Monday, May 26, 2008

Hold On To Your Potatoes!: An Indiana Jones Review-Fest

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Archaeologist and part-time professor Indiana Jones spans the globe with a whip and a fedora in search of the fabled Ark of the Covenant in hopes of finding it before a gang of Nazis have the chance to dig it up and use it's powers for evil. You probably already knew that, though. Since the theatrical debut of Raiders in 1981, Indiana Jones has become as much of a recognizable household name as George Washington, Darth Vader, and Bugs Bunny. To this day it remains one of the most cherished films and film franchises in the history of cinema, and I'm sure that you hardly need me to explain why, but I'm going to anyway. With the help of creator George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford created a lovable, memorable character in Indiana Jones, whom is the backbone upon which Raiders of the Lost Ark (and it's sequels) are balanced. He's level-headed and courageous, while at the same time very down-to-Earth and not without a sense of humor, making him both easy to relate to and someone to idolize. Other characters in Raiders, such as Miriam (Karen Allen) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), are likable and entertaining as well, while villains like Major Toht (Ronald Lacey) give us someone truly despicable to root against. Raiders infuses an intriguing plot, breathtaking action, a pinch of mysticism, a helping of romance (though not too much for the tough guys in the audience), and numerous well-placed moments of comedy into one of the most well-rounded films of all time; though probably most notable is the action. I suppose that it says enough about the quality set-pieces in this film that there's an entire stunt show attraction at Universal Studios based around the film's opening scene which still wows live audiences to this day, but the giant boulder and other booby traps aren't the only armrest-grabbing moments that Raiders of the Lost Ark has to offer. The hand-to-hand combat scene on the dig-site tarmac and truck chase sequence are both fine examples of expert filmmaking in the action genre. From one of the most memorable cinematic openings of all time, right up until the film's final moments when we get to see what every movie-goer since World War 1 has wanted to see (several Nazis' heads melting and/or exploding), I can't think of a single moment of Raiders of the Lost Ark that isn't 100% worthy of all five of the stars which I've given it in my rating.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
This time around, Indy, a young Chinese orphan known as Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), and a gorgeous American singer named Willy (Kate Capshaw) are on a journey to recover an ancient, magical stone from an evil kidnapping cult in order to save the inhabitants of an innocent village in India. Temple of Doom is widely regarded as the worst of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, and I was admittedly a member of that bandwagon for a long time myself. However, upon taking a closer look at Temple, I've realized the error of my ways. Lets look at the facts. The main complaint that I hear about Temple of Doom is that it "doesn't feel like the other Indiana Jones movies". The reasons for this seem to be that 1.) there are no Nazis, 2.) Indy never leaves India or visits the school where he teaches, and 3.) it doesn't involve any Christian artifacts. Honestly though, I'm fine with all of those things. To me, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom still feels like it is a worthy part of the series. You've still got all the humor, interesting, mystical plot points, and romance of the other films, just with a new set of villains and a slightly different cause driving the plot. The tone is the same as it usually is, there's a sometimes lovable, sometimes annoying romantic interest, and there's a comedic sidekick. What more could you want? Action, you say? Look no further. The opening action sequence in the Chinese night club is both exciting and humorous. The mine cart chase is not only amazing to look at from a technical standpoint, but also wildly thrilling, and evokes memories of the truck chase in the previous Jones film. Then of course, there's the showdown on the rope bridge which is perhaps one of the most copied sequences in the history of action/adventure filmmaking. The premise revolving around a set of magical stones is no more unbelievable to me than the magical ark in Raiders, and though some may be offended by my saying so, I don't find a cult of people worshipping some manner of demon any more outlandish than the premise that the stories from the bible are supposedly true in the world of Indiana Jones as suggested by Raiders (and eventually The Last Crusade). All in all, I consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be a slightly better film, but in my opinion, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom occupies a perfectly worthy spot beside it atop the zenith of action/adventure filmmaking.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
When Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) goes missing during one of his many quests for the biblical holy grail, Indiana Jones sets out on a quest to not only locate and save his father's life, but also to get his hands on the grail before yet another band of Nazis can manage to. Considered by many (including director Steven Spielberg himself) to be the best installment of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, The Last Crusade capped off the franchise for nearly two decades, and it did so in style. Taking more cues from the first film of the series than from the less popular Temple of Doom, Crusade once again throws Nazis into the mix, as well mystical Christian artifacts and a familiar face or two (namely Sallah [John Rhys-Davies] and Marcus Brody [Denholm Elliot]). New additions to the cast include romantic interest and evil seductress Esla Schneider (Alison Doody) and (as I previously mentioned) Sean Connery as Indiana Jones' father Henry. Connery takes the place of Jones' previous sidekicks Miriam, Short Round, and Willy as a source of camaraderie for the title character, as well as a frequent springboard for comedy. He fits perfectly into both the Indiana Jones universe and into the role of Indy's father (despite only actually being 12 years older than Ford). Once again, and not surprisingly, the action in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is nearly without rival. The opening sequence features River Phoenix as a young Indiana Jones in perhaps his first adventure, serving up equal doses of excitement, humor, and (for fans of the previous installments of the franchise) nostalgia. Not long afterward comes a speed boat chase through Venice which is (in my opinion) one of the least impressive helpings of action in the series, but still more impressive than most of the action fare available anywhere else. Most notable of the nail-biters in The Last Crusade, however, is the tank chase sequence. Lasting an incredibly long time, characters chase one another in jeeps, tanks, and on horseback, evade explosive rounds from a cannon, fight inside of, on top of, and while hanging off the edge of heavily armored vehicles moving at top speed through narrow desert canyons, and ultimately face the wrath of gravity as a runaway tank nears the edge of a cliff. This sequence is truly an experience in and of itself. Taking into account how many franchises fall apart after their first installments, it's hard to imagine that all three of the films in the original Indiana Jones trilogy can be of such an equally high level of quality, but for my money all three movies, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, occupy the same impressive league.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


The Plot: After a debacle involving some Russians, a crate stolen from Area 51, and a nuclear explosion, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is fingered by the FBI as a possible communist spy. In an attempt to get out of harm's way, Jones meets up with a young greaser who goes by the name Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), insisting that Indy help him to locate his mentor and his mother, who have both been kidnapped as part of a scheme to uncover the mystery behind a legendary set of ancient crystal skull artifacts.

The Review: While I've never claimed to be the world's biggest fan of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, they are as much a cherished part of my childhood as Back to the Future, Star Wars, or any of the other major action/fantasy franchises of the eighties. I never necessarily wanted to see a fourth Indiana Jones film made, but when word of one finally began to come down the grapevine as more than mere rumors, I took notice and, like all other fans of the original trilogy, began eagerly counting down the days until it's release. Let's start with the good, shall we?

When he was in his prime, Harrison Ford was just about the coolest guy around. While not exactly in his prime anymore, he's still pretty badass. Very early on in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I had a hard time accepting such an old, weathered face as Indiana Jones, but those feelings of hesitance quickly faded as Ford fell right back into the role he made famous back in the earl eighties. By the time Miriam Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Jones' old flame, made her first appearance in this film, Harrison had completely reassured my confidence in his ability to pull off the role of a wisecracking archaeologist adventurer despite his age and appearance. Speaking of Karen Allen, it took much less time for me to accept her once again as her character from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, it took no time at all. She was great from the moment she stepped onscreen to the last scene before the credits rolled.

Notable new additions to the Indiana Jones mythos this time around were the evil Irina Spalko as played by Cate Blanchett and the previously mentioned Shia LaBeouf in the role of Mutt Williams. Blanchett, who has proven herself (in my book anyway) as one of the best actresses working today (in such films as The Life Aquatic, The Gift, Babel, and The Aviator), didn't disappoint. Her Russian accent was spot on for the passionate and evil character she was portraying, and her presence alone created a very memorably despicable villain. As for LaBeouf, he once again impressed the hell out of me in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Out of the eight performances I'd seen from him prior to this film, I hadn't disliked a single one, even in cases such as Constantine or Transformers when I either disliked the character he was playing or flat-out didn't like the movie. Despite his age, Shia is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, and his performance in Indiana Jones is a perfect example of why that is. He can seemingly handle an entire range of emotions with believability and ease, his comedic timing is always spot on, and he's just a generally likable guy.

The actors aside, there are several other things that I greatly enjoyed about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Namely the action. Most notable is the truck chase sequence through the jungle leading up to the film's climax. The non-stop action and excitement of this scene along with the incredible ingenuity involved with it's set-up and execution fell right in line with the action scenes from all three of the previous Indiana Jones films. While watching it, it's hard not to recall the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the mine cart chase from Temple of Doom, and the tank chase sequence in The Last Crusade. If there was a single moment during Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when my mind reverted back to the way it was in my childhood when I first absorbed those scenes in my youth, it was during the (majority of the) jungle chase scene. Another action sequence that sticks out in my mind as evoking the true tone and sensibilities of the Indiana Jones franchise is the motorcycle chase toward the beginning of the film involving Mutt and Indy attempting to evade capture by the KGB. Outside of the action, however, there are plenty of other nods to the original trilogy including the music and the use of montage scenes involving that little red line on a map showing the viewer where Indy and co. are headed next. Before your eyes glaze over in nostalgic delight though, it's time to switch gears from the good to the bad.

I'll start off light. The cartoony gophers or groundhogs or whatever during the desert scenes at the beginning of Crystal Skull? What the hell was the deal there? Those gophers did nothing but take me out of the moment and evoke bad memories of the silly crap that George Lucas felt the need to infuse into his re-releases of the original Star Wars trilogy. They were unnecessary and just plain dumb. Also along those lines were the giant ants in the scene directly following the truck chase through the jungle. I liked the ants and enjoyed watching them attack the Russian villains, but when they began building a little ant-ladder out of one another to reach Cate Blanchett's character as she hung from a vine out of their reach? Stupid. At that moment it felt like I was watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Also, let us not forget the Tarzan/Spiderman scene with Shia and the monkeys (and really, how could you?). It's moments like this one that are not only unlikely, but downright dumb, which totally ruin the tone of the movie. Yes, we're dealing with a light-hearted action/adventure tale, but Shia LaBeouf swinging through the jungle on vines with monkeys? Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion by hiding inside of a refrigerator and being launched hundreds of yards through the desert? Bullshit.

Now that I've covered the good and the bad, it's time for the downright ugly. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had all of the cards stacked against it from the beginning. It's always a daring move to attempt to revive a series long after it seemed to have ended. It can be done as the most recent Rocky and Rambo films have shown us, but seems more likely to fail as proven by Superman Returns, The Godfather Part III, and Terminator III, among others. Seemingly, however, the people in charge of all the major decisions behind The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull just didn't want their film to be any good, and there's one very clear piece of evidence for this claim: the ending. Despite it's flaws, I was with Crystal Skull through the majority of the running time. I was willing to accept some hiccups in the plot and flow of the film here and there and actually (as evidenced above) ended up liking a lot of what the movie had to offer, but any respectability that Spielberg and Lucas put into their film was completely shattered by it's climax. I normally don't venture too far into spoiler territory in my reviews, but I feel compelled to delve into the specifics of what made this movie so bad.

Aliens. Okay, why not? I can deal with an alien skeleton here and there in an Indiana Jones movie. Thirteen alien skeletons morphing into one real live alien which triggers a giant inter-dimensional flying saucer to rise out of the Earth and warp into another reality? Fuck no. I'm sorry, but that's just not Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones is Nazis, ancient tribes, and ancient religious artifacts with mystical powers. Not aliens from another dimension which come alive and scowl at Cate Blanchett for no reason, causing her to disintegrate. At this point in the film the plot lost all validity for me, and before the credits began to roll I was already attempting to block this bastard of a sequel from my memory. In another movie, sure, this ending could have worked, but not in Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford stood atop an ancient temple wearing his fedora while a giant spinning spacecraft rose from the jungle floor and blasted out of our dimension and into the unknown. That's really all I can say to describe my dislike for the ending of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I realize that George Lucas has tried to validate this aspect of the film by stating that, just as the first three Jones films were throwbacks to the pulp adventure stories of the 1930's, Crystal Skull was an homage to the monster tales of the cold war era, but Indiana Jones is just not the correct outlet for that type of story. In my opinion, if they were going to change their genre so drastically, they needed to change their main character and the title of the movie as well.

The Verdict: Though there are redeeming factors about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, they don't come anywhere close to being able to out-shadow the embarrassingly bad ending of the film. There are little things here and there throughout the movie that I didn't like, but had the last ten minutes been drastically altered, I think I would have come away with a generally positive opinion of this film. As it stands however, I cannot bring myself to do anything but wonder who the hell okayed this script. Despite the best efforts of Spielberg, Ford, LaBeouf, Blanchett, and Allen, Indiana Jones was no match for aliens from another dimension.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


The Plot: With a father who builds race cars and an older brother who was a famous driver before his untimely death, it's no surprise that ever since a young age, all Speed Racer has wanted to do is drive race cars. Now an up and coming competitor in the futuristic racing league which his brother used to be a part of, Speed is given an ultimatum by the greedy owner of a powerful and prosperous racing team which puts his family in danger. Against all odds, Speed sets out to win the upcoming Grand Prix and show the world that he has what it takes to be the best racer in the history of the circuit, all the while ensuring that no harm comes to those he cares for the most.

The Review: Having never really been a fan of the Speed Racer cartoon series, I wasn't so much looking forward to seeing live-action interpretations of Speed and his family or expecting much from the story of this film. I was mainly excited to see another film from the guys who gave us the visually spectacular Matrix trilogy and hoping to once again be wowed by their visual style and ingenuity, which based on the trailers and commercials, seemed like a strong possibility. As it happens, The Wachowski brothers managed to surprise me as much with their film's strong, likable characters as they did with their wild special effects.

Emile Hirsch always visually looked the part of Speed Racer, but was also able to succeed in grounding the unbelievable events and locales surrounding his character with realistic emotions and perspective. If Hirsch hadn't been so likable and believable despite the cartoony situations that his character found himself in, the story would have lost just about all of it's accessibility to the audience. He was really the linchpin which held this movie together. This is not to say, however, that he didn't have a capable supporting cast behind him. John Goodman was also incredibly lovable as Pops Racer, as were Susan Surandon as Mom and Christina Ricci as Speed's girlfriend Trixie. As a fan of the show LOST I was happy to see Matthew Fox in any capacity, but he really sold the character of the mysterious Racer X in every scene which he was a part of. Paulie Litt capably and likably portrayed Speed's younger brother Spritle, though in the case of his character I felt that he caused some of the problems that I had with the movie (more on that in a bit). The racer family's mechanic Sparky, as played by Kick Gurry, was a good character, but I personally felt that he was a little bit short-changed in the character development department. His presence is sprinkled here and there throughout the film only when he's necessary, which would have been fine aside from his role in the film's climax. Sparky seemingly comes out of nowhere to lend an technical (for Speed) and emotional (for the audience) hand to Emile Hirsch's character, which felt out of place considering that he had only been a background character up until that point. I wouldn't have taken him out of those scenes at the end of the film by any means, but I couldn't help but feel that he deserved to be featured a little more prominently, or at least introduced better, toward the beginning of the film.

As I said in the beginning of this review, I was more interested in the visuals of Speed Racer than I was in the characters and story (at least going in), so what did I think of the look of the movie? I'd say that I loved about 95% of the visuals. Despite the film being live-action, it managed to have a very animated feel at points, which I often loved, but occasionally disliked. Where the effects really came into play though, was during the races. I recall reading that the Wachowski brothers had developed some sort of new camera technology or technique for the filming of Speed Racer, but I'm not really sure what it added to the experience. Whatever it was though, it worked like a charm, because every single race sequence was clear, beautiful, and exciting as hell. Whereas I've taken the stance that some recent effects-heavy films (such as Transformers) are too confusing for their own good during the scenes which everyone has really come to see (those being the action sequences), all of the action in Speed Racer was surprisingly easy to follow despite the high speeds at which everything was happening. There were also enough "wow" moments to keep, I would assume, just about anyone's eyes glued to the screen. Cars are constantly soaring through the air, rotating in any number of directions at once, slamming into one another, and often times deploying incredible (and occasionally hilarious) weapons and defensive technology from within their chassis'. Slow motion shots, wacky screen wipes, and any number of other unique and interesting editing techniques were also regularly employed to keep things moving at a pace deserving of the name Speed Racer. Outside of the races, there were even a few fun and/or exciting fight sequences, which were welcome additions to the film from the creators of Neo and Agent Smith.

As for what I didn't like about Speed Racer, there is a specific section of the film which didn't really appeal to me. The movie opens with a doozy of a montage which perfectly introduces the audience to the majority of the main characters, as well as informing the viewer of the necessary back story elements allowing us to understand the world we'll be living in for the next 2+ hours. After the montage we get the set-up for the main plot line, which I'd say lasts for about twenty or thirty minutes. Next we get into the actual plot and follow Speed on his journey toward victory and redemption, followed by the final race and the film's climax. The points in the plot which I wasn't 100% happy with all occurred during those twenty to thirty minutes following the opening montage. At this point in the movie we are introduced to the villain and a lot of the forthcoming story is set up, and I didn't mind those aspects of this period in the film. What I didn't particularly care for was some of the humor. I understand how that may sound considering the overall light-hearted nature of the subject matter and the Speed Racer franchise as a whole, but while everything following the ultimatum that the villain gives to Speed is packed with action, emotion, and drama, the sequences between the montage and said ultimatum were a bit too overbearingly corny for me. Since these events occurred rather early on in the film I was initially very worried that I wouldn't enjoy the entirety of Speed Racer, but thankfully by the time the real threat to Speed's family comes into play the movie becomes less of a silly children's comedy and more of a compelling story with noteworthy humorous beats and winks to the audience on the side. Scenes such as the visually messy sequence when Spritle is zipping around the Royalton factory in a little golf cart-ish vehicle driven by his monkey Chim-Chim made me nervous about what I'd be forced to sit through for the next hour and a half (approximately). Again, I understand that Speed Racer is a cartoony and light-hearted property, but while the humor was expertly handled in almost every other part of the movie, some moments toward the beginning were a bit much for me.

The Verdict: Barring a few (what I felt to be) poorly placed comical moments, Speed Racer was a hilarious, exciting, and overall well-rounded film. All of the actors were spot on, the visual effects were absolutely stunning, and once the plot got rolling it had my complete and utter attention for the remainder of it's running time. The best way to describe the experience of watching Speed Racer is to simply say that it was one hell of a fun ride.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

50 Years of Pod People

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Returning from a trip, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) slowly begins to realize that something strange is going on in his small hometown. There appears to be an outbreak of mass hysteria which causes people to become suspicious of their friends and loved ones. After discovering a number of "blank" human bodies and large leafy pods, however, it becomes clear to Dr. Bennell that the problem lies with the "normal" people in town and not those who seem to be losing their minds. This, the first film adaptation of Jack Finney's classic novel The Body Snatchers, touches on a lot of rather cool and somewhat groundbreaking concepts for it's time. I honestly haven't seen a lot of science fiction films from the era during which this one was produed, but from what I have seen it's probably the most successful. As is not uncommon with a lot of older films, however, the stiff acting and weak dialogue manage to ruin a lot of the mood and tension that the story attempts to set up. The plot unravels at a good pace, dropping hints toward the eventual revelation of the mystery at regular intervals, and though I wasn't overly impressed with any part of the film, the only sequence that left a truly sour taste in my mouth was the ending. It felt more like a opening to me than a climax, which made me want to see what happened next rather than leave the characters behind. Regardless, the 1956 version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is certainly worth watching, if for no other reason than for comparison to the ways that the more modern interpretations of the story are handled

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The first remake of the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers film is rather similar to it's predecessor in many ways. A solitary man, this time a health inspector named Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), begins to realize that large groups of people around him are changing in bizarre ways. Eventually, as the majority of the population of the city of San Francisco (one significant change from the small town of the original movie) appears to have been affected, Bennell and a small group of friends try to escape the city, but are foiled in their attempts at every turn. Before they know it, Bennell and his small crew begin to slowly fall victim to the plague that is enveloping their community and it seems as though all hope may be lost. The lack of a proper mood that I mentioned in my review of the 1956 version of this movie is long since gone, and in this, the 1978 version, an effective feeling of dread and hopelessness plagues much of the film's running time. Joining Sutherland in the key cast are Jeff Goldblum as a psychiatrist who refuses to acknowledge the supernatural aspects of the strange occurrences taking place around him, Veronica Cartwright as the hysterical proprietor of a small spa, and Brooke Adams as the love interest for Sutherland's Bennell. There are significantly improved special effects in this telling of the story, including stop motion and reverse animated vines which bind and creep into the orifices of the body snatchers' prey and rather disgusting models and puppets resembling the main characters in various stages of being cloned by their enemies. A first for the 1978 Body Snatchers film is that the cloned individuals point and emit inhuman screams when they spot a human, which has proved to be one of the most recognizable and memorable aspects of any of the adaptations of the source material. Everything taken into account, I didn't feel that this version of Invastion of the Body Snatchers was a perfect film, but it's probably the most universally respected, and certainly a must-see for sci-fi, horror, and monster movie fans.

Body Snatchers (1993)
Taking a bit of a different approach to the material than the first two incarnations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1993 version of the film follows a teenage girl named Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) who is moved into a temporary home on a military base when her father (Terry Kinney), a scientist, is called upon to help identify the strange pods that have been growing in a nearby swamp. Before long, just as in the previous film versions of the story, our hero begins to notice a change in the people around her and makes an attempt to escape. Despite the fact that director Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers feels almost like a low budget made for TV movie, it's probably my favorite version of the story that I've seen thus far. The pace moves a bit quicker than the 1978 version and the fact that the story takes place amidst a strong military presence adds a new level to the goings-on. Instead of a regular community of people being transformed into alien zombies, this time there are heavily armed military personnel not only turning into monsters, but also fighting back against them in some cases. This scenario adds for a bit more action than the previous two versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which isn't necessary, but makes for a bit more of a unique experience. Also, making the main character a rebellious teenage girl rather than a respectable older man added something to the experience for me. None of the main characters in these films have ever had an easy time convincing anyone that aliens are invading their world, but things seemed just a little more hopeless and exciting for a young girl trying to save her little brother and escape with a guy from the neighborhood whom she likes. I'm in an odd position concerning the Invasion films in that I recognize that the 1978 version of the story is the best of the lot, but I still manage to get more enjoyment out of this one.

The Invasion (2007)
This time around, though the general plot and progression of events are essentially the same as all three of the previous incarnations of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers story, the invaders in question don't use leafy pods to clone their victims, but instead infect people with tiny spores which turn the original hosts themselves into alien beings. In this way, The Invasion feels as though it deals with a viral plague rather than an invasion, but infected individuals still become emotionless creatures almost indiscernible from normal humans, so there is a tangible enemy for our heroes to rebel against once again. In The Invasion, Nicole Kidman plays a psychiatrist by the name of Carol Bernell whose son (Jackson Bond) may hold the cure for the epidemic which runs rampant after debris from a space ship lands on Earth with a strange substance on it. After you are infected by the spores contained in the alien substance you will remain human until you fall asleep, at which point the disease transforms you into an emotionless creature. This film isn't perfect, but it actually took a lot of (what I consider to be) positive steps away from the stereotypical trappings of the Invasion series. More than ever, the fear of falling asleep took precedence as the main source of suspense, which I quite liked. Simply waking up with slime on your face is admittedly less interesting to the sci-fi-lover in me than creepy plants crawling up your nose, but I did like the outcome of the switch inasmuch as sleep became the enemy rather than a giant pea pod. The ending of The Invasion was less than perfect, but I have to give the filmmakers credit for going with something significantly different from the outcomes of the previous three incarnations of this film. In the end, The Invasion didn't satisfy my urge for a truly great version of the Body Snatchers story like I hoped it would, but if things continue the way they've been going for the past 50 years or so, it shouldn't be too long before another adaptation of the tale comes along to try for the gold.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

WIBW @ The Movies: IRON MAN

The Plot: Billionaire playboy and weaponry designer/developer Tony Stark is kidnapped by a group of terrorists while showing off one of his new products in Afghanistan. In order to escape from his captors and save his own life, Stark secretly builds a metal exoskeleton equipped with powerful armaments for himself to wear. Upon returning safely to America, he opts to stop producing weapons, as he has now seen the kinds of trouble they cause firsthand, and vows to only work to better mankind. His first goal is to create an improved version of his exoskeleton with which he can fight back against those who do harm to others. Unfortunately, when the secrets of his "Iron Man" technology fall into the hands of his enemies, Stark realizes that his armored suit may in fact cause more problems than it can solve.

The Review: I've never disliked Iron Man, but the character and the comic books about him have also never really had a place among my list of favorite stories. Regardless, ever since the beginning of the recent superhero movie boom of the past decade began, I've always named this title as one that I'd really like to see brought to the big screen. The idea of a man building a futuristic suit of armor packed with weapons just seemed more suited for a film to me than a hammer-wielding god of thunder or a scientist who can run faster than the speed of sound because he accidentally spilled some chemicals on himself in his lab. I'm sure that those properties to which I'm referring could make equally entertaining movies, but something about Tony Stark suiting up in a repulsor ray-equipped mechanical exoskeleton to fight crime, while not necessarily my favorite concept on the page, has always very much appealed to me as the potential subject of a feature film. So, what are my feelings on the topic now that it has finally come to pass?

I loved Iron Man. As far as comic book/superhero-related films are concerned, this film has found a place right near the top of my personal "best of" list along with Spiderman 2 and X-Men 2. Now for the why's...

Although I hadn't personally considered Robert Downey Jr. for the role of Tony Stark before the official casting announcement was made during the preproduction on Iron Man, as soon as I heard his name linked to the project I couldn't imagine anyone else donning the red and gold armor. Just as I anticipated, Downey Jr. was the perfect choice for the role and served as the perfect set of shoulders upon which the entirety of the just over two hour film could rest. His comedic timing is perfect and his portrayal of Stark, while not taken verbatim from the original source material, was 100% satisfactory in my mind. A casting choice which didn't seem so obvious to me upon it's announcement was that of Jeff Bridges in the role of Obadiah Stane. No matter how many of Bridges' films I see, the first of his roles that will always come to mind when I hear his name will be "the dude" from The Big Lebowski, which is a character who is about as far removed from Stane as you can get. I'm going to have to carve out a little room in the back of my memory bank for Bridges as Tony Stark's despicable mentor and former friend now, though, because he was great in the role. There is a particular moment during the film when Stane angrily confronts a scientist in his employ which all but gave me goosebumps when I realized how threatening he could be. Rounding out the key cast were Terence Howard as (the eventual War Machine) Jim Rhodes and Stark's personal assistant Pepper Potts as played by Gwenyth Paltrow. Howard has never been a favorite actor of mine (though I did think that he was particularly good in Hustle & Flow), but while I didn't find him overly impressive in Iron Man, he honestly didn't have a whole of screen time to get on my good side. As for Paltrow, while she didn't necessarily wow me in this role, I've got no complaints about her performance whatsoever.

As far as the story and direction are concerned, I found very few problems with the film, and any that I did find were all rather minor. It is true that there is a lot of time spent on build-up before the Iron Man armor (Mach 1 or otherwise) finally makes it's appearance onscreen, but this didn't bother me at all. There were more than enough humorous moments and interesting story points to keep me focused on Stark even when he wasn't suited up. Speaking of which, even after the exoskeletons make their debut, they don't necessarily tie up the remainder of the running time, but that was fine with me as well. I wouldn't have complained if we'd gotten a few more action scenes here and there, but as far as I'm concerned the plot and pacing are perfect as is. Having only seen the directorial efforts of Jon Favreau in the forms of Made (which I enjoyed, but wasn't very visually exceptional) and Elf (which I didn't really like at all), I was honestly incredibly impressed with his ability to handle the material. If I hadn't known beforehand that Iron Man was directed by Favreau, I'd have probably assumed that it was helmed by someone with a more action-centric catalogue of films. The action (for the most part) was clear and didn't rely on a lot of quick cuts and shaky cam shots like so many other modern visual effects-driven extravaganzas (*cough*Transformers*cough*), which was quite refreshing. The effects themselves were top-notch and nearly without any noticeable flaws, and the comedy, drama, and action all meshed perfectly at all times.

The Verdict: As I previously stated above, after one viewing I already hold Iron Man in the same regard as both Spiderman 2 and X-Men 2, which should essentially state my overall feelings on it rather clearly. The humor was great, the action was top-notch, the acting was spot-on, and the writing and directing was on par with the best examples of the superhero movie genre. In my opinion, as far as comic book films, superhero films, or action films in general are concerned, it doesn't get a whole lot better than Iron Man.