the encroachment of development on the Amazonian rain forest, and the possibility of demand exceeding production of “cheap oil.”

Continue reading Earth Day Inspires Green Programming on the Documentary Channel!

Battlestar Galactica: The Ties That Bind – The Next Day

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Civil unrest; civil war; a potential for mutiny and character death – this week’s Battlestar Galactica episode, The Ties That Bind, is picking up the pace. Outside of Cavil’s response to last week’s little fracas with the Centurions, did anyone see any of this happening? Spoilers follow.

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Reviewing Forgetting Sarah Marshall In 300 Words or Less

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Forgetting Sarah Marshall is doomed to be remembered as “that naked break-up movie” though it’s considerably more. For one thing, the naked break-up is a simultaneously funny and poignant scene and Jason Segel’s performance as Peter [the breakee] is staggeringly vulnerable. For another, that vulnerability continues to come into play when Peter tries to get away from it all at the same Hawaiian resort where Sarah [Kristin Bell] is staying with her rock god boyfriend. In turn, Peter’s heartbreak is tempered by Rachel [Mila Kunis], a pretty, intelligent hotel employee who has also had a miserable heartbreak.

Segel‘s script meanders a bit, but those wanderings lead to emotional payoffs that make sense – especially when news that the TV series that stars Sarah, and for which he composes the “dark, ominous tones,” has been cancelled. A comment from Rachel leads Peter to finish his dream project [a rock opera for puppets – about Dracula and his search for True Love], while Aldous’ [the rock god, played by Russell Brand] behavior has Sarah rethinking leaving Peter.

Director Nicholas Stoller keeps the wandering script focused and gets terrific performances from his entire cast. Check out supporting work by the reliable Paul Rudd [as a goofy surfing guru] and Jonah Hill as Aldous’ number one fan. Stoller understands the necessity for an extra beat in a quiet moment and how to set up a gag without being obvious. As a result, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one of the best films to come out of the Judd Apatow crude-with-a-heart comedy factory. I may not have laughed as often as the lady behind me, but I did laugh and smile and chuckle enough to recommend Forgetting Sarah Marshall as more than your daily recommended dose of fun.

Final Grade: B+

Forbidden Kingdom: Jackie Chan and Jet Li Together At Last!

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For a long time, fans of martial arts movies have longed to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li do a film together. Well, even though Chan is noticeably a step slower, and the real hero of The Forbidden Kingdom is a time-traveling poor white kid from the present, the two still provide a lot of fun in a movie that’s a fun riff on a number of martial arts movie themes.

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