Thursday, May 29, 2008

Son of Rambow

“I am the son of Rambo!”

The film is built around the meeting and unlikely friendship between the school’s trouble child Lee Carter (Will Poulter) and outsider Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), a member of the strict religous sect, the Plymouth Brethren.

Although an unlikely pair, the two are brought together by the Lee Carter’s bootleg tape of First Blood which inspires the two to create an entry in a local filmmaking contest for Screen Test featuring the adventures of the son of the famous Rambo.

The story, and the friendship of the pair, is complicated by their vastly different lives and the arrival of a instantly popular foreign exchange student (Jules Sitruk) who brings his own ideas, and his large following, onto the project.

For a film about adolescent adventure it works quite well. Milner’s character is put in the middle of a dilemma of helping out his new friend (in a project he loves) but staying true to the beliefs and duties to both his family and religion.

Most of the film’s magic moments come in the creation of the pair’s film, and how that project brings everyone together. Mixed in is the artwork and imagination of Milner’s character, which reminded me of a Michel Gondry film. However it’s the spirit of the film itself, and the enjoyment the characters find in creating something of their own, more than a specific performance or moment, which makes this memorable and worthy of attention.

Son of Rambow isn’t a great film, but it is a nice ride. I’m not quite sure who the film is aimed at, however. Younger viewers probably won’t know who Rambo is, and most Rambo fans may dismiss it as too cute. That just leaves indie film fans not willing to be put off by a film inspired by what has become a big Hollywood franchise. You’ll likely have to search the local art houses for this one, but if you’re lucky enough to find it, and in the mood for something different, then you should have a good time.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

“What does God need with a starship?”

The film opens at the height of the Red Scare as Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) fights off Soviet agents, led by Cate Blanchett, who show up to steal a crystal skull from a secret government warehouse. Indy’s failure to stop the theft brings up questions of his loyalty and he finds himself on forced sabbatical from the university.

Indy quickly finds a new outlet when a kid named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) asks Indy for help in retrieving another crystal skull found by one of Indy’s colleagues (John Hurt) to save his mother Marion (Karen Allen) from the Nazi’s.

So far so good. The adventure is in high gear, and even if the crystal skulls themselves are a bit of a letdown after Arks and Grails, at least they’re better than magic rocks which…glow.

However, the film begins to loose steam as the trek through the jungle infuses many themes not present in other Indy adventures which take over the film’s final act. These include increased mysticism, psychic powers, and even the included mention of Roswell and possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Now, I know these themes can be found in many of the serials George Lucas enjoyed as a kid, but they are glaringly out of place in a adventure series with strong historical ties like Indiana Jones.

The script is okay, though not great, but has one glaring miscalculation - the crystal skulls themselves. I can’t tell you the secret of the skulls without giving away a huge plot piece of the film, but I will tell you the truth behind them will leave you dumbfounded. It’s this miscalculation that takes over the film’s final act and moves you further and further away from the world of Indiana Jones into something else completely until you can barely recognize what you are looking at.

If the plot lacks punch, the film is filled with some nostalgic fun, which it rides through most of the film’s running time. We get Indy, we get the return of Marion, we get the reveal of Mutt’s parentage, and we get car chases, tombs, an hidden puzzles aplenty. Ford is terrific as an older Indy and LaBeouf holds his own on screen (too bad about the character name, though). There are some nice touches thrown out to longtime fans including a mention of Indy’s time with Pancho Villa, and a brief glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant.

After a near 20 year wait, this newest addtiion to the franchise is no Phantom Menace (and, no, I don’t mean that in a positive way). In the end Indiana Jones will give you a fun nostalgic ride, but deliver little of its own worth remembering. The crystal skull plot is something which you would expect the likes of the The Mummy and Tomb Raider to throw out as too outrageous, but somehow Lucas and Spielberg decided this was the adventure they wanted for Indy’s return. I enjoyed the film, mostly for the nostalgia and the stunts (if I hadn’t seen the other films and been an Indy fan going in my rating of this film would no doubt be even lower than it is), but the plot left me confused and the end left me cold. Move over Temple of Doom, you are no longer the weakest link in the franchise.

The quote which I used to begin the review is from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The reason I include it here is it became stuck in my head during the film’s arrival in Crazywackofuntown during its final moments. Much like Star Trek V this film derails the franchise in an attempt to do something different, and fails in a spectacular, but amusing, way. Star Trek was able to right the ship in future films, but we’ll have to wait and see if Indy gets the same chance.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

“You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember.”

The film begins with the exile of Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), the rightful heir to the throne of Narnia. His uncle (Sergio Castellitto), whose wife has finally given him a male heir, takes the opportunity to seize control of the kingdom.

In his flight Caspian blows the magic horn (your joke here) which calls the “great kings and queens of the past” back to Narnia. And so the Pevensie children, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), are magically transported from a London subway to the beaches of Narnia.

Narnia is quite different than they remember as thousands of years have past and the magical animals and creatures now live in fear of the human invaders which have driven them into seclusion in the woods. Now Peter and the rest of his clan must help put Caspian back on the throne and give back Narnia to the Narnians, that is if they can stop bickering among themselves.

Let me start with what the film gets right. The special effects, at times laughably bad in the first film The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (read that review), are much more competently handled here. The children’s acting has improved and they seem more comfortable in their roles, and acting against the CGI characters (though at times they still struggle with some childish dialogue). The addition of Barnes (who comes off like Timothy Olyphant‘s much more charming younger brother) helps balance the film as well. The real bright spot in the film however is Peter Dinklage who steals the film as the Dwarf Trumpkin.

The film also turns down the religious overtones for most of the film allowing you to enjoy the adventure without feeling preached at. However the heavy-handed Christian allegory will appear briefly from time to time before completely taking over the film’s final 20 minutes in what amounts to little more than a forced Sunday school sermon to teach us the point of the film, and faith.

The battles are still bloodless, and the armies are still led by children. These are both problems which I had in the first film. The bloodless battles continue to make no sense whatsoever, but given that these children have lived for centuries in Narnia, and thus are adults (whatever their outward appearance) I felt more lenient to the mass slaughter committed by their hands. For a PG movie this film has a body count in the hundreds (if not thousands), including stabbings, beheadings, maulings, and more; yet another example of the spineless incompetency of the MPAA. I guess righteous Christian warriors can get by with anything, even in Hollywood.

However the history of these characters also creates a new problem the film is never able to rectify. These characters have lived, we are told, for 1300 years, aside from the perplexity of why they appear as children in Narnia (I’m willing to accept that), they shouldn’t act like children. It’s the constant failing of the film to treat these characters as if they only have the experience (except what they need in battle) of average teenagers still on their first trip to Narnia. The film tries to have the characters be both experienced and childish, which simply doesn’t work.

Although not great, and still severely flawed, the film is certainly an improvement from the first film. I’d rank it the B-class of fantasy films for children, such as Eragon (read that review) or The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (read that review), as films which contain moments but never fulfill the promise of something more. Kids and those who love the books may enjoy the film more than I, but I expect spending 147 minutes in Narnia may be more than enough for all but the die-hard fans.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Stroker Ace

“Who gives a cluck?”

Burt Reynolds stars as hot-shot race car driver Stroker Ace whose talent for winning is only surpassed by his inability to get along with his sponsors.

After burning bridges with every other race team Stroker finds himself forced to sign with fried chicken franchise mogul Clyde Torkle (Ned Beatty) who gets the most out of his new star attraction by parading him around like a prized bird (sometimes literally).

Unable to get out of the binding contract Stroker is forced to put up with his new situation. However, things aren’t all bad. He’s still got his mechanic buddy (Jim Nabors) and his new position did introduce him to Torkle’s secretary Pembrook Feeney (Loni Anderson), a woman with an unlikely secret.

Aside from many Nascar drivers who show up in cameos during the film there are a couple of small performances worth mentioning including Bubba Smith as Torkle’s chauffeur Arnold and Parker Stevenson as the new hot-shot driver gunning for Stroker’s spot as Nascar’s #1 driver whose name Stroker can never quite remember.

The Diagnosis
Stroker Ace is a train wreck, but an enjoyable one. Early on, possibly before shooting ever began, the stars realized what a turkey they found themselves in and rather than simply go through the motions they decided to go with the flow and have a grand ol’ time. Will it make you laugh? Yes, as well as make you groan, roll you eyes and shake your head. In the end however this flick does have enough swagger and charm to classify it as a guilty pleasure.

Friday, May 9, 2008


“There’s always an escape.”

Our story centers around Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a guru and owner of a martial arts dojo struggling to get by.

A series of events disrupt Mike’s world and force him to make hard choices about his core beliefs about martial arts, training, and his disdain for competing in staged MMA tournaments.

This is a David Mamet script and, as you would expect, things don’t go from A to B here, and if they do it’s never in a straight line. There are surprises, twists, and an elaborate con which leaves our hero out of options and at odds with the world and himself.

Ejiofor is terrific in a role which could easily have been dismissed as bland or cliché in the hands of a lesser actor. Tim Allen adds a nice supporting performance as an action movie star who crosses his path and offers him hope of an easier life. And many Mamet regulars pop up in small but important roles including Rebecca Pidgeon, Joe Mantegna, and Ricky Jay.

I must also stop to commend the two leading ladies of the film. Alice Braga is beautiful and bold as Mike’s more realistic wife who struggles against the totality of her husband’s honor, beliefs, and convictions. Emily Mortimer also has a small role as a woman struggling with her own fears in an important subplot which will be slowly woven into the main tale.

I’ve yet to mention the fight sequences, which are terrific by the way, because they are actually secondary to the story. Unlike many action films of this genre (such as the recent Never Back Down, read that review) here the story and the characters come first and are never compromised for the sake of an action scene.

The film does have a few small flaws. The con is a bit overly-complex and on such a large scale to the point of stretching believability. It also takes a little too long to blend the various stories into the main plot of the film. Even with these issues, however, it is a smart and engaging film which will keep you on your toes.

This is the film MMA enthusiasts have been waiting for, one which celebrates the tenents of the sport and its customs without selling out and provides a worthwhile story to go along with the fight scenes. Does the story get a bit too crazy? Perhaps, but as Mike’s life is put in a vise, his support system taken away, and as he is left alone with his own conscience and beliefs, we are given this gift of a tale of a lone honest man against a corrupt world that even Frank Capra would be proud of.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


“Oh yes we can, I know we can can, yes we can can, why can’t we? If we wanna, yes we can can.”

The documentary by Stephen Walker follows the the Young@Heart Chorus as they learn new songs and prepare for their next live performance. This, however, isn’t your average chorus.

The Young@Heart Chorus is made up of senior citizens, all over the age of 70, from the New England area. Led by director Bob Climan, the group has been performing since 1982, although not the type of music you might expect from a senior citizen group. No, the Young@Heart sing contemporary and classic rock and pop songs such as “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash.

For their upcoming concert the group is practicing hits ranging from “Yes We Can Can” by the Pointer Sisters to “Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth. We get to meet each some of the members of the chorus, including two former members who have returned after serious medical conditions to perform one last time with their friends.

Chocked full of memorable and touching moments and mighty good musical performances (not to mention some terrific music videos), this film is simply a joy to watch. There’s a little bit of everything here from the rehearsals, to traveling with members of the group, to a performance at a local prison, to dealing with the health problems and loss of members of the team, to the triumph of performing their latest concert.

2008 so far has been sizing up to be a bit of a letdown after last year, but now the first great film of 2008 has arrived. The film is getting a slow roll-out, so unless you are in a major market you might have to wait a few weeks before it makes it to your town (most likely in the local art house). I can not recommend this film highly enough, and I think, if enough people can see it, early word of mouth could keep this little gem alive through most of the summer. I think it can, I think it can can!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Iron Man

“I want to protect the people I put in harm’s way.”

The film follows the life-changing events of weapons manufacturer and wealthy industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). After performing a weapons demonstration in the Middle East Stark is captured by terrorists and forced to design new weapons for their use. In a last-ditch effort to save his life, Stark creates a armored suit, powered by the small power source keeping him alive, to escape and make his way home.

On arriving back in the states Stark proceeds to shut down the weapons manufacturing part of Stark Industries (which is most of the company), to the displeasure of longtime friend and business parter Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges), and begins a new project - one which will eventually be tabbed by local media as Iron Man.

Directed by Jon Favreau, who also has a small role casting himself as Happy Hogan, the film mixes action, state of the art special effects, humor, and drama to give us one of the better comic book films ever made. This is a fanboy’s wet dream come to life.

Downey is perfect as the smarmy rich death merchant forced to reexamine his life and come to terms with the danger he himself has unleashed into the world. The film takes its time with presenting who Stark is before his abduction and the long process of transforming him into someone new. The downside is Iron Man himself won’t appear until well into the film; the upside, however, is that by the time he does appear you are completely invested in this character and the struggles he will face throughout the rest of the film.

Gwyneth Paltrow provides some nice moments as well in her role as Stark’s executive assistant Pepper Potts. The banter between the pair is wonderful and I praise the screenwriters for making her a smart and complete character who adds another layer to the film. Terrence Howard is Terrence Howard (what more do you have to say?), and provides a strong supporting performance as the man we might get to see as War Machine in a future film.

The special effects, done by ILM, are amazing and provided many moments of applause from the audience throughout the film. Iron Man himself is simply awesome whether standing or flying into action. Favreau also adds light touches of humor through Stark’s construction of the final suit. Although not necessary to the overall plot, they give the story a balance to the film’s darker moments and Favreau is careful never to go too far in keeping the film, almost completely, cheese free.

The film does have a few flaws. The largest of which is a shaky final act between Iron Man and the Iron Monger. Although well done, the sight of two CGI robots battling it out isn’t as fun as Iron Man’s other adventures in the film. Part of the problem is the other elements of the film are simply superior to this final big budget throwdown, and part of the problem is the lumbering Iron Monger armor itself. Although it exudes danger and power, in the end it comes off as a slow and ungainly robot. The battle also includes one of the few groan moments of the film when the story incorporates a much over-used horror flick plot device. Elements to the big climactic fight are also left unresolved, and the head scratching ending isn’t so much glossed over as completely ignored (though the film’s final sequence does end on a high note).

Although Iron Man isn’t a perfect film, it is very, very cool. It earns points for me in terms of story, keeping true to the origin of the character, a good mix of drama and humor, and some kick ass fight scenes and special effects (even if it does struggle at times during the final act). The film does an excellent job in handling the origin of the hero, bringing it into the 21st Century, and incorporating the Iron Monger storyline to create something which honors the original and gives us something new as well. If Marvel Studios can keep producing films of this quality then comic book geeks are going to be happy for a long time.

Made of Honor

“I want you to be my maid of honor.”

After realizing he loves his best friend, Tom (Patrick Dempsey) decides to pledge his love. The only trouble is Hannah (Michelle Monaghan) has just gotten engaged to a Scottish noble (Kevin McKidd) and has asked Tom to be her maid of honor. Of course he accepts (leading to mayhem) and tries to win her for himself (leading to mischief).

What follows is exactly what you’d expect. Tom struggles with his duties as maid of honor and his inability to stop the wedding and tell Hannah his true feelings.

Although the film isn’t awful, it lacks any spark or reason for us to care about these people. Hannah doesn’t seem better off with Tom or Colin than she would be on her own. And Tom’s sudden need to express his feelings reeks more of desperation than true love.

Monaghan and Dempsey are fine in the leads, but they come off more as good friends than characters who the audience should be rooting to get together.

The real problem is the writing. The film never puts forth any effort when tired cliché will do. We get Tom being mistaken for gay (because what straight man would be a maid of honor), Tom wearing a tiny kilt, misunderstandings, the jealous best girlfriend (Busy Phillips) trying to wreck Tom’s role as maid of honor, trips to lingerie shops and dildo presentations. Don’t even get me started on the recurring joke of the glow-in-the-dark pleasure beads (don’t ask).

This is one of those films if you happened to turn on the television and discover you might watch for a few minutes and either 1) fall asleep or 2) change the channel and promptly forget its existence. The screenwriters take My Best Friend’s Wedding (which itself isn’t a great film, but is far superior to this attempt), swap the genders, and amp up the craziness, because… Well, that’s the real question, isn’t it? Sadly there’s some talented performers here, nice locations, and a friendship which could have been the heart of a better film, all wasted on a braindead romantic comedy.