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Monday, June 28, 2010

Toy Story 3



Toy Story 3 contains one of the greatest third acts I've ever seen. As the third entry in the franchise, Toy Story 3 is also in and of itself one of the greatest third acts I've ever seen. It's yet another triumph from Pixar Animation, continuing their perfect streak. Bristling with inventiveness and visual delight, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, et al confront their greatest crisis with their owner Andy leaving home for college, relegating them all (except Woody) to the attic. Instead, they are accidentally donated to Sunnyside Day Care, which turns out to be a hard labor camp run by a disgruntled stuffed bear named Lotso. Toy Story 3 creates huge laughs from Buzz being reprogrammed to his caliente-dancing Spanish language default and even more laughs from Barbie meeting Ken, whose devotion to his vast wardrobe makes one wonder about his proclivities.The voice acting is phenomenal all around, lead once more by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Woody and Buzz, and joined by Ned Beatty as Lotso and Michael Keaton as Ken. All of this leads to the aforementioned gangbusters third act, in which Woody leads his friends on a prison break that puts them in a series of thrilling Indiana Jones-style cliffhangers. The truly transcendent moment comes when Andy decides to donate all of his toys to another child, carefully and affectionately explaining what each toy means to him, validating how much he loved his all-important childhood companions. One would have to be missing batteries or possess a molded-plastic heart to not have their eyes water when Andy (and we) said goodbye to his toys. Thus far, Toy Story 3 is the best film of the summer and of 2010 as a whole.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Knight and Day



Director James Mangold's action-comedy mashup Knight and Day is a bit of a throwback; it's a modern day version of a Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn-style madcap spy adventure. Hapless everywoman Cameron Diaz is thrust into the bizarre world of secret agent Tom Cruise, who's protecting a valuable MacGuffan - a high tech battery that could power a small city - from falling into the wrong hands. But, as in those old Cary Grant thrillers, Cruise could also be the villain. Diaz gets humorously dragged around the world against her will, sometimes drugged and semi-conscious, as she tries to determine what side Cruise is really on. Cruise and Diaz starred romantically together in 2001's Vanilla Sky. Knight and Day very much insists Cruise and Diaz are falling for each other, yet there's remarkably little chemistry to be found between their combined movie star wattage. The tone shifts from romantic comedy to standard Hollywood car chases and shoot-em-ups. Cruise lets loose his comedic chops early on but seems much more comfortable in his more familiar norm of rappelling, car chases, and shooting people. It becomes impossible to invest in the action when the movie makes it clear Cruise and Diaz are never in any real danger. The legions of villainous gunmen coming after Cruise and Diaz are all incapable of shooting them, even from a few feet away when hefting machine guns. The first act mainly takes place in Boston so it's enjoyable for locals to see Cruise and Diaz run around the city (even if their movements geographically make no sense), before the action shifts around the world to New York, the Azores, Austria, Spain, and South America. Diaz is in full-on romantic comedy mode; Knight and Day never requires her to tap into her action heroine credentials from starring in two Charlies Angels movies. Cruise, on the other hand, is in full-on Tom Cruise Mode. He hasn't been this Tom Cruisey in a movie in probably a decade. The "I'm the guy!" scene in the diner alone is vintage Cruise at his Cruisiest. Knight and Day provides a Tom Cruise impressionist ample all-new material to add to his act.

P.S. A silver 1999 Mercedes Benz SLK Kompressor two-seater convertable is featured prominently in the movie. The audience is lead to believe that a person the size of Paul Dano can be trapped in the trunk. That is impossible. I drive that exact same car all the time. The trunk of the Kompressor is so small, and more than half of it is taken up by the cradle built to hold the roof when the top is down, that there is no way a person can fit in that trunk. I mean, come on! I hope someone was fired for that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010)



The Karate Kid is the most pleasant surprise of summer 2010. As a loyalist since my youth to the original franchise starring Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (also including The Next Karate Kid starring Hillary Swank to an extent), I wasn't enthused with the idea of remaking the original Karate Kid as a starring vehicle for Will Smith's son and transplanting the action to China. I'm happy to say The Karate Kid (2010) is far superior to every Karate Kid sequel and stands proudly alongside the original 1984 film. Like the heroes of these movies, Dre Parker and Daniel LaRusso before him, The Karate Kid (2010), director Harald Zwart, and stars Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan achieve both an improbable victory and earn great respect.

The story is familiar. Perhaps it may be a little too familiar. Borrowing wholesale from the original story by Robert Mark Kamen, the script by writer Christopher Murphey moves in solemn lockstep with all of the key events of The Karate Kid (1984): A mother and his 12 year old son Dre Parker (Daniel was 17 in the original) move from Detroit (New Jersey in the original) to China (LA in the original) for a job opportunity. Upon arrival, the boy encounters a girl he likes and immediately runs afoul of the local gang of bullies who are also martial arts students. The leader, Cheng, takes delight in thrashing him, leaving him outmatched and badly beaten. Unknown to Dre, the reclusive handyman in his apartment building, Mr. Han, is secretly a martial arts master (who learned kung fu from his father). After pranking Cheng using water, as in the original when Daniel hosed Johnny in a restroom, Dre is chased by Cheng and his lackeys and is again violently assaulted (one even urges Cheng that Dre's had enough, just like in the original). Dre is saved by Mr. Han.

Initially refusing to train him at first, Mr. Han and Dre visit the school where the boys are taught kung fu, only to find that the adage "there are no bad students, only bad teacher" is very true in 2010 China as it was in 1984 LA. Han strikes a deal with the sinister teacher Master Li to leave Dre alone so he can train to fight his enemies in a tournament. Han and Dre then form a bond and teach each other the true meaning of friendship. (Mr. Miyagi of course called Daniel "Daniel-san". Mr. Han gives Dre the nickname "Xiao Dre" - "Little Dre". Master Li has a more insulting name for Dre: "This little thing.") With Mr. Han's help, Dre learns the kung fu and life lessons he needs to defeat his enemies in the tournament, overcome his fears and a leg injury even worse than what Daniel suffered in the original ("Sweep the leg!" becomes "Break his leg!"), to earn self-respect and the respect of his enemies.

Nothing in The Karate Kid links it to the original franchise beyond the identical circumstances and events that happen to the characters. No one in this movie has ever heard of Mr. Miyagi or Daniel LaRusso. The theme of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica applies to the re-imagining of The Karate Kid: "All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again."  The Karate Kid even provides a bit of inside commentary on its existence: Dre becomes fascinated watching a kung fu master train with a cobra. The cobra mirrors the master's every movement as if a reflection in a pool of water.  This idea provides the key in linking the two Karate Kid movies together as reflections of each other.

The performances by the leads are simply terrific. The friendship between Dre and Mr. Han is the heart of the movie and it's every bit as resonant as Daniel's bond with Mr. Miyagi. When Dre tells Mr. Han, as Daniel did Miyagi, "You're the best friend I ever had", it's honest and true. The real surprise is Mr. Han not responding, "You pretty okay too." I'm also glad Dre never upstages Mr. Han and catches a fly with chopsticks the way Daniel did when Miyagi couldn't his whole life. (That was always a crock.)  Mr. Han has the wisdom that the best way to catch a fly with chopsticks is after you kill it with a flyswatter.

It's a high compliment to say Jaden Smith is just like his dad. Early on after arriving in China, when Dre tries to make friends with the local kids, he quickly breaks out of his surly shell and displays the winning charm and charisma that made his father one of the most popular box office superstars in the world. You can't help cheering Jaden on to overcome all of the obstacles placed in his way. Smith is impressive in the physical demands of the role and more than holds his own with the required dramatics. I daresay Dre is more likable and heroic than Daniel ever was (because even the diehard fans of the original Karate Kids know Daniel was kind of a douche.)

Jaden also develops a sweet relationship with a pretty girl named Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han), which never becomes as cloying and cliched as Daniel's affair with his Japanese girlfriend Kumiko in The Karate Kid, Part II. (No Peter Cetera "The Glory of Love", thankfully.) Not too many American 12 year olds can say they had their first date in the Forbidden City or their first kiss played for a big laugh in front of his mom and kung fu master at a festival. Like Elizabeth Shue in the original, Mei Ying comes from a well-to-do family who disapproves of Dre's influence on their daughter; this is not out of class and race but more out of concern for their daughter being distracted from her goals of being a concert violinist. Dre making the Cyrano De Bergerac-like effort, with Mr. Han's help, to learn to speak Chinese and earn the respect of Mei Ying's parents is as heroic a triumph as him winning the tournament.

Jackie Chan delivers what has to be his finest performance in an American film. As Mr. Han, Chan creates a new kind of mentor as inspiring as the great Pat Morita was as Mr. Miyagi. The relationship between Mr. Han and Dre is more delicate because of Jaden Smith's youth, and Chan deftly fulfills the roles of mentor, taskmaster, father figure, and friend. The curious limp Mr. Han walks with has a powerful dramatic payoff as, just like in the original, Dre learns of a tragedy in Mr. Han's past that caused the death of his family. The car Mr. Han builds in his living room and then destroys in his anguish is a uniquely moving visual for his broken soul, which then leads to an amazing sequence of Dre and Mr. Han training, their shadows dancing in unison. As a boy, I thrilled to Jackie Chan's kung fu mastery, and more recently, enjoyed him play fluff action-comedy opposite Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films, but I've never seen Jackie Chan this phenomenal before.

Dre and his mother, played by Taraji P. Henson, have a more realistic and loving relationship than Daniel had with his more cartoonish mother in the original. Henson just tries her best under very trying circumstances and has a firmer grasp of what her son is suffering through and overcoming than Mrs. LaRusso ever seemed to. There's also some amusing reparte between her and Mr. Han; he may be a master of kung fu, but Dre's mom scares him just a little when she gets mad, especially when Dre refuses to pick up his jacket.

The running gag of Dre's refusal to pick up his jacket and hang it brilliantly becomes the lynchpin of Mr. Han's training method for Dre. Mr. Miyagi famously made Daniel perform chores around his house (paint the fence, sand the floor, wax on/wax off) to teach him basic karate blocks. Mr. Han eschews using Dre as child labor. Instead, he cleverly takes a different route with Dre, making him put on, take off, drop, pick up and hang up (with attitude) his jacket thousands of times, not just to ingrain the basic movements of kung fu blocks in Dre's muscle memory, but to teach the boy discipline. I also enjoyed Han's simple demand of making Dre ask to enter his home, teaching him simple manners and respect. When Mr. Han finally gives in to Dre's tantrum and unleashes the kung fu Dre unwittingly learned, the result is even more breathtaking than when Miyagi did the same with Daniel.

While it's true that the title of The Karate Kid is a complete misnomer - there is no karate in the movie - the kung fu displayed in the film goes infinitely beyond the karate presented in the original. The movie makes a point of showing that Jaden Smith is more naturally athletic than Ralph Macchio ever was and young Jaden is able to perform physical feats (including the splits that Jean-Claude Van Damme made world-famous in Bloodsport) that Macchio could never match even in his physical prime. The immortal Crane Kick Daniel uses in the original is re-invented as an amazing Cobra somersault kick that Dre basically teaches to himself. Not just Jaden, but all of the children performing kung fu are incredibly impressive. Of course, as is Jackie Chan, who is a genuine kung fu marvel that the late Pat Morita could never physically equal.  Frankly, it's a little intimidating to see kids a third my age who possess the ability to completely kick my ass (sorry, I won't say "ass" again, Mr. Han).

The level of violence in The Karate Kid is a bit shocking. It was one thing to watch the Cobra Kai beat Daniel up in 1984, but it's certainly uncomfortable to watch 12 year old boys so ruthlessly fight each other.  Mr. Han's magical healing techniques aside, Dre walks away with mere black eyes from beatings that logically could have killed him, or at least should have left him hospitalized from various internal injuries. When Mr. Han intervenes to save Dre, the idea of Jackie Chan fighting a bunch of 12 year olds seemed suspect at first, but it's executed brilliantly as Mr. Han never directly strikes any of the boys; instead he uses kung fu blocks and feints so that the boys beat themselves up. The philosophy behind Dre's kung fu training is inspiring, as Mr. Han explains how kung fu lives in everything we do and how Dre can learn to channel his Chi. (Dre amusingly equates it all to the Force in Star Wars, not grasping that chicken came after the egg) .

What's missing from the new Karate Kid are Johnny and the Cobra Kai. I was hoping that somehow the name "Cobra Kai" would turn up, perhaps a Chinese chapter founded by The Karate Kid, Part III's evil Terry Silver. Master Li's school is called the Flying Dragons; that's just not as much fun. Master Li also isn't as comically villainous or as interesting as Kreese.  (There is a compelling silent rivalry between Mr. Han and Master Li; perhaps they will fight in the parking lot as Miyagi and Kreese did in the sequel.) In the end, Cheng does learn to respect Dre and turn his back on the evil teachings of Master Li in an even more pronounced way than Johnny leaving Kreese's school. Zhenwei Wang, the boy who plays Dre's arch rival Cheng, does an honorable job, but he's no Johnny. Young Zhenwei is, however, a step high above Chozen in Part II.

The greatest weapon The Karate Kid brings to the table is China itself. Unlike how The Karate Kid, Part II substituted Hawaii for Okinawa, the new movie was shot on location entirely in China. The Karate Kid proudly shows off the inspiring, breathtaking majesty of the Great Wall and mountains of China, as well as the electricity of life in modern-day Beijing, including a visit the Olympic Stadium and the Forbidden City. Cadre of corrupted kung fu fighting children aside, China, its people, and its ancient, fascinating culture are displayed in a dazzlingly positive light. (But for all its sights and wonders, one thing China lacks is a Golf and Stuff.)

Maybe if there's a sequel, it will be Mr. Han who travels to Dre's hometown of Detroit, finding himself embroiled in a blood feud between Dre and his best friend. Or maybe not. Sequel or no (I say "yes"), The Karate Kid (2010) can take its place of honor alongside the original Karate Kid as the best around.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Jonah Hex


Set in the wild, wild west of the Carolinas and Georgia - which the movie seems to think is made up of dusty frontier towns run by corrupt sheriffs who reside in Mexican haciendas - Jonah Hex piles on bizarre contrivance after bizarre contrivance. After a token comic booky prologue breezily establishes the tragic origin of Jonah Hex while simultaneously failing to generate empathy for the character, Jonah Hex darts though its semblance of a story to get to its perfunctory action set pieces, punctuated by right-on-time explosions.  On the other hand, Jonah Hex's grasp of American history during the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction is flat out hilarious. 

In the White House, with the Washington Monument under construction in the distance, President Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn) is warned by his intelligence adviser Will Arnett (!) that John Malkovich is in possession of a super weapon - a "nation killer". The Nation Killer, which surprisingly is not a giant robot spider driven by legless Kenneth Branagh this time around, is a big cannon on a boat that shoots golden orbs made up of whatever the Heart of Lost Island is/whatever will be in Marcellus Wallace's briefcase. A distressed Grant proclaims Malkovich "a terrorist", likely coining the phrase, and decides only one man can stop this dastardly plot against the fragile post-Civil War union: Jack Bau --, sorry, I mean Jonah Hex. Jonah Hex turns out to be the weirdest episode of 24 ever.

Working on the outskirts of the law as a bounty hunter, Hex is a former Confederate solider who betrayed John Malkovich to the hated Union when he couldn't go along with Malkovich's crazy plan to blow up a hospital.  In a flashback which the movie keeps flashing back to again and again well past the audience getting the simple point, Malkovich took revenge on Hex by burning his Indian wife and son in their home, then branding Hex's face with his initials ("QT" for Quentin Turnbull, but the nod to Tarantino is unmistakably funny).  That isn't how Hex got his grotesque facial scars, however; Hex cut half his face off himself (I suppose so no one would mistake him for Tarantino). It's unclear whether Hex mutilated himself before or after he was resurrected from near death by obligatory Indian shamans, who cursed him with the power to communicate with the dead. Or something. The Indians also save Hex the same way a second time during the movie. No explanation is ever given as to why the Indians keep magically saving this ugly paleface.

The most interesting stuff in the movie are Jonah Hex's ill-defined supernatural powers. Somehow, and Hex himself is never curious about the hows or whys, Hex can communicate with the dead by touching them. Most of the dead souls he interrogates hate him, but he can make them talk by continuing his death grip, which ignites the dead into ash. Later, Hex goes to the bother of trying to interrogate a living person who hates him. Why didn't Hex just kill him and then use his death grip?  It would have been more effective and a time saver. Hex also seems to magically attract animals to him for no good reason; one stray mutt loyally hangs out with him and can even outrun Hex's horse despite Hex never feeding him or giving him water.

Hex is also haunted by a dream of his final battle with Malkovich, but in his dream, Malkovich repeatedly kicks his ass. (Hex has some serious issues.) When Hex and Malkovich have their final mano e mano, the movie cuts back and forth between the fight in the dream and the real fight happening on the Nation Killer boat.  The constant cutting renders the impact of either fight limp.  And what if Hex finally won the fight in the dream but lost the real fight? That would have been weird.

As Jonah Hex, Josh Brolin turns in an genuinely earnest performance. Brolin tries his damnedest to make a strange, one-note comic book character from the little-read pages of DC Comics' Old West three dimensional and interesting. Hex gets all of the focus - the aforementioned flashbacks, voice over narration, an origin story told in comic book panels - to the diminishment of every other character in the picture. Hex's sole purpose for his existence is vengeance on Malkovich, and that's the most thorough motivation of any character.

Malkovich sneers through his stock role as the heavy; his only goal is to "make war". Malkovich sure does talk funny. I don't mean his Southern drawl, I mean his unusual knowledge of the future. Malkovich's men hijack an Iron Horse train at the start of the movie using Al Qaeda tactics like strapping dynamite to their chests.  Later, Malkovich gives a speech to his Irish henchman, an unrecognizable Michael Fassbender from Inglourious Basterds, describing the life's work of Eli Whitney where he calls Whitney the father of the "Industrial Revolution". It's never explained what the glowing orbs are, how Malkovich found out about them, or how they ended up in Marcellus Wallace's briefcase.

Jonah Hex completely squanders the talents of his supporting cast. Arnett plays deadly serious, resisting the urge to roll his eyes in his every scene. He gets to experience Commissioner Gordon's frustration of turning his back to Hex, who then mysteriously vanishes; the funniest thing regarding Arnett is how he's disposed of. Wes Bentley (who was the heavy in a much worse comic book movie, Ghost Rider) continues his sad career suicide with two scenes which end with him getting disposed of not as hilariously. Lance Reddick drops in as Hex's Q, offering up high-tech anachronistic weaponry before heading off to Washington to hear President Grant speak on the 4th of July (a speech which is oddly sparsely attended). Reddick mistakenly thinks the Million Man March takes place a century sooner than it does.

By default, the second most developed (ahem) character in Jonah Hex is Megan Fox. Portraying the cleanest and, apparently, the only prostitute in the 19th century who has access to Sephora and Proactiv products, Fox is a Wild West wank fantasy come to life.  Fox loves Jonah Hex, purringly urging him during their carefully-wrapped-in-sheets pillow talk to give up his go-nowhere life of bounty hunting. It never seems to cross Fox's mind that her own life of diddling cowboys for dollars doesn't have a future either, nor is Hex a likely prospect for husbandry. But how can Fox not love that face of his?

Despite herself getting punched in the face twice and kidnapped to be used as bait by Malkovich during act three, Fox is no damsel in distress. To establish her tough girlosity, Fox is given a subplot where she kills a client who decides paying her's not as good as raping her. Later, she gamely fights alongside Hex and shoots a half dozen of Malkovich's henchmen dead. I daresay never has a creature like Megan Fox existed in the wild wild west of the Carolinas and Georgia. There wasn't nearly enough of her in the picture.

Fox isn't the only person who can see past Jonah Hex's disfigurement and realizes he's really a stand up fella. President Grant already had a hard-on for Hex even before Hex saved Washington DC from annihilation. Grant is so grateful, he offers Hex a shiny badge and the newly-created position as "Sheriff of America" - I gotta be honest, I laughed my fucking ass off when that happened.  Hex turns the badge down, doing what's best for America, and rides off into the sunset to presumably play little house on the prairie with Fox.

As the credits rolled, nobody in our theater (all eight of us) left. They must have all been confused about the Marvel Comics movie strategy of adding a surprise bonus scene at the end. Jonah Hex should have indulged the fanboys and had Hex in a bar get approached by Alan Quatermain or Tom Sawyer with an offer to join The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It would have made as much sense as anything else in Jonah Hex.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The A-Team



I love it when a plan comes together, especially when director Joe Carnahan's plan was to go all-out and make a balls-to-the-wall, crazy-ass action movie. The A-Team is a sensationally silly, highly-entertaining thrill ride. This is, after all, a movie about the A-Team, four highly skilled soldiers of fortune who used to help people in need and blow stuff up on 1980's television screens.  Buying a ticket to The A-Team, one shouldn't expect thoughtful ruminations on existence or the human condition. Why would one want that from The A-Team? No, one comes to The A-Team for the A-word: Action. The A-Team is positively overflowing with action and Bad Attitude.

A prelude set in Mexico that might as well have been subtitled "The A-Team Begins" explains how cigar-chomping, tactical mastermind Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) and his cocky, womanizing colleague Faceman Peck (Bradley Cooper) meet soulful bruiser B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) and batshit crazy super pilot Howling Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copley).  These are four men, the very best at what they do, who are bonded by their mutual worship of their special forces Army Rangers tattoos. They may have mistrusted or hated each other at first, but those Rangers tattoos they all have in common make them brothers in ink.  If there was a moment of sadness in the opening minutes of mayhem and chaos, it was when Murdock's insane helicopter flying ended up destroying B.A.'s signature black and red-striped van.

"8 years and 80 successful missions later", the real action kicks in as the A-Team is recruited in Baghdad by the mysterious CIA agent Lynch (one of many, in a running joke the movie treated like a dog latched onto its favorite bone) to recover the movie's MacGuffan, stolen $100 plates that the Iraqis planned to use to counterfeit a billion US dollars. Everyone wants these plates, including the Department of Defense, represented by Jessica Biel, the most beautiful and glamorous Army Captain in the proud military history of the United States of America. Biel is a personal expert on the A-Team in general and Face, personally. She's seen more than Face's face, put it that way.

Because the A-Team must become fugitives from justice, as the story goes, the team is betrayed and framed for the death of Army General Morrison (Gerald McRaney). The A-Team then escapes from four different prisons and goes on a worldwide manhunt to recover those plates, clear their names and uncover the mystery of how they were set up in Baghdad. The plot is a bewildering clothesline the action sequences are pinned on, and the answers to the mystery surprise no one who is paying attention.  (I guessed it correctly a half hour before the reveal.) But the identity of the A-Team's betrayer shocked the hell out of the A-Team, especially Hannibal, who normally possesses a God-like prescience. (The rest of the team don't fail to notice and point out when Hannibal's big brain fails them either.)

All of the actors bring their A game to The A-Team. As Hannibal, Neeson lends his unflappable gravitas but peppers it with well-timed bursts of Irish temper. As Face, Cooper is all wide-eyed, wide-grins, and ripped abs; he's basically playing every part of The Hangover solo. Copley is appropriately way, way out there as Murdock. Jackson invokes Mr. T's legendary threatening demeanor while injecting more sensitive and complex notes in his performance as B.A. Baracus. The characters' trademark quirks are honored, especially Hannibal's smug self-satisfaction, B.A.'s fear of flying, and the running gag of knocking B.A. out before he gets on any flying vehicle. All four leads share an easy camaraderie. They joyfully inhabit their characters and remold them in their images. They all seem like they're having a ball playing the A-Team. Biel also plays hard and fast chasing the A-Team while thankfully never becoming one of them; the movie takes every opportunity to point out how hot she is, as if we could somehow forget.

In most action movies, the heroes get all the witty banter while the villains are often monosyllabic stock heavies. To the credit of screenwriters Carnahan, Brian Bloom, and Skip Woods, they spread out the witty banter beyond the A-Team. Patrick Wilson as Lynch and Bloom, who plays Black Forest mercenary Pike, get their share of amusing dialogue. Wilson does a tremendous job playing a slimy heavy with plenty of brains but no balls, while Bloom is rock solid as a one man killing machine who's the antithesis of the A-Team. One of the best scenes in the movie is Wilson and Bloom in a car with two other agents, jabbering back and forth about who betrayed whom while one of the agents blunders about with screwing a silencer on a gun.  It's refreshing in an action movie such as this that every major character in The A-Team has brains and a specific point of view they're not shy about expressing with heaping amounts of snappy chatter.

Biel lays out what to expect early on, that the A-Team "specializes in the ridiculous", and she wasn't kidding.  The action in The A-Team is beyond ridiculous. And loud. My, this movie is loud. My favorite loud, ridiculous moment has to be the team escaping an airplane that's blown-up in mid-air by hiding in a tank, and then attempting to fly the tank into a lake by firing its guns and shooting down enemy drones. (Biel's line reading, "They're trying to fly the tank." is spot-on perfect with matter-of-fact admiration.)  That tops the exploding freighter in the finale, or the four absurd escapes from prison like the 3D movie ending with a humvee crashing through a wall, or how B.A. and Hannibal each take turns running over the loquacious Bloom with various vehicles.

The A-Team cuts a relentless pace. It's just one damn thing after another for Hannibal, Face, Murdock, and B.A., as even the best laid plans of Hannibal go sideways, leading the team from one fine mess into yet another fine mess. Other action movies will attempt to trickery with the audience, leaving us to guess at whatever the heroes are up to. The A-Team is about collusion; it always includes the audience, making us accomplices to their gambits. Hannibal proudly explains every aspect of his insidiously clever, forward-thinking machinations as we simultaneously see his master plans executed.  Carnahan makes sure the audience always shares the A-Team's perspective, so that the audience effectively gets to be part of the A-Team.

I pity the fool who doesn't have a good time watching The A-Team. When the next summer movie season is in trouble, if no one else can help, and if we can find them, maybe we can hire The A-Team for a sequel.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010




Even though it's a remake of a Danish film, on the surface, the plot of Brothers is just like Pearl Harbor. Proud Marine Captain Tobey Maguire is married to Natalie Portman, goes off to Afghanistan, is shot down and presumed dead, and Portman and his paroled stick up artist brother Jake Gyllenhaal fall for each other in his absence. (For the record, I've never seen the end of Pearl Harbor. Shut my eyes in the theater to numb the pain after Pearl Harbor was attacked and dozed until the end credits.)  Brothers is a lot more severe and complex than Pearl Harbor. Maguire, like Ben Affleck, didn't die after all. Maguire was held prisoner for over two months, finds rescue, and returns home with post traumatic stress syndrome. Crazy-eyed Maguire, originally the reliable father and husband, is now a frightening powder keg compared to Gyllenhaal, who straightened up and started flying right, taking Maguire's place in Portman's family. (Funny how Daredevil handled a similar situation a lot better than Spider-Man does.) As their daddy repeatedly and frighteningly flies off the handle for no reason, even Maguire and Portman's precocious daughters start to prefer Gyllenhaal. (A dinner scene where one of the daughters screams at Maguire that she wishes he stayed dead and lies about Portman sleeping with Gyllenhaal is particularly awkward and distasteful.)  The plot is largely by the numbers. Try to follow the Metaphor: After Maguire's funeral, Gyllenhaal and his friends (including Ethan Suplee - where's Earl?) build Portman a sparkling new kitchen. Later, Maguire destroys it in a fit of jealous rage. On the plus side, the actors are all quite earnest; they work very hard and turn in very fine performances. I'm particularly impressed by Portman; I think this is the best work she's done since she was 12. Jim Sheridan, who directed In the Name of the Father, expectedly worked in a couple of U2 songs, which was nice. But I gotta agree with the little girl: Everything was better when they thought Maguire was dead.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Winds of Change


The NXT attacking RAW angle was probably the best angle WWE has done in a decade.

Now, unfortunately, I have little doubt WWE can and will fuck up "nXt" in the long run. Much like the entire NXT season one, I'll bet they didn't think it through and made it up as they went along. Regardless, last night was one of the best angles WWE ever did. Where it goes, well, that's another story.

But for 15 minutes WWE created 8 stars as a single anarchic entity and injected an air of danger and unpredictability - Attitude - that has been missing from their programming for most of the last decade. Will it end up like the Invasion and the Alliance? Probably. Hope not, but probably. But it was still one of the most incredible angles WWE has ever done.

For that angle to have worked the way it did, two things have to be implicitly accepted:

One, that by having the season one NXT Rookies band together in this fashion and attack the company that they all wanted to be employed by - and Wade Barrett actually is by winning NXT, right? - WWE is acknowledging that season one of NXT was bullshit. For the Rookies, who throughout the season didn't seem to like each other very much, to stand by each other against WWE in this fashion, it acknowledges they felt like they were fucked over by WWE. Which they were in a ridiculous, ill-conceived debacle of a "competition". Selling programs. Carrying beer kegs around. Obstacle courses. Random eliminations. No reasonable structure or format to their "competition". They were treated like clowns and goofs, and judged by the company and by their Pros to be lacking, when they themselves were earnest and serious about trying to be WWE Superstars.

Two, that some time in the last 7 days, the Rookies got together, even Wade Barrett who won NXT and has a free ride to join either brand and face either World Champion at a PPV, and put aside any differences they had out of dissatisfaction and anger at WWE. They were all angry enough that they formed a pact to stand alongside each other to attack and destroy the flagship program of the company, RAW, and the number one guy in the company, John Cena. Cena never did anything to them, but he's the symbol of the company. Cena is WWE today. And they beat him to a pulp and stretchered him out. They beat up CM Punk because he was there and he was one of the Pros who thought he was so much better than and above them. The NXT Rookies have every right to hate WWE. Even Barrett, who got along with Chris Jericho, has beef with the way the Pros treated the Rookies and the way the company treated NXT as a whole. (Hey, did Barrett ever get his entrance music?)

Wade Barrett has always said The Winds Of Change are coming. I would think a logical master plan for NXT would be for all of them to do whatever it takes together to have Wade Barrett beat John Cena in his guaranteed title shot and win the WWE Title. I would also hope that they don't do "infighting" and "mistrust" within NXT for a while, that they all stand united as one asskicking unit until they accomplish whatever they're trying to accomplish. If WWE has thought this through that far. If.

Worst case (and unfortunately the likely) scenario going forward, given WWE's track record at something like this, would be what happened in the Invasion, where WWE injects their own guys to "lead" NXT, and book each individual Rookie as worthless nothings who can't win a match against "real" WWE Superstars without help. The Rookies will look like ineffectual pussies in the long run, proving WWE's point that they were never good enough. But for right now, that hasn't happened yet. And Lord willing, who's to say WWE Creative did not learn from the Royal, Epic Fuck Up that was the Invasion?

I love the yellow and black  armband instead of T-shirts like the nWo had. It's a subtle identifier that keeps each Rookie distinctive. And it sure is hilarious that Vince Russo has been trying for a decade to recreate the nWo in WCW and in TNA (Main Event Mafia, The Band) and NXT did it in fifteen minutes.   


Monday, June 7, 2010

MTV Movie Awards 2010


If it's June, it must be time to fast forward through the MTV Movie Awards while "live Tweeting" though the parts I did watch on @BackoftheHead:

How quickly can I fast forward through the #MTVMovieAwards? We're about to find out.

I love @zoesaldana but how is she up for Best Female Performance for Avatar? She sat in an ADR booth & talked like Calypso. #MTVMovieAwards

Once again, the winners of most categories are easy to predict by which celebrity is actually in attendance. #MTVMovieAwards

How many times have I heard "What Do Tigers Dream Of" this weekend @edhelms? "Doug Doug Dougie Doug Doug! Dougie Doug Doug!" #MTVMovieAwards

Tom Cruise's image rehab into being cool again is dressing up as a bald Jewish movie producer and hiphop dancing with J.Lo. #MTVMovieAwards   

Paranormal Activity IS the Best Scared As Shit performance! Wait, delete the words "Scared As". #MTVMovieAwards

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows trailer looks more action packed than what I remember of the book: Harry and Hermione sitting in a tent

Again, Avatar with a bullshit nomination. "Sam Worthington" and "@zoesaldana" for Best Kiss? Best 3D rendering, sure. #MTVMovieAwards

As one of the scant few who saw The Runaways, I can vouch Kristen Stewart kissing Dakota Fanning pwned K-Stew kissing R-Patz #MTVMovieAwards

Scarlett Johannson's tribute to Sandra Bullock was touching, heartfelt, well-written, left me teary-eyed. Her best work ever #MTVMovieAwards

I really can't recall the last time I watched a Sandra Bullock movie or thought one was any good, but Sandy was great in Speed 2. Also Speed

"Megan Fox, where ever you are tonight, I'm gonna find you and fuck you." It's only @evilhag who can make me LOL at the #MTVMovieAwards.

Congratulations to the great @kenjeong! His bare ass and wittle penis leaping out of that trunk was truly the WTF Moment. #MTVMovieAwards

The best #MTVMovieAwards moments so far are the real(?) banter between Sandra Bullock and Scar-Jo and @kenjeong's sweet tribute to his wife.

Probably the biggest horseshit of the #MTVMovieAwards is Draco Malfoy winning Best Villain over Christophe Waltz. Credibility? Negative zero 

@xCedezx Doug Doug Dougie Doug Doug! Dougie Doug Doug! Dougie Doug Doug! But if he got murdered by crystal meth tweakers...

@Backofthehead Then we're shit out of luck! 

How THE FUCK can Angelina Jolie be nominated for Salt when it hasn't even come out and no one has seen it, #MTVMovieAwards?!

Kristen Stewart is so awkward and uncomfortable shilling for the Twilight movies that I actually find it kind of adorable. #MTVMovieAwards

Jessica Alba out at 1:34 for Best Male Performance. Has it really been 10 years since she was an action hero? Why not since? #MTVMovieAwards

Great to see @MintzPlasse but why no big Kick-Ass presence at the #MTVMovieAwards? Where are @ChloeGMoretz, Matthew Vaughn & @lyndsyfonseca?

Pretty huge letdown that Zach Galifianakis isn't there to accept his #MTVMovieAwards. But @azizansari needed the screen time.

Wow, Tom Cruise's energy level between dancing as Les Grossman and reading the teleprompter are like Knight and Day. #MTVMovieAwards

Of course, The Twilight Saga: New Moon is the Best Movie. I can't think of a better Twilight movie released in 2009. #MTVMovieAwards

Sunday, June 6, 2010



All of the usual adjectives thrown at Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece Metropolis do honestly apply. It's "visionary", "groundbreaking", "influential", "seminal", "prescient", etc. Metropolis' production and costume design have influenced countless films. Here are just a few obvious ones that came to mind: Star Wars, Blade Runner, Titanic, Dr. No, Charlie's Angels (Crispin Glover is virtually a clone of the villainous Thin Man in Metropolis), and especially Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns. In fact, I was floored by how much Burton "borrowed" from Metropolis in his two Batman movies. Everything from Max Shreck's hair and costume in Returns to the final showdown between Batman and the Joker taking place in a cathedral (with a giant bell) came from Metropolis. Metropolis even anticipated video phones and Skype all the way back in 1927. All of the haughty adjectives used to describe Metropolis are apt. But I can also toss in a few others: "ridiculous", "tedious", "absurd", "cringe-inducing".  Now, I knew what I was getting into. This is an over 80 year old silent film so one takes that into account when sitting down to experience Metropolis, but now that I have - thank God talkies were invented!  Dude, I find silent film acting to be incredibly creepy, with the white faces, black lips, and over-the-top, flailing limb-style of acting. Why, I've never seen so many flailing limbs in a movie before, especially in the worker riot sequences in the last hour.  Steeped in Biblical allegory and bluntly beating you over the head repeatedly with its central theme - "The head and the hands need a mediator - the heart!" - Metropolis tells the tale of Freder, the prim, wussy son of Joh Frederson, the cold-hearted founder of Metropolis. Freder falls in love with a woman named Maria, who is a spiritual leader of the working class that dwells in the underground city beneath Metropolis. Freder experiences life underground first hand while Maria is kidnapped by Rotwang (seriously, "Rotwang"), the evil mad scientist who designed Metropolis. Rotwang and Joh Frederson plot to have a Machine Man, a robot Rotwang built, take Maria's image and place to crush an impending revolt by the workers.  Then a lot of other ridiculous shit happens, including a flood and several riot scenes - Metropolis is clearly an influence of every hilarious town riot in The Simpsons and South Park. The robot Maria, a disturbing seductress who dances topless to drive men wild and comically raised her eyebrow 35 years before Mr. Spock did it, is actually one of cinema's greatest villains. She is oddly terrifying in a wholly unexpected way. Freder however is a doofus; an ineffectual hero-type whose greatest arch enemy is a locked door. Locked doors constantly defeat him throughout the movie and his big triumphant moment during the flood is when he finally manages to get a locked door open to save all the children beneath the city from drowning. Again, Metropolis was released originally in 1927 and it worked then, I presume. Today, Metropolis can be enjoyed as art, for its place in film history, and as a curiosity, but as a moviegoing narrative, it's a laughable, 2 hour and 43 minute(!) slog to sit through. I don't think I ever want to see it again, but once you've seen Metropolis, you'll never, ever forget it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Get Him to the Greek



Aldous Snow, the rock star Russell Brand played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was probably its most interesting character.  Brand and his filmmakers obviously thought so too, and they went to the Aldous Snow well a second time, which is once too often it turns out.  Get Him to the Greek is a Sarah Marshall spinoff about Brand, but for some reason, Jonah Hill, who was Brand's sycophantic suck up stalker in Sarah Marshall, plays an entirely different character in Greek. (Kristin Bell appears in a cameo as Sarah Marshall, starring in her new show "Blind Medicine". Confusing? Not really. Just odd.) In Get Him to the Greek, Hill (As a fan, I say this out of concern, Jonah: please drop some weight) is a struggling music exec working for P. Diddy (not playing P. Diddy) who comes up with a plan to have the disgraced and in dire straits rock star Brand perform an anniversary concert at the Greek theater in LA. Hill has 72 hours to get Brand from London to that concert in LA, with pit stops in New York and Las Vegas. There's some good raunchy comedy in the first half of the movie as Hill flies to London and ends up indoctrinated in Brand's world of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Plenty of puke on Hill's face jokes result. The re-introduction of Aldous Snow that opens the picture is a righteous skewering of rock star folly and excess VH1: Behind the Music-style. But the more we get to know Brand and learn about his deadbeat, opportunistic father (Colm Meaney) and his ex, a shockingly thin Rose Byrne, the mother of his child (or so he thinks) and a fellow pop star who's now sleeping with Lars Ulrich, the dark underbelly of Get Him to the Greek kills off the good times. The comedy all but disappears by the third act. Diddy yells all his dialogue under the mistaken impression that yelling = funny. A three way scene between Brand, Hill, and Hill's doctor girlfriend Elizabeth Moss is neither funny nor sexy; just awkward and off putting.  I hate to say it but in the end, I felt like the best thing to do would be Forgetting Aldous Snow.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


Like Sand Through The Hourglass


If I had to describe Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in one word, it would be: Brown. This is the brownest movie I've ever seen. Everything is brown. The sand, the buildings, even the skies. And the people. Especially the people. Not that the principal actors are Persian by any means. Most are British, except for the lead, American Jake Gyllenhaal. But they're all painted brown with black raccoon eyes. The spray tanner and mascara budget on this picture must have been astronomical. A buff, not-entirely-convincing, but very game Gyllenhaal plays Prince Dastan, a poor boy who was adopted by the King of Persia and grew up with the king's biological sons. He's like the Persian Tom Hagen, if Don Corleone's consigliere could run up the sides of buildings and acrobatically fight with scimitars. A whole lot of battling and killing commences over the movie's Macguffin: a dagger containing the fabled Sands of Time, which allows the holder to travel back one minute in the past (but not to the future). There's a lot of bewildering backstory about "the gods" who created the sands and the dagger (what religion are these Persians anyway?) and how piercing the dagger into a subterranean wall of sand and releasing the sand in the dagger would unleash the Armageddon of sand, or something. Beautiful Gemma Arterton got the thankless job of doling out all of this exposition, but it does give her a lot more to do (and some flatteringly flimsy costumes to wear) than she did in Clash of the Titans. Gyllenhaal and Arterton try to work a muted kind of Han Solo-Princess Leia vibe together (he the rebel with a noble heart, she the uppity princess with a noble heart); Prince of Persia is most interesting when we're watching them banter and fall in love.  Then the filmmakers work a Superman turning back time ending that takes away everything they worked hard for that was enjoyable.  The plot is incredibly busy, rushing from one acrobatic sword fight to the next, so that it's very difficult to care what's going on. Gyllenhaal takes over half the movie to realize the incredibly obvious, that the villain is Sir Ben Kingsley, then he spends the rest of the movie trying to convince everyone else Kingsley's the villain. (Remember a time before Sexy Beast when Sir Ben Kingsley was known for being Gandhi, and you didn't automatically guess he's the villain the second you see him in a movie?) The strangest thing in Prince of Persia is Alfred Molina as a sheik businessman who rails endlessly against taxes and the bureaucracy(?) of the Persian kingdom not allowing him to conduct his ostrich races. Meanwhile, in a shameless and thinly-veiled allegory to Iraq, the Persians invade Arterton's city at the start of the movie under the guise of searching for fictional weapons of mass destruction.