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The Last Reel (2014)
A masterpiece from Cambodia
I saw this film on July 30, 2016 at Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival. It won the award for best film there. Moore and the director, Kulikar Sotho, introduced it and held a Q&A after the showing. Though the screenplay is credited to Ian McMasters, the story is Sotho's. She revealed before the showing that, yes, the amazing characters are based on her and her mother's true-life experiences. The main character, a teenage girl, becomes friends with the projectionist at an abandoned movie house and discovers some interesting things that took place before she was born. It contains echoes of Cinema Paradiso, but I believe it is even better.
It takes place in modern-day Cambodia, but memories of the country's gloomy past are ever-present. The acting and the quality of filming are superb, while the crackling energy of modern-day Phnom Penh is expertly captured. Her humble demeanor at the festival belies the fact that she is certainly the Orson Welles of her nation.
A sexy, suspenseful drama for an adult audience
Java Man Reviews "Unfaithful" (rated R) Directed by Adrian Lyne Written by Alvin Sargent & William Broyles Jr., based on a script by Claude Chabrol Starring Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Olivier Martinez & Erik Per Sullivan Running Time: 123 minutes Originally published in LakewoodBuzz.Com, July, 2002
Connie Sumner (Lane) lives in the cushy comfort of Westchester County with her attentive but preoccupied husband Edward (Gere) and their cute 9-year-old son Charlie (Sullivan). One day while shopping in New York City, she gets caught in a severe windstorm and is unable to hail a taxi. When she falls and cuts her knee, Paul, a young bookseller with an excess of European charm, comes to her rescue. She soon finds herself in his apartment, getting tea and sympathy—and just a little too excited. Later, she returns to the danger and excitement of the city, revisits Paul's apartment and begins a fiery affair. Edward eventually suspects that Connie has wandered and hires a seedy Shamus to investigate. When the private eye produces proof, a series of events are set in motion that are unpredictable yet inevitable.
REVIEW: 3 Java mugs out of 4
We know what is going to happen; the title gives that away. What we don't know is why. Why would a happily married woman become unfaithful? Her husband is seemingly not to blame, and there isn't anything especially impulsive in her personality. So, we ask, why? The answer is, it just happens. And, like voyeurs, we watch it happen.
This film is based on "La Femme Infidele" (1969) by New Waver Claude Chabrol, and the French connection is evident. A typical Hollywood film would provide justifications and explanations for her infidelity, but this film simply shows a woman who knows that what she's doing is wrong but does it anyway. The events that result from her actions aren't easily resolved and the filmmakers do not tack on a pat Hollywood ending.
As for performances, Gere is understated but effective as the hurting husband and Martinez is believable as the charming young book dealer, but the film belongs to Lane, whose remarkably complex performance should be remembered at Oscar time. If we learn anything about the mystery of infidelity, it's through her performance. But thankfully, some exciting mysteries--like a windstorm, the streets of New York or an affair--are left unsolved.
Director Lyne, best known for Fatal Attraction, another, far less subtle film about adultery, has taken a more thoughtful screenplay and fashioned a sexy, suspenseful drama for an adult audience.
Monster of Party Beach (2014)
The greatest movie ever made . . . for $180.
A friend of mine gave this DVD to me at a film program I was presenting at the library. He said he didn't want it back. His loss. This is the greatest movie ever made . . . for $180. The special effects alone are worth more than the price of admission. My favorite line comes near the beginning from one of the victims: "At least I don't have to hear her sing." Some of the characters can be seen reading their lines, but that just makes it all the more hilarious. Turns out I recognize a few of the many names in the credits, including the dean of the department where I teach film appreciation. I still can't believe it only cost $180. There must have been more than that spent on ketchup, red Kool-Aid, strawberry sauce or whatever it was.
Possibly Ireland's masterpiece
Saw this at a preview screening in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. There was a lot more to this movie than meets the eye. Though some Christians may not be able to get past the film's R rating, there is something deeply religious about this movie. An innocent man may die for another's sins. It is also very Irish: Padraig Pearse's "blood sacrifice" was necessary for Ireland to come into existence. The bleak Irish coastline is almost a character unto itself. Amazingly, there is quite a bit of humor in this film, too. I haven't quite figured out what M. Emmet Walsh was doing in this picture, but he was just one of a very strong ensemble of actors, led by the brilliant Brendan Gleeson. Possibly Ireland's masterpiece.
Stories We Tell (2012)
Sarah Polley is one to watch
I saw this at the Canadian top Ten Film Festival at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto in early January of 2013. It was preceded by a "Mavericks" Q&A featuring Director Sarah Polley with the Festival's Artistic Director. Polley is best known in the USA as an actress in films such as Splice. This is her third feature as director, all of which have been chosen for the Canadian Top Ten. Even though it is a documentary about her family, it is quite riveting, with more than a few surprises. The interview style, camera work and narration are both innovative and effective. One of the interviewees asked her if she has any idea what she is doing, and she said no. After you see this, I think you will disagree. Sarah Polley is one to watch . . . as a writer-director.
Best train chases since Buster Keaton's The General
I saw this at the Toronto film festival on September 11, 2010, under the title, "The Edge". I walked in prepared for a heavy dose of Russian gloom. I like Russian literature, especially Chekhov, but I'm always reminded of these lines from a David Massengill song: "What's wrong with the Russians? Have you read their novels? They all die in brothels." In this case, there is nothing wrong with the Russians. This movie grabs you from the start and doesn't let go. Don't get me wrong, this is not a lighthearted movie; it has serious subject matter and complex issues that the characters must deal with . . . and there is plenty of gloom to go around.
Here is the situation in Siberia: At the beginning of World War II, while Stalin and Hitler were still honoring their non-aggression pact, Germans and Russians were co-existing in a remote labor camp. Eventually, Stalin sends his thugs to oust the Germans and declare the Russian inhabitants to be collaborators. At this point the film opens with a young girl running for her life. Four years later, the fighting is over and a Soviet war hero has arrived to work on the town's steam engine. The only Germans left are the illegitimate child of one of the Russian women . . . and don't forget that running girl.
I found myself missing some of the subtitles because I could not take my eyes of the compelling characters and the actors who play them. The standouts are Vladimir Mashkov as the hero and Anjorka Strechel and Yulia Peresild as the women who love/hate him. But his true passion is the steam engine, which he races through the snowy Siberian woods.
The steam locomotive chase sequences are the best put on film since Buster Keaton spectacularly crashed a Union train into Oregon's Rock River in The General (1927). It's as though director Uchitel is rebuilding the train and the bridge Keaton destroyed eight decades ago and a half a world away.
Unlike Keaton's masterpiece, which should have won an Oscar in 1927, this film is Russia's entry into the 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar competition.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Johansson and Jackson indicted for scene stealing
Java Man Reviews "Iron Man 2"
Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com May, 2010.
While the identity of most super heroes remains shrouded in mystery, billionaire inventor Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) has been publicly revealed as the breast-plated bad-boy known as Iron Man. Unlike Batman or Spiderman, Stark has to deal with things like Senate hearings, jealous G-Men and rival CEOs. Everyone wants the Iron Man technology. Meanwhile, over in Russia, a metallic mastermind named Ivan (Rourke) is steeling himself to challenge Stark for world supremacy. Returning from the original Iron Man are Stark's trusted assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and army liaison "Rhodey" Rhodes (Cheadle). New characters are Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) and Nick Fury (Jackson) both of whom add a big dose of scene-stealing appeal.
REVIEW: 3 of 4 Java Mugs
Sequels are inevitably compared to their originals and more often than not they don't measure up. Because of the cast, this one could have been an exception: Downey is still a marvel to watch and Paltrow may be even better in this version; Cheadle, who replaces Terrence Howard, is also fine. Rourke and Rockwell as villains and Jackson and Johansson as intriguing spy types are all fascinating; and Shandling as the chairman of a Senate investigating committee is hilarious. But the screenplay is very much by-the-numbers, and it just doesn't add up. The captivating characters and stimulating situations which distinguished the original have given way to long and loud action sequences.
But if it's action you want, you've got it; these scenes are very well done and are accompanied by lots of heavy metal music (what else?). The cinematography is also noticeably sharp with a lots of excellent aerial views. Great location work in and around California, and in Monaco during the principality's Grand Prix, also adds to the film's visual vitality.
I waited in a long line to see this movie, but it was worth it because of the enthusiastic audience that surrounded me. Come early to get a good seat--and stay late through the end credits for a big hint at what may be coming next from the franchise.
An engaging set-up for the final episodes
Java Man Reviews "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com July, 2009.
The film opens with our hero, Harry (Radcliffe), hanging out in a late night café perusing his copy the Daily Prophet and flirting with an eye-catching waitress. They make a date for the end of her shift, but Harry can't keep it because he is whisked away by His Beardness, Professor Albus Dumbledore (Gambon). They soar into the night and arrive at the home of Horace Slughorn (Broadbent), a former Hogwarts lecturer who Dumbledore is trying to persuade to return to his old job as Professor of Potions. Slugborn, with his unique technique of recovering past memories, may be the key to the psyche of one Tom Riddle, a former student who has morphed into the vile Lord Voldemort. Thus begins the sixth adventure of Harry and his conjuring cohorts Hermione and Ron (Watson & Grint) as they divide their time between studies in sorcery and the looming confrontation with Voldemort.
Oh, and that crazy Slugborn mixes one humdinger of a love potion.
REVIEW: 3 1/2 of 4 Java Mugs
Other than the fact that they are both British, and that each is destined to save the world, Harry Potter and James Bond have one other thing in common: Their movie franchises have logged the highest box office totals ever, with Potter likely to pass Bond by the time you read this. Another item that may please the Potter fans is that there will be ten Best Picture nominees this year instead of five, giving the Potter cast and crew a pretty good chance to work some magic on the red carpet.
The story is basically a set-up for the final episodes of the series; an engaging set-up, but a set-up nonetheless. Yet it works. I sensed that most of the patrons of the sold-out midnight showing I attended would have plunked down good money to watch the next two films until dawn.
There is more attention paid to character than in previous Potter outings, but some of our favorite villains make only token appearances. Those dynamic Death Eaters and the deliciously evil Bellatrix Lestrange (Bonham Carter) are in far too few scenes; and Voldemort appears only as a threatening cloud formation. Not to worry, though. We will certainly see more of them in 2010 and 2011 when the series wraps up with the filming of the final book in two parts.
The performances are up to the series high standards. Radcliffe and Watson are fine, as usual, and Grint has much more to do this go-around and does it well. Of course the Hogwarts faculty, portrayed by British acting legends such as Smith and Gambon, are a joy to watch. Rickman as Snape and newcomer Broadbent as Slugborn are standouts.
Director Yates and his team have created a bleaker and more ominous Hogwarts, no doubt setting the stage for the dark themes that are to follow. Atmospheric cinematography in Norway, the Scottish Highlands and dozens of English prep schools provide backdrops which are cunningly combined with outstanding visual effects.
No dragons were harmed during the filming of this movie
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Reviewed by Terry "Java Man" Meehan Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com December, 2005.
The film opens in a large stadium where the Quidditch World Cup is in progress, and Ireland and Bulgaria are about to take to their brooms. As Harry and his pals (Radcliffe, Grint & Watson) are about to enjoy the spectacle, the stadium is attacked by a hoard of Klan-like pointy heads known as the Death Eaters -- minions of the feared Lord Voldemort (Fiennes), the arch-fiend who will be Potter's likely nemesis for the balance of the series. The Death Eaters are repelled, for now, and so its back to Hogwarts for the film's main storyline... the Triwizard Tournament. The other two competing schools are the husky, pumped-up boys from Durmstrang and the lithe and lovely girls from Beauxbaton. The imaginative arrival of the visiting teams sets the exciting tone for the rest of the film. The Goblet of Fire chooses the finalists -- one from each school -- each of whom must be at least 17 years old. As wide-eyed, 14-year old Harry looks on, he is astonished that the Goblet spits out an unprecedented fourth name... his. As Harry battles dragons and Death Eaters through mazes and lagoons, he must face up to the most daunting challenge of all... getting a date to the Triwizard Ball.
REVIEW: 3 1/2 Java Mugs out of 4
If Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry were located anywhere in the real world, it would be forced to close its doors by protesting parents and outraged lawmakers. But,thankfully, the paranormal prep school exists in the imagination of author J.K. Rowling, and in our own collective imagination, thanks to Klove's bewitching screen writing and Newell's wizardly direction.
Though some of the miniature sets are given away by hasty camera moves, the film's production design more than adequately creates a wondrous world where witches and warlocks can live and work. England and Scotland provide stunning exteriors, while an endless supply of British prep schools contribute fascinating interiors.
The spine of the story, the Triwizard competition, is compelling and easy to follow, even for those unfamiliar with Rowling's rambling prose. Some younger viewers, however, may cringe at the scarier scenes, and thus the PG-13 rating. Subplots abound, and add immensely to the film's entertainment value... Coltrane's giant Hagrid finally finds romance with the even taller headmistress of Beauxbaton; and the 14-year-old leads agonize over how to get dates for the Triwizard Ball.
Radcliffe gives his best performance yet, and Watson continues to blossom into a sexy-smart scene stealer. The supporting cast is once again a who's who of a seemingly never-ending pool of Irish-English master actors and actresses. Especially welcome is the addition of Gleeson as "Mad Eye" Moody, the professor who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts. His quick-pan, zoom-lens eye can spot a student goof-off from across the commons. Though Smith has fewer scenes this go-around, her Jean Brodie-esquire comment to a fellow faculty member is one of the funniest lines in the film.
This is a cinematic treat for anyone, young or old. And, you'll be happy to know, according to the credits that "no dragons were harmed during the filming of this movie."
Magicians not to be messed with
Java Man Reviews "Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban" Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com July, 2004.
Harry (Radcliffe) and his pals Hermione and Ron (Watson and Grint) are now in their third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry when news arrives of the escape from prison of the notorious murderer Sirius Black (Oldman), who is after Harry. "Protecting" the students are the Dementors, sinister wraiths that can suck souls from the bodies of their victims. Harry acquires a marauder's map which has special powers that come in handy as the story progresses, especially when a werewolf begins to prowl the grounds. Hagrid (Coltrane) introduces the three friends to Buckbeak, a hippogriff (half bird, half horse), who may be a match for the nocturnal beast. Most of the Hogwarts faculty is back, with some new additions, including Professors Lupin (Thewlis) and Trelawney (Thompson).
REVIEW: 3 1/2 Java Mugs out of 4
Harry Potter (Radcliffe) transforms an obnoxious dinner guest into a hot-air balloon. Hermione Granger (Watson) lands an uppercut to the jaw of the despicable Draco Malfoy (Felton). These aren't the well-behaved, precocious preteens of the first Harry Potter movie. They, along with their primary audience, are growing into teenagers -- and are not to be messed with.
There's an edge to this movie, thanks to the brilliant direction of Cuaron, one of Mexico's bright young movie makers and director of one of the best films to cross the Rio Grande in recent years... Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Though the story follows much of the formula of the first two episodes, sharp writing and directing elevate the material beyond author Rowling's rules of order. Especially effective are the tricks with time travel, which can be appreciated even more on a second viewing.
Young performers Radcliffe and Grint continue their fine work, but the revelation this time is Watson's portrayal of the smart, assertive Hermione, a character who provides inspiration for young women in the audience and young actresses as well. There's been some talk of bringing on newer, younger child stars for future episodes, but I'd like to see these three actors take the characters into at least their late teens.
As for the older players, there seems to be an endless supply of great British character actors who can be called upon to fill any vacancies among the Hogwarts staff. New for this outing is Gambon who capably fills the Dumbledorean robes of the late Richard Harris; Thompson as the hilariously nearsighted tea-leaf reading Sybill Trelawney; Thewlis as Professor Lupin, the Dark Arts Defense teacher with a suspicious surname; and Oldman as the dreaded Sirius Black who is in dogged pursuit of Harry.
Shot in England and Scotland, the look of the film complements the mystical material very well, while the computer graphics, animation and the other cinematic "magic" add to an enjoyable experience for the entire family.
More magic from the paranormal prep school
Java Man Reviews "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (Rated PG) Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com December, 2002.
In this, the second of a planned series of seven films, a strange creature named Dobby visits Harry Potter (Radcliffe) while Harry is at home on summer vacation with the dastardly Dursleys. The "house elf" warns Harry that a deadly new menace--one that turns students to stone--is wreaking havoc on his beloved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. With his friends Ron and Hermione (Grint and Watson), Harry returns to Hogwarts and begins to search for the Chamber of Secrets, where he hopes to locate and destroy the source of the evil. According to legend, a strange serpent stands guard at the chamber door, but Harry must also contend with a diary that writes itself, evildoers from Hogwarts' past and suspicious characters who turn up in all corners of the paranormal prep school.
REVIEW: 3 of 4 Java Mugs
Near the beginning of the movie, we are flying over an extraordinary complex of buildings that seem to be made up of well-carved, picturesque miniatures. As the camera moves closer, however, we actually enter a full-sized room and have magically arrived at Hogwarts School, thanks to one of the many compelling visual devices employed by the filmmakers.
The faculty and staff at Hogwarts remain deliciously eccentric, played by British film legends such as Oscar winner Maggie Smith and the late Richard Harris. But the ones to watch are the three cohorts in conjuring who lead us through the halls of Hogwarts to places we never thought could exist. New to the cast is Dobby, a computer generated house elf, and Branagh, a hapless teacher of the dark arts. Dobby is far less annoying that Stars Wars' infamous Jar-Jar Binks; Branagh, unfortunately, is not.
Topnotch production design and cinematography combine with slick editing and well-orchestrated action scenes to provide a fast-paced, sumptuous visual feast.
Can the cast and crew keep it up for seven films? Rowling is still writing and her fans are still buying the books and the movie tickets.
Wizards: On-screen and behind it too
Java Man Reviews "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com December, 2001.
As an infant, Harry Potter (Radcliffe) was deposited on the doorstep of his mean aunt and uncle, and has been living with them and sleeping in a cupboard below the stairs. On his 11th birthday he learns that he's a wizard when he's invited to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. Once he arrives at the paranormal prep school he becomes friends with the clever Hermione (Watson) and the courageous Ron (Grint). He also encounters the hilariously outlandish instructors (Harris, Smith, Rickman and Hart) and the gruff but gentle groundskeeper (Coltrane). While Harry and his friends compete with the other houses on campus, they are also drawn into an adventure involving a mysterious wizard who wants to steal the Sorcerer's Stone. The courage and cleverness of his friends rubs off on Harry and, as the movie ends, his life as a young wizard is... just beginning.
REVIEW: 3 1/2 of 4 Java Mugs
The movie version of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has been long awaited by young readers and their parents, and they won't be disappointed. The screenplay is quite faithful to the book and is fascinating enough to hold any audience's attention despite the 2 1/2 hour length. Episodes are strung together without much transition or explanation but this is a minor fault, since it allows that much more of the story to reach the screen. The dialogue is fast paced and witty, with plenty of high-spirited humor.
Some of the movie's best lines come from Coltrane's character who keeps amazing himself by revealing secrets he is supposed to keep. Radcliffe admirably inhabits Harry's trademark eyeglasses and closely matches the visual image that has emerged from the buzz around book series. As the character closest to "normal," he is our guide into the movie's weird and wonderful world. Watson and Grint are also delightful as his cohorts in conjuring. The witches and wizards who run the arcane academy are played with enormous relish by some of the best British actors at work today, led by Harris, Rickman, Hart and Smith (who, like Jean Brodie, seems forever in her prime).
There are wizards off-screen, too -- those in charge of bringing key episodes to life. Lavish cinematography and imaginative set design capture the central images of the book, including the high-flying Quidditch match (played on turbo-powered broomsticks) and the crucial Wizard's chess match. Computer visuals are combined with actual locations to give the setting a sort of realistic unreality. John Williams' superb score further enlivens many of the key scenes.
And there's more to come. Kloves has already written the screenplay for the second installment and is currently adapting the third novel, while Rowling is about to publish her fifth book in the series.
Everything you crave for your spy movie fix
Java Man Reviews "Duplicity" Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com April, 2009.
Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and Ray Koval (Owen) are government agents (US and British) who first meet on assignment in Dubai. They sleep together, he gets drugged and she steals his secret documents. When Ray wakes up, she's gone and so is his MI6 self respect. When he finally catches up with her, she asks "what kind of revenge do you have in mind?" Three days later they emerge from a hotel room, exhausted and very much in love--or are they? Can we believe them? Can they trust each other? But what else are two respectable spooks supposed to do with their time, now that the cold war is over? The big money, they come to discover, is in corporate espionage. Shampoos and conditioners, face cream formulas and frozen pizzas are the raisons d'être of the new cold war. It is especially profitable if two competing CEOs can't stand one another, as in the case of Burkett & Randle's Howard Tully (Wilkinson) and Equikrom's Dick Garsik (Giamatti). The film opens with a comical brawl between the two when they happen to meet on a rain-soaked tarmac where their company jets are parked. Ray and Claire each obtain a position in one of the two corporate spy networks and begin to "play" their bosses--and one another. Or are they being played? At stake is a top-secret formula so mysterious that not even the spies know what it is.
REVIEW: 3 Java Mugs out of 4
A MacGuffin, according to Hitchcock, is "what the spies are after, but the audience don't care." This must be the ultimate MacGuffin, because not only do we not care, we don't even know what it is until nearly the end of the movie. But rest assured that this MacGuffin is one which Hitchcock himself would personally appreciate.
There are hidden cameras, hidden microphones, secret meetings, secret formulas, spies following spies--everything you crave for your spy movie fix. Exotic locations are also part of the pleasure, including Dubai, Rome, London, New York and even a quick trip to Cleveland where they become briefly involved in a frozen pizza plot.
Storytelling technique is a bit confusing at first. Flashback's are used with split screen images to reveal the plans of the two rogue agents as they scheme to strike it rich. It eventually becomes clear that each flashback is bringing the narrative toward the present and toward the story's somewhat surprising conclusion.
Roberts and Owen are fine, but neither their roles as written nor their acting styles add anything to the time-tested characterizations of cinema spies. They are clever and resourceful but perhaps a bit too predictable. The two corporate moguls, on the other hand, are by far the most fascinating characters in the film. More screen time for these two, especially Wilkinson, would have added greatly to the movie's appeal.
Star Trek (2009)
Mr. Sulu, take us to the sequel
Java Man Reviews "Star Trek" Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com May, 2009.
J. J. Abrams and his film-making team have taken the legendary Star Trek franchise back to its origins, to a point even before the TV series had its debut in 1966. Like James Bond and Casino Royale, the narrative reveals how familiar characters were forged by the fires of experience. For example, Kirk (Pine) began as a rebellious Iowa farm boy, Spock (Quinto) a conflicted (and emotional!) half-breed, Uhura (Saldana) a linguistic genius, and McCoy (Urban) a divorced intern who was left with nothing but his bones. Chekov, Sulu and Scotty (Yelchin, Cho & Pegg) also have intriguing back stories that plausibly project into the characters we remember from the series.
After some initial rough going, including a bitter rivalry between Spock and Kirk, the crew eventually finds itself on board the Enterprise in hot pursuit of the Romulan villain, Nero (Bana), who is destroying Federation planets in revenge for his own planet's demise. Nero is from another time, and his nemesis is a future version of Spock (Nimoy). By the end of the action, the familiar scene is set, as Kirk and his crew return to the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
REVIEW: 3 1/2 out of 4 Java Mugs
When Gene Roddenberry introduced Star Trek TV series over 40 years ago, he created a universe full of fascinating characters and situations, along with lots of action and adventure. He also mixed in imaginative ideas about literature, religion, philosophy, and what it is to be human (or any other life form). For fans of the series, the characters he created are indelible. What this film is tasked with doing is to recreate these characters with a new generation of actors, each of whom must channel their originals in such a way that fans find it plausible. (Yeah, that could be James T. Kirk, as a preteen leading an Iowa state trooper on a merry chase in a "borrowed" corvette.)
Though the appearance of Nimoy as the elder Spock does help tie the generations together, it will take the next edition of the series before we find out how well the filmmakers have done. Will the writing and characterization rise to the level of Roddenberry's genius? We can only hope.
For non-Trekkies and Star Wars fans, there is plenty for you too. The film holds up quite well as a Sci-Fi thriller with a warp-speed storyline, a suitably sinister villain, stunning visuals, lots of attractive future stars and not a few laughs.
Mr. Sulu, take us to the sequel.
Watching The Watchmen at Midnight in Lakewood, Ohio.
Java Man Reviews "The Watchmen." Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com March, 2009.
The year is a nightmare version of 1985 with Richard Nixon in his fifth term as President. The era of the superheroes (which started in 1940, as sort of costume club) is coming to an end. Nixon has used the awesome power of Dr. Manhattan (played by Billy Crudup) to subdue the Viet Cong, and is now riding high as the world's most powerful man. But the superheroes begin to disappear one by one, starting with the amusingly cynical Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Is Tricky Dick behind this conspiracy too? All of the events are being recorded in the journal of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), whose mask is a constantly shifting pattern of blotches.
A tender love story emerges between Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), each of whom has the romantic notion that they can make the world a better place. Silk Specter I (Carla Gugino) is II's shrewish mom. The other superhero who figures in the plot is Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), whose power is that he is "the smartest man in the world." (And I always thought that was Henry Kissinger, who, incidentally, is still Secretary of State).
REVIEW: 3 1/2 out of 4 Java Mugs
This film opened Friday, March 6, 2009, and The Detroit Theatre in Lakewood was one of the first to show it with a screening at midnight. When I heard that Richard Nixon was in this movie, and that he was still president in 1985, I thought it must be a horror flick. Actually, it is a very engaging adaptation of a graphic novel, complete with complex superheroes, a captivating plot and a fascinating collection of real-life pop icons (such as Ted Koppel, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol, in addition to Nixon and Kissinger).
Probably the most intriguing of the superheroes is Haley's Rorschach who is investigating the disappearances and recording everything in his journal. He's even better when he takes off his mask. Just the opposite is true of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, who only captivate when in costume. Other watchable characters are Crudup's Dr. Manhattan and Gugino's Silk Spectre I.
Though the film is long and the narrative a bit rambling, it never gets boring. The special effects and computer wizardry are excellent, but the film doesn't lean on them too heavily; something is happening all the time, and most of it is character driven. Everything looks just right, too, from the epic depiction of the planet of Mars to the small detail of the over-sized eyeglasses everyone used to wear in the '80s.
While most of the action takes place in 1985, the filmmakers have made the surprisingly effective choice to comment on the action by way of songs from the '60s, including key classics from the songbooks of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon.
As I stroll home after the bars have closed, I look forward to more midnight showings at the Detroit Theatre.
Characters we might meet on Castro Street
Java Man Reviews "Milk." Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com January, 2009.
The film opens with Harvey Milk (Penn) at the age of 48 speaking into a tape recorder and reflecting on the last 8 years of his life. His compelling journey began at age 40 when as a Wall Street wonder boy he realized that there is more to life than hiding in the closet and collecting paychecks. He meets and falls in love with Scott Smith (Franco) and they move to San Francisco to open a camera shop on Castro Street, where the gay community is being continuously harassed by homophobic police. The camera store becomes a gathering place for young gays, such as Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg (Hirsch and Pill), who are becoming increasingly active in the fight for gay rights. After several defeats, Milk is elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors where he meets and works with Mayor George Moscone (Garber) and fellow supervisor Dan White (Brolin). As the film progresses, these three men move inevitably toward a crucial moment in San Francisco history.
REVIEW: 4 out of 4 Java Mugs
We know how this ends: Dan White walks into Mayor George Moscone's office, kills him, and then continues down the hall and into Supervisor Harvey Milk's office and kills him. So how does this film hold our interest (not to mention earn a 4-mug rating from this stingy critic)? It holds our interest because all of the elements of great film-making make an appearance.
It begins with Dustin Lance Black's compelling screenplay, based on a few short years in the life of a compelling character.
It also takes outstanding performances to bring the screenplay's characters to life. Penn is brilliant as the charismatic Milk while Brolin is exceptional as the ticking bomb who is Dan White. Other performances are solid, too, especially Hirsch, Franco and Pill as Milk's political pals. The cast is so competent and well-directed that we forget that they actors, but consider them as characters we might actually meet on Castro Street.
At the helm of all this is director Van Sant and his team of fellow artists who have used their film-making skills to take us back to another time. The setting is created in such a way that San Francisco of the seventies comes to life before our very eyes. The way they dress, the way they speak, the interior of the camera store--everything is accurate to the tiniest detail. Hand-held shots, close-ups, razor-sharp editing are all used effectively to evoke a sense of urgency and suspense.
There is a remarkable shot near the end, showing a candlelight march reaching as far as the eye can see. This is actual footage, in which Van Sant manages to insert several of his characters. It is emotionally powerful.
Each of the elements of great film-making mentioned here are represented by Oscar nominations for Black, Van Sant, Penn and Brolin. Then add 3 more for costume design, music and editing, and we can look for a few statuettes to find their way to the Milk contingent.
Yes Man (2008)
With Carrey in the lead this screenplay should write itself
Java Man Reviews "Yes Man" (PG-13) Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com December, 2008.
Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) is a divorced 40-something who lives in LA and works as a loan officer for a neighborhood bank. Depressed at being dumped, he says "no" to everything: "no" to unlucky loan applicants; "no" to his best pal (Bradley Cooper) who wants to hit the bars; and "no" to his sex-starved neighbor (Fionnula Flanagan) who wants him to get intimate. While sitting home alone watching a video one night, he nods off and dreams of his demise. When he awakens, he realizes that he has a problem and reluctantly agrees to attend a "Power of Yes" seminar conducted by self-help guru Terrence Bundley (Terence Stamp). After initial resistance, Carl is finally won over and accepts the Covenant of Yes. This means that when he says "no" (say, to his naughty neighbor), bad things happen--like being trapped in an elevator. When he says "yes" (giving all his money to a homeless guy), good things happen--like meeting gorgeous, free-spirited Allison (Zooey Deschanel). The comic possibilities are endless.
REVIEW: 2.5 out of 4 Java Mugs
With Carrey in the lead role, a story like this should write itself. Or at least one would think so. The movie is funny enough, but somehow it seems like it should have been funnier. Perhaps the premise has too many comic possibilities for its own good. It ends up being a mishmash of random episodes, some of which are inspired while others should have been consigned to the cutting room floor.
It can't be blamed on the cast. Appealing newcomers Cooper and Deschanel light up the screen, while veterans Stamp and Flanagan make the most of their unimaginatively written roles. The talented Carrey is more than adequate, but he is unable to convincingly sell the outlandish premise as well as he did in a similar, better movie, Liar Liar.
The film has great production values and is quite watchable. The action scenes and stunt work are top notch, while the location work is inspired. Underutilized LA backdrops such as the Hollywood Bowl and Griffith Park Observatory are used so well that this film's portrayal of the city rivals Woody Allen's love affair with the Big Apple.
This movie offers a point to go with your popcorn: that saying yes once in a while can open you up to life's infinite possibilities. Frank Capra would have loved it.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Good and evil are easy to spot . . . in a comic book
Java Man Reviews "The Dark Knight" (PG-13) Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman & Morgan Freeman. Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com November, 2008.
Once again it is time for all of the good people of Gotham City to marshal its forces against the architects of evil. On the side of good are Batman/Bruce Wayne (Bale), District Attorney Dent (Eckhart), Assistant D.A. Dawes (Gyllenhaal) and career cop Gordon (Oldman). The allies of evil include the city's crime kingpins and the satanically sinister Joker (Ledger).
Good and evil are easy to spot . . . in a comic book.
But in the noirish world created by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, things get complicated--and interesting. Is Batman a hero? Or is he an outside-the-law vigilante? The joker gets his jollies by pitting the so-called good characters against each other as he creates one ethical dilemma after another. For example, two ferry-loads of passengers are placed in a position where they must decide to blow up the other boat before they get incinerated themselves. What would you do? By the end of the film good and evil have kept themselves well-hidden, behind a veil of ethical and moral ambiguity.
REVIEW: 4 out of 4 Java Mugs!
With a cast of characters who originated on the pages of a comic book one might expect simplistic storytelling and cardboard characters. This film is any thing but, because it transcends its source in a way that The Godfather films outclass the pulp novels they were based upon. Compelling dialog immediately pulls us into the narrative, just as the characters find themselves drawn into the complex chaos of human existence. The Joker's nonstop patter is a perfect example: In addition to his usual wisecracks and witticisms, he spouts such surprisingly complex comments that a psychology major might start taking notes.
But its not just the dialog, it's the late Heath Ledger's inspired performance that makes the Joker such a memorable character. He may win a posthumous Oscar. Though not as dominating as Ledger's, other performances are extremely effective. Bale's deep-voiced, brooding Batman reveals how similar these polar opposites really are. "You complete me" the Joker informs Batman at one point. Eckhart, Gyllenhaal and Oldman are quite convincing as the crime-fighting trio who try to bring the bad guys to bay. Significant supporting work is turned in by Oscar-winners Caine and Freeman as Batman's worldly wise backups.
The technical aspects of the film are flawless. Many scenes have been shot with Imax cameras and Chicago is magnificently cast as Gotham. Well-executed chase scenes and other action sequences perfectly match the film's somber tone. Obvious CGI is kept at a minimum, and everything seems to be happening on the mean streets of Gotham, rather than on a hard drive of a computer.
As of this writing, The Dark Knight is the second-highest grossing film of all time, just 50 million or so behind Titanic. This is a much better movie, so let's get out to the theater and pass that sinking ship, $8.00 at a time.
Four Christmases (2008)
It's Christmas . . . and we want to watch them suffer
Java Man Reviews "Four Christmases" (PG-13) Directed by Seth Gordon. Written by Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn, Jon Voight, Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, Jon Favreau, Carol Kane, Kristin Chenoweth and Tim McGraw. Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com November, 2008.
Brad and Kate (Vaughn and Witherspoon) are a happily UNmarried San Francisco couple who have a unique holiday tradition: Every year they embark upon a Christmas vacation to a sunny locale after fibbing to their families about where they are bound. This year they say, Burma for charity work, but it's really Fiji for frolicking. As they head for the airport, we see the Golden Gate bridge shrouded in fog. All flights are canceled, and worse yet, they get caught on camera when the nightly news does a segment on stranded passengers. They're busted . . . and expected to show up at each of their four divorced parents' homes for Christmas. If you are part of a dysfunctional family (and you know that you are), then just imagine your worst Christmas ever, and multiply that by four.
REVIEW: 2.5 out of 4 Java Mugs
You would think that when Brad and Kate find that their flight to Fiji has been canceled, it would arouse sympathy in the audience. Well, forget it! If we have to live through another family Christmas, so do they. In fact, we want to watch them suffer, because, as it turns out, their Christmas Day is going to turn out much worse than yours or mine.
The story is simple, and we have seen much of it before. With four divorced parents, their partners, and an array of siblings and step-siblings, every archetype of family dysfunction is on display. Brad gets ambushed and assaulted by his cage-fighting brothers (Favreau and McGraw), as Kate looks on in shock. Kate is humiliated about her childhood eating habits by her sister and mother (Chenoweth and Steenburgen), as Brad looks on in shock. There are children behaving badly and projectile vomiting babies. You get the idea.
There are a few truly humorous scenes, such as a family game of Taboo, during which Brad and Kate discover that they really don't know one another that well.
Performances are lively, and much of it seems improvised. The four parents are played by academy award winners Duval, Steenburgen, Spacek and Voight. While each did a respectable job, I don't think they need to figure on limousine-pooling to the Oscars next year. One of the most memorable characters is created by Chenoweth, as Kate's stressed-out big sister.
After a day of quadruple Christmases, Brad and Kate will surely decide to NEVER get married and NEVER have kids.
But what's that I hear? Tick . . . tick . . . tick.
The Duchess (2008)
Come for Princess Di, stay for Georgiana
Java Man Reviews "The Duchess" (Rated PG-13). Directed by Saul Dibb. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and Dibb, based on the book by Amanda Foreman. Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney and Aiden McArdle. Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com November, 2008.
As the movie opens, 17-year-old Georgiana Spenser (Knightley) is playfully teasing Charles Grey (Cooper), the budding politician who is smitten with her and remains so for the rest of the film. In the meantime, her status-conscious mother (Rampling) is arranging her marriage to William Cavendish, The Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes), a boorish nabob whose only obsessions are his dogs and his desire to produce a male heir. Once married, the young Duchess is treated like chattel and only receives husbandly attention as it relates to acquiring a son. Nevertheless, her irrepressible spirit and inherent wit propel her to notoriety among London's liberal elite. She supports the American and French Revolutions and is an ardent campaigner for Whig politicians such as future Prime Minister Charles Fox (McBurney). She also turns out to be a gifted fashion designer, one who wears dresses today that others will wear tomorrow. But she lives in an age where women have few rights, and this sets the stage for the kinds of conflicts that are a playwright's delight.
REVIEW: 3 out of 4 Java Mugs
From a leather-clad warrior-queen in King Arthur to a skinny soccer star in Bend it Like Beckham, Keira Knightley has dazzled her way through centuries of British history. And she is only 23. With her recent period pieces Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, one might declare: "Oh no, not another costumer with Keira!"
But this one is different (and just as good), because the compelling story involves real people, including the title character who is an ancestor of Diana Spenser, the late Princess of Wales. In fact, the plight of the 18th century Georgiana echoes that of 20th century Diana: a young girl marries a much older blue-blood with disastrous results. And, remember that play you read in English class, The School for Scandal? The marriage satirized by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is that of his contemporaries, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
The casting is dead-on. In addition to Knightley, who is near-perfect, Atwell is beguiling as the Duke's "other wife," while Fiennes manages to maintain interest in a character with few redeeming qualities. The supporting roles provide additional richness, including Rampling's ambitious matron, McBurney's insinuating Fox, and McArdle's subversive Sheridan. Least satisfying is Cooper as Earl Grey, the future Prime Minister (who had a tea named after him). Inspired costuming along with Britain's best castles and estates are put to good use to take the audience back in time.
Princess Diana may bring in the audiences, but they will stay for Georgiana.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Hollywood extras fire real bullets!
Java Man Reviews "Tropic Thunder" (Rated R) Directed by Ben Stiller. Written by Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen & Ben Stiller. Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Brandon T. Jackson, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Brandon Soo Hoo and a surprise actor. Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com September, 2008.
A troupe of actors (Stiller, Black, Downey, Jr., Baruchel & Jackson) are led into the jungle by pretentious director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) to make a Vietnam war movie. Along for the shoot are cynical screenwriter Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), explosives expert Cody (McBride) and a full crew of Hollywood tech types. When a mishap sidelines Cockburn, Stiller's character takes over and stages the scenes as if the cameras were still rolling (he thinks there are hidden cameras filming their every move). As they blunder further into the jungle, the extras playing the enemy are actually a gang of drug runners who are returning fire with real bullets, led by the scariest 12-year old drug lord you will ever see (Hoo). As the rumble in the jungle heats up, Hollywood heavyweights back home are trying to figure out what's happening. An agent (McConaughey), a studio executive (see if you can guess), and his obsequious assistant (Hader) fret over the possibility that the cast and crew may die . . . or, worse yet, the studio may lose money.
REVIEW: 3 1/2 out of 4 Java Mugs
The film opens with three fake movie trailers and a concession ad featuring several of the lead actors. These little comic gems help establish the characters while also revealing the filmmakers intentions... to satirize Hollywood movies, Hollywood culture, and yes, Hollywood's audiences (us). The fact that many in attendance at our preview screening actually thought these were trailers for real movies only proves the point that many movies are ridiculous, yet we pay to see them anyway. Some even said they wish the movies they advertised were real. Jack Black in an Eddie Murphy-like fat suit? Why not? The movie satirizes all things Hollywood, from self-important actors and outrageous executives to nearly every war movie ever made.
Six of this film's actors are big-name stars who have had leading roles in their own successful movies, yet they work as an effective ensemble under Stiller's inspired direction. You may not recognize one of them, and you will swear another is not who the credits say he is. But that's all part of the fun!
Perhaps the best of the group is Downey Jr. as a Russell Crowe-like Australian actor who takes "The Method" so seriously that he actually becomes his character--a streetwise African American (complete with surgically altered skin color). Of course the troupe also includes a real black actor-rapper named Alpa Chino (Jackson) who becomes hilariously aggravated by the Downey character's outrageous blackness.
There are plenty of gory scenes, but even they are part of the satire, and are exposed for what they are--blood & guts special effects. Hawaii is used successfully as a stand-in for the unnamed location that itself is masquerading as Vietnam.
Getting back to fake movie trailers, this film, along with Quentin Tarantino's and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse (2007) has helped spawn The International Fake Trailer Festival, part of the International Film Festival of Catalonia in Spain. You can upload your fake trailer to teaserland.com.
Get Smart (2008)
IT'S A MASTERPIECE! . . . Would you believe an entertaining popcorn movie?
Java Man Reviews "Get Smart" Directed by Peter Segal. Written by Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember, based on characters created by Mel Brooks & Buck Henry. Starring: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terrence Stamp, Patrick Warburton, James Caan & Ken Davitian. Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com August, 2008.
The film opens in Washington, D.C., where Maxwell Smart (Carell) walks in the footsteps of his television progenitor, Don Adams . . . down a corridor of opening and closing sliding-doors and into a telephone booth from which he precipitously drops into the secret headquarters of the spy agency CONTROL. When CONTROL is attacked by its evil rival, KAOS, the identities of its agents are compromised and the Chief (Arkin) has no choice but to promote Smart, who has always dreamed of working in the field with Agent 23 (Johnson).
But Smart is teamed with the only other agent whose identity hasn't been compromised . . . the competent, eye-catching Agent 99 (Hathaway). As Smart and 99 get closer to unraveling KAOS' sinister intentions, they discover that evil operatives Siegfried and Shtarker (Stamp and Davitian) are scheming to set off a bomb in Los Angeles where the president (Caan) is attending a concert.
REVIEW: 2.5 out of 4 Java Mugs!
IT'S A MASTERPIECE OF EPIC PROPORTIONS!... Would you believe a somewhat entertaining popcorn spy movie!
Back in the mid-60s, I remember waiting each week for Maxwell Smart's always hilarious "would you believe" line. In this film, we wait a long time, and when we get it, it just isn't the same. The original TV series (starring Adams and Barbara Feldon) was written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. On this film, they are listed as "consultants." They should have written it.
The narrative is at its best when borrowing from other films, such as the James Bond series, Three Days of the Condor, and even Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. But this is also part of the film's problem . . . it doesn't know what it wants to be: A full-blown spy thriller? Or a spoof of the spy thriller genre?
We see well-executed stunts, impressive skydiving sequences and exuberant chases . . . the kind of film-making that would catch the eye of a Bond director. But is this what we want to see in a spoof? Do we want James Bond, or do we want Maxwell Smart? We want them both, of course, but not necessarily in the same character.
Carell is fine as Smart and wisely does not try to imitate the one-of-a-kind character created by Adams. Hathaway is a competent Agent 99, as sexy as Feldon, though not nearly as funny. The supporting performances are much better than the leads, especially veterans Arkin, Stamp and Caan, who seem much more at home with the film's '60's zeitgeist.
But the movie is fun to watch, and in fact . . .
IT'S DEFINITELY WORTH $10.00 AT THE MULTIPLEX! . . . Would you believe $3.00 to $4.00 at a second-run grindhouse?
Star Baby to Sprout: A Cinematic Odyssey
Java Man Reviews WALL-E (Rated G) Directed by Andrew Stanton. Written by Stanton & Jim Reardon. With Fred Willard and the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy & Sigourney Weaver. Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com August, 2008.
Earth has been abandoned for centuries and all that remains is a robot and his sidekick cockroach (you knew nothing could kill them). WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth-class) is a mobile trash compactor who continues to do his job decades after his inventors have lifted off for outer space. The humans, now obese and obtuse, live on Axiom, a continuously orbiting spaceship run by computers and machines who cater to their every need. The humans just sit around with drinks and watch video screens . . . like now.
WALL-E doesn't compact everything. He keeps a collection of human artifacts, including his own spare parts, an old VHS of Hello Dolly (1969), and a little green plant. It's that little green plant that sets the plot in motion and attracts the attention of EVE, the Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator who comes to Earth to see if there are signs of life that may enable the floating humans to return to terra firma. WALL-E falls in love with EVE, having been programmed in the art of romance by thousands of viewings of Dolly. Meanwhile, competing powers aboard Axiom threaten the little green life form, and a battle begins for the survival of humankind.
REVIEW: 4 out of 4 Java Mugs!
Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was the first film to marry film-making technique with computer technology. That was 40 years ago and technology has come a long way . . . yet the narratives of the two films are remarkably similar: They each take us on a journey far into outer space, only to discover that the meaning of existence lies in simple concepts: a newborn baby or a budding sprout. "It's not in our stars, but in ourselves."
While these may be serious themes for a G-rated movie, you don't have to be an existential philosopher or a Shakespeare scholar to enjoy this film. Kid's will love it, and so will you.
In addition to Kubrick's masterpiece, WALL-E alludes to other great moments in cinema history. The first 40-minutes contains no dialogue and calls to mind the touching and poetic work of silent film geniuses Chaplin and Keaton. The Alien sci-fi series is also evoked, complete with a Sigourney Weaver voice cameo.
Though it pays homage to other great movies, WALL-E is one of the most original films ever made, with an originality that is expressed in its inventive look, resourceful sound and vibrant characterization. An example is the creation of the lead robots. They speak precious few words but each character's ingenious visual design is combined with the amusing sounds they give off to express a range of emotions so wide that many human actors might feel upstaged.
In his 2008 documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog comments that "the human presence on this planet is not really sustainable," an idea not totally hidden behind WALL-E's optimistic sheen. According to New York Times critic A. O. Scott, "When the whimsical techies at Pixar and a moody German auteur are sending out the same message, it may be time to pay attention."
Pay attention, but enjoy it too.
Angelina Jolie & this film: stylish and visually exciting
Java Man Reviews "Wanted" (Rated R). Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas & Chris Morgan based upon the comic books by Mark Millar & J. G. Jones. Starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretschmann, Common, Mark Warren & David Patrick O'Hara. Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com August, 2008.
The movie opens with a heart-pounding action sequence as Mr. X (O'Hara) tries to avoid assassination by crashing through a plate-glass window and leaping into the Chicago skyline. He lands on a nearby rooftop where he and Cross (Kretschmann) fight a gun battle with bullets that bend around corners. Just as Mr. X meets his end, wimpy office worker Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) vacates his cubicle in a nearby building and heads home to his dreary life. On the way, he runs into the aptly named Fox (Jolie) who tells him that Mr. X was his father and that Cross is a rogue operative of The Fraternity, a 1000-year-old network of assassins who kill "bad people." She tells Wesley that he has inherited secret powers and that he is destined to join The Fraternity and help them eliminate Cross.
Just when we begin to think that this is too absurd even for a movie based upon a comic book, Cross attacks the two of them and they escape in a car chase so intensely exciting that Wesley and the audience begin to buy into Fox's story... which gets even better. The Fraternity, headed by the brilliant Sloan (Freeman), is located in a textile factory where the fate of its victims is determined by the binary codes hidden in fabric patterns woven by the factory's looms. Wesley agrees to join, but first there is the initiation, conducted by a menacing assemblage with names like Repairman, Butcher and Exterminator.
REVIEW: 3 out of 4 Java Mugs:
There must be an easier way to take out a target than to squeeze out a shot while standing atop a speeding Chicago L-train as it races past the target's office window. But then, it wouldn't be as stylish. It's the same reason Hitchcock staged the attempted killing of Cary Grant with a crop duster in broad daylight instead of a gun in a dark alley... to avoid cliché and to create a memorable scene.
Russian director Bekmambetov creates many such scenes and never passes up a chance to add visual spice to a shot. There are slow motion bullets to follow in curving trajectories, reversing action to follow to its source, and Angelina Jolie (a tattooed visual effect unto herself) to follow anywhere. He even creates visual patterns to match the rhythm of Wesley's accelerating metabolism.
In addition to Jolie, who was born for this role, other performers operate well within the director's energized universe, especially veterans Freeman and Stamp as the organization's sinister brain trust. McAvoy, who at first seems miscast, convincingly grows into the role of the apprentice assassin.
The question remains, is the story credible? Of course not. Yet we are hooked into it just as the unwary victims are hooked into their destinies by the Loom of Fate.
Popcorn was invented for movies like this
Java Man Reviews "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (Rated PG-13). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by David Koepp & George Lucas. Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LeBeouf, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt & Jim Broadbent. Originally appeared in LakewoodBuzz.com July, 2008.
It's 1957, the height of the Cold War, and we find ourselves drag racing down a Nevada road to the strains of Elvis Presley's Hound Dog. Indiana Jones (Ford) and his pal "Mac" McHale (Winstone) soon find themselves in legendary Hangar 51 as prisoners of the deliciously evil Irina Spalko (Blanchett), a Soviet Super Spy who is looking for the Crystal Skull of Akator. According to legend, the skull is a source of significant psychic power and will enable its possessor to dominate the world through mind control.
Indy and Mac escape and return to Connecticut where Jones finds himself out of a job as a professor due to FBI suspicions that he is a communist sympathizer. Indy then meets Mutt (LeBeouf), a leather-jacketed biker who has a coded message from imprisoned Professor Oxley (Hurt), about the Crystal Skull. Mutt's mom, also being held by the Soviets, is Marion Ravenwood (Allen), Indy's love interest from "Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Indy, Mac and Mutt then set out for Peru, with Irina and her agents in hot pursuit. There are subterranean chambers beneath ancient pyramids, prehistoric cities made of gold, monkeys and man eating ants, and waterfalls so huge they make Niagara look like Bedford Falls on a dry day.
REVIEW: 3 1/2 out of 4 Java Mugs:
Now, what is it that all of these characters are after again? Some sort of a glass skull? The answer is... who cares? It's what Hitchcock called a Macguffin, "the thing the spies are after, but the audience don't care." If you are sitting in the theater and have to ask yourself why everyone is after the Macguffin, then the filmmakers are not doing their job. Spielberg and his team are. They have kept the storytelling and action so compelling we don't really care what they are after. We only care about the characters and their predicaments.
When there isn't a highly inventive chase going on, then there is plenty of sharp dialog for the audience to devour. The exchanges between Ford and Blanchett, pictured above, are especially enjoyable... two well-written characters played by two outstanding actors.
Even though it's been nearly two decades since the last Indy adventure, Ford's character comes across just as viewers remember him... crafty, capable, and full of muscular charm. LeBeouf, making an entrance that recalls early Brando, is adequate, but not yet ready to don the famous fedora.
Good location work in Hawaii, California and the New Mexico desert combines with great stunt work and occasional CGI to keep everything moving at top speed. Skillful camera work has its place too, as when Indy throws a handful of gunpowder into the air and the camera follows it to one of the movie's mysterious magnets.
Popcorn was invented for movies like this.