Fast & Furious 6

Well, it has been only a couple years since the last Fast & Furious installment, but Vin Diesel and company are back with a vengeance for the sixth (and not the last) time.  The only logical question for moviegoers is “has this Universal Pictures cash cow run its course?” After sitting through 130 minutes of pure unadulterated action, the only logical answer has to be, “not yet.”

fast and furiousJustin Lin is once again at the helm directing the massive amounts of fast cars and fantastical stunts the series has become known for. Both Vin Diesel and Paul Walker reprise their roles as the street-racing buddy duo of Dominic Torretto and Brian O’Connor. The Fast & Furious rat pack of Tyrese Gibson, former rapper Ludacris, Sung Kang, and Gal Gadot are also back to lend their expertise. And let us not forget the exploits of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, whose presence seemed to breathe some steroid-infused life back into series. This band of “heroes” is at it again attempting to stop the evil villain, Shaw (Luke Evans), whose evil plan is to steal the aptly named “components” to build something to sell to some bad guys for lots of money. Yeah, I don’t think the writers really cared about the whole plot thing either. The only thing you really need to know is that he has a master plan that will inevitably involve copious amounts of cars and carnage. Oh, and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) is somehow back from the dead despite assurances of her death and a funeral involving a body that was presumably identified by a licensed medical examiner.

I will quickly apologize if the brief synopsis implies a less than enjoyable movie, because the outcome is the pure opposite. There may not exist a more fun and action-packed movie this summer. No, this movie will never win any awards or be praised for its acting performances, but that isn’t and shouldn’t be the point. It seems that the script writers have fully embraced the sort of self-parody that is needed to make these films enjoyable. There are plenty of extremely humorous one-liners, many intended with a few not, and the action never stops. The pacing is very good and the action sequences are well done. Will there be times when you sit there and stare, mouth agape, at the completely unrealistic action sequence? Of course, but that only enhances the absurdity, and therefore, fun of this movie.

A movie like this is all about the specific expectations that one has going into it. This movie has a lot to offer both the cinephile and casual moviegoer if expectations of character and plot development are tempered while enjoying the exhilarating ride (pun intended). Fast & Furious 6 is a great way to spend some money if you enjoy popcorn-filled escapism amidst the increasing temperatures of the North American summer months. The best film in the hexology only fills me with hope that next movies will continue the trend.

 

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Wreck-it Ralph

Wreck-It poster

The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is a digital-age version of Toy Story (1995). It all takes place in a happy little arcade, strangely free of graffiti, litter and juvenile delinquents. Every night, when the arcade closes down, the characters in the games are free to wander between consoles, socialize and goof around. Only one catch: if you die outside your own game you don’t regenerate. But I’m sure that won’t become an issue.

We are introduced to this world by Wreck-It Ralph himself (John C. Reilly), the miscast, wheel grinding, time-card punching “bad guy” of the game Fix-It Felix, Jr. He explains how, all day, he has to demolish a building with his comically big hands, so the hero, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), can save the day. After which, Felix is rewarded with a pie on the roof of the building, and the tenants throw Ralph off the roof, into a mud puddle. Ralph shares his frustration at seeing his contribution to the game go unrecognized while Felix is given pies and medals. Ralph is talking to a villain support group, whose members extol the value of being a villain. As Zangief, from Street Fighter II, says “If Zangeif was good, who would crush man’s head like sparrow’s egg between thighs?” They tell him that it’s a villain’s lot in life to get beat over and over, and watch the hero get the glory, and that his life will be happier if he excepts it.

And I just have to make a comment here. Don’t villains usually win in video games? Especially in arcade games, which are designed to keep you pumping quarters in. Realistically, it would be Felix getting thrown into the mud 99% of the time. Oh, well.

Ralph has his inevitable confrontation with the rest of the game’s cast (Nicelanders, they are called), in which Mayor Gene (Raymond Perci) tells Ralph that bad guys don’t get medals, and if Ralph ever won a medal (since he clearly never will) the Nicelanders would let him live at the top of the building in the penthouse. Ralph calls his bluff, and storms off to do just that. Something that’s amusing to watch here, and in certain other scenes, is the choppy, blocky way in which the characters move. It is, of course, intentional, and it does bring out the feel of a 1980s platform game, which is what this is supposed to be, but I’m sure it also saved Disney several tens of thousands of dollars.

Ralph’s quest for a medal leads him to steal the uniform of a space marine from the game Hero’s Duty, a fictitious game that is exactly like 10,000 real shoot’em up, blow’em up, throw-away first-person shooters that you find in arcades all over the world. Ralph’s misadventure in Hero’s Duty is certainly one of the best, possibly the best scene in the movie, and gives rise to a line every parent in the audience will love: “When did video games become so violent and scary??” It also introduces us to Sgt. Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the model-proportioned, yet tough-as-nails cliché who leads the marine troop. Calhoun’s spittle-throwing PG version of a potty mouth might just be the most entertaining part of the movie, but “It’s not her fault,” because “she’s programmed with the most tragic back story ever.” I won’t tell you what this back story is. Suffice to say, I laughed enough to shed tears when I saw it, because it’s so over the top, and yet just like what you see in video games today. Calhoun is awesome.

Tri-fold

Eventually, Ralph also lands in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed cart racing game. The landscapes in Sugar Rush are beautifully rendered, although, if you’re a salty snacker like me, you might get a little nauseous after a while. Here, Ralph meets Vanellopy Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a game character who wants to join the races, but is ostracized from the racing community because she is a glitch, the oppressed subculture of the video game world. Ralph is blackmailed by Vanellopy into joining her quest to buy or pry her way into a race so she can become part of the game, and the two start to become friends. Their relationship is similar to that of Sully and Boo in Monsters, Inc., except that Vanellopy talks. And boy does she ever. She could have gotten really annoying in the hands of a lesser director, but Rich Moore (who has directed voice acting for The Simpsons and Futurama) toned her down just enough that she’s lovable, if slightly eccentric. Ralph, Vanellopy, Calhoun and Felix eventually find themselves in a battle to save the arcade from a cataclysmic threat, and from one of the most subtle, surprising and effective villains I have seen in a long time. This leads to a lot of great chemistry between the characters, and a weird, yet strangely plausible romance between the pint-sized Felix and the arm-twisting, nose-breaking Calhoun (classic pick-up line: “Look at the high definition in your face! It’s beautiful.) I will say, I thought the ending was just a little too happy. There’s a point where it looks like victory is going to require a terrible sacrifice, and the movie would have been more powerful if it had. But, in typical Disney fashion, they had to have everything work out a little too perfect. Oh, well.

To help the reader fully appreciate the quality of Wreck-it Ralph, I thought it would be worth putting my encounter with it in context. My wife and I had previously driven 250 miles. We did this because, for the first time ever, we were going to leave our 2 1/2 year old daughter in the care of her grandparents overnight so we could spend a romantic evening together. On said evening, we dressed to the hilt and had a romantic dinner at one of the finer restaurants in town, then spent some time strolling around downtown under the lights. Finally, we checked into a hotel and got ready for bed. We had a bottle of champaign in a bucket of ice when we slid into bed. We were snuggling a little bit, when we decided  a movie wouldn’t hurt, so we charged some extra to our room to see Wreck-it Ralph. At the credits, we realized we could back the movie up in 30-second increments, so I spent about 10 minutes repeatedly pushing the button, and the ice in the bucket melted while we passed the champaign back and forth and watched Wreck-it Ralph a second time.

Yeah. It’s that  good.

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Looper

Looper Science fiction movies like this don’t come along very often.  Though Looper has all the hallmarks of the genre, such as time travel, futuristic weapons, and head-scratching plot twists, it offers something rather unique among its peers of late: a unique and compelling story with enough grounding in a familiar reality to keep even casual moviegoers interested.  This smartly directed actioner-slash-head-scratcher does not dwell on the ins and outs of its central conceit too long, and instead focuses on keeping the pace solid and the action tight.  Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a Looper, whose job it is to dispose of the scum of the earth…from the future.  30 years from now, when targets are captured by criminal organizations they aren’t just offed and dumped in a river like in The Godfather.  Instead they are sent back in time where Loopers blow ’em away and burn the bodies.  No fuss, no muss.  What could possibly go wrong?

All is well and dandy for a while, and Joe goes on living his shallow life of partying, doping, and hooking up with women at the local strip joint until he finds himself staring down the barrel of his blunderbuss at a particularly troublesome target: himself.  This, in Looper parlance, is known as “closing the loop.”  It’s the point at which a looper paradoxically ends his own life, thus resigning himself to three decades to live, until he is captured by the criminal organization in the future which sends him back in time to the present, at which point he shoots himself in the chest.

Confused?  Try this trick: just don’t think about it.  This sentiment, trite as it may be, is actually recommended to us by Joe as he converses with his future self in a diner.  Older Joe (Bruce Willis) urges his younger self to not dwell on the whole past/present/future thing too long, and soon afterwards the two of them are firing weapons, breaking windows, and dodging bullets like one would expect in any action movie.

Instead of dwelling on the nuts and bolts of temporal displacement and other quantum conundra, it’s best to just enjoy Looper for what it is: a smart, well-paced above-average popcorn flick with a healthy dollop of cerebral icing on the cake.  Think of it as this summer’s version of Inception, but a bit more dark and a lot more violent.

Following Joe’s failure to close his loop, he finds himself on the run from his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels, chewing through scenery worse than Willem Dafoe in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. But gosh, it sure is good to see him in a grumpy-old-man role like this.) who simply will not tolerate this sort of failure from anyone in his organization.  Joe escapes to a remote farmhouse where he encounters someone who may, or may not, hold the answers to some of the questions that have plagued his future self for years.  The resulting shootouts and climax are taut and emotional, with a particularly poignant performance from child actor Pierce Gagnon that is certain to have some parents in the audience squirming in their seats.  Topping things off is Gordon-Levitt’s pitch-perfect imitation of Bruce Willis, which is so nuanced it ought to earn him an Academy Award for Impersonating a Co-star.

Looper doesn’t have the weight-of-the-world heaviness of Terminator 2, the flat-out action of Aliens, or the suspense of Predator.  But its tight narrative and thought-provoking questions almost earn it a presence among its cinematic counterparts.

Rating:

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Red Tails

Producer George Lucas took on an ambitious project when he set out to make Red Tails. He had to finance it mostly himself because, as he later said in an interview, studios didn’t want to make the picture because there weren’t enough rolls for white people. (Check out this link at 5:00.) Interesting that liberal Hollywood tried to stop a film with an all-black cast. Political commentator Alfonzo Rachel would later say that Hollywood did so because they don’t want young blacks to start wanting to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen (our protagonists, the first black squadron to see combat in WWII), because if they do, they’ll learn that most of them, like most blacks of the time, were Republicans. While there might be something to this theory, I tend to think Hollywood’s reluctance has less to do with the racial politics of the ‘40s than with those of today. Certain stigmas on the portrayal of blacks in film can make it really hard to make a good movie with too many black characters. Red Tails bears the marks of these stigmas – not as deeply as some movies, but they’re there nonetheless. Consequently, a movie that could have been another Memphis Belle had to settle for being just another Flyboys. It has some good action and a few good lines along the way. It also contains one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in awhile, as Cuba Gooding Jr. trying to play the grizzled, old Major Stance. He spends the whole movie sucking on a pipe, doing his best General MacArthur impression. Hilarious. Terrence Howard does considerably better as Colonel Bullard. Red Tails works fine as a popcorn flick, but gets annoying at times because it thinks it’s in the same league as Saving Private Ryan. It isn’t.

The first reason for this is its total lack of intensity. For all the action, the squadron suffers two dead, one wounded and one captured through the whole movie. The text at the end says that the historical Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 men with more wounded, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the film. This is because, even as Red Tails seeks to tell a story disproving racist claims of the past, as I said above, it bears the marks of the racism of today. Hollywood continues to be afraid to portray black characters as having any flaws, needing to learn anything, or failing at anything they do. Consequently, we see ridiculous things in this movie. In addition to the lack of casualties, we actually see Lightning (David Oyelowo), the squadron hot shot, blow up a destroyer with machine gun fire. This is slightly more realistic than the destruction of the destroyer in Mega Piranha. Slightly.

You can see from Red Tails why it’s so hard to make good movies about black people. This movie never breaks a sweat. We know the Red Tails can’t lose, and can hardly suffer a setback, so there’s never any suspense or sense of danger. The movie tries to build up some tension with ominous talk of the new jet fighters the Germans are developing, but when it comes down to it at the climactic battle, even the most cutting-edge technology is no match for the coolness of Hollywood-packaged black guys.

When I saw The Memphis Belle, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I desperately wanted the bomber crew to make it home, and I wasn’t sure that they would. With Red Tails, I never worried.

What’s more, the film suffers from a drive to inflate the contribution its heroes made to the war. The film opens with a scene of white fighter pilots abandoning the bombers they are supposed to escort, and the line by a man on a bomber, “Damn those glory-grabbing bastards, again!” The bomber squadron is then cut to ribbons by the Germans. Later, a general tells Bullard that “We need to change the way we fight,” and he is giving the Red Tails a chance because he needs fighters that will stay with the bombers. The first time the Red Tails rendezvous with a bomb squadron, the pilots of the lead bomber are disappointed when they see that their escort is black. (Humorously, the black pilot they are looking at is several hundred feet away, and obscured by two canopies, and his whole body is covered, except for his eyes. How can they even tell?) Then, when the Red Tails refuse to chase a German “decoy squadron,” the bombers are shocked. “They’re giving up glory to save our asses!” Toward the end of the movie, a white squadron who is supposed to relieve the Red Tails fails to even show up. All this is, frankly, a loogie to the face of every non-black man who risked or sacrificed his life to save the world from Hitler and Tojo. Throughout the war, every flier on all sides knew that the job of the fighters was to protect the bombers, and non-black fighter pilots consistently did so. What is portrayed in Red Tails is nothing more than fiction concocted to make the Tuskegee Airmen seem revolutionary. The historical Red Tails fought with courage and dedication, but they did not turn the war around.

Can you tell which of these pilots is black? Here’s a better question: can you tell which of them is a brave American defending his home?

A lot of commentators have complained about a lack of interest in movies that focus on black people, and have blamed racism for it. But what racism is actually doing is taking the life out of such movies as they get made. Great war movies put us in the reality of the moment, to get some sense of the fear and the pain of war (if only through a glass, darkly). They have us wrestle with the questions the men wrestled with and make us understand the moral uncertainties that come even when you believe in what you’re fighting for. There is a moment in The Memphis Belle I will never forget, during the protagonists’ final mission. The copilot of the Belle is angry that he has spent the whole war in the cockpit, and doesn’t want to go home without being able to say he shot some Nazis. Before the last mission, he slips the tail gunner a pack of cigarettes to let him take over shooting for part of the mission. When the moment comes, he slips into the turret and begins blasting away. Before long, he knocks out a high-flying German fighter. He whoops with delight as the fighter plummets … Straight into an American Bomber. The bomber is cut in half, and the copilot listens, over the radio, to the pitiful wails of the men aboard as they plummet to their deaths. Obviously, words fail me. But I remember The Memphis Belle because the characters were real, not supermen. I jumped every time a bullet came through the wall of the plane. I felt with the plane medic as he struggled to save a wounded crew member, then wrestled with the urge to drop him out of the plane with a chute, hoping the Germans would take him to a hospital.

Something that’s interesting to note about Saving Private Ryan: Steven Spielberg, a Jew, included a Jewish character in the story, named Mellish. For some reason, he made Mellish one of the least likable characters in the movie, and ultimately had him lose to (of all people) a Nazi in face to face combat. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to do this, but, whatever his reason, it shows a certain contemplative humility that either white guilt or black narcissism just won’t allow into films like Red Tails. If the makers of black cinema want to see a wider interest in their films, they need to start putting their characters in a realistic light.

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Courageous

The Kendrick Brothers of Sherwood Bible Church are at it again. No doubt hoping to match their home run of Fireproof of 2008, they’ve shifted their focus from taking on divorce to attacking fatherlessness in America. We’re still in Albany, Georgia, but this time, instead of following the heroics of the Albany Fire Dept.,  we’re on patrol with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Dept. (Interesting that, Albany being a city of 77,000, it doesn’t seem to have its own police force, but I guess they had to trim the cast somewhere.)

The Kendricks have ramped the action up a notch with this one. Right at the beginning, we see Fireproof’s Ken Bevel, now playing Nathan Hayes, stop for gas, only to have his truck stolen by a dew-rag clad gang-banger (T.C. Stallings, a devoted husband and father in real life). He throws himself half-way through the driver’s window, and we are treated to a fist-fight with Nathan hanging out the window at 30 miles an hour. The movie eventually leads up to a climactic scene with guns blazing. In between is more action, more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-felt message about how crucial a father is to a child’s development, and how those without fathers often become dew-rag clad truck thieves.

The story follows Deput. Hayes, a recent transfer to the department, three other Deputies, Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick), Shane Fuller (Kevin Downes), and David Thompson (Ben Davies), and Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), a rarely employed construction worker, and their families. Javier breaks his back to provide for his family and eventually finds employment working on Adam’s house. He then becomes part of the group. David is the rookie of the squad who’s holding in a shameful secret. He has a daughter around three years of age, whom he has never met, and whose support he had not contributed a dime to. (Apparently, the Georgia Division of Child Support Services was vaporized along with the Albany P.D.) Shane struggles to be a dad to his son when he only sees him every other weekend.  Adam dotes on his daughter but refuses to join his son for the father-son 5K. And Nathan and his wife, Kayla (Elenor Brown), struggle to fend off the “saggy-pants boys” interested in their teenage daughter.

A tragedy eventually forces these men to reevaluate what they are doing as fathers. The story dives into Christian kitsch for awhile. Adam comes up with a written resolution and the five families actually hold a ceremony with their pastor in which they dramatically recite it. In a similar vein, we later see Nathan take his daughter to a very expensive restaurant (below), where he, again with great ceremony, presents her with a “promise ring.” Yeah, I know. I chortled at this scene, too, but then I found out my wife had very specific plans for me to do exactly that with our daughter one day.

But for all the kitsch, the film really is trying, and trying to do far more than just entertain. The problems with Courageous mainly serve to highlight the fact that most movies just fill themselves up with explosions and car wrecks and expect you to buy a ticket. Courageous sets the bar much higher, and does come close to clearing it.

There was a time when I would have been unable to enjoy this movie. I can enjoy it now largely because I have a wonderful wife, who makes my life very sweet. That said, there are still some key points of this film I can’t help but take issue with. A lot of the film’s attitude is summed up when Nathan delivers the curmudgeonly line “If fathers just did what they were supposed to, half the junk we see on the street wouldn’t exist.” This seems to be the mantra of conservatives and liberals alike: it’s all men’s fault. But if you look at the history of America over the last 40 years or so, men have not been the only – or even the primary – culprit of the breakdown of the family. History does not tell of a movement of men throwing off their responsibilities to society. We don’t see crowds of men burning their undergarments and demanding the right to kill their children. We do, however, see women doing all these things.

In the U.S. today, more than two thirds of all divorces are initiated by the woman. And why not? The feminist political machine has tilted the legal game board of divorce ridiculously toward the woman’s pockets. (Please note: Every man in Iowa should carefully read chapters 236 and 598 of the Iowa Code before he even thinks about getting emotionally attached to a woman. As for the other states, talk to a lawyer there.) Millions of children in the U.S. grow up without fathers because their mothers want it that way.

My first year out of law school, I worked in a family law firm. I never had a man in my office who didn’t care about his children. Most of my clients were there because they were having to fight just to see their children. The slant in family court is based on more than gender stereotypes.  The judicial community includes many territorial lionesses. A child is power, and they are not about to share it. Conversely, male judges are of the old way of thinking, in which men are expected to take the lumps and bear the weight of the world on our shoulders without complaint. This combination of liberal women and conservative men, not only in court, but also in society, is a frustrating dynamic. While women are exhorted about their rights, men are flagellated with our supposed responsibilities. Lawyers aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved, but I couldn’t help feeling the pain my clients felt. Commanded to be fathers by the right, yet torn from their children by the left; commanded to “be a man,” yet emasculated.

Courageous never addresses any of this, failing to live up to its name. The Kendrick brothers buckle under the pressure of political correctness. Too afraid to take women to task for their desertion, like so many before them, they turn on men.

It’s hard to stay angry at a movie that has this much heart, and is actually trying to make a difference in the world. But while it’s a valiant effort, another Fireproof it is not.  Fireproof met

Actor-director Alex Kendrick takes aim at bad fathers.

people squarely where they were at. There’s no reason 3 billion men couldn’t have connected with Caleb Holt, the fire chief who shows valor in the work place, but doesn’t know how to love his wife. The story eventually shows that, only by first receiving the unconditional love of God can Caleb show unconditional love to the flawed and sinful woman he lives with. It would actually  have been fairly simple for Courageous to do the same thing. Shane Fuller is a character that millions of men would easily connect with, including unbelievers. He is divorced. He wants to be a father to his son, but, as he explains it, he only gets him every other weekend, after his mother has filled his head with her toxic opinions of him. He wants to provide for his son, but almost a third of his paycheck is swallowed by alimony. Shane should have been the lead role of this movie! He could have been the Caleb Holt of Courageous. How can Shane, and other men, be the kind of fathers God wants them to be, despite the obstacles? How can God help them to raise their kids right despite what they have  to deal with? This was a golden opportunity for the Kendricks to win the hearts of their intended audiece. Beating up on men will do nothing to fix the family. Ministering to broken men where they are at will do a lot more.

Sadly, Shane is confined to a small role as the bad cop we’re not supposed to like, and Courageous preaches to the choir. Most of the focus is on Adam, Nathan and Javier, who all have perfect wives, straight out of a Christian fantasy.

Overall, I recommend seeing Courageous. There’s a lot of great moments I didn’t want to spoil here. The fact that I can even disagree with it shows it had more of a brain than most movies. It’s not easy to make a movie that ministers. I still laughed and I was still swept along by the story. It was good to see Christian cinema taking another (mostly) positive step.

Number four at the box office in October of 2011. High-five!

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Adjustment Bureau

I really hate to down-grade a movie just because it doesn’t fit into an established genre. After all, some of history’s greatest sleeper hits, like The Crow or Dark City, are impossible to find a shelf for. Some, like The Matrix, actually wound up founding their own genre. The problem is, those genres do exist for a reason. There are certain kinds of stories that hit the mark and resonate with humanity, and for every movie that was good enough to break the mold, like those above, there are probably several that tried and failed, like this one. It brings to mind a scene from Tales from the Crypt, in which a starving artist protests to a museum curator, “You promised to give me a showing if I came up with something new!” She laughs, “I meant something new, and good.”

At the start of The Adjustment Bureau (Dir. George Nolfi, 2011), we meet David Norris (Matt Damon), who is running for Senator from New York. He is way ahead at first but, over the course of a five-minute montage, the campaign takes a turn for the worse. On election night, he realizes he’s done and enters a rest room to work on his concession speech. Inside, he finds a woman named Elise (Emily Blunt) hiding from security (long story). He is quite taken with her, and, after security shows up, and she runs away, he reenters his “victory” party and gives the greatest speech he has given in his life.

The scene switches to one month later, and Norris has returned to his old job in a corporate office, anticipating the next senate race. He boards a bus and, to his surprise, finds Elise. He sits beside her, they have instant chemistry, and he gets her phone number.

So it’s been a long set up process, but it looks like the story is finally starting to go some where.

Norris arrives at work, walks into his boss’s office, and suddenly sees his boss, immobilized in a standing position, surrounded by menacing figures in suits and opaque helmets who are scanning him with lasers. Norris runs, and is chased by an army of men in suits. Each time he stops at a coworker’s desk for help, he finds them immobilized and apparently unconscious.

Well, alright! This movie turns out to be a Matrix-esq thriller. Sure, it won’t be as good as The Matrix, but I’m intrigued. Who are these guys? From what sinister place do they come? What twists in this movie will make us question what we think we know?

Norris is captured and finds himself tied to a chair in a warehouse, surrounded by the men in black (above). The man in charge identifies himself as Richardson (John Slattery) and tells Norris “We are the ones who make sure things happen according to plan.” He responds to a few more question with equally cryptic, bureaucratic terms. They gave Norris’ boss an “adjustment.” He will be fine, and will not remember what happened. This is being done because Norris was not supposed to see Elise a second time, according to something called “the Plan,” which is being developed by the head of the Adjustment Bureau, known only as “the Chairman.” If Norris ever reveals what he’s seen to anyone, he will be “reset” (essentially lobotomized). Richardson burns Elise’s phone number and tells Norris to forget her. Norris is then returned to his office, where no one else is aware of what’s happened.

David takes the same bus for the next three years, hoping to see Elise. One day, he finally does, and tries to reconnect with her.

So … now we’re back to the romantic comedy?

She initially pushes him away for not calling her for three years, but seems unable to resist the natural chemistry they always have. He winds up taking her to lunch. As they walk around town, enjoying each other’s company, Richardson and the Bureau start following them around, trying to interfere. Richardson will give an order such as “have his aide call him now.” And then Norris’ cell will ring. A Bureau member tells Richardson “If they kiss, anything strong enough to break them up will cause ripples over your limit.”

Really? … This movie has an army of threatening figures in suits, armed with seemingly god-like powers and scarily cryptic dialogue, and this is what they spend their time on?

This is how the movie goes. As Norris and Elise flirt, fight, fall in love, break up, and get back together, we see these “agents” peeking around corners, running in and out of magic doors, and causing things like lost keys and untied shoes to nudge events back on Plan.

As I waited for this movie to end, I found myself wondering who out there would really get into it. It doesn’t work as a guy movie. There isn’t enough action to make it interesting. The agents are cool at first, but never develop into anything. Their offices and their attire are something right out of the 1940s, and they all have banal, hyper-anglo names like Mitchell and Thompson. By the end, watching them work is about as interesting as watching a clerk file papers.

While these guys look like something out of The Matrix, they might be more at home in a movie like Just Like Heaven or Simply Irresistible; films that play with the idea of some higher power intervening in romantic relationships. But The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t work as one of those movies either, partly because we don’t see much of Elise and there isn’t enough attention paid to the details of their relationship. So, as a chick flick, it still comes up short.

It also fails to deliver as any serious contemplation of the questions it raises. We see arguments about fate vs. free will, love vs. success, etc., but none of them do more than throw out the standard lines. All the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo really gets old after awhile. There are a lot of eye-roll-inducing lines like “Chairman has the Plan. We only see part of it.” Why can’t they just call him “God” like everybody else?

Most ships follow the established trade routes and, in so doing, still deliver some worthwhile goods. Once in a while, a ship leaves all known territory and discovers a new world. But this one leaves one harbor, only to make a dash for the safety of another, only to turn at the last minute and head for another, until it’s lost at sea. I have to give Nolfi some credit for trying to be different. So here’s to those who wait forever for ships that don’t come in.

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Van Helsing

Yeah, that’s right. I like Van Helsing (2004), one of the most hated movies of the last 20 years. I have seen so many reviews, blogs and videos trashing this movie, that I felt I had to speak up to defend it. So before you blow me off as an idiot, hear me out.

There’s no denying that Van Helsing is stupid, but it’s no stupider than a lot of movies out there. In fact, Van Helsing is probably the magnum opus of its director, considering that its director is Steven Sommers, one of the most bubble-headed directors of all time. To put Van Helsing in the proper context, it’s necessary to take a brief look at Sommers’ filmography.

Sommers’ first box office hit was The Mummy (1999), which I’ve already reviewed, a brain-dead piece of clap-trap that existed soley for the sake of mindless violence and spectacle. Some people read from a book, which brings the Mummy back from the dead, he kills half the world, and then the same people are supposed to be heroes just for cleaning up their own mess. For reasons I’ve never understood, The Mummy continues to be a favorite movie of many people. Next, Sommers vomited out The Mummy Returns (2001), a fairly standard sequel with a lot more horrific deaths, and even more ridiculous plot points. The herione of the first movie (Rachel Weiss) is suddenly declared to be a reincarnation of Egyptian princess Nephretiri. Don’t ask me how that works, as reincarnation was never discussed in the first movie, or in Egyptian mythology for that matter. Then, Sommers took a minor character from Returns, the Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. “The Rock”), and stretched his back story into a full length movie. The Scorpion King was yet another mental death-trap for teens, given a mild-souding PG-13 rating and yet loaded with violence and near-nudity. The story was little more than an excuse for the Rock to show off.

And after all this, we got Van Helsing. Apparently bored with making three movies out of one Universal Studios moster, Sommers decided to make one movie and include three Universal mosters — Dracula (Richard Roxburg), The Wolfman (Will Kemp), and Frankenstien’s Moster (Schuler Hensley). While I can understand why some people hate Van Helsing, I cannot understand why some people lapped up The Mummy and then hated Van Helsing.

Why is Van Helsing awesome? Here's why.

First, vampires and werewolves are way cooler than mummies. Second, our hero, Van Helsing, is played by Hugh freaking Jackman, probably the greatest specimen of manliness since Harisson Ford (okay, so I’m not imune to man-crushes. Sue me). The Mummy has Brendan Frasier. This is the guy who played Dudley Do Right and George of the Jungle, and then got beat up by cartoons in Looney Tunes, Back in Action. And third, Van Helsing has a collection of gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. He fights monsters with buzz saws, crossbows that launch silver arrows, a shotgun, a pop-out silver stake, pop out crosses, grapling hooks, and thats just to name a few!

The action sequences in this movie define the word epic, involving huge sets, hundreds of extras (monster fodder) and dazling special effects. Every detail of them was meticulously planned out (too bad you can’t say the same for the plot). Moments that I initially dismissed as rediculous (e.g. the roof of a carriage catching fire durring a werewolf attack) actually do happen for an (admittedly implausible) reason (e.g. the werewolf crashing against a lantern on the side of the carraige and sliding across the roof). This movie has more effective jump-scares than many other movies combined, and even pulls off a number of really difficult delayed-jump-scares (the kind where you sort-of see it coming, but that only increases its effect on you). On top of all this, it still manages to slip in quite a few funny moments.

Jackman is, of course, dashing as a younger version of Bram Stoker’s hero, but Aussie star Richard Roxberg is equally great as the Lord of Evil himself, Count Dracula. There’s a little bit of Bella Lugosi in his performance, a little of Gary Oldman, and a little of the historical Dracula, but it’s mostly his own creation. It ranges from quiet, brooding moments to wild rage, and manages to make it all quite sinister and intimidating. In any case, it’s much more interesting than watching Arnold Vosloo make faces like he needs to blow his nose. This is a major strength of the movie that compensates for lack of a coherent plot: you have these epic characters that are so vividly realized, and they’re played off eachother so powerfully that you almost don’t need a story. Leading Lady Kate Beckinsale (as Transylvanian she-warior Anna Valerious) looks great in her slinky outfits and also pulls of the action side of the roll. It’s hard to believe she once had this roll. A word also needs to be said about David Wenham, who, prior to this roll, had been voted “Australia’s Sexiest Man Alive.” However, for this movie, he put tack behind his ears to make himself look like Dumbo, donned a friar’s outfit, and speant the movie jabbering and bumbling around, just so we could have a laugh. Thanks, David.

Finally, there are the special effects. I know, I know. Just like all of you, I’ve talked a lot about how I’m tired of special effects, and they don’t impress me anymore. But any honest viewer has to admit that, even by 2011 standards, Van Helsing’s special effects truly are incredible. Most of it is C.G.I. However, if you watch the making-of features, there are some surprises. For example, when Dracula’s brides transform and take flight, the bodies are C.G.I., but their faces are still their own, covered in makeup. Rather than rely on C.G.I., Sommers used it to enhance the sets and props, which look good of their own accord.

When it comes to special effects, even today, movies tend to cheat. Forexample, if someone is going to transform (e.g. into a werewolf) we usually see the beginning of the transformation, then they fall below the camera, or stumble behind something, then we see the finall result, and the producer saves $50,000. Not in Van Helsing. It helps that “subtlety” is not in Sommers’ vocabulary. We see everything every time, and everything looks absulutely real. The werewolves, in particular, look amazing; you can actually see individual hairs blowing in the wind. In one scene, it’s raining, and the hair gets matted down, but still looks natural. There are all kinds of little touches throughout the movie. For example, in one scene, a vampiress (Elena Anaya) takes a stake in the heart. She then explodes into slime. Animating liquid is hard enough, but they didn’t stop there. They actually kept the shape of her screaming face in the slime as it flies at the camera. I didn’t even notice this until the third or fourth time I watched it. From the first scene to the last, you see proof that the post-production team worked tremendously hard on this one.

Is Van Helsing destined for a spot in the anals of great movies? Psh. Heck, no. But is it the steaming turd so many make it out to be? Not at all. What is it? A roaring good time that cast and crew put a lot of sweat into, and a sign that Sommers can make a decent movie, if he really tries. And there’s hope for more, because he still hasn’t done the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

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Flyboys

World War I rocked. It’s not like the population of Europe was actually decimated, or the world thrown into political upheaval that it’s never fully recovered from. Millions of men didn’t really claw through the rest of their lives, battling the scars left by poison gas and shell shock. No, the real story of WWI is one of teenage heartthrobs strutting around in designer-made period costumes, and flying brightly decorated airplanes through dazzling explosions that don’t hurt main characters. Or at least that’s the impression you get from Flyboys.

Actually, if you were to watch films made during WWI, you might think the same thing. WWI fighter pilots were made celebrities and national heroes. In reality, the airplane contributed precious little to the outcome of the war, which was won on the ground. But there’s nothing entertaining about watching a man starve and freeze in a mud-hole until he’s blown to bits by a shell fired by unseen enemies. So let’s crank the propellers and fire up Flyboys!

For all my cynicism, this is a genuinely entertaining movie. The story of Americans who volunteered for the French military, it has every cliché in the book. James Franco stars as Cocky Young Guy who joins up because he thinks it would be fun to fly airplanes. Martin Henderson plays Grizzled Veteran. “Let me guess: you’re here because you thought it’d be fun to fly airplanes.” They have all the standard dialogue.

Veteran: You realize if you die here, your family name dies with you.

Yes, Franco's plane is mostly canvass, and yes, he flew through that blaze, and yes, he's fine.

Young Guy: Psh. I don’t plan on dyin’.

Veteran: None of the guys in the squadron cemetery did either.

Young Guy: Psh.

The two then fly deadly missions together. In between them, Young Guy woos Indigenous Girl (Jennifer Decker) while he should be training. She starts counting the planes every time his squadron flies out and flies back. Eventually, he has to save her from some German foot soldiers. To do this, he steals a plane from the squadron hanger. He is therefore sent up for military discipline, until his French commanding officer (ever notice how there’s never a French guy in a movie that’s not played by Jean Reno?) conveniently looses the paper work and slips him a medal.

Meanwhile, Veteran, an aviation progeny with over 20 kills, is driven to fly extra missions to hunt down the Germans that killed all of his friends. He is haunted by the specter of his last remaining adversary, Smirking Face with no Dialogue (Gunnar Winberg). In their eventual confrontation, the Face kills him, so who goes toe-to-toe with the Face at the climax? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

The cast of war movie cut-outs is rounded out by Philip Winchester as War Hero’s Son Who Can’t Fill the Shoes (from Lincoln Nebraska, I might add), Abdul Salis as Angry Black Guy, Tyler Labine as Racist Guy, and Michael Jibson as Religious Guy. Together they fly through all the standard scenarios, involving daring dogfights, civilians in need of rescue, and eeeeevil Germans. The fuselage of this movie is riddled with clichés from nose to tail, but it’s one of those movies that show you why the clichés exist – because they work! It’s easy to thrill to the dogfights and lose yourself in this one until you forget your troubles. Yes, you’ll predict everything that happens in the movie, but you’ll still care about the characters (even if you forget their names). I could say that this film is an insult to the millions who suffered and sacrificed during the Great War, but that would be a cliché in itself. Rent it tonight, make some pop corn, and see what you’ve been missing out on.

 

 

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