All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Indy Can Still Take Us on a Wild Ride!

Indiana Jones is back – and it’s a Very Good Thing!

Indy has faced many obstacles in his life, but never before has he been considered a potential threat to national security! And let me tell you, it really bugs his @$$!

The problem arises because of a [former] friend who helps a covert Soviet team steal something highly magnetic from Area 51. The consequences of that incident even lead to Indy being put on “on indefinite leave of absence” from his teaching job – the timing of which is conveniently perfect for him to meet a Brando/Dean/Fonzie wannabe named Mutt Williams [Shia LeBeouf], who says his mother told him that Indy could help them. Indy is further persuaded by the KGB goons who try to grab him and Mutt [which leads to the revelation of one of the most poorly kept secrets in the history of cinema…].

It seems that an old colleague of Indy, “Ox” Oxley [John Hurt] may have found the location of the legendary lost city of gold – and the Commies want something that should also be there – something that ties in with the object they nabbed in the film’s opening. “Mother” turns out to the former Marion Ravenwood [Karen Allen] is as feisty as ever [if she could have duped her guards into a drinking contest, she might well have escaped].

Now we come to the key to the whole film – the Crystal Skull of Akator. Spalko believes it’s one of thirteen and when united with its fellows will give the Soviets the ultimate weapon. She’s sure of this, because it speaks to her. Apparently she’s a bit on psychic side…

Crystal Skulls Cast

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the kind of adventure that many of us would kill to have, if only they didn’t happen in some wonderful parallel universe that looks like our own but has as much magic as science. There are chases [and we never even think to question how there could be two parallel roads next to each other in the Mayan jungle]; sword fights on jeep hoods [see parallel roads], and strange and wondrous artifacts, like the exquisitely beautiful, if oddly shaped crystal skull. There’s even a lost city [and a pretty cool explanation for why our modern satellites have never encountered it].

Every Indy film is very much of the time in which it takes place: Raiders and Last Crusade, set in the forties, dealt with Nazis, as well as supernatural artifacts; Temple of Doom [set in the late thirties] was a pulpy adventure that revolved around a Kali death cult. So it’s no surprise that Crystal Skull uses the trappings of the cold war as the basis for its story [and riffs on the best known film cold war allegories for its trippy conclusion].

Even when it’s dealing with exposition [as in most of the middle act], Indy 4 entertains by making the “Basil Exposition” character [John Hurt’s Oxley] interesting – and tossing in some action or surprise every time things look to be slowing too much. Many of the best allusions to the previous films happen here – watch for a great gag with a snake, in particular.

Though there are some significant CG effects used in the film, a lot of the best stunts are practical, and Ford can be seen, clearly, doing more than enough of Indy’s stunts to make us believe it’s still him when a stuntman takes over. Even little things [like the over-the-top meaty sounds of the fist fights] perfectly recapture the feel of the previous films.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is much better than I was expecting [and I was expecting a lot!]. Steven Spielberg does what he does best – marrying action and adventure to interesting characters. He keeps the film moving and provides some wonderful sights along the way.

If you want to put it in terms of the entire series, Crystal Skull fits in, quality-wise, at about the same place as Last Crusade. The two films even deal with daddy issues, so that’s a pretty natural conclusion.

Final Grade: A-

Movie Reviews: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian – Bigger, Brighter, Bolder… and Better!

Disney’s second Narnia movie is an improvement on the first one. The story is bigger, the colors [both in terms of set and effects design and in terms of performances] are brighter, the storytelling is bolder.

The story involves a race of Adam’s Sons [humans] called the Telmarines, who have conquered Narnia and hunted the Narnians [they think] to extinction. Prince Caspian X [Ben Barnes] is the heir to the throne, but not of age. Instead, the kingdom is ruled by his Uncle, Miraz [Sergio Castellito] – at least until his aunt births a son. Then Miraz sends men to kill his nephew so that he can begin his own line of royalty. His tutor helps him flee and gives him an ivory horn to blow only as a last resort.

Ready for war

In a London subway station, the Pevensie children are about to take a train to school when the station falls apart around them, leaving them standing in Narnia – but not the Narnia they knew – Caspian has blown the horn. While they’ve been home for a year, Narnia has passed through 1300 years! Now, they must help Caspian regain his kingdom and save the denizens of Narnia.

One of the reasons that Prince Caspian works so well is that the creative team [writers Stephen McFeely, Christopher Markus and Andrew Adamson, who also directed] took the key elements of the story and built an epic tale around them without feeling the need to be slavish in their adaptation. Another reason is that the four actors who play the Pevensies [Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, Anna Popplewell and William Moseley] are quite brilliant [which marks a drastic change for Popplewell and Moseley, who were pretty wooden in the first film]. Ben Barnes does a nice job as Caspian, who came off as whiny and a bit of a wimp in the book but comes across as a bit naive but brave here.

Once again, the supporting cast is also first-rate. Peter Dinklage stands out as Trumpkin, a somewhat acerbic dwarf whom Lucy [Henley] describes as her “dear little friend.” [“That’s very patronizing,” he snorts]. Then there’s the mouse warrior, Reepicheep, voiced by Eddie Izzard – who is a bit put off by his foes’ lack of imagination [“Yes, I’m a mouse. Can’t you think of something more original?”].

So, the script and the performances are first-rate. But what about the effects? They’re also pretty stellar. Whether we’re talking the denizens of Narnia [a talking badger among them], or a spectacular creature who appears near the end, the effects are both first-rate and completely in service to the story.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is hit – a palpable hit!

Final Grade: A+

Son of Rambow: Little Film About Filmmaking and Making Friends Is Utterly Charming

Lee Carter & Will Proudfoot

Will Proudfoot [Bill Milner] is a member of a religious sect that doesn’t allow watching television, so when his teacher plays a tape for the class, Will has to sit in the hall until it’s over. Lee Carter [Will Poulter], on the other hand, is the school’s resident hellspawn, who is frequently ejected from class.

The day after Lee has boldly videotaped First Blood at the town theater, he is ejected from class at the same time as Will is sitting in the hall awaiting the completion of a class film. A series of incidents involving a tennis ball and a few less than white lies later, Lee and Will are on their way to becoming friends – a process heightened when a hiding Will gets to watch Lee’s bootleg of first Blood and prods Lee, a budding filmmaker, to film “Son of Rambow.” Before long, a seemingly cool French exchange student named Didier [Jules Sitruk] has become a lead in the film; Will has become cool by association, and friction develops between Will and Lee.

The parts of the film that deal with the growing bond between Lee and will, and the relationship that Brother Joshua [Neil dudgeon] tries to build between Will and his mother [Jessica Stevenson], are charming and real in a low-key way. Didier and his entourage – who have become cool by hanging with him – are a clever bit at first, but wear out their welcome before long. [A clever insight into how his fellow French students see him comes just a bit too late for us to care overmuch.]

Writer/director Garth Jennings has a knack to getting to the kernel of truth in each of his main core of characters and directs with a slightly stealthy, not quite sprightly touch. If you’re tired of summer blockbusters already, Son of Rambow will probably going to charm the socks of you.

Final Grade: B+

Speed Racer: Brightly Colored Fun!

Speed Racer

Let’s be clear on this – I have never seen any of the Speed Racer anime´ nor have I seen any of the manga, and am barely aware of vintage merchandizing. Now that we have that out of the way, I have to say that, as a Speed Racer virgin, the brightly-colored film by the Wachowski Brothers is a lot of fun.

Emile Hirsch rocks as the title character, a boy in the process of becoming a man – and a believer in fair play when it appears that there hasn’t been any in professional racer since, well, ever. His rock solid family [John Goodman as Pops Racer, Susan Sarandon as Mom Racer and Paulie Litt as younger brother Spritel], pet chimp, Chim Chim and girlfriend Trixie [a very anime´ looking Christina Ricci] give him the courage to turn down an offer to sign with the top team – at which point he learns of the real nature of his beloved sport. From there it’s only a matter of winning a couple of races [against an entire field of cheaters] and bringing down the Royalton Racing Team [the team he turned down]. Nothing to it – not!

While there’s not a lot of plot to Speed Racer, there’s almost always lots going on as Speed – with the help of the mysterious Racer X [sure it’s not hard to make the connection between him and Speed’s older brother, who is supposed to have died, but it’s a convention – just like nobody recognizing Superman behind Clark Kent’s specs. Deal with it and move on!]. The races are beautifully staged exercises in gladiatorial driving; the fight sequences really capturing the odd, freeze-frame style of anime´ and manga; the cast is clearly having more fun than should be legal, and the whole thing just feels good. The only real flaw in the film is that it’s just a wee bit too talky – but that hardly matters.

For a movie with a candy-colored world [the bright, shiny color of fresh hard candy – not the pastels of rock candy], the emphasis is on the kind of grounding that a good family provides and the kind of justice that is most deserved – the justice of the untouchable evil being brought down by one man with a mission. This may be my first encounter with Speed Racer but it won’t be my last.

Final Grade: A

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

redbelt3

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

adamatyrol

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!

Liberty's Head

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!

Heather Dies

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