W. Movie

Movie title: W. Movie (2008)
Grade: D- (1 star)
Rated: PG-13
Directors: Oliver Stone
Producers: Moritz Borman, Bill Block, Paul Hanson, Eric Kopeloff,
Starring: Josh Brolin “George W. Bush,” Stacy Keach “Earl Hudd,” Ioan Gruffudd “Tony Blair,” Ellen Burstyn “Barbara Bush,” James Cromwell “George Herbert Walker Bush,” Elizabeth Banks “Laura Bush,” Richard Dreyfuss “Dick Cheney,” Toby Jones “Karl Rove,” Thandie Newton “Condoleezza Rice,” Scott Glenn “Donald Rumsfeld,” Jeffrey Wright “Colin Powell,” Bruce McGill “George Tenet”
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Summation: From his youth until just after 9-11 in his presidency, the life of George W. Bush is portrayed.
Spoilers ahead: No

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Where one stands politically really shouldn’t matter in critiquing movies. Whether you’re a nutty (in my opinion) 9-11 conspiracy theorist, or a staunch Republican Bush-bot who believes ole’ W can do no wrong, it matters not. But if you’re going to do satire on the shortcomings of either the left or the right, make it funny! Don’t have it straddle the fence between a hammy, factually questionable documentary, and a satirical piece. But that is exactly what this film does, for which it receives a near-failing grade.

W. Movie is not funny except in a few passing places, and these are rare throughout the film. The docudrama-style presentation alone removes it from the realm of effective satire. It is easy to get the impression that you are watching a made-for-tv movie on Bush Jr.’s presidency, and it’s not a stretch to say that a number of uninformed people will mistake this for a factual representation of his presidency.

Director Oliver Stone, a far left-leaning liberal known for distorting and omitting facts (i.e. his movies JFK and Nixon), claims that he kept this one factual and largely free from bias. But that, my friends, is a joke of near epic proportions. I'm no fan of the right-wing Christian movement, but portraying our nation’s commander-and-chief as a privileged rich kid, a lazy and riotous drunk who can’t hold down a job, a complete and total moron, surrounded by a whole cabinet of morons who can’t even think up a phrase like “the axis of evil” without expending great effort is not making a movie with little bias.

The movie repeatedly flips from W’s past as a partying fraternity boy, being initiated in hardcore drink-offs, getting arrested and always depending on daddy to bail him out of trouble, to his future (near our present) as a sly-but-empty-headed, heartless, oil-obsessed politician who makes our nation a mockery on the world stage. Now parody is all fine and good. It is the shining greatness of the U.S. of A. that we can make fun of our leaders and smear them all over the edge of the envelope in expression of our views. But again, W. Movie isn’t funny.

The movie halfass-edly tries to be a parody at a few places, but ends up seeming like a serious documentary at others, and at times, even makes you want to genuinely empathize with Jr., like when it shows a recovering alcoholic Bush talking to his reverend and praying with him for the strength to be a better person. There’s no humor at all, just well-succored empathy, and then mockery, making the film inconsistent in its more-than-apparent goal to bash our 43rd president. Were it not for a few obviously comically-slanted remarks, the running impression of the film would be that this is a docudrama, not a comedy.

Laborious time is spent in scenes of discussion between cabinet members where Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are portrayed as obviously oil-crazed fiends who are as venomous as the commander-and-chief himself, wanting nothing more than to invade Iraq merely for the oil. When no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are found, they squirm in their seats to work past the blunder of going to war without so much as an apology or an admission of wrongdoing. Condi (Thandie Newton), when faced with the issue of there being no evidence of Hussein’s having WMDs is made to say: “We occupy that area now, sir, so I’m sure we’ll find them.” Yeah, a few funny moments are to be found, but not nearly enough.

Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is portrayed as the only reserved and wise voice in the meetings discouraging war, warning against allowing 9-11 to be used to throw America off course by going against general wartime procedures for declaring war. But then Bush steps in – macho cowboy style as always – and sets the record straight that he is in charge, and unlike his father who didn’t go far enough in the Gulf War, he would—in efforts to kick the guy’s ass who messed with his daddy! Now, the chase for Saddam Hussein was personal!

If not satire, what was W. Movie really? It was a mudslinging campaign. And it’s no coincidence that it was hurriedly released just as the November elections came around. Regardless of how you feel about the Bush administration, the movie doesn’t hit the sweet spot. And as always, when attempts at humor flop, they flop big-time! So please, Mr. Stone, the next time you want to cram your left-sprinkled take on America down our throats, just tell us what it is we are being force-fed. No need to lie to us by telling us it’s something it’s not. Goodness knows, you’ll have plenty of people sympathizing with your agenda anyway.

The Saturday Night Live-level makeup job of the characters was a touch less than commendable, but just about adequate. Suffice it to say, they played the part—some more so than others at certain spots. The acting was decent. But it’s identifying the audience for this movie that is the hard part. We must ask, who would see this movie? All except the most diehard conservatives give Bush a very low approval rating, making it unlikely that many on the right would make the trip to the theatre to see a movie about him, especially considering its production with an expectedly leftwing perspective. And the left abhors W. If they dared go see this movie expecting it to be a funny take on the W they so love to hate, they are going to be downright angry and sorely disappointed.

What makes W. Movie a failure is that it fails to identify with and advance its genre in that it fails as a work of satire. It’s not funny. It’s not entertaining. It’s a waste of time. The movie ends with a perplexed and mentally burdened Bush being stumped by a simple question, bumbling before an audience at a press conference. But the real question to be perplexed by is: why am I still considering seeing this movie?

(JH)

I'd Rather Have Taco Bell

Movie title: Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008)
Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG
Director: Raja Gosnell
Producers: (Exec.) Steve Nicolaides, John Jacobs, Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis (Aunt Viv) Voice cast: Andy Garcia “Delgado,” Drew Barrymore “Chloe,” George Lopez “Papi,” Placido Domingo “Monte,” Edward James Olmos “El Diablo,” Paul Rodriguez “Chico,” Cheech Marin “Manuel,” Eduardo ‘piolin’ Sotelo “Rafa,” Luiz Guzman “Chucho,” Loretta Devine “Delta,” Michael Urie “Sebastian”
Genre: Comedy-Adventure-Family
Summation: A pampered, upscale Chihuahua (Chloe, voiced by Drew Barrymore) from Beverly Hills goes on a surprise adventure in Mexico where she is lost, but pursued by another Chihuahua (Papi, voiced by George Lopez) out of his love for her.
Spoilers ahead: No

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I bet you’re wondering what Beverly Hills Chihuahua has for you. I bet you’ve got your list of questions lined up about the movie, like are there hot and studly Mexican gardeners? Well, there’s one. It seems that no movie portraying hired help can avoid that overplayed tendency to have a great-looking “Don Juan” yard-keeper around to spark up some romance. And what about dogs that appear to talk like humans? Count on it! Does it cater to a young audience and hardcore, manic, super-devoted dog-lovers? Yeppers! Does it throw around the word “Chihuahua” enough times to make the viewer dizzy, reminding the audience that a Chihuahua is indeed a dog of Mexican origin? You bet! It’s got that too.

It’s got a lot, including a cute, nicely wrapped-up plot that makes you feel all warm and toasty inside. It's nearly a decent Disney movie. But you’ll also get a constant barrage of Mexican accents, making the film almost like a parody of Mexican stereotypes, either that or a take off of the old Taco Bell dog commercials. You remember those, don’t you…all that fuss that was made when objectors in the early 2000s told the franchise that having a Chihuahua with a Mexican accent was “demeaning” to Latinos? Well, Disney doesn’t seem to think so, or perhaps the movie’s creators just didn’t give the matter much thought.

Another thing the creators didn’t seem to think about was the movie’s lack of seriousness. One keeps waiting for the dogs to assemble in a line formation and start singing and dancing (with the help of animation) around a sombrero while mariachis come from out of nowhere and start playing. Walking right into a stereotype is not necessarily a bad thing. Some are true and can be addressed. The only problem is, when all one has is stereotypes, you have a superficial movie. And that is right near the case. But I’m just curious: Is there anyone out there who believes that 80 Chihuahuas could intimidate three hungry mountain lions? Anyone?

Well, how about great acting? Uh, not particularly, but the acting fit the story. Plot twists? None to speak of. Heck, we don’t even get any real footnote information about the Chihuahua breed. The film could have slipped in some educational facts along the way in this very grade school-level movie. The “cheese” meter registered quite high, with horribly lame and mellow-dramatic happenings ever so often, the kind of thing you generally find and abhor in movies for young audiences where “kooky” stuff happens.

Even the animal interaction was not up to par. The animal trainers and directors could have been creative in whipping up a more convincing dog face-off scene towards the movie’s end simply by taking clips of similar-looking dogs in play and adding sound affects, but they didn’t even do that. The word “half-baked” comes to mind (well, actually, I was thinking of a stronger word).

Nothing remarkable here at all. Complete waste of time? Well, perhaps not. If you want a clean movie for younger audiences, you’ll certainly find that here. If you want a heartwarming animal adventure, you’ll find that too. The actors and actresses for the animal voices were well chosen and the story is nicely moving, tugging on your emotions at times. Me, I'd rather have Taco Bell.

(JH)

Wall-E is E-pic

Movie title: Wall-E (2008)
Grade: A+ (4 stars) Recommended!
Rated: PG
Director: Andrew Stanton
Producers: Jim Morris, Lindsey Collins
Starring (voice): Ben Burtt “Wall-E,” Elissa Knight “Eve,” Jeff Garlin “Captain,” MacInTalk “Auto,” John Ratzenberger “John,” Kathy Najimy “Mary,” Sigourney Weaver (Ship's Computer Voice)
Genre: Comedy/Family/Adventure/Animation/Romance/Sci-Fi
Summation: In the future, earth is void of humans. Wall-E (a waste allocation robot on earth) meets Eve (a life search robot from space), and the two find a new purpose in life.
Spoilers ahead: No

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Being a movie critic can be hard on the eyes. Imagine sacrificing two or more hours of your life on a regular basis to attentively view films that feel like they are slowly turning your brain to oatmeal! It’s not always fun, believe me! Only rarely does a movie exceed hopelessly average standards and rise to the heights of greatness. So naturally, when that does happen, we take a few moments to stop and breathe in the fresh air of the event.

I was totally blown away by Wall-E. I had no idea what I was in for. Disney and Pixar really outdid themselves here. Academy Award-winning director Andrew Stanton (director of “Finding Nemo”) and Pixar Animation Studios (works include “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” and “Ratatouille”) put their heads together. The result was a truly amazing achievement.

“Magical,” “brilliant,” “enchanting,” “iconic,” and of course, “ingeniously creative” are just a few of the choice words I would use to describe this adventurous presentation. And with my outspoken dislike of modern animation, let me quickly go on record in admitting that in Wall-E we have one in relatively few films where the animation compliments and actually enhances the storyline instead of trying to replace it!

Virtually every scene is visual candy. Imagine twenty speechless minutes passing by, and yet you’re nowhere near bored. I’ve never seen so much data transferred to an audience without a word spoken, like scenes where Wall-E finds a “spork” and is unable to classify it as a spoon or a fork, so he gives it its own spot on the shelf—good mind candy, I must say! Even when it was speechless, it was entrancing!

I’ve never seen anything like it! This could be the next E.T. or Bambi. Only, the targeted audience is not children, but adults. But let’s not forget that although charming and amusing, Wall-E is a less-than-flattering evaluation of humanity (both in the film and in real life). It makes us do some serious self-reflection and tells a lot; (1) mankind is lazy, having been rendered incompetent by the machines he created. Our own drives for convenience and ease will be our undoing. But mankind is not useless because (2) mankind and the machines have become symbiotic; we need the machines to advance us, but the machines could have done nothing without the creation, the drives, and the direction of human impulses. They need us as purpose-givers. But the point of real self-reflection comes at the next consideration; (3) the machines we created outshine us; what we enabled them to do, they can do better. Will their capabilities (continually advancing as they are) one day include our capacity for love? That’s what the story of Wall-E is all about.

Can a machine be a better “human” than a human? Is our future bright? What will the role of machines be in our future? Will we humble ourselves to learn from the machines, and in turn, be better humans? Are we willing to admit that we only mean well, but have a long way to go in doing well? Will we face the fact that just because we have a concept of goodness and the desire to exalt love, that we are not the be-all-and-end-all of it?

The story of Wall-E and Eve pokes plenty of fun at the human race while exemplifying love. Almost every segment of every scene is a soft parody of life, seconding it while taking humor from it. You’ll let out a heartfelt burst of laughter as you behold the efforts of Wall-E trying to tear away a fat human from her computer screen—not unlike many of us today who are already glued to our monitors!

By way of faults, the movie has few. Get ready to hear the name “Wall-E” more times than you care to. My one big complaint with the film is that the name is said so many times that it becomes nearly annoying to the point of “Okay already!” It’s the only glaring fault in the film, though there are a number of fleeting scenes of too-human emotions in the bots. The overplaying of human emotion is a common fault among movies where machines are the chosen vessels to portray human feelings, but it is a forgivable error.

Wall-E isn’t for everyone. Those who won’t like it are those diehard, humanity-is-wonderful realists who tend to either shy away from or hate fantasy and/or technology. Wall-E requires a somewhat progressive mindset to appreciate, and there are those who are simply not ready for it. They will get nothing from the film and only be annoyed by its clever antics. It’s ok not to be drawn to a movie (we all have our own personal tastes), but it’s never ok to spit on ingenuity and progress due to our lack of it.

Wall-E is powerful, the imagery magical, and the animation wonderful. Four stars for Wall-E, a journey of the mind and heart you won’t soon forget!

(JH)

Saw V: The Outliving of Usefulness

Movie title: Saw V (2008)
Grade: C + (2 ½ stars)
Rated: R
Director: David Hackl
Producers: (Exec.) Daniel Jason Heffner, Mark Burg, Oren Koules
Starring: Tobin Bell, Julie Benz, Meagan Good, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell
Genre: Crime-Horror-Mystery
Summation: In this (the fifth) installment of the Saw series, Hoffman remains as the apparent torchbearer of Jigsaw, the infamous murderer, and now it’s time to tie up loose ends.
Spoilers ahead: No

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My descriptive title for Saw V can be used to summarize not just part V, but also part IV, in that the series has (sadly) outlived its usefulness. Both movies have some good and bad qualities, and how one views the Saw movies is, of course, open to interpretation. But one thing that should not be disputed is the fact that the Saw series has gotten rather old by now.

I give it a weaker 2 and-a-half stars, and that is fair. But while I can’t give it a glowing recommendation, if you love the Saw series (I, for one, do), then I do recommend that you see this one. It has the same intrinsic qualities as the other Saw movies, and that makes it mostly riveting—very appealing if you are a diehard Saw fan. But to really like it, you’ll have to forgive stiff, lifeless acting on the part of some. You’ll also need to dig the long and arguably too frequent flashbacks that the Saw series has become so famous for. And you’ll have to love splotchy gore, semi-realistic screaming, and the repetition of that used-to-be-chilling phrase: “I want to play a game.”

When all is said and done, what we’ve got here is more of the same stuff as before—a blood-shedding genius is going to gruesomely test the fabric of human nature, and there’s going to be lots and lots of (you guessed it) blood, blood and torture, and long bouts of screaming. Jigsaw is so smart that he manages to stay one step ahead of the police and the FBI the entire time. Ok…we get it…he’s unthinkably smart and sadistic, the epitome of a psychopath who is out to take retribution into his own hands. Got it, ok, ready to move on to something new…but there’s nothing new here to move on to; there’s just more of the same stuff as before.

Saw V may not have anything new, but what it does have is more of what you’ve been itching for—a firm tie-down of explanations as to what transpired. Like the other Saw movies, the movie works backwards and then forwards, tying together everything from all past movies. It explains a lot, like how Kramer has successfully evaded the police and the FBI, and how he managed to have an inside line on capturing his victims. Saw V is not shy in focusing on the theme of the entire Saw series—rehabilitation. Kramer is not a sick serial killer. Oh no! He’s a mechanism of justice, a force against those who have fallen through the cracks of the justice system. If you choose to, you can pass his tests, and when you do, you’ll be immediately rehabilitated. You’ll see life like you never have before; you’ll be reborn; you’ll cherish life like you never thought possible. But the choice is always yours, as were the choices you made that got you tested in the first place!

Of horror series’, Saw is one of the most credible and intriguing ever made, having a real-world pull to it. This separates it from the droves of dyed-in-blood horror movies, consisting of nothing more than cheap screams and mindless murder, built on high stacks of trash writing. The “who done it?” aspect of Saw is not just what makes it shine, but that there is “method behind the madness” of the central villain, and it always makes perfect sense in the end. The same cannot be said of far too many horror flicks, tailor-made for brain-dead bimbos and horny, hug-friendly high school kids, looking for a squeeze on a Friday night at the movies.

But to get anything from it, you had better be a Saw fan and you better be alert! If you haven’t followed closely the other movies, then just forget it. You’ll be lost. And don’t feel bad if you are compelled to see it again to catch up on the details, complicated and confusing as they can be. And don’t feel bad if you feel a slight disconnect from the new room of to-be-slaughtered test subjects. It seems that the writers just couldn’t resist giving the mindless gorehounds in the audience what they wanted in the form of another non-relevant roomful of people to mutilate. It provided nothing helpful to the plot, but I guess exploding shrapnel turning a man into a pile of blood and guts is irresistible to some.

Tobin Bell (John Kramer, “Jigsaw”) does a masterful job of adopting the character of the dark soul, making it his own. But then, that’s not the sort of thing you want to pass on, is it? You just don’t “pass the torch” of criminal genius onto someone else. It’s not as though there are applicants lined up outside to apply for the job, crazy and hideously sick as this world is! But that is exactly where the Saw series has gone. Instead of stopping at the death of Kramer – a brilliant criminal mind who made his mark on the world and then died in infamy – we have sequels propagating the implied continuation of his work through another, thus robbing the series of glory and cheapening its value.

Saw IV and V both reminded me of a certain talk show I saw some years back. The topic was “Elvis, dead or alive?” Guests on the panel consisted of the usual assortment of nutcases who find reason to believe that Elvis Presley never really died. During the entire show, I kept thinking to myself: “He’s dead! Let him go already!” That’s what should have happened with the Saw series. Pound for pound, it died at the end of the third movie (some would say the first, but I’m not in that camp). Now we should let it go. Too much of a good thing (even Tobin Bell) is a bad thing!

(JH)

Unrealistic Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Movie title - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Grade - D+ (one and a half stars)
Director - Steven Spielberg,
Producers - (Exec.) George Lucas, Frank Marshall
Key Actors - Harrison Ford, Kate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Karen Allen, Shia Labeouf
Genre - Action, Adventure
Summation - Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) goes in search of a powerful ancient artifact and is pursued by soviet forces seeking to learn its secrets.
Spoilers ahead - No

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Indiana Jones, like James Bond, is an untouchable American icon. If you grew up in my generation, you remember when Raiders of the Lost Ark made theatres and etched an indelible impression on the world of entertainment. Then Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came along, but it went out with more of whimper than a bang by comparison. Then came Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which proved to be another monumental directing achievement. And now, almost twenty years later, we have “Dr. Jones” before us again in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Now let it be clear from the outset that I wanted to like this film. I really did. I wanted to see it go down in history as an influential and riveting work that would be looked back upon with a sense of admiration and dignity. But unfortunately, that didn’t happen; I didn’t like the film, and I don’t see it going down in history as a truly great movie in years to come.

The movie was well crafted. The music was great. The scenes were nicely shot and spliced. The acting was good, and at no time was I bored. And let it be said that the filmmakers did a superb job of recapturing older elements of the original Indiana Jones movies, human elements like Indy’s dreaded fear of snakes, his role as a revered scholar and teacher, and his unmistakable charm as the world’s most adventurous and brilliant (not to mention, lucky) archeologist. Bringing back Miriam was a swell move too, as was letting the audience see the original warehouse where the ark was stored at the close of the first movie. As the flick progressed, a resurrected sense of nostalgia overtook me. The storyline was deep and rich—a telltale sign that the movie I was watching was indeed the handiwork of a brilliant filmmaking team.

But…(big but!)

The two fatal flaws of the film worked together to deliver what served as a deathblow to its worthiness as a phenomenally great movie. First, it was unrealistic through-and-through. Every action sequence, from beginning to end, was plagued with unwarranted and horrendous departures from reality. Second, these departures from reality caused the movie to drift from a to-be-taken-serious action-adventure where the laws of reality and physics are kept intact, into a cheesy fantasy-adventure for kids. Such is not the Indiana Jones I grew up with!

These dauntingly unbelievable action sequences range from farfetched to more than farfetched. Instead of seeing a sophisticated and resourceful Russian woman carrying a gun, she carries a sword. Why would she? Instead of two guys fighting in a warehouse and one forcing the other against a corner of a room, we see two men acrobatically knocking each other through windows and onto control panels, accidentally activating a rocket that manages to scoop them up and send them flying out of the compound. Such adolescent antics can be tolerated in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but not Indiana Jones! Instead of believable-but-intense chase scenes, we have chase scenes that are well beyond belief, up to and including Indy pulling stunts off the back of motorcycles that only experienced, well-paid stuntmen would dare attempt.

We have Indy dodging bullets at point-blank range, whipping the butts of jeep-fulls of Russians with little more than punches and kicks, hats staying on during harsh exchanges of blows, and let’s not forget those ants! In this movie, there’s only one thing tougher than Indy, and that’s the ants! They can take down running humans and kill them in under a minute! They can even use each other to make an “ant ladder” to reach someone who is suspended off of the ground! But the ants aren’t the only weird-behaving creatures in this film! Attacking monkeys amazingly single out only the “bad guys” and fight them! Indiana Jones is that cool! There are standing, prancing, leaping, truck-to-truck swordfights on bumpy, Amazonian terrains that would knock a tightrope walker flat on his ass! Instances of such absurdities are too numerous to mention in this review. These are only a small sampling of them.

One constant of this movie is that just when you want to really get into the story and enjoy the action, just when you want to relish the contributions of the characters and appreciate their experiences, you are reminded of the sad fact that everything you are seeing is palpably unrealistic to the core. You try to be lenient by allowing exaggerations in the name of some harmless and docile fantasy, but your efforts are soon overshot. Be prepared to say to yourself over and over: “No way that could happen!” I guarantee you, you will!

Lighthearted dialogue is common, but even more common are flat-out, failed attempts at humor. Flopped humor isn’t the only thing that’s rampant in this movie; frequent usage of too-modern phrases like, “same old, same old” are there too. To say that the presence of such occurrences is irritating is, well, an understatement!

And get ready for plenty of scientific and factual blunders that are mighty hard to ignore, like the presence of electronic counters when they weren’t invented yet, lead lined (and labeled so) refrigerators being conveniently available to protect Indy from atomic blasts—and not only does this fridge not lock someone inside like refrigerators of that era typically did, but it is particularly entertaining to see old Indy get blasted into the sky by a nuke while hiding in that refrigerator and then violently crash-landing, and then getting out and walking away without even a scratch or a limp! Oh, and let’s not forget the weird behavior of metal objects, some of which are attracted to the crystal skull while others inexplicably are not (gun powder, knives, and gold: yes. Belt buckles, swords, guns, and buttons: apparently not).

Now I’m all for fantasy adventures. If that’s the type of movie you want, then more power to you. There’s nothing wrong with watching Godzilla attack a city, or seeing a fat panda that talks and knows Kung Fu, but when someone turns my Indiana Jones into a tall-tale take like this, I’m insulted—very insulted! Thanks for fucking up a classic, Spielberg! You really have lost your touch!

(JH)

Kung Fu Panda

Movie title: Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Grade: A+ (4 stars) Recommended!
Rated: PG
Directors: John Stevenson, Mark Osbourne
Producers: (Exec.) Bill Damaschke, Melissa Cobb, Glenn Berger
Starring (Voices): Jack Black “Po,” Dustin Hoffman “Shifu,” Jackie Chan “Monkey,” Seth Rogen “Mantis,” Lucy Liu “Viper,” Angelina Jolie “Tigress,” David Cross “Crane,” Randall Duk Kim “Oogway,” Ian McShane “Tai Lung,” James Hong “Mr. Ping,” Michael Clarke Duncan “Commander Vachir,” Dan Fogler “Zeng”
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Family/Comedy
Summation: Po the Panda, the son of a lowly noodle cook, pursues his dreams to become a martial arts legend and discovers that he is the chosen dragon warrior.
Spoilers ahead: No

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Let’s try some animated film arithmetic, shall we? What do you get when you add top-of-the-line animation, fancy-footed martial arts action moves, big-name celebrity voice casts, a diverse crew of Kung Fu-ish animals, and one fat panda? You get Kung Fu Panda, undoubtedly of the best films of 2008. Kung Fu Panda is funny for kids of all ages and adults, being sophisticated and emotionally engaging enough for the latter, while creatively entertaining enough for the former.

The animation is done by DreamWorks, and they go beyond expectation. Every scene is spectacular and has its own distinct flavor. As I watched, the lighting in some of the scenes took me back to my childhood years as I sat in front of an oversized, dial-activated mahogany wood television and watched the 1973 Robin Hood. Kung Fu Panda has the same ambitious charm, a more engaging storyline, and add to that, well-placed humor.

Dialogue and word usage is fittingly tuned to both younger and older audiences. Basically, there’s something here for everyone, like the following modern-age, stress-relief comment from Po to his five looked-up-to peers: “You guys are much bigger than your action figures. Except for you, Mantis. You’re about the same size.” Lots of cute and refreshing stuff.

The array of characters in the film is diverse and charming. They compliment the strengths of each other. For instance, you have the overachieving Tigress, the complacent and mild-mannered Monkey, and Mantis, the wickedly awesome fighter with a “little guy’s” complex. And then there’s Master Shifu, an accomplished master in every way, but he has a chip on his shoulder, a troubled past to overcome, and something more to learn. Character development is magnificent.

The moral lessons from Kung Fu Panda are not new, but are, in fact, timelessly wonderful—the first one being that belief in one’s self is essential. That’s what Po must learn if he is ever to successfully defend the land and conquer the evil Tai Lung, the conceited snow leopard, believed by all (even Tai Lung himself) to be the best fighter ever. But Po has a long way to go! He’s a fat panda without much training or the respect of his fellow pupils, the furious five (Tigress, Mantis, Viper, Monkey, and Crane), all trained by Master Shifu who is overseen by the ever-so-wise Grandmaster Oogway.

So how is this fat, out-of-shape bear going to be up to the challenge? Call it destiny, call it magic, call it faith, or whatever you want to call it, but it is the second moral lesson of the film—greatness often shows up in unexpected packages. It’s up to us to keep our minds ready and open to spot it when it arrives.

Kung Fu Panda goes beyond “cute.” The plot moves along nicely with excitement and a lighthearted level of suspense. The movie is at all times enjoyable, a few excessively goofy scenes aside. I don’t know why so many directors feel the need to get hokey when trying to appeal to kids by having the characters demonstrate excessive clumsiness, but that tendency is thankfully very rare in this excellent film.

Due to violence, the film got a PG instead of a preferable G rating, but while fast and hard-hitting, the fight scenes in Kung Fu Panda are non-bloody and non-graphic, and yet can still be appreciated for what they are (very well done). I caught one reference to being killed, but there’s nothing here that would be notably too intense for young viewers.

As keenly as it opened, the movie climaxes, leaving behind that very warm feeling that the characters you just got to know you’d love to see more of (P.S. watch through the credits!) By far and away, this is one of the best animated films out there!

(JH)

Can You Take The Payne?

Movie title - Max Payne (2008)
Spoilers ahead - No

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A disturbing trend has been making inroads in the entertainment world for the last several decades, although it has more recently been gaining ground over the last several years. Aside from stacks and stacks of bad movies, poorly directed and pathetically brought before us on the big screen or released on DVD, we have the hair-brained efforts of Hollywood directors and writers in their bringing to life videogames as movies. That is the disturbing trend to which I refer. It’s disturbing because it has been shown not to work, and yet it is still being done!

It started with Tron. It had its beginning as a videogame. It became a movie, but was less than spectacular on the big screen when compared to the game. Much later came Mortal Combat and Double Dragon—huge embarrassments to put it nicely. Doom and Resident Evil are the most recent arrivals with only a meager few liking Resident Evil. Before us now is Max Payne. It too got its start as a videogame. Only, it was a smash hit as a videogame. Most gamers would say, it kicked butt and took names!

But gamers have what might be called an unwritten law or a saying when it comes to making videogames into movies—don’t make videogames into movies because they suck! That’s what they say. No, I’m not making it up! So if you don’t believe a movie critic, just ask a gamer. They say it out loud and a lot.

Is this saying true in the case of the movie Max Payne? A lot can be said of the film, and much of it is positive. For one, I was caught off guard by the able-to-follow action sequences. And believe me, slow-enough-to-follow action scenes are rare things nowadays! It’s nice to watch a movie and actually be able to make out what is happening in the combat sequences, and not be made sick by a shaky, convulsing camera, like so many directors have in a vain effort to get the viewer’s adrenaline pumping.

The acting was good too (Mark Wahlberg’s being a notably good example). The characters had their own lockstep-ness to them as portrayed by their actors. And I liked the mood of the film. Snowy, wet, dark, and dreary fit the expressions and motif of the movie—revenge!

Dialogue was excellent and fitting. It was substantial, being deep and yet understandable at the same time. It didn’t throw itself out there in forced footnotes and unnecessarily explained history lessons to reveal things to the audience. It was relatively natural and succinct. The story? Well, that’s another matter.

The story, though adequate, lacked shine. One gets why things are happening as they go down, but there is no real meaning behind anything, no satisfying explanations that leave a sense of meaning as to what is going on. The Valkyr drug aspect of the plot, together with the lacings of Norse mythology, did little but cancel each other out. The viewer keeps expecting the movie to conform to a sci-fi mold, but it doesn’t. Not quite. And suddenly, the supernatural appears to be involved, with the dubious presence of angelic beings. Combining the two elements was a forced fit to say the least, totally lacking in appeal.

While halfway decent, the movie’s sketchy character development still left something to be desired. You don’t really get to know anyone in this film, not even the main characters. There’s not enough time to see and identify with the softer side of Max Payne. There are not enough “the way things used to be” scenes, no deeply felt “those were the days” reflections. You can’t get behind any of the characters. Your heart doesn’t go out to anyone.

In a way, this film reminded me of the 2006 movie Children of Men. I sat in the theatre, sucking down my extra buttery-ass popcorn and large-sized Mr. Pibb, trying to ascertain why I didn’t feel for the characters. The movie was great, but didn’t really reach inside me and pull something out like it should have. The point is, it’s possible to have a mechanically workable movie that is less-than-likable and far from remarkable. Such is the case to a “t” in Max Payne.

The entire movie seemed to be a hasty justification for action. It was all about the violence, all about the payback, all about the mayhem. The movie had a temper, and it was just waiting for an excuse to pop off!

The conclusion of the matter is this: If violent, dark, and edgy is your thing, then this movie will probably float your boat. If you like a plot that unfeelingly charges on – like a raging bull elephant – to the action sequences, and has a very vague and anorexic storyline, merely to justify the “shoot ‘em up” side of things, then this movie is for you. I guess it just depends on how big of an action buff you are in determining how much or how little you will enjoy this film. Either way, you may not walk out of the theatre regretting having seen it, but then again, you might just find yourself siding with the gamers in saying: Videogames don’t make good movies!

(JH)

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Grade - C- (two stars)
Rated - PG-13
Director - John Moore
Key Actors - Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Chris Bridges, Olga Kurylento, Amaury Nolasco, Chris O’Donnel
Genre - Action, Drama, Crime, Thriller
Summation - Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg), a New York City detective, teams up with an assassin (Mila Kunis) to get revenge on the murderers of his family while being hunted by the police, the mob, and a corrupt corporation.

The Incredible Hulk

Movie title: The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Spoilers ahead: No

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There is a sadness in my heart. An empty void remains as I contemplate the way things used to be with my favorite childhood superhero. At the end of each show, he was Bill Bixby, walking backwards to the tune of pretty piano music while thumbing for a ride. He played David (a.k.a. Bruce) Banner. But when he became the Hulk, he would emerge in the form of Lou Ferrigno, a massive, towering, green-painted man, standing 6’5 with 23-and-a-half inch arms, weighing 330 pounds. Limited special effects of the time didn’t take from the feeling that when those eyes started turning green, and when those shirts and pant-legs began to rip, all hell was about to break loose!

But movies aren’t the same now. Animation does nearly everything. Character nuances and subtle facial expressions are done (or I should say overdone) with special effects. I have never been drawn to modern animation. To me, Hanna-Barbera did it way better, leaving more room for the exercise of imagination. Their animation was much more eye-friendly, and to me at least, much more aesthetically pleasing. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but damnit, that’s how I feel!

But as with movies that start out as novels or comic books, a standard must be maintained. The more the movie bears resemblance to the original source, the better it is. The “real” comic book Hulk does not stand at 6’5, more like 9’5. He’s huge and lumbering, weighing in somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand pounds. He is massive beyond belief. Thus, it requires animation to bring that to life when no actor can. And even though it is to my grave dislike, animation is taking movies further than we ever thought they would go. So be it.

Unlike the 2003 movie Hulk, The Incredible Hulk is more enjoyable and more appealing. The unearthly rage and power of the beloved green superhero was seen in the earlier flick, but many more awesome fight scenes are found in the new one. And add to that, we have big-time competition for the Hulk now! Nothing spells excitement like a super-powerhouse clashing with another super-powerhouse. With the rise of The Abomination, the Hulk’s definitely got his hands full.

If you followed the comics, you’re familiar with The Abomination (the Hulk’s arch-nemesis), equal in power and ferociousness to the Hulk (and in some ways, surpassing him). But if you’re not familiar with the comics, that’s ok. Just sit back and enjoy the action and the storyline. Right through to the end, it continues from where the 2003 movie left off. Banner is on the run and hiding. What will he do? Will he find a cure, or will the government catch him first? Watch and find out!

The film is detail-oriented too, taking comic book-based sci-fi/fantasy material and making it nearly believable in the real world. It’s not often that reality and fantasy are blended together exceptionally well in a movie, but here is an exception. And then there is the personal side of Banner with his love interest. Where does their relationship stand since his departure and how will it end up? It’s all dealt with in the story. Traditional Hulk fans want to see plenty of teeth-gritting, testosterone-pumping, building-smashing violence, that’s for sure. And there’s plenty of that to go around, but there’s also a lot more to the movie.

You not only understand everyone in The Incredible Hulk, but you like them as well. There is a technical side of things too. A lot is said about the experiments and procedures that create “hulks,” giving the audience more to chew on. Action sequences are tight, extremely fast-moving, and “in your face.” If you are not already used to it, you’ll get used to it as the movie progresses. If, like me, you find yourself thoroughly enjoying the movie while still having a teeny, tiny hankering for the good old days before flashy, animated fight scenes became the norm, take heart. Lou Ferrigno himself makes a cameo appearance! Having that exhibited excellent taste on the part of the director.

Overdone special effects are not absent from the film, nor are occasionally jimmy-rigged physics. But the latter is to be forgiven, being that this is a comic book movie.

If you are a Hulk fan, you’ll love it. If you are not a Hulk or a comic book fan, but you are an action movie fan who can appreciate some scifi/fantasy elements in a movie, you’ll love it just the same. Moving, suspenseful, and always exciting, I am happy to give 4 stars to The Incredible Hulk. But given a choice, I’d still prefer things the way they were in the olden days: “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

(JH)

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Grade: A- (4 stars) Recommended!
Rated: PG-13
Director: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Ed Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, William Hurt
Genre: Action-Adventure
Summation: Scientist Bruce Banner, having retreated into hiding to discreetly find a cure for the rage that lies within him, is forced out of the shadows by the military, now to face a formidable foe.

This Movie is a Disaster!

Movie title: Disaster Movie (2008)
Spoilers ahead: No

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In middle school, I was in band. I played the bass guitar. I sucked, but I wasn’t the only one who sucked. The tuba players also sucked. In fact, they sucked so terribly that our seventh-grade band teacher even had a phrase he would use every time they messed up: “Clean that mess up before you leave!” It was funny and it became kind of a catchphrase at the time. I wanted to open this article with something witty like that, but I couldn’t think of anything akin to that to describe this movie. Being at a loss for words (a very rare occurrence for me), I found myself really scratching my head to come up with something. Minutes turned into an hour, and I still couldn't think of anything better than, “Clean-up on isle six.” That didn’t fit the bill either. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, I just don’t have anything witty or clever to say about this movie. It’s awfulness left me speechless.

Now I have seen a lot of bad movies in my time. I am, after all, a card-carrying Mst3k fan and damn proud of it (Google “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” if you don’t know what that means). So when I say that Disaster Movie is a bad movie – one of the all-time worst – I’m not exaggerating! Past, present, or future, this is one of the most abominable movies ever, period! Out of 10,000 crappily made flicks, this one easily makes the top 25. So we’re talking baaaaaaaaadddddd! But as far as bad goes, it does have one good thing going for it; the term “Disaster Movie” is a proper title. It describes the movie accurately—it is, in every sense of the word I can think of, a disaster!

It’s easy to flop in comedy. Just ask any stand-up comedian. It requires a special talent to be successful in that field. It’s one thing to be funny around the dinner table by making a few cute remarks that get some giggles, and it’s another thing to get up and invite strangers to hear you because you are paid to be funny. Satire is another form of comedic skill that not everyone (read: directors and writers) has. There’s danger when one attempts to be funny and isn’t—the movie goes down the toilet! That’s the case here. Disaster Movie is one of the poorest excuses for satire out there, and it isn’t funny.

Well, let me qualify that statement. Disaster Movie is funny if “funny” to you means putting your hand over your mouth in utter shock and disbelief, chuckling under your breath, staring across the room to get the reactions of your equally shocked and wide-eyed friends, wondering how and why such a vomit-inducing movie was made, and why you are bothering to watch it. If that sort of thing passes as comedy to you, then hey, great! But if you are among those of us who choose not to have our intelligence insulted by what we watch, then you best not see this.

This review is short because Disaster Movie has no redeeming qualities, none at all. It satirically attacks everything from Indiana Jones to Superbad, and every time it tries, it makes a mockery of itself. The only parody the movie nails is of itself, the movie being it’s own self-parody. Every scene is painful to watch and every exchange reprehensibly stupid. One thing the film is almost guaranteed to do is leave a nasty aftertaste in your mouth. On those precious-few occasions when certain scenes come close to making you let out a legitimate laugh, they soon vanish, resuming the normal walk-thru of dirty and distasteful drek.

Of course, far be it from me to judge those odd few out there who actually feast off this kind of so-called comedy. If you liked Scary Movie, Date Movie, and Epic Movie, then this movie has your name written all over it. If Hollywood trash is your treasure, then what can I say but: Eat your heart out!

(JH)

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Grade: F (0 stars)
Rated: PG-13
Director: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer
Starring: Matt Lanter, Kim Kardashian, Vanessa Minnillo, Carmen Electra, Nicole Parker, Gary Johnson, Crista Flanagan, Ike Barinholtz
Genre: Comedy
Summation: A guy named Will (Matt Lanter) wakes up from a dream and works through satirical “disasters” until the movie ends.

The Dark Knight

Movie title: The Dark Knight (2008)
Spoilers ahead: No

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When it comes to “cannot knock” movies, there just aren’t that many made. Well, let’s be clear; technically, there are none, but practically, there are a few, and this is especially true of comic book movies that tend to have a limited audience. In the case of The Dark Knight, we have one such movie. “Memorable” isn’t doing it justice; perhaps “legendary” is! Movie critic Michael Medved, in his review of The Dark Knight, called it “possibly the greatest comic book movie ever.” Well, at least it’s in the top “unknockable” five, I’d say.

Heath ledger’s acting was truly marvelous as the Joker. He won an award for it because you could feel the Joker’s troubled past every step of the way. Few times in film have I seen a character so well adopted by an actor. His performance was phenomenal. It almost saddens me to admit that even the great Jack Nicholson has been outclassed in performance. I am not only a huge Jack Nicholson fan, but Nicholson played a remarkable Joker as well.

But never has the realistic side of the Joker been more apparent as in this film. If you are used to a Joker who laughs almost indiscriminately and carries around a boom-box and knocks vases off of shelves for the heck of it, get ready for a lot more of everything—from more realistic face paint, to better fighting skills, to the charismatic hijacking of the troubled minds of schizophrenics for his own purposes. The Joker has come a long way in movies.

Christian Bale played a great Batman just as he did in Batman Begins (2004). Christopher Nolan hits one out of the park for a second time in The Dark Knight, the best thing about his work being that it has a realistic come-off to it that most older comic book movies woefully lack. What makes Batman so phenomenal is his ingenuity, his wisdom and insight into the criminal mind, as well as his skills, and finally, his resources. Batman’s nobility, his desire for the preservation of good, is what makes him great.

Like Batman Begins, this Batman does all the more to make Batman real, explaining why and how he has all those gadgets, and why he fights for what he fights for. The Dark Knight has not one, but several juicy plot twists, which everyone should know are the lifelines of good movies. And the real life elements of the movie don’t stop with gimmicky gadgets and spellbinding plot twists, but have real life street elements too, like Batman copycatters. Though he is a vigilante, Batman realizes the grave dangers of vigilante justice gone unchecked. He seeks to quell that too, breaking as few laws as possible while preserving the greater good. His selflessness, his character and willingness to put himself out for justice is apparent, and it becomes more so at the conclusion of the film.

There were some strained elements throughout the flick, like the idea that the Joker would be able to rig large ships with roomfuls of explosives. Come on now! That’s a tad of a stretch! Even with good resources, getting past security with barrels of dynamite to hijack ships would be difficult. The situation was created to give an example of sound moral choices being made amidst fear, but it didn’t go over well. It would have been best to have done without it.

As with many good quality films where too much is happening, the problem of forced time constraints arises. The appearance of Two-face was another forced and unnecessary addition, which only served to clutter up the movie. And it was out of character for a renowned city official to turn into a “by the seat of his pants” killer anyway.

Despite a few hang-ups, the plot is powerful and rich, making The Dark Knight a revolutionary advancement of Batman on the big screen and more than worth seeing.

(JH)

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Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) Recommended!
Rated: PG-13
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman
Genre: Action / Adventure / Comics
Summation: Batman, the Dark knight (Christian Bale), must face his arch-nemesis, the Joker (Heath Ledger), in a fight to destroy the strongholds of organized crime lords that have subverted Gotham City.

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