Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Charlie Bartlett


Films about high school have been a mainstay in the halls of cinema for as long as it's been able to be captured on film. From American Graffiti to American Pie, these movies generally represent the way we wish high school could've been for us ideally, in a comedic background. Then there are the high school "issue" movies like Pump Up the Volume and Heathers that aim for the societal issue. Charlie Bartlett steps up to the plate with the intent to have its cake and eat it too by cramming a comedy with a message.

The most salvageable thing about Charlie Bartlett are the actors. Grade-A performances are shelled out by Robert Downey, Jr. (of course,) Hope Davis, Anton Yelchin (Hearts in Atlantis) and Kat Dennings (40 Year Old Virgin.) Yelchin especially, playing the neurotic outcast, Ferris Bueller clone that becomes the high school's impromptu bathroom therapist, I can tell this kid has a healthy career ahead of him. Hope Davis as the prescription drug addled mother was wonderful and of course RD Jr. never lets me down. The dialog is witty and convincing, charming and alarmingly funny, though this is where the problems begin.

Charlie Bartlett is a film that suffers from cinematic schizophrenia. I assume in an attempt to emulate a certain kind of high school movie, it decided to emulate ALL of them. There are scenes that I was sure I'd viewed before, and then I realized that I had. I'd like to say that this is all homage, but I can only picture the writer sitting down at his computer after enduring a 48 hour educational system movie marathon, becoming the proverbial Victor Frankenstein of the screenwriting trade. A little bit of Mean Girls meets a little bit of Thumbsucker meets a little bit of Rushmore thrown in for good measure. All in all, there was the central character arc involving Charlie, but then that was diluted with about ten other thematic elements. It seemed that the movie stumbled over all of these elements in an attempt to find its own footing and make its own point, but in the end it outstayed its welcome and ran about thirty minutes too long. Then in a freak occurrence of meta-screenwriting, the movie seemed to notice its unnecessary longevity and ended so abruptly that it felt as if nothing was actually resolved. Also, my biggest beef was with a scene late in the second act that would've held a fair amount of gravity had it not been abruptly killed by a raucous punk song and a rather pointless riot.

Now don't get me wrong. Charlie Bartlett is not a bad movie. It's a fair movie with a problematic script that was overshadowed by the talent of the actors involved, which is similar to the stance I have on Juno. I'd definitely recommend seeing this movie, but here's a list of movies to see first.

Rushmore
Thumbsucker
Heathers
Pump Up the Volume
The TV series Freaks & Geeks
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Mean Girls
The Chumscrubber
Sixteen Candles
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Grosse Pointe Blank (whatever, there's a high school in it…)



Step Brothers


If anything, you can't deny that Will Ferrell does his job well. Whether the result is funny or not is up to opinion, but chances are, you've all laughed at SOMETHING the man's done over the course of his career. Once Ferrell teamed up with director Adam McKay (Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy) and producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up and TV's erroneously canceled shows Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared) we got to finally see what kind of comedy Will Ferrell goes for and has since given us a plethora of hedonistic man-children. What surprised me about this routine was the introduction of veteran character actor John C. Reilly. Having appeared in high grade films such as Gangs of New York, Boogie Nights and The Thin Red Line it never occurred to me that this man was absurdly funny. It also helps that Ferrell and Reilly have possibly the best onscreen chemistry of any comedy team since Abbott and Costello, except with more swearing and genitalia.

The concept of Step Brothers is basically a close cousin to 2004's The 40 Year Old Virgin. Ferrell is Brennan Huff and Reilly is Dale Doback. Both are in their late 30's and live with their parents and act like a finicky pre-teen. Their respective parents Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins of the late series Six Feet Under) and Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen of Back to the Future III fame) fall in love and get married forcing Brennan and Dale into each other's presence. What results is a particularly hilarious clash of dominant personalities. Dale portrays the more dominant bully type and Brennan is the uber-defensive, passive aggressive side of the coin. As their antics progress, it devolves so far into absurdist immaturity at certain points it actually becomes relatively predictable. This can also be attributed to the trailers and promotional materials that usually divulge the funnier moments, which isn't to say Step Brothers doesn't have its fair share of gags up its proverbial pant leg. Some of the funnier moments were brought about by Richard Jenkins exasperation with the "boys" which thrust him into fits of swearing and vulgarity, usually uncharacteristic of a man of his age and profession.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from some pacing issues at the midway point. It shifted from being genuinely funny to TRYING to be genuinely funny. Though, this is only for about 20 minutes in the middle-end and it gets back on track nicely in time for the finale. While not the crowning glory of the summer movie season, Step Brothers is a thoroughly entertaining 90 minutes of raucous, vulgar and absurd humor for the immature kid in all of us.

But it's no Superbad.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight


Christpher Nolan waltzed onto the film scene in early 2000 with his (purposely) muddled psychological character drama Memento (based on a short story by his brother Jonathan) and it seems that he’s since made a career out of the dissection and analysis of the human psyche. In the age of the Comic Book Movie, no hero is better suited for Nolan than the Batman. After the franchise took a turn for the worse in the late 90’s, making Batman appear more like a member of the Pussycat Dolls than the fearsome Caped Crusader, it seems the character was shelved in Hollywood. However, a plethora of comic books took a turn for the dark side (The Long Halloween, Dark Victory and Hush, all compliments of senior scribe Jeph Loeb) and thus was the basis for the relaunch in 2005. Originally handled by Darren Aranofsky as an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, the project was halted after the script was deemed “too violent” (ironic, really…) and was then handed off to Chris Nolan and writer David S. Goyer (Dark City and the Blade trilogy), which became what was to be Batman Begins. Now in 2008, Nolan returns to continue the saga with The Dark Knight.

Batman Begins was the unexpected kick in the teeth that the franchise needed out of a re-boot. Finally fleshing out Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the intimidating force we’ve all come to know and love, Nolan’s desire to ground the material in the “real world” as much as possible lent to the film’s staggering success. It’s just as important to understand where your character came from as to where they’re going, and Begins paved the way or at least laid the groundwork for what will become the standard for the Batman mythos on film. That being said, The Dark Knight does everything the perfect sequel should do. It’s bigger, darker, heavier and faster and it barely slows down at all before the final credits roll.

The only words I can think of to describe the story are Sprawling Epic. The scale of the film is monumental, and the comparisons you’ve been hearing in all the other reviews (Heat, The Departed, Godfather II) are all completely accurate and relevant. It seems the superhero element was lightly dusted around the Gotham City crime saga, whereas you can omit Batman and Joker and still have the makings of brilliance all around. Now that we’ve got the origin story out of the way, it’s time to take on the big guns, and as promised, those big guns are manifested in Bruce Wayne’s arch-enemy and eternal tormentor, The Joker. The story takes so many twists and turns, it feels as if you’re trapped in the backseat as the Clown Prince of Crime drives headlong off a cliff, laughing manically all the way down. Once it starts, there is very little time to catch your breath.

Now, without question, the late Heath Ledger took the Joker and knocked it out of the goddamn park. Watching him onscreen, he was nearly unrecognizable; disappearing into the character completely in what will likely be the quintessential Joker from this day forward. Joker has been somewhat of a wild card (both in character and portrayal) over the years. Cesar Romero’s depiction in the 1960’s camp-fest TV series was rather silly, with the white makeup encrusted in his moustache while just kind of laughing at everything. Jack Nicholson’s performance in Tim Burton’s 1989 film was good, but still didn’t bring anything new to the character. The Dark Knight gives us a Joker that we’ve never seen before, or even dreamed of. The result is actually quite frightening. With his scarred visage, psychotic laughter and sadistic temperament, Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger have given us a villain that is so maniacally unpredictable, you wouldn’t want to be in the same room as him, let alone try and stop his criminal rampage. His actions teeter on the brink of hilarious and terrifying, more than a few times I found myself laughing and cringing at the same time. In doing so, the Joker has become what his namesake represents; the wild card. He leaves a path of destruction in his wake and lets the pieces fall where they may, whether they serve his intentions or not. And it’s extremely tragic that we’ll likely never see a performance of that caliber again.

As far as the rest of the cast, each one knocks out a solidly comparable performance alongside their fallen cast-mate. Christian Bale has finally gotten comfortable in the skin of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. In this chapter, it becomes apparent that Batman is the driving force in his existence and Bruce Wayne is just a circumstantial passenger to his dark alter ego. Michael Caine’s Alfred the Butler is spot on, as expected. Gary Oldman returns as police lieutenant Jim Gordon, his character played up this time around, as he represents the dichotomy between the police force (order) and Batman’s vigilantism (chaos.) Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is back, serving up more Bat Gadgets and also flexing his Wayne Corp muscles, keeping Bruce afloat and under-wraps. One of the ballsiest moves was the recasting of assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes. Replacing Katie Holmes is Maggie Gyllenhaal who truly takes the character to its depth, caught between her deepset emotions for Wayne and her current love interest; which brings us to Gotham’s “White Knight” District Attorney Harvey Dent (Thank You for Smoking’s Aaron Eckhart.) Polarizing the Batman dichotomy as the city’s hope for sanity, he represents one of the key themes in The Dark Knight. There are two sides to every coin. Right, wrong, order, chaos, due process, vigilantism, life and death are all represented and flipped on their sides, crossing lines that should not be crossed and thrusting characters into moral dilemma’s from which the results could be catastrophic.

Improving upon its predecessor by leaps and bounds, yet still remembering where it came from, The Dark Knight is essentially the perfect sequel. It has transcended the comic book/superhero movie genre into something else entirely; something truly epic.



Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

2003 marked the year that Marvel first stumbled over it's own ambitions before sprawling flat on it's face by over saturating the movie-going community with poor adaptation after poor adaptation. One of the first of these missteps was Ang Lee's version of The Hulk. Too much stylization, not enough character or plot and portraying Hulk as a giant half naked emo-kid with daddy issues combined with an incoherently confusing and frustrating ending made for the flop of the century. Even solid casting choices like Jennifer Connelly weren't enough to save this mess. With Batman getting the reboot in 2005 after an eight year break from the multiplexes, I wasn't expecting another Hulk attempt for at least another four to five years. But lo and behold, 2008 has brought us The Incredible Hulk, oven fresh with a new cast and director. And believe me when I tell you, it's better for it… by leaps and bounds.

From the start, this movie paves right over top it's predecessor by re-establishing the origin story WITHIN the opening credits (and let me tell you, there is absolutely NO recycled footage from the first film, if anything it's a giant homage to the 70's television series.) Replacing Eric Bana as the internally tormented scientist Bruce Banner is Edward Norton, who falls into the role as if it were second nature. And quite honestly, it kind of is, with psychologically split roles in Fight Club and Primal Fear under his belt, this over exemplified Jekyll and Hyde persona is right up his alley. William Hurt plays the dodgy General Ross who is tracking Banner as best he can along with the aid of the war ravaged foot soldier Emil Blonsky (renowned Brit badass Tim Roth.) Both with ulterior motives of their own design, their dynamic performances reflecting and refracting each other every step of the way, not a beat is wasted on these two. My only qualm is that William Hurt's moustache will never live up to the epic proportional standards of previous Ross portrayer Sam Elliott (but then again, whose moustache ever will?) Dr. Betty Ross, the resident lost-love interest, returns to the scene at the hands of Liv Tyler who handles the emotional beats surprisingly well. If there's a movie for her to re-prove her worth since her role in Lord of the Rings, this one is it. Another notable appearance is that of character actor Tim Blake Nelson (O, Brother Where Art Thou? as well as bit parts in Minority Report and Syriana) whose role will remain nameless for the sake of possible spoilers.

One of the major improvements on the relaunch was the focus on Bruce Banner as a character, not just as the seed for that which is The Hulk. With little dialog up until the first actual "Hulk Out," we're given the portrait of a desperate man on the run. A man willing to do whatever is necessary to find a cure for his wrecking ball of an alter ego. Norton embodies this entirely, providing what could be the quintessential Banner for the first time onscreen since Bill Bixby's television portrayal. Possibly even moreso.

Throughout the film, there are nods to every medium that Hulk has been represented in. References to the television show are as subtle as a flannel shirt or as simple as a brief onscreen appearance by the original Green Monster, Lou Ferrigno (he's even given a couple lines this time, as opposed to his literal "walk by" in the 2003 edition.) I was particularly taken by the representation of Hulk's mental evolution, from haphazardly picking up and tossing whatever may do the most damage to protecting himself or developing crude weapons out of whatever is available and may do the most damage. Yet, he remains a creature (literally) of pure instinct, and it doesn't let you forget that, even at his most human of moments. Also fun is the incorporation of a few of the trademark "abilities" that he's demonstrated in the comics over the years (I won't ruin them for you, but if you know them, you'll be giddy when you see it happen.)

All in all, I'd say this movie was almost, if not just as enjoyable as Iron Man (there's even a slight tie in, for the Avengers' sake. Also keep your ears open for a Captain America reference.) And if you're not as compelled by the story elements as I was, then just revel in the blatant bad-assery that this film provides in it's plentiful action sequences. There's just something ridiculously awesome about an Abomination being bashed repeatedly in the face with the front end of a police cruiser.



Hellboy II - The Golden Army


It seems that director Guillermo Del Toro has been one of the most renown hot/cold directors to emerge from the Hollywood fantasy scene in the last eight years or so. Gaining critical acclaim for his early Spanish language work Cronos and The Devil's Backbone and then being panned across the board for the commercial flop Blade 2, Del Toro seemed to bridge the gap with the mostly ignored HellBoy. Based on the Dark Horse comic book of the same name, created by Mike Mignola, HellBoy was released to a lukewarm reception just prior to the comic-book-movie explosion (Thanks, Marvel…) alongside blockbusters like Spiderman 2, Punisher and (ironically enough) Blade: Trinity. While not an amazing film, I found the original HellBoy to be a decent starting point for what will turn out to be a trilogy (as is the thing to do these days.)

Though it wasn't until Del Toro released Pan's Labyrinth that he started to become a household name (whether you can pronounce Guillermo or not…) Now four years after the first HellBoy outing comes the long anticipated and budget inflated sequel HellBoy II - The Golden Army. Now I'll give a fair warning, I'm a pretty big fan of the source material and I may find it necessary to point out the differences and therein the flaws of the film franchise compared to the printed medium. That being said, this movie was considerably better than its predecessor.

One of the noticeable differences from the first film is the production design. Now working with the special effects team behind Pan's Labyrinth, HellBoy II's creatures were much more intricate and bizarre than the first outing, ranging from whimsically dangerous to gut wrenchingly twisted. I was also surprised at the amount of puppetry was used in lieu of CGI. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas that strayed from the comics, but not in a bad way. Golden Army's monsters looked more like a mishmash of Final Fantasy bosses than long dead mythological deities, though I've always been a fan of the FF monster design, so the eye-candy was a treat for me.

Performance-wise, David Hyde-Pierce (Niles Crane from TV's Frasier) ducks out on Abe Sapien's voice duties, leaving body actor Doug Jones to fend for himself. Admittedly, he's a bit shaky on the outset, but eventually filled the Fish-Man shoes well enough for me not to have noticed a difference. One of my biggest qualms with the films in comparison to the comics is HellBoy's portrayal. In the comics, he doesn't say much and when he does, it's rather inconsequential, however in the movies, he is basically a Duke Nukem/Ash from Evil Dead/John McClane one liner machine. Which is unfortunate, because I'd like to think the Seed of Destruction, our proverbial Left Hand of Doom has more depth than "Now you've pissed me off!" But I digress. Ron Perlman looks and plays the part to a tee as per usual and Selma Blair manages her way out of the paper bag she's been stuck in since the last HellBoy. The new addition to the BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development) Johann Krauss is entertaining for a while and serves his purpose in the end, at least for some rock'em sock'em, popcorn action. Sadly, Jeffrey Tambor's character, BPRD chief Tom Manning, is horridly underplayed (as an Arrested Development fan, it always pains me when any member of the Bluth family is cast and then ultimately cast aside) but then again, there's a consumer friendly run-time to keep in mind.

The story this time around is yet another classic "bad seed seeks revenge on the world and family that shunned him" which would seem redundant if not for the plethora of character involved. It was pretty apparent that there was likely a good 30 minutes of footage cut from the final film as some of the overlaying themes were cut short in the last act, but in today's "unrated director's cut" DVD market, I can see these words on the box art following it's home video release.

Overall, the movie should keep you entertained for it's almost two hours and as usual, it caps itself off while leaving room for the imminent sequel. Mostly, I see this movie as decent filler to bridge the gap until The Dark Knight comes out.



The Happening



Ever since his major debut in '99 with The Sixth Sense, director/writer/whatever M. Night Shayamalan has cornered himself as a proverbial one trick pony. It seems that everyone will go into one of his films asking themselves "What's the twist going to be?" and spend most of the film trying to think far enough ahead of the story in order to beat it to the punch. Admittedly, The Sixth Sense was effective (if not fairly predictable to some) and Unbreakable was very well done, though the twist in this case was particularly unnecessary, it still worked for all intents and purposes of the film. It wasn't until Signs that I started to see a flaw in the designs and the dangers of clich├ęd repetition. I was onboard Signs the whole way (an alien apocalypse seen from one small household) until the last five minutes when we were bashed over the head (almost literally) with that trademark twist. A twist that singlehandedly ruined the previous 103 minutes. I'll admit, it was after this mess that I washed my hands of the Shayamalan name altogether as I haven't yet bothered to see either The Village or Lady in the Water.

However, The Happening intrigued me. It seems in an attempt to distance himself from his "twist of fate" as it were, M. Night has left the 3rd act reversal behind in lieu of something else entirely. The previews for The Happening looked especially intriguing and featured something yet uncharted for the director, an MPAA rating of R. Unfortunately, as it turns out, you can't substitute one gimmick for another and expect anything of substance to come of it.

The story (if one can even really call it that) follows Elliot Moore, played by Mark Wahlberg and his wife Alma, a particularly unemotive Zooey Deschanel in their attempts to outrun and ultimately survive an outbreak of a toxin that causes the survival instinct in humans to be repressed, resulting in mass suicide. Therein lies your R-rating. The first 15 minutes or so are fairly effective, though it's all downhill from there, right about the time Mark delivers his first line. Now, I'll be the first to say Wahlberg is a pretty accomplished actor at this point (with roles like The Departed, Boogie Nights and I Heart Huckabees under his belt) but he phones in the worst performance of his career, either through terrible dialog or bad directing. The only performance that was passable is John Leguizamo who is underplayed to the point of insignificance.

It is explained very early on (and repeatedly thereafter) that the toxin that is affecting the eastern seaboard is the result of a rapidly evolved defense mechanism in plants and it's being set off by smaller and smaller groups of people. Starting in Central Park, New York and eventually "chasing" groups of five or six people across small county Pennsylvania, the toxin is only ever displayed by heavy winds, which makes absolutely no sense at all. Granted, there isn't really a way to SHOW that a plant originating toxin is after you, but this method implies that either the plants are causing the wind or the toxin evokes strange and unusual weather patterns. Good for the cast, bad for the picky (or even rational) viewer. And of course there is the obligatory message about global warming, mass-media sensationalism, gun control and (for no apparent reason) religious zealotry.

I was hoping this would be the film to take M. Night Shayamalan out of the "do not watch" column, but alas, it just doesn't seem like he really cares about his art or his audience anymore. A promo on the Sci-fi channel quoted him as saying "Whatever… it's rated R…" It just goes to show, if you don't have a story worth telling, it doesn't matter what it's rated. It's still garbage.



Wall-E


The budding animation studio Pixar spread it's wings in 1995 with their flagship pet project Toy Story, the company has, in a mere 13 years, literally gone "To Infinity and Beyond." And their latest masterpiece Wall-E is definitely a testament to their company's limitless potential.

Marking the third directorial outing for executive Pixar head John Lasseter's right-hand man Andrew Stanton (Bug's Life, and Finding Nemo,) the company does not seem intent to break it's stride any time soon. As you may or may not know, Wall-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, which brings us to Earth in the distant future. Humans have left and Wall-E is the sole surviving unit left to "clean up the planet" to make it habitable again. Though, one thing went wrong. He developed a personality, which is brilliantly characterized in the films opening scene. There is approximately 30 or so minutes that are literally devoid of any dialog (and honestly there doesn't need to be) as we learn more about Wall-E and how he's adapted to "life" on his abandoned planet (his predilection for the film "Hello, Dolly" is particularly adorable.)

Pixar has always prided itself on it's attention to detail and Wall-E is no exception. In fact, Wall-E has gone ahead and set a new bar for digital animation. From the dirt encrusted on his outer casing right down to the lovable robot's collection of knick knacks, no stone was left unturned. At times, I was almost certain someone had hand placed actual props into the film, it was that realistic.

I was also surprised to see that there were some pretty heavy themes at play in what will likely by 2009's Best Animated Feature Oscar Winner (just my bid, I could be wrong, but unless somebody releases an animated version of Citizen Kane, good luck!) Ranging from anti-big business (Wal-Mart, I'm looking and you) and human over-dependence on computers and machinery (as I review this movie on my laptop, preparing to post it on the internet...) there is also the glimmer of a "greener" message under the beeps and blips that everyone can take to heart in this resource diminishing age.

Another aspect that caught me by surprise (and it really shouldn't have) was the film's score by Thomas Newman (best known for the award winning theme to HBO's Six Feet Under.) It carried the film where it needed to and gently supported it when otherwise necessary. And I'm not one to rush out and buy the score to just any movie, but this may be the next iTunes download I invest in.

As I've learned over the last ten years, Pixar has rarely let me down (their only misstep being Cars, which admittedly, I haven't seen if only for the presence of Larry the Cable Guy) but Wall-E exceeded all of my expectations and then some. It's cute, thought provoking, visually gorgeous and overall (and most importantly) just plain fun.

Across the Universe


Thus far people may think that I'm one of those reviewers that loves everything. I've posted three write-ups for movies I liked. True enough, but this will not be one of them.

When I first caught wind of this phenomenon called Across the Universe, I was pretty excited at the prospect of a musical using only songs by the Beatles that was also a visual interpretation of their existence in their musical, social and politically tumultuous era of American History. Even the trailers made it look like the makings of a modern classic.

Now it all sounds good in theory, and I'm sure had someone else been at the helm, a salvageable film would've been possible, however, I don't know what kind of bad drugs Julie Taymor (Titus) was doing while consuming mass amounts of High School Musical Disney Channel drivel to come up with this incoherently predictable mess. And I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a huge fan of the musical (Sweeney Todd was great and admittedly Moulin Rouge was amazing) but I know how they're supposed to work. The songs being sung should have some significance to what is going on in the scene. That being said, the song choices and placement were horrendous. Someone needs to explain to Miss Taymor the definition of the term "subtlety." When the artistic license of these classic tunes wasn't wrenched so unforgivingly out of proportion that the meaning is lost in a sea of confusing and homoerotic imagery (army recruitment dance numbers) it was crammed so blatantly down our throats that it seemed these scenes were thrown together by a 3rd grade remedial music class (think of singing the song "Blackbird" as a blackbird flies by, with no real association with what's going on in the scene.)

Then there were the one dimensional characters. Each persons motivation was so one sided and boring that by the end of the movie, I really didn't care what they'd accomplished so long as I got out of the theater with my brain safely in my skull and not dripping out my ears and on to the floor. Jude (yes, they named all the characters after significant Beatles nomenclature) comes to the Americas in search of his "war hero" dad. He falls in love with (you guessed it) Lucy who's brother happens to be Jude's new stateside buddy Max (Maxwell's Silver Hammer, for those keeping track.) The boys get the hairbrained idea to move to the "big city" and go nuts. They line up a dumpy apartment from Sadie (should I really even bother anymore?) who happens to be the resident Janis Joplin ripoff and soon they're all rooming together along with fellow Jimi Hendrix ripoff, JoJo and lesbian former cheerleader Prudence. Sound lame? It is.

What ensues is to be expected. No surprises, except that the talent of the Beatles is wasted on a story this pointless. For a more pleasant experience, drop some acid and pop in "Magical Mystery Tour" and call it a night.

Southland Tales


Southland Tales, the follow up to 2001's cult phenomenon Donnie Darko by writer/director Richard Kelly, will likely not fall into the same status it's predecessor did. While Darko remains to this day one of my favorite films in recent years, Southland Tales may have been too big of an idea to sell this early in a budding film career. One can go into this film expecting anything and there is a 99% chance that what you get will not be remotely close. Even after reading the adjoining prequel graphic novels (Two Roads Diverge, Fingerprints and The Mechanicals) the conclusion encompassing parts 4,5, and 6 (Temptation Waits, Memory Gospel, and Wave of Mutilation) takes so many turns that it will take you by surprise whether you want it to or not.

Now those of you who have seen it, prepare your biting remarks and fresh produce for the flailing when I say I really enjoyed this movie. Overall, one can describe it as a "Pop Culture and Political Satire in the Apocalypse Blender on High Speed." The film in itself is basically commenting on the state of affairs, ALL affairs that we as Americans are dealing with in this day and age. We worship false gods on the silver screen, we're running out of fuel resources and our personal freedoms are being infringed upon more and more each day. These are all issues represented in Southland Tales that come to an absurdly chaotic conclusion that I found both whimsically odd and poignantly tragic.

One of my main concerns and points of confusion with the film was it's overabundance of characters. The central three (or four) are Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson) the amnesiac movie star who is sleeping with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar,) the porn star with her own reality show and hit single and Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott,) amnesiac Iraqi war vet posing as his kidnapped twin brother Roland Taverner for an extremist group's publicity stunt/sting operation. Confused yet? That's just the beginning, and a laundry list of characters follow, weaving together a tapestry of conspiracy, revelation and ultimately, destruction. We have Zora Carmichaels (SNL's Cherie Oteri) a head of the upstart radical group, the Neo Marxists, Republican Senator Bobby Frost (played by Mr. Darko himself, Homes Osborne, the character's name being one of the two poets who inspired the film,) war draftee Martin Kefauver (Thumbsucker's Lou Taylor Pucci,) rogue cop Bart Bookman (John Lovitz,) the ice cream truck driving arms dealer Walter Mung (Highlander's Christopher Lambert,) Military Research specialist Simon Theory (a heavily made up and aged Kevin Smith,) and the war torn, drug addicted vet and narrator Pilot Abilene (a surprising casting choice of Justin Timberlake, who plays it surprisingly well.) The ever growing list of names and motives admittedly make for a particularly frustrating and confusing viewing experience, though for me, this adds to the replay value. Creating a puzzle that may or may not come together into a solid image. Though, to it's benefit, there are some really awesome scenes and imagery going for it, even if they never really meld into a coherent story. Some of the visuals in the last 20 minutes are impressive to say the least.

After rereading the graphic novels and giving the movie a few watches, I can surmise this. The moviegoing public or the public in general is not now, nor will it be ready for a movie that crosses so many genres while commenting on the current state of affairs and ultimately doesn't take itself seriously enough. But when it comes down to it, that is precisely the point Kelly was trying to make from the get go. Whether you loved it, hated it or couldn't care less, maybe it struck a chord somewhere and got you thinking.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

As a long time fan of the series, dating back to the tender age of six when I witnessed the nazi's melting faces with awestruck amazement and genuine horror, I was particularly excited for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Now here's the thing. When you're anticipating a new Indiana Jones movie, what is it you're really looking for? Anthropological facts? Historical accuracy? Shia LaBeouf's naked ass? Of course not! Indiana Jones is the quintessensial thrill per minute adventure formula, so to expect any more or less would just be foolish. That being said, allow me to continue.

I'll start by saying I absolutely loved this movie. It harkened back a time when I gaped at movies in wide eye'd hypnosis and just let the ridiculousness ensue. By and large, this is possibly the largest scale Indy adventure thus far. While not spanning the globe to the extent of The Last Crusade or Raiders of the Lost Ark, the perilous obstacles are grander in scale by leaps and bounds, yet it still doesn't feel like it's too much. Once you've seen Indy outrun a giant boulder or gracelessly leap out of the way of the Breath of God-Death Scythes, it's not hard to believe anything he pulls off in Kingdom, even at his progressed age.

I admit, at first I was kind of distracted by Ford's weathered facade, but as soon as he started bounding across the rafters of the government "relic warehouse" I was sold. Ford's still got it and he ain't losing it anytime soon (I think after this we can forgive Hollywood Homicide.) Cate Blanchett fairs well playing Russian dominatrix/telepath (I know, right?) Irina Spalko and is relatively unrecogizable with her Louise Brooks haircut. Shia LaBeouf welcomes himself to the series as Mutt Williams, Indy's supposed son with Raiders alum Karen Allen, who returns as Marion Ravenwood (now Marion Williams, naturally.) John Hurt fills the absent shoes of Sean Connery as Jones's former mentor and colleague Oxley. Another welcome newcomer is Ray Winstone (Nicholson's left hand in The Departed and of Beowulf fame) as Mack, a cockney Brit who seems to have been through a war or two at Indy's side.

Granted this day in age the overuse of CG effects is a concern to everybody not in line to see Pixar's next instant classic (Wall-E, June 27th!) and of course Spielburg is going to use it. However, he DID use it sparingly, like he said he would, but when you've got a nuclear explosion, giant fire ants and a jungle-buggy swordfight it's kind of hard NOT to use it a little bit. Now I've been hearing a plethora of complaints about this movie and I can understand them to a point, but at the same time, I can't help but think that people didn't know or remember what kind of movie they'd paid to see. Anything in this movie is not more or less believeable than jumping from a crashing plane using nothing more than an oversized life-raft as a makeshift parachute or downing a Nazi fighter plane with a parasol and a flock of seagulls.

All in all, if your expectations are in the right place you should thoroughly enjoy Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While not as good as Raiders or Crusade, it is much more enjoyable than Temple. Good cast, good adventure, good fun. Buy some popcorn and just remember to have fun.

Iron Man

In what can be called the "official kick off to the summer movie season," Iron Man definitely opens up with a bang. Literally. One of the many downfalls or weak points in comic book movies of late has been what I refer to as "Origin Story Syndrome." With results ranging from a tedious 30 to 40 minutes of a nerdy Peter Parker coming into his new powers in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man to the heavily character driven vision-quest of Bruce Wayne that took up more than half of in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (the latter succeeding by leaps and bounds in my book.) When we are introduced to Tony Stark (played perfectly to a tee by my favorite revolving door rehab client, Robert Downey, Jr) we're barely given enough time to get comfortable in our squeaky theater seats before the first explosion is set off, thrusting our protagonist into the birthing process of a hero in the making. The different in this origin story is the way in which it's developed inside the over-arcing storyline within the film. At no point did I find myself thinking, "Well, ok, when the hell is he going to become Iron Man, already?" mainly because I was so enthralled with Tony Stark as a character. Whereas most comic book adaptations are all about the hero and the villain and overcoming the evil plot, these elements are melded perfectly within the story of a man coming to terms with his personal and moral obligations after becoming a victim of his own naivety and carelessness.

As I said before Robert Downey, Jr personifies Tony Stark completely. From his performances in Zodiac and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang the choice was golden from the start. Jeff Bridges plays a perfect villain as Obadiah Stane and Terrence Howard plays a decent best friend/sidekick (or future War Machine.) The only character I felt was a bit of a misstep was Pepper Potts, played by a whimsically vacant Gwenyth Paltrow. It's not that she's untalented, I just don't think she really knew what to take from the character, resulting in a clicheic and sort of blank character that really doesn't do a whole lot for the film. Also, just for fun, look for Peter Billingsly's cameo (Ralphie from 'A Christmas Story,' yeah, he's in there.)

Overall, a good start for Marvel's independent production studio (now their own entity.) Jon Favreau (director and actor protraying Stark's chauffeur) obviously has a love for the character and the genre and let's it show onscreen without regret. With the sequel greenlit and rumored to be in early development already, let's hope that Marvel doesn't let old habits die hard and ruin it the way that X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3 flew the coop and kicked it's entire audience in the teeth.