Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Video Review

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen

I decided to do a video review this time around instead of a typed one; gotta keep you guys on your toes and shake things up around here every once in a while. Anyway, it turned into about 15 minutes of me ranting, so I apologize for the way it turned out, but Tim Turner added some original artwork to the mix that make it more entertaining than it should be. In the future I'll keep the time down to something reasonable on these, but in my defense there were a lot of things to say about this film. Check it out. Until next time...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

As much as I don't want to interrupt the "Indy" flow we've got going on here, I'd be remiss if I didn't give you my thoughts on the newest fantasy adventure flick out right now, Prince Caspian. Directed by Andrew Adamson (Shrek, The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe), the newest addition to the Chronicles of Narnia is, as the trailer indicated, much darker and much more battle-heavy than the first one. The surprising thing was that the rest of the movie was pretty solid as well.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Director: Andrew Adamson
Starring: Ben Barnes, Anna Popplewell, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley

It's been a year since the kids have been back to Narnia, but when they finally return, 1300 years have passed in their beloved world and everyone they knew (except Aslan, of course) is gone. This plot point was in the book and shouldn't be credited to the screenwriters, but it was cool to see that translated on screen. That was my favorite aspect of the plot; the time shift between the two worlds.

The acting was something I had a little trouble believing in the first movie, and its something that always rears its ugly head when you're dealing with children. In this film, though, the kids seemed much more comfortable with their environment and really acted like a family, allowing the audience to breathe a little easier instead of cringing at cheesy moments and forced emotions. The actors portraying the kids in Prince Caspian really fell into their roles in this one and surprised me by their sophisticated acting for their ages. Peter's character was dealing with some really legitimate issues, and I thought they should have concentrated more on his personal struggle with being a king in Narnia for years and then returning to life as a normal kid being bullied in school. They really had something there, but kind of blew it by not honing in on that more in the script.

Dropping famous actor James McAvoy as Mr. Tumnus, Caspian picked up the equally-famous Peter Dinklage this go-around, who is a pretty solid addition to the cast as Trumpkin, one of the old Narnians thought to be extinct. Thanks to a lackluster effort on the writers' parts, the filmmakers couldn't utilize Dinklage's character to its full potential so unfortunately he wasn't up to par in this one. Newcomer stud Ben Barnes rounded out the main cast as the titular Prince, and the ladies will surely be swooning over him in sequels and on DVD for years to come. He's actually been recently cast as the lead role in a film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (which I only know about from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and sounds like he'd be really good in the role from what I understand. He did that Spanish accent pretty well; so well, in fact, that it caught me off guard when I learned he was British. It's cool though; there was some eye-candy for the guys as well in Anna Popplewell (Susan Pevensie), who, as in the books, unfortunately won't be returning to Narnia in the sequels.

Computer generated effects were utilized more for large battle sequences than for talking animals in this sequel, which I thought was a definite plus. I heard some ridiculous quote about the movie only making its deadline by 48 hours (which is cutting it a little close in the movie world) and I can see why because of all the special effects shots that they had to complete for it. The battles were far superior to the first film and, while impractical as some aspects were (the falling battlefield, anyone?), the battles were generally pretty fun to watch.

Speaking of battle scenes, the one-on-one battle between Peter and King Miraz was beautifully shot. There were times it took my breath away because of how gorgeous it was - the cinematographer should be given some kind of award for that. Absolutely stunning from a technical point of view. The camera was so close to the two fighters, it must have been hit by errant swords in bloopers or something; I don't know how they did that.

As far as the rest of the movie goes, it stole WAY too much from other fantasy storylines (AHEM - Lord of the Rings - AHEM); so much so that they didn't even try to hide the differences and instead let the audience sit there and ask "did they really just do that? Haven't I seen this before?" Just a couple instances of this were the birds carrying people up to the dark castle towers and the freakin' trees during the ending battle. I'm surprised that there weren't little hobbits bouncing around in the leaves, because it was like those trees walked straight from LOTR onto the movie screen and were like, "WTF are we doing HERE?" That one-on-one scene I mentioned? A little too Troy if you ask me. Hey! I've never seen those masks before on the villains. Oh wait - 300 came out last year, so I guess I have. And I'm so glad they went with the original gag of having Edmund look over the edge of the tower and fall off backwards to escape capture, only to fly up on the back of a large bird and "trick" the audience. Never seen THAT one before. Luckily, they actually didn't use the "everything you know is about to change" line that is so frequent in the trailer (well, Aslan didn't say it, but some other character did). That was ripped almost straight out of Rise of the Silver Surfer. Freakin' A.

As much as I'm complaining about it, the movie was a lot better than the first one and not quite as preachy, which was a good thing in my mind. The solid moral values found in The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe are still present and accounted for here in Prince Caspian, but the plot points in the film work better on two levels than the first movie's obvious recreation of Jesus' death and resurrection. The storyline for this film allowed for those types of religious undertones and metaphors to play a key role but not scream in your face about it at the same time.

A good example is when Peter and the kids don't listen to Lucy because they didn't see Aslan and go their own way instead, leading them to a dead end and ultimately forcing them to return to the route they knew in their hearts they should have taken in the first place. Another is when Lucy finally speaks to Aslan and he asks her why she didn't come to him even though she saw him when the others didn't. The best one, though, was when Peter cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers by selfishly going into battle without thinking about Aslan first. There were a few cool double-meaning-type moments like that in the script that I thought were well-placed, so keep a look out for them if you haven't seen it yet.

Next up, we've got The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which was always my favorite of the series as a kid. They're getting a new director for that one, so we'll see if the new guy can compare to the sweeping epic shots that Adamson has made this series famous with. Until next time...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Indiana Jones Series Review: The Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Denholm Elliot, John Rhys-Davies

Topped only by Raiders of the Lost Ark (in my opinion), Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade is a spectacular return to form for a series that dropped into dangerous waters with a mediocre second attempt. Last Crusade takes all the things we loved about the first Indy film - great supporting characters, biblical artifacts grounded in myths familiar to the public, Nazi villains - and added Sean Connery to the mix as Indy's father, Dr. Henry Jones, Sr.

The storyline for this film might even be slightly better than Raiders - Indy is recruited by Walter Donovan (weak - get Belloq back!) to find Henry Jones, Sr. who was the team leader on the worldwide search for the Holy Grail. Arthurian legend is something that I've always been fond of, so this movie has a special place in my heart because of its MacGuffin. The search for the grail has been something that Indy's father has obsessed over for his entire life, and it takes reconnection with his son to finally accomplish his lifelong goal. Connery's appearance doesn't come until about 45 minutes in, which is fine because we don't really need to see him until that point.

Interestingly enough, Spielberg mirrors my own feelings toward Temple of Doom, and he freakin' directed it! In this 1988 article from Premiere magazine, he says "I wasn't happy with the second film at all. It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific. There's not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom." And the reason he made Last Crusade? "To apologize for the second one." If there wasn't any of Spielberg's feeling in TOD, and LC was his return to the tone of Raiders, then let's all hope that pattern doesn't continue. That would mean the upcoming sequel will have Lucas' hands all over it, and not enough of Spielberg to shine through. The rumor is that the supposed alien/Area 51 aspect was all Lucas' idea, so fans can only hope that Spielberg and Harrison Ford had enough power to overturn as many of those decisions as possible.

Back to the Last Crusade. The introduction is outstanding, and as Branz said in his review for Temple of Doom, almost Bondian in nature. It's one of my favorite parts of the film, featuring a young Indiana Jones (not to be confused with the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series) who gets caught up in quite the adventure and explains the origin of his hatred for snakes, how he got that small scar on his chin, how the whip became his go-to weapon, where he got that sweet hat, and gives us a small peek into his home life with his father (who isn't shown on screen at this point). It also shows his love for archeology and his sense of justice when he finds the Cross of Coronado, which he believes "belongs in a museum" and after it's removed from him, the movie catches up to the present time (1938) and Indy is once again on the search for Coronado's Cross, this time narrowly escaping a boat explosion and coming away with the item he's been searching for his whole life (a microcosm of the movie about to unfold before our eyes). [How are they gonna top THAT intro in the next movie?]

The action and suspense in Last Crusade are so good that it's easy to confuse scenes in this film with ones in Raiders. Tank chases, motorcycle chases, breaking out of a German castle, boat chases, blimp chases - all top notch. The music is classic Johnny Williams at his best, and features a really awesome motif for whenever the Holy Grail is mentioned to go along with probably the best theme song ever.

Say goodbye (and good riddance) to the most annoying duo in the franchise, Willie Scott and Short Round from Temple of Doom, and welcome back your old pals Marcus Brody and Sallah with open arms. I know I did. After painfully sitting through TOD and feeling sorry for Indy for not having an intellectual equal within 3000 miles, in this installment his comrade Marcus Brody accompanies our hero to Italy in search for his father and the grail. The interaction of Brody and Connery's Dr. Jones provides much of the humor for the movie, and Sallah's comedic timing is right on the money as usual. (My favorite comedic part is when Indy goes off on the Nazis about how Marcus Brody speaks all these languages and how much he'll blend in, how he's probably got the grail already, etc. and then it cuts to Brody wildly wandering through a crowd desperate for someone who speaks English.)

Even with the inclusion of some ethically questionable plot points (father and son sleeping with the same woman?), Last Crusade concentrates heavily on the relationship between Indy and his father. Strained growing up, they are now thrust together to stop the Nazis from using the Grail's unthinkable power to take over the world, or some other such nonsense. The whole movie is a search for a father's approval and a son's love, both of which are fulfilled at the end in glorious Spielberg fashion (that dude loves him some characterization).

One aspect I didn't enjoy as much as the other films was the requisite "creepy critter" scene, using rats instead of snakes or insects like the first two, which seemed like a downgrade to me. This also leads me to wonder what kind of creature will be featured in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when it opens next week; they've taken all of the biggies, so what are they going to use this time? Branz suggested spiders since it appears they'll be in South America for a portion, according to the trailer. Geographically, I'm inclined to agree with him (I'm sure they're monstrous in that part of the world), but then again, they already used tarantulas in the opening of Raiders, so I don't know if they'd recycle that idea.

The ending of Last Crusade squeezes by as my favorite of the three - even though I love the very last shot of Raiders with the Ark in the warehouse, the entire last 30 minutes of this movie are perfect in my mind. Henry Jones, Sr. on the brink of death, living vicariously through his son who is searching for the only thing that can save him in time, going through thousand-year-old trials and traps that Henry spent his life researching - the two characters are so meticulously linked here on so many levels, and it's beautiful to watch. Not to mention the special effects of the Leap of Faith cavern are still exceptional, even comparing them to today's standards. The final credits shot, preceded by Brody trying to be a cowboy and nearly falling off his horse, is a nice throwback to the cowboy films that influenced this series from the beginning. The four horsemen riding into the sunset was gorgeous on screen, and must have been Spielberg's "sigh of relief" as the filming came to an end.

Little did he know that 19 years later, a new Indy film would be coming to theaters. Check back in a week or so to get my thoughts on the highly-anticipated Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. To tide you over, here's a high quality YouTube video of just the music of the ending credits for Last Crusade. Until next time...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Evening readers. Taking the helm today is your friendly neighbor Sentinel editor Alan Trehern. You’re probably all expecting some outrageous science fiction movie review, but today is not your day. Today, we have a treat! Ben has asked me to review the 2nd installment of the Indiana Jones series, The Temple of Doom.
Many of you may not be a fan of this chapter, but you have to give it a break. TOD had to try to fill the shoes of its predecessor, Raiders of the Lost Ark, so they placed Indy on t’other side of the world in eastern Asia, a place of mass danger and intrigue. But I digress; let’s get to the movie.

It begins with a bow to the James Bond openings of old as Indy makes a dangerous trade with Chinese crime-lord Lao Che; but while things are looking good for our favorite archaeologist, they immediately start to take a turn for the worst. We soon find that not only is Indy lost in the mountains of India, he has been accompanied by the annoying Willie Scott and the extremely unnecessary character of Short Round. I watched the entire movie, and Short Round’s presence could have been completely removed and the movie would NOT have suffered.

As far as character development goes, Indiana faces his primitive human emotions: the greed and lust of fortune and glory versus helping a poor and starving Indian village. Not only is he met with internal struggles, but TOD pushes Indy to the physical edge as well. Almost every scene contains Jones bashing skulls, drinking the blood of the Thugee, voodoo torture, large bearded guards on a rock-flattening belt, and much, much more. Indiana is faced with the usual physical feats in every film, but I think this one takes the cake.

Willie Scott, the singer and girlfriend of Lao Che, just serves as eye-candy, because whenever she opens her voice, I immediately want to put a gun to my chest. Team STFU has nothing against her. Seriously, Spielberg, you dated this braud? You must have the patience of a rock. In any case, she followed this role with Susanna McKaskel in the made-for-TV movie The Quick and the Dead (1987) opposite Sam Elliott, where she was more eye-candy for the traveling, woman-stealing, all-around bad ass Con Vallien. Check it out.

Although the natives of India were sometimes hard to understand, their emotional and life-like acting made the movie all the more real for me. I actually started to wonder if these were actors or real people dying of hunger and sorrow. It makes you think that out there somewhere things are really like this, and that only these small acts of help (i.e. Indy bringing back the Sankara stone) can bring these people hope and happiness.

I felt the storyline was very good and solid, except for a couple of snags. I haven’t researched it, but I’ve never heard of the Sankara stones, but I have heard of Kali and the Thugee cult, so this dark and dangerous road that Indiana traveled is quite a change from the Nazi bashing films that would follow and precede this one. But that's just me; I think perhaps that this movie isn't the favorite is because ALOT of people have never heard of these mythological Indian aspects, and therefore don't want to watch it*.

I also enjoy the involvement of the dying British Empire, which was a very historical event around the 1930s. Britain had colonized the world over for the pass couple centuries, and they were now growing smaller and smaller as their colonies rebelled and gained independence. I just thought it was an interesting aspect of the film.

I also like that this movie takes place chronologically before the first film. Periodically, Indy can’t fly a plane in this one, but by 1938 in The Last Crusade, he can. Maybe that death-defying trip across the mountains of Asia pushed him to take a flying class for adults at the local community college.

In any case, the overall film was pretty solid, and any Indiana Jones fan needs to watch this chapter as many times as they watch the other two. Why? Because like your children, you can’t love one more than the other; it’s just not right.
So get pumped for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, because the whip-cracking adventurer is back with a rag-tag team of misfits, but his legacy lives on. I hope this review gets you out to rent this before the new movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, premieres. Check Ben’s Movie Reviews soon for the third installment of the Indiana Jones series as Ben captains the ship into port in preparation for what may be the greatest film this summer. Also, if you are interested, a Top 5 Greatest Literary Indiana Jones Adventures is making its way to a Solar Sentinel near you, so check that out as well.

Safe journey, Indy lovers, wherever you are…

*Research for your Enjoyment



Thursday, May 8, 2008

Speed Racer

I can now cross "see a midnight showing of a PG movie" off my list of things to do in life (and thanks to 100.5 "The Buzz," I didn't even have to pay for my ticket!). I've been looking forward to Speed Racer ever since I heard the Wachowskis were going to direct it. I've never been a fan of the show, since it ran back in 1967 and I've never seen a full episode all the way through. But I'll tell you something: this version was one of the coolest movies I've ever seen - and I've seen a lot of movies.

Speed Racer
Directors: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox

I don't know if they just caught me in a good mood or what, but this thing had me genuinely smiling for about 90% of it. It was obviously a kid's movie, but that didn't stop me from having a great time watching it. This is definitely something that people of all ages can enjoy, albeit for different reasons. Kids will get a kick out of the slapstick humor and cool races, while the adults will be blown away by a movie that presents visual aspects that have never been seen before.

The closest thing I can compare to Speed Racer is playing Mario Kart Double Dash on the Gamecube. Every race plays like a level from the game, with references (intended or not) to Rainbow Road, Dry Dry Desert, Sherbert Land, Wario Coliseum, and Waluigi Stadium built into the different race courses featured in the movie. Any hardcore player should be able to spot these; I wish I had some side by side screenshots to show you what I'm talking about. There was even a section that featured the "ghost" aspect of the time trials! In any case, the races were incredible. They played like something out of a couple of Cartoon Network shows I saw when I was a kid: Wacky Races and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. Cars are modified to gain the upper hand against their competition, so Speed (yes, his name is actually Speed Racer in the movie) has to install parts on his car to deflect the attacks of his opposition. What results is a lot of sweet flips over and around cars in midair and some pretty crazy driving moves that aren't unlike something that you would see in a video game. They might as well have been shooting red shells at each other.

Rising star Emile Hirsch was a blast to watch as the lead character, and he had a solid supporting cast behind him the whole way. Christina Ricci played Trixie, Speed's girlfriend, to perfection. [Side note - their relationship was phenomenal.] I've had a lot more respect for her ever since I saw Black Snake Moan. There was one scene in particular (involving ninjas) where she had an especially comical line that was delivered perfectly and earned a laugh from myself and fellow audience members. John Goodman, as always, was a good father figure (also earning a laugh in that aforementioned scene), and the normally-stagnant Susan Sarandon managed to find some emotion and play a good mother as well. The kid and the monkey were the obvious kid crowd-pleasers, although I could have done without them. Matthew Fox is apparently some sort of superstar from "Lost," although I can't speak for him in that regard since I've never seen that show. He was a decent Racer X and probably could have been played by about 15 other actors in Hollywood and nobody would have known the difference. (Trivia: Vince Vaughn was signed to play him at one point!)

The themes found in this movie are strangely similar to those found in Iron Man. Greedy corporations, glorified individualism (the announcers in this movie seemed curiously biased toward Speed...), etc. But this film, being a family affair, took greater care to reinforce the ideals of family and ethical integrity. All in all, nicely done.

There's really not much else to say other than I can guarantee you've never seen anything like it, because the Wachowskis invented a new camera system specifically for this movie which allowed them to remove the depth of field and focus on objects in the foreground and the background at the same time, giving a more cartoonish look to the project. From what I understand, the whole thing was green-screened. There were some really obvious times when this was evident, and then there were some exceptionally well done times when you forgot that the actors weren't really in that world. The editing was unlike anything I've witnessed outside of The Epic, with multiple layers moving at once and some really cool sliding closeup transitions across the screen that has never been done as well. This technique was even used during the action scenes (the one in the mountain pass was my favorite). I don't want to give too much away, so I'll leave it at that.

It's a good thing that I only live about five minutes away from the theater, because the film moves so fast that afterwards you immediately want to get in your car and hit top speed as fast as you can. If you're looking for a unique theatrical experience, then go see Speed Racer. If you don't, there's plenty more action to look forward to this summer. I'll be seein' ya shortly. Until next time...

Iron Man

Kicking off the summer movie season, director Jon Favreau (Elf, Made, Swingers) did for Iron Man what Chris Nolan did for Batman: gave audiences a great representation of the character and immersed us in the world of the hero in a unique way. While claims that it's the "best comic book movie of all time" are far fetched, I definitely enjoyed the movie and thought it had a great combination of action, story, and humor.

Iron Man
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard

RD Jr. was, as I've said before, perfectly cast in this role. The dude practically IS Tony Stark in real life. The character, a rapid-fire billionaire playboy with loads of confidence and intense technological knowledge, is one of those cats that women want and guys want to be. Downey pulled off the humor and sarcasm without a hitch, dropping pick-up lines to reporters without blinking an eye. Terrence Howard was a solid sidekick as James Rhodes, the military tech advisor and Stark's best friend. I'm looking forward to watching his character (hopefully) evolve into a more prominent role (War Machine) in Iron Man 2, due out in 2010.

Gwyneth Paltrow, who I normally don't really care for, was an excellent Pepper Potts, the adorable love interest/secretary to Stark. Most comic book movies tend to get a little tedious with the romantic subplot, but the writers of Iron Man (there were four of them!) should be rewarded for keeping the romance light and allowing Stark and Potts to get a little banter going instead of weighing the film down with heavy love. It's just not that type of movie, and they embraced that and used it to their advantage. Jeff Bridges as the ridiculously-named Obadiah Stane was really reminiscent of William Hurt. It's crazy how much they look and sound alike in this movie and in the upcoming Hulk adaptation in which Hurt plays General "Thunderbolt" Ross. I thought Stane was a passable villain; he was greedy and everything, but he just wasn't crazy enough for my tastes. I like my villains insane and powerful so they can actually do some damage (uh!) to the hero.

Favreau's direction was one of the most surprisingly enjoyable things about this film. The guy's never had this kind of budget at his disposal before, but he made great use of it and churned out a high quality product as a result. The shot selection was good; they had all the requisite shots a comic book movie needs (I thought that Michael Bay-esque one where Iron Man shoots the tank and walks toward the camera as it explodes was pretty cool), and they didn't seem forced just for the sake of getting those shots. The normally-funny Favreau (he's an actor too, in case you didn't know) played Tony Stark's driver, a straight faced no-nonsense guy, physically showing us that he's grown up from his goofing-off days with Vince Vaughn and that he has the ability to be taken seriously in the business. Using the capture of Stark as the motivation for the character shift, the director didn't dwell too long on the "origin" of the character (a pitfall of most comic book movies). Instead, he made that section relatively short and allowed Tony Stark to struggle with the consequences of his naivety for the rest of the film. He gave the movie a nice tone that was consistent throughout and got some memorable performances out of his actors. And how can you go wrong starting the movie with AC/DC's "Back in Black?"

(Spoilers Ahead!)

The action scenes were great; although there were only two really sweet scenes where Iron Man does some damage (in the Afghan desert and the final battle with Obidiah Stane), they were smoothly filmed and even better edited. The flying scenes looked flawless and the graphics were incredible, reminding me a lot of a personal favorite: 1991's The Rocketeer. Iron Man's costume was definitely the coolest-looking superhero costume created for a movie so far. I did find a couple logistical things the filmmakers should have taken into account in the final battle:
1. Stark's glove comes off his hand and he blocks bullets with his forearm while haphazardly shielding his face and he doesn't get hit with anything. (I know it's a superhero movie, but come on.)
2. In the final explosion that looks like a freakin' nuclear bomb going off, Tony Stark's face is RIGHT NEXT TO the gaping hole that all the fire shoots up through. All he does to avoid it is roll his head over away from the flames, and when they cut back to him after the fire has subsided, Tony's fine. Not even singed. They had to cut to a wide shot from about 300 yards away to impart to the audience the enormity of the explosion, but yet Stark is three feet from the fire and he's fine? That kind of heat should have cooked him alive in that suit. But I'll grant you that maybe he installed some sort of heat-resistant technology since he did account for the icing that occurs when he goes into the atmosphere. Still, that's no excuse for why his exposed head wasn't burnt to a crisp, or at least all of his hair burned off.

The technology, as Branz mentioned to me, looked a little out of our league as far as being able to create matrices that allow someone to alter holographic images at whim. At least in Minority Report, Tom Cruise wore special gloves and wiped the images across a hard surface. Stark was just going at it in the middle of his work room, manipulating the image out of thin air. Sure it was cool and sure it's a comic book movie, but I'm just saying - I don't know if we have that technology yet. Either way, it doesn't bother me because Tony Stark is supposed to be incredibly gifted when it comes to all things technological. I don't doubt he could come up with something like that even if our real-world engineers haven't been able to yet.

Aside from the obvious parallels to Batman (billionaire playboys, getting suited up to fight injustice, using gadgets at their disposal, corporations initially having good intentions but end up screwing over the world, etc.), I found some other similarities to another superhero movie that doesn't have such a positive connotation: Ang Lee's oft-maligned Hulk from 2003. Both Iron Man and Hulk (not to be confused with the upcoming The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton) feature middle-aged white villains who take on some other form to fight the hero in an anticlimactic battle. It was much worse in Hulk because Nick Nolte turned into a friggin' electron cloud (or whatever the heck it was) to fight Eric Bana's version of the angry green hero, but Jeff Bridges suiting up in a triple-sized Iron Man suit and fighting Tony Stark at the end seemed almost as ridiculous to me. Maybe it was some of the dialogue that was going on while Bridges was in that suit altered with a metallic, echo-y voice ("Very clever, Stark!"), but something about that scene struck me as being just a little bit off. I admire them for not attempting to replicate the utter destruction found in the final battle in last summer's Transformers, since the two Iron Guys stayed pretty close to Stark Industries and didn't wander off smashing buildings and ripping the city to shreds. They very easily could have taken that path, but instead chose a more conservative approach; this worked better in theory, but still caused me to subconsciously associate Iron Man with a film that should never be spoken of again.

A positive aspect of the movie is that it incorporates legitimate corporate and global issues into a "fun" summer action flick. Obviously it doesn't hit you over the head with its agenda, but Iron Man definitely has one, and it's pretty standard Hollywood - the government/military is useless, corporations are greedy and manipulative, individualism is glorified, and self-reliance is incredibly important. For the studio system to be such a big part of the corporate world it seems to bash all the time, it's remarkable that these types of movies ever get made. Actually, I take that back - Hollywood is trying to distance itself from the "corporations" (who wants to be thrown into that category?), so it makes perfect sense that these films would be given the greenlight during such an economically critical time.

But hey - how cool was that ending? It captured the true essence of Stark (as I understand him) to say "screw it," throw down his notecards, and tell the world that he's Iron Man. That was so ballsy; I loved it. Although I've never read an Iron Man comic before, I've heard there's this kind of cool concept of superheroes divided between those like Stark who think that heroes should come out and not have any secret identities and those like Spider-Man who refuse because they are worried about their loved ones getting hurt. Look for this storyline to be featured in upcoming Marvel films. And speaking of which...

In case you didn't stick around after the credits, here's a YouTubed capture of what happened (This probably won't be up for long, so watch it while you can. It's crappy quality, but it's the best out there that hasn't been shut down by Paramount yet.)

As you can see, Marvel is really trying to get people excited for their upcoming releases by tying all of these movies together. We already know that Tony Stark makes an appearance in Ed Norton's version of The Incredible Hulk, so that's one more cross-promotion they have going for them. I like what Marvel is doing - locking down the same actors to play the same parts in multiple films allows for better continuity and happier fans than trying to get some look-a-like to reprise a role already made famous by some other actor. If they keep up production quality like this, I'll be paying for their movie tickets for years to come. Until next time...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Star Trek Movie Reviews: Part I

As many of you now know, this is Part 2 of a 4-Part anthology looking deeply into the mythology and story development of the Star Trek movie series, with the original crew, of course. This first part takes a look at the creation and characters of the Star Trek galaxy, found here at the Solar Sentinel. For Parts 2 and 3, Alan Trehern and Ben Pearson will give co-op reviews of the seven movies involving Captain James Kirk and his crew. Finally, for the fourth installment, it’s back to the Sentinel for some multiversal surfing as we explore the unknown “Shatnerverse”.

For now, enjoy the movie magic of Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Although there are very slow points in this film (i.e. vast camera angles around the ship and sweeping orchestral movements), it is warming to see the crew together again years after their missions together (Star Trek: The Original Series) and a must see if you intend to watch the entire series of movies.

This motion picture is unique among the other films for many reasons. First, when it was in its writing stages, it was originally suppose to be the first two episodes of a new Star Trek: Phase II television series. Called “In Thy Image”, written by Alan Dean Foster, this story explores the possibilities of a computer taking on consciousness and yearning for the next level of intellect. Of course, this “next level” is human emotion.
The film begins with Spock’s obtainment of the Kolinahr (pure logic), but he refuses it and chooses to help Kirk and crew stop a massive cloud of destruction from coming to Earth. This cloud of destruction calls out to Spock’s consciousness, but his logical Vulcan side keeps friends like Kirk and McCoy at a distance. The Enterprise decides to enter the cloud and explore instead of trying to destroy, and they find that it is a living machine, sent out hundreds of years ago by NASA, and it has now returned to Earth to “touch the creator”.

I really enjoy this movie because it doesn’t fit that Star Trek feel you get from the later movies. Spock weeps for the living machine, named V’Ger, because it cries out, like most of us, for recognition from God (or “the Creator”), and to realize why we exist and what life means. Not only does V’Ger finally realize that love and friendship are the answers it was looking for (with the union of Will Decker and Lieutenant Ilia), but also Spock realizes that his answers lay in the human friendship for James Kirk. There is the moving scene where Spock refers to Kirk as “Jim” instead of “Captain”, and finds that the simple feeling of friendship is beyond V’Ger’s comprehension.

I would suggest this movie to anyone who wants to contemplate the mysteries of life, and anyone who enjoys a throw-back tale of science fiction.

Ben’s Comments:
Trehern’s description of this film is right on the money, down to the religious undertones and the quest for human interaction. This was my first interaction with the Star Trek universe in 10 or so years, so I was a little apprehensive but decided to go for it anyway. I was surprised to find such fundamental questions raised by a movie; it’s pleasingly sophisticated for a series movie that has such a “nerd” following. The action was pretty nonexistent, but I was mostly using this film as an introduction to the characters and their relationships with each other and biding my time until I got to the legendary sequel involving that famous Shatner roar, “KHAN!!!” I suggest you do the same…

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Where could the Star Trek story go from here? Kirk and the Enterprise have just solved one of the greatest mysteries of all time. But while they may have laid the road to the future in STI, little does the Enterprise crew know that the past can’t be easily forgotten. Captain Terrell and Lt. Pavel Checkov of the U.S.S. Relient have accidentily found Khan, a superhuman ruler from Earth during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. Enraged by his treatment by Captain Kirk*, Khan swears swift death to his enemy.

Meanwhile, Project: Genesis plays a crucial role in the plans of Khan. But what is Project: Genesis? What does Khan have in mind for Kirk? Watch it and find out.

However, the themes in this film transcend its initial sci-fi storytelling. The Wrath of Khan deals with Kirk’s loss of the Enterprise and his desire to feel young again, as well as the theme of life and death. Although Khan is the great danger, the Genesis Project is an even greater one, for it gives life where there is none, but it can also take it away. In the final battle against Khan in the Nebula, Spock finds it necessary to help the needs of the many at the sacrifice of the few, or in this case the one. He throws himself into the extremely radioactive confines of the engine room to repair the warp drive and help the Enterprise escape from the detonating Genesis bomb. As he succeeds, Kirk manages to speak with his friend one last time:

The sweeping soundtrack and character interaction, as well as the life themes we all must learn and understand, no matter what century we live in, burn on in the Star Trek series. The first two movies contain the magic, myth and teachings that motion pictures are suppose to realize. Although the moviemakers didn’t plan on having a sequel, they opened up for one. With the death of Spock, new life was born with the Genesis Planet…

*The previous encounter of Kirk and Khan is summarized here.

Ben’s Comments:
Before you watch this movie, read the summary that Trehern mentioned about the previous encounters of Kirk and Khan; it makes their meeting in this film all the more epic. I’m glad I knew the back-story before I jumped into Wrath of Khan. Anyway, I liked this movie a lot more than the first one. It still had some of the grandeur and exploration themes of the previous installment, but it concentrated more on Kirk, which I always think is a good thing. (Shatner’s performance was something to behold.) The Project: Genesis subplot served its purpose as well, adding to a story arc that lasts through the next two movies (III and IV), forming a sort of mini-series inside the overall sequence of films. Spock’s conversion from the pure logic of the first film to giving up his life for his shipmates at the end of this movie is a poignant moment in film history. Interestingly enough, the whole “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” concept is one that I studied in ethics class last semester; it’s called utilitarianism. All fans of Star Trek, old and new alike should get a kick out of this one.

“There are always…possibilities.”

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

“I chose danger…hell of a time to ask.”

After the philosophical adventures of the first two movies, it’s hard to top them with more spiritually moving scenes and overtures that could make Eastwood cry. STIII, in my opinion, breaks barrier from moving philosophy to good storytelling. In this film, we see the Genesis Planet go awry, and the destruction of the USS Enterprise, as well as the rebirth of the body of Spock. Kirk puts his career on the line to save Spock, and sacrifices his son and ship for his Vulcan friendship. Even Dr. McCoy’s selflessness for Spock’s survival, despite their differences, makes this film a great addition to the series.
All in all, the themes of this movie are mentioned above: friendship, sacrifice and hope. Not only that, but the movie ties together the vast storytelling that would span Star Trek IIStar Trek IV. A very good cinematic event, and II, III and IV must be watched as a trilogy, or there’s no point.

“The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many…”

Ben’s Comments:
As Trehern suggested, the storytelling is the key component of this installment in the Star Trek franchise. Christopher Lloyd’s performance (as Cmdr. Kruge) was ridiculous at best, and knowing that’s him in that Klingon makeup makes it nearly impossible to take him seriously as a villain. That being said, the loyalty and friendship of the Enterprise crew is at a peak in this edition, with each member playing a role in rescuing their newly resurrected companion and kicking utilitarianism in the butt in the process. We learn a little more about the Genesis project, which allowed the filmmakers (Nimoy directed this one!) to replay a pretty cool graphic explaining what Genesis does that they played in Wrath of Khan and would play again in Star Trek IV. Overall, this was a solid addition to a steadily growing franchise that was about to go into warp speed in the next couple years.