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Monday, June 28, 2010

My Lucky Stars

Title: My Lucky Stars

Year of Release: 1985

Date Viewed: June 27th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

The opening scene of My Lucky Stars is nothing but a big tease. It begins with an exciting fast-paced car chase and then later a foot chase between your standard cops and robbers. The movie doesn't even bother introducing its characters or even telling you who the bad guys are. It just throws you into the action. Not saying that's a bad thing, mind you. But this scene sets up the completely wrong tone for the movie. The action is business serious without any hint of its true humorous nature.

Then one of the cops (Yuen Biao) gets abducted by the villain and the plot is finally given some attention. His partner nicknamed Muscles (Jackie Chan) arranges to have one of his closest friends nicknamed Kidstuff (Sammo Hung) released from prison so he can help track down the jewel thieves that are holding his partner hostage. Kidstuff is also instructed to reunite all of his friends that grew up in the same orphanage and who also have similarly weird nicknames: Herb, Rawhide, Roundhead, and Sandy. Together they are known as the Five Lucky Stars. They are certainly lucky to get anywhere in life, given how incompetent they are with everything.

So what is so special about these lucky stars that makes their services so necessary to acquire? Beats me. They are however essential to the movie because it depends entirely on their comedic routines to carry things forward. So after an exhilarating start that promises an epic chase thriller, the movie degenerates into comedy that matches the quality of prime time sitcoms. Maybe that's a little harsh. At times, the comedy is entertaining. One scene that stands out is how each of the Lucky Stars have a chance to get closely tied up to an unlucky female after repeatedly staging a robbery in her home. It's outrageous that she falls for the same trick more than twice but that's what you get with far-fetched material that doesn't take itself seriously.

Then after five or so simple-to-elaborate skits, the movie remembers that it needs to resolve the plot. Jackie Chan's character returns after nearly forty-five minutes of absence to infiltrate the bad guy's hideout inside an amusement park and kick some butt. Despite limited screen time, Chan is given enough room to put on a good show for the fight crowd. At that point however, it's too late. The movie already wasted enough time with these lucky stars to really make us care who wins in the end. I think even Three Stooges shorts are faster at advancing their stories.

At best, My Lucky Stars is simply a vehicle for Sammo Hung to show off his directing skills. There is not enough inspiration here for it to have any chance at cult status. Normally I wouldn't mind a silly comedy like this. My sense of humor is weird enough. I just wish the movie didn't kid around with itself and had stuck to one game plan. It isn't even inconsistent enough to be considered a "random" comedy. Just one that could have been a lot better.

Rating: 4

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Toy Story 3

Title: Toy Story 3

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: June 24th, 2010

MPAA Rating: G

The remaining toys yet to be sold at Andy's garage sale are back in the third and most likely final chapter in Pixar's flagship Toy Story franchise. Get ready for an emotional roller coaster with this one, folks. Pixar may have outdone themselves here.

This story begins with a then-and-now retrospective as we see home video footage of Andy Davis (voice of John Morris) using his favorite toys to create exciting scenarios of cops, robbers and green aliens. Fast forward to the present day; Andy is a grown teenager bound for college packing up his belongings for the big trip. The big question: what will happen to his beloved toys that haven't been played with in years? Many have already moved on to other places through yard sales (i.e. Bo Peep). Others saw the writing on the wall (the green Army men) and already ventured off to other places. This leaves the most loyal toys still hoping for one last day of playtime adventure to ponder their destiny.

In franchise tradition, our protagonists find themselves in a big mix-up. Andy's mother accidentally packs up the toys bound for the attic into her donation box to Sunnyside Daycare. With the exception of Woody (voice of Tom Hanks), the toys feel betrayed since they believed they were not even valued enough to live in the attic and that the mistake was intentional. Upon arrival at Sunnyside, the toys are greeted by veteran resident Lotso (voice of Ned Beatty). Lotso explains that Sunnyside is a toy's paradise. The place is always populated by happy children that sit around and play with toys all day. When the children grow older, they are replaced by more children. Toys never get abandoned and will always find fun companions here. The protagonists embrace their new home but Woody refuses to go along with it, insisting that they are still the property of Andy and they owe it to him to return home.

Life at Sunnyside does not turn out to be as pleasant as the fantasy promises. The children play far too rough with the toys, leaving them too battered to be happy. Suddenly the attic doesn't seem so bad. Lotso and his right-hand man Ken (voice of Michael Keaton) explain that they need to pay their dues and work their way up the system of government in order to be around the gentler kids. Too bad Sunnyside operates more like a prison than a government. Finding this second-rate treatment unacceptable, the heroes conduct a plan to find their way home before Andy moves away.

The best thing about Toy Story 3 is its unpredictable nature. That attribute is hard to come by in family films. It is evidence to the point I wanted to make in my "Spy Next Door" review; that family films do not have to insult the adults' intelligence. The plot is never clearly outlined as to what the good toys' final fate would be. They want to return to Andy's attic, but is that really the happy ending everyone is looking for?

The Sunnyside escape sequence can rival the best live action heist films for its cleverness. Characters are still loyally explored by the screenwriters who clearly have an affection towards them. Each one is given importance to the outcome. Let's make one thing clear before we move on: This is not a "cash-in" sequel. The utmost care is given to how the themes develop and its relation to the previous films. It is made not only to entertain but also to hit home for its target audience. Young children, you say? Guess again.

All the nail-biting action and drama is rewarded with a grand finale. And what a finale it is. My tears almost flooded my 3D glasses to the point where I had to clean it off. Speaking of which, I do recommend seeing the movie in 3D. The animation is crisp smooth without any signs of sloppy last-minute editing. On top of that, the toys look even more realistic like you're right in the room with them.

Pixar has accomplished something amazing with Toy Story 3. They made a great stand-alone film. And even better than that, they created a franchise that is made to speak to the child, adolescent and young adult in all of us through the course of three different films. Instead of re-inventing itself to appeal to a new generation of young audiences, Pixar did the smart thing and aimed their product to the same audience that watched the original Toy Story in 1995. Most were children then. Now as adults, they can truly appreciate Toy Story 3 for its illustration of growing up and leaving the toy world behind.

Toy Story is the movie for young children that need toys to occupy their time as a child.

Toy Story 2 is the movie for older children that still have a wild imagination and love their toys for their true value over their E-BAY value.

Toy Story 3 is the movie for children now grown-up who no longer need toys and may not realize how much the toys need them.

Rating: 10

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Karate Kid

Title: The Karate Kid

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: June 18th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG

The Karate Kid presents challenges to several people involved in the movie. It challenges the filmmakers to draw their audience in through nostalgia and entertain them through good storytelling. It challenges Jackie Chan to act as mentor to our hero rather than be the hero. And it challenges a young Jaden Smith to prove himself to be more than just a product of nepotism and that he has a place in the competitive world of Hollywood. Did these folks succeed at what they set out to do?

For the short answer: mostly yes. For the long answer, continue reading.

The plot of The Karate Kid does not stray too far from its 1984 roots. The story begins in the city of Detroit. We meet our 12-year-old hero Dre Parker (Jaden Smith). His mother (Taraji Henson) is forced to relocate to China in order to continue working for her company. (I guess she drew the wrong straw.) This of course means Dre has to say goodbye to his friends and meet some new ones in China.

He is lucky to meet Mei Ying (Wenwen Han), a pretty female classmate that seems to be fascinated with his hairstyle. The two fall for each other and seem to have a great thing going until trouble looms around the corner. According to some Chinese religions, all the good luck that a person encounters during the course of life will be balanced with an equal amount of bad luck. Dre's bad luck comes in the form of the other person that has eyes for Mei Ying; one of the star students of the local Kung Fu academy overruled by a ruthless teacher. Offended by Dre's girl wooing and most likely his appearance, the bully rounds up his fellow students to terrorize and beat on Dre every chance they get. On a fateful day, the maintenance man at Dre's apartment Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) intercepts a beatdown and fends off the attackers. Impressed by his moves, Dre requests Mr. Han to teach him martial arts skills so that he wouldn't have be scared of his enemies anymore. Han agrees only after witnessing firsthand the merciless nature of the Academy students. Dre is given a chance to fight back with honor by participating in a special kung fu tournament where he gets to battle his adversaries one-on-one for moral glory.

This is fascinating and all, but there are some things that I want to know that is not shown in the movie. For instance, how does Dre expect to survive in a Chinese school without understanding very much Chinese dialect? And why does his mother show such little concern about her son running around from place to place unsupervised? I can't think of a more intimidating situation for a kid. Wait a minute. I get it now. Dre grew up in Detroit. Any place looks like Disneyland compared to Detroit. No wonder they embrace their new surroundings so quickly.

My biggest fear going into The Karate Kid was that there would no surprises. I was expecting a formulaic showcase of inspirational material and would have been fine with that. To my delight, there was a nice surprise concerning the character of Mr. Han. Turns out he is not the wise old master that we are accustomed to seeing in this genre. He may know everything about Kung Fu but he does not know how to live with himself. Mr. Han hides a tragic secret that has kept him in despair for most of his life. The guidance and wisdom he offers to Dre gives him a new sense of satisfaction. Exposing the wise man's flaws is unconventional but works here in humanising the character and bringing more credibility to the story.

Other characters seem wasted. Dre's mother is mostly regulated to gasping in horror every time her son takes a nasty hit from an enemy. And Dre's first English-speaking peer is quickly forgotten about after the fifteen-minute mark. Most of the movie is devoted to Dre's relationship with Han; the only two characters that are absolutely essential to develop.

I hope Jackie Chan earns some special attention for his portrayal of Han. Here he breaks away from his typecasted "goofy nice guy caught in the wrong place" character and delivers some sincere drama. I have seen Chan in serious roles before so there wasn't any doubt in my mind that he could pull it off. Having said that, I was still impressed with the high caliber he reached here. I remember reading years ago that Chan had been studying under an acting coach so he could adapt to more dramatic roles when the time came to slow down his stuntman act. The work paid off big time and you can see the result for yourself.

As far as Jaden Smith goes....I decided to reserve my judgment despite him failing to impress me with his previous efforts. To become the next Karate Kid, it required a lot of training and focus. With both of his famous parents producing, Jaden didn't really need to audition. I'm sure the money from the Smith family put into the project was enough of an entry fee. I don't believe Jaden was the best person for the job but I also believe in giving credit where credit is due. The kid pulled it off. Dre's transition from fish-out-of-water to Kung Fu master was believable enough to work. There were also times when Jaden seemed to inherit mannerisms from his old man. From the dance moves to the intense stare, it sometimes felt like watching a young Will on the screen. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if Will himself was on the set coaching his son along the way. "Okay, Jaden. Watch this............See what I did there? Now you try it."

It's kind of a shame that the studio went the safe route by naming the movie "The Karate Kid" instead of the original choice of "The Kung Fu Kid." It shows a lack of confidence in your own product by tying it too closely to what is being imitated. There is enough good filmmaking here so that it wouldn't be necessary to piggyback on nostalgia. Besides, there is no Karate in the movie at all so it doesn't even make sense.

When our liking to Dre reaches its peak, the story reaches its finale at the Kung Fu tournament. Hollywood seems to hate long fight scenes for God knows whatever reason so the fights in this film are kept short. The good news is they are still exciting to watch and offer several "cheer for me now" moments that get the heart racing. Though the violence never exceeds PG levels, some parents may be a little shocked at how hard-hitting the action is. Those blows to the head are amplified loud enough for the hurt to be felt by everyone.

It all leads to a more than satisfactory conclusion and makes the film's one-hundred and forty minute running time worth it.

Overall, The Karate Kid is a welcome addition to the multiplex's summer lineup. All the right ingredients are there to make up for the bad ones. If you're looking for a feel-good film for a little kick (no pun intended) of motivation, this one might do the trick.

Rating: 8

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Year of Release: 1988

Date Viewed: June 15th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG

The other night I found myself in the mood to revisit an old favorite from the past. Not always the easiest task since I have a lot of old favorites stashed on my bookshelf and in the basement closet. Often I'd spend so much time deciding what movie to watch that by the time a choice is made, I could have been finished with that movie had I decided on it immediately. This time was an exception. Such random things encountered during the day can trigger flashbacks of quotable lines and memorable scenes from movies engraved in my mind. For the life of me I can't remember how this one started, but there was no question that I was eager to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit again; a film that I loved as a child and love even more now as an adult.

Set in 1940s Hollywood, Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes place in a universe where animated cartoon characters are real and known as "toons". They hail from the neighboring city of ToonTown and their only purpose in life (which they take great pride in) is to make people laugh. Seeing dollar signs, Hollywood producers have hired the toons to star in studio exclusive short films and main features for big-time profits. One such producer R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) is having trouble dealing with one of his main stars Roger Rabbit (voice of Charles Fleischer). Roger's focus on work has been on the decline and Maroon believes one of the reasons is that he is too distracted (and who can blame him?) by his attractive wife Jessica (voice of Kathleen Turner) who works at the popular underground Ink and Paint Club.

Maroon hires private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to uncover some dirt on Jessica in the hopes that Roger would abandon her and return his primary focus to his film career. Valiant along with his deceased brother Theodore were once a respected pair of crime solvers in toon-related cases. That all changed the day Theodore was murdered during a bank robbery case in a toon. As a result of the tragedy, Valiant became an alcoholic and has been prejudiced against toons ever since. He at first refuses to investigate on Jessica but eventually gives in since he is in need of money.

During a snooping job that would make today's paparazzis proud, Valiant captures and releases a set of photographs to the press that reveal Jessica having an affair (but presented as a metaphor) with the owner of ToonTown: Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). Probably the same Marvin Acme that has Wile. E. Coyote to thank for being his number one customer. Outraged by what he has seen, Roger looses his cool and appears to have murdered Acme in a fit of rage.

However, the toons and Roger himself insist he is innocent and that there are more layers to the case than what appears on the surface. Valiant is encouraged to dig deeper and find the real person responsible for Acme's murder. Further questions are raised concerning Acme's non-recovered last will and testament, leaving the ownership of ToonTown in doubt. Valiant has to act quickly since Roger is now a wanted fugitive and the newly elected and obsessed ToonTown district prosecutor Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) is hot on his trails with a new toon-executing liquid he calls "the dip."

Who Framed Roger Rabbit had been critically acclaimed for its technical achievements as well as its original story. It is loosely inspired by a 1981 novel titled "Who Censored Roger Rabbit?", a creative work in its own right but bearing little resemblance to this picture.

The movie is not the first to blend live action and animation nor would it be the last. But the near flawless execution of this innovative style has never been better than what is seen here. The animated toons interact with the human characters and their environment seamlessly, almost making you forget that they are animated in the first place. Despite dozens of viewings and many future imitations, I am still wowed at the sheer impressiveness of the visuals.

Commenting on the superb effects reminds me of a story posted on IMDBs trivia page. According to the story, Bob Hoskins' young son refused to speak to his father for two weeks after seeing the movie. When he was finally asked why, he said he was angry that his father got to work with all those cartoon characters and he was never given a chance to meet them.

Robert Zemeckis is probably the only director alive that loves special effects more than George Lucas. He is the kind of visionary that always knows what he wants before it comes time to make it happen. With a strong script under his arm by Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price and with an enormous budget to work with, Zemeckis has created something truly special. He should be proud.

As far as flaws go, I only noticed one glaring one. Valiant becomes motivated to find the truth only after noticing that one of his photographs has the tiny image of Acme's will sticking out of his coat pocket. Since that picture was released to the public, I find it hard to believe that only Valiant was able to notice it while the rest of the Hollywood's law enforcement were busy chasing after Roger. There shouldn't have been any doubt of the will's existence but the screenwriters decided to ignore that in order to advance the plot forward.

Everything else works. From the visuals, to the humor, to Christopher Lloyd's chilling villain performance.....just the overall fun factor of this film should be enough to please both adults and children alike. If you haven't seen it yet, don't wait any longer.

There are rumors of a sequel in the works. It may actually be the perfect time for one. Classic hand-drawn characters like Roger Rabbit have became almost entirely phased out and replaced by advanced computer technology. Perhaps the sequel can feature an out-of-work Roger struggling to find his place in a world that has nearly forgotten about him. A scene in the original makes reference to this idea when we see Betty Boop waiting tables at the Ink and Paint club because "life's been slow since cartoons changed to color." If the sequel can provide even half the imagination of its predecessor, I would welcome it with open arms.

Rating: 9

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Wolfman

Title: The Wolfman

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: June 13th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

There is only one way to kill a werewolf. Shoot it with a silver bullet. There is more than one way to make a werewolf movie. This latest revisitation of the iconic Wolfman character takes a few chances and ultimately serves as a throwback to classic monster movies from a different generation of Hollywood. Your enjoyment of this picture will depend greatly on your personal affection for that generation and the genre.

Benicio del Toro plays Shakespearean actor Lawrence Talbot who receives a letter informing him of the disappearance of his brother. Summoned to the home of his estranged father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), Lawrence soon learns that his brother was in fact murdered in mysterious fashion that has the locals baffled. Rumors arise of gypsies or possibly wild bears that may have attacked the victim in the dark woods surrounding the estate. Lawrence confronts the murderer face-to-face or should I say skin-to-fur at a gypsy camp where the residents hoped to confront him/her/it and restore order to the panicked town.

His brother's murderer guessed it.....a werewolf. One that rampages during the night of every full moon and destroys any living thing unfortunate enough to cross its path. Lawrence gets into a scuffle with the creature and lives, but not without receiving a nasty bite on the shoulder.

Following the incident, Lawrence begins to have nightmares of his past, mainly ones about the death of his mother years ago who died under equally disturbing circumstances. He wonders if the two deaths could have been at all connected. But before that mystery can be solved, Lawrence's bite wound seems to have taken control of his soul and he begins to take on the attributes of the creature that put him in that state. All the while, Sir John seems to take on a morbid fascination with Lawrence's condition and acts much less surprised about the events unfolding than anyone else.

The best way to describe the style of The Wolfman is classical. Though the film is shot in color, there are many nods to oldschool black-and-white filming techniques. There are many establishing and wide-angle shots that add mood to the setting. Different shades of shadow is used to add depth to scenes. Danny Elfman's musical score is perfect for the tone. His trademark synth is virtually absent. In its place is a loud orchestra that often reminded me of the classic Dracula and Frankenstein films.

Since the movie is not a full-scale homage, there are also modern techniques used. Jump scares for the nightmare scenes as well as the use of CGI during the action and transformation scenes allow the movie to avoid finding itself strictly in arthouse clubs. The ratio of old-to-new style is approximately 50/50. Some may find this to be distracting. I found it intriguing.

I watched this film with everyone in my immediate family and I was the only one that liked it. Movies like this are not often made anymore. It is not campy but it is outrageous enough to be compared with the other B-movies of Hollywood's past such as The Blob. The lack of depth and predictable nature of the plot may turn off today's hard-to-please crowd. For those that appreciate bold film making or have a soft spot for the classic monster movie, The Wolfman is a worthwhile watch.

Rating: 7

Monday, June 14, 2010

The A-Team

Title: The A-Team

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: June 11th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

To my memory, I don't believe I had ever seen an episode of the original A-Team television show. From what I gather, the series was mostly fun-hearted and campy despite its association with the action/adventure genre. If that is the case, then fans should expect this new take on the team of four A's as a new spicier flavor of a normally mild brand of entertainment. It's bolder but not necessarily better.

The title faction is comprised of four members of the U.S. army dishonorably discharged after being framed for the theft of a device that creates counterfeit currency and also charged with the death of their leaders who knew of their actions as being part of a covert operation. Our motley crew of heroes break out of federal prison, reform their stable and serve justice with their own signature style; the sleuth skills of Sherlock Holmes and the fearlessness of John Matrix. Purists may have reservations with the idea that a more violent take on the franchise would harm the fun factor but they shouldn't worry. Many of the situations and dialogue are not serious, so it should help please summer movie fans despite how hit-and-miss the humor may be.

The A-Team couldn't have asked for a better cast. Liam Neeson does a good job with any acting assignment. But here he is right at home with the role he is best at. The intelligent leader Hannibal with dangerous skills and an ever darker sense of humor. Joining him is Sharlto Copley as the always lost Murdock, Quinton Jackson doing a dead-on imitation of Mr. T.'s Baracus, and Bradley Cooper looking like he's having the time of his life playing Faceman. The chemistry is immediately there, leading me to believe that the actors had little trouble adjusting to their characters.

Characters are only a fraction of what makes a movie. The other fraction belongs to story and direction. Story is largely ignored. Given the source material and genre, this is easily forgivable. The direction? Ouch. This is where it hurts.

The plot is set up rather sloppy, so much that it took a little extra time to figure out where things were headed. Like I said though, this is forgivable since it's the action scenes that everyone really wants to see.

Good luck "seeing" the action because you're bound to have a devil of a time following it. Shaky cameras galore and countless bullets and explosions firing directly at the screen made this feel like a 2D movie thinking it was a 3D movie and trying way too hard. With so much chaos and over-the-shoulder camera shots during the battle scenes, I wanted to scream "Pan out already! I want to see what's going on!" The frustration was too high and it severely took away some enjoyment from this otherwise acceptable flick.

Because of the rushed look of the production, it's hard for me to give The A-Team a strong recommendation. There might be an audience out there that enjoys buddy-cop flicks enough to ignore its flaws or perhaps not even notice them. Personally, I demand better imagination with presenting exciting scenes instead of copying the Jason Bourne school of action choreography. Even with the Bourne films I sat silent with my jaw dropped instead of screaming at a projector that can't hear me.

Rating: 5

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Spy Next Door

Title: The Spy Next Door

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: June 8th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG

Riddle me this: What do all these actors have in common?

Steve Coogan
Lee Evans
Jennifer Love Hewitt
Owen Wilson
George Lopez
Billy Ray Cyrus

Answer: All have co-starred with Jackie Chan in his various American film projects. For whatever reason, directors in the western hemisphere do not seem to have enough faith in Chan to allow him to carry a movie on his own. To widen the target audience, he is often paired with someone who has a recognizable face in America yet is never in the same worldwide league as Chan. The last two names in the list join him in Chan's newest American-produced project titled The Spy Next Door; a cookie-cutter by-the-numbers effort and Chan's worst film since The Tuxedo.

To be fair, Lopez and Cyrus are not really at fault here. It's the result of formulaic screenwriting. The Pacifier, Mr. Nanny and The Game Plan all have used the "tough guy is stuck with kids and is now out of his element" plot and I think the fact that I liked Mr. Nanny better than this gives you an idea of what little originality and entertainment value can be found here.

The movie actually starts out with something really cool. A montage of sorts using footage of classic Chan films establishing his character's spy history along with a television style credits sequence and Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" in the background. Talk about nostalgia!

Then reality hits and we're thrown into the movie. We meet Gillian (Amber Valletta), an average single mother of three children who lives next door to Bob (Jackie Chan), an international spy undercover as a pen salesman. How he managed to get anyone to believe his name and occupation is beyond me.

Gillian seems to enjoy being around Bob because he gives her a certain happiness that has been missing from her life since her recent divorce. Her kids however do not like him. Why that is I'm not sure. He's nice to their mother, always waves hello and has a funny accent. Kids love funny accents.

Bob's chance to win over their friendship comes when Gillian's out-of-town father becomes injured and she decides to visit him, leaving her kids in the temporary custody of Bob. As you'd imagine, it's a rough ride at first. But of course things start to get better after.......uh........after........uh.......

You know to tell you the truth, I'm not sure how the kids start to warm up to him. There wasn't anything in the plot that represented a convincing transition. It just sort of happened. I guess that was the whole strategy. Keep filming and hope that the audience goes along with it.

Bob's hopes of settling down and leaving behind his dangerous government work are denied thanks to Gillian's mischievous son who infiltrates Bob's computer and downloads what he thinks is a pirated copy of a rare concert. Instead he gets his hands on classified files that contain information on an evil plan by evil people to evaporate oil in an attempt to monopolize for themselves. In this day and age, I can't think of a faster way to get rich. When the evildoers find a way to track where the files have traveled, they launch an assassination attempt on Bob and threaten to expose his double-life to the unsuspecting Gillian.

See kids, let this be a lesson to you. Don't bootleg stuff. Bad guys might come after you for it.

Can Bob save the day and win the affection of his neighbors? Who are we kidding? Of course he does. This is a family movie. A better question is: Is The Spy Next Door worth your time and money? Unless you're a Jackie Chan completist like myself, do not bother. There is a severe lack of creativity here. Family films do not have to be cutting edge but they do not need to be graded on a curve either. This one didn't cut it for me.

Even the dependable Chan seems limited to what he does best; elaborate fight scenes made to look improvised. Sure, he's not as young or as fast as he used to be. He needs to slow down. I get that. Still, Chan is capable of doing better than this. It also doesn't help that his screen time is cut down to make room for things like Billy Ray Cyrus's character who comes on screen just long enough to remind audiences that he's in the movie before drifting back into the abyss of this hollow script. Moments like this support my belief that the film is not confident in itself. Both the main story and the backstory involving the villians are so ridiculous that the only saving grace of the movie had to be the fight scenes.

I always welcome the opportunity to watch bumbling bad guys get what's coming to them. That's what's offered in the film's climax. But these villains are so dumb and incompetent that they make Home Alone's Harry and Marv look like Heath Ledger's Joker. Since we can never take them as a real threat, the climatic fight scene (which is actually pretty decent) is not given the proper amount of excitement yet could be fun enough depending on how much you enjoy seeing improvised weapons. So yes, I didn't completely hate the film. I just have too much frustration to give it any sort of recommendation.

Chan has such a creative mind that I'm certain if this idea was presented to him during his 1980s prime with the full support of a Hong Kong studio under his wing, he could have made something great. Unfortunately this is 2010 Hollywood and we're instead stuck with mediocrity.

Rating: 4

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bang Bang You're Dead

Title: Bang Bang You're Dead

Year of Release: 2002

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Date Viewed: June 6th, 2010

Almost exactly a year ago, I was enrolled in a public speaking course at my local college which is the academic equivalent of getting a root canal. For one assignment, we were instructed to present a ten-minute speech in a persuasive style. Meaning that we had to convince our audience (the other classmates) that our viewpoint on an issue was correct. I chose to rally behind a workers union for professional wrestlers. Perhaps I will present a variation of that speech for a future post. Another classmate called attention to violence in schools and demanded that more care be taken from parents and faculty members to prevent further conflicts. As a companion to her speech, she also issued everyone a copy of an obscure film that I had never before heard of: Bang Bang You're Dead. She claimed that this movie represented a realistic portrayal of what some students can go through and why they often do not find the help they need.

After a year of having this disc in my possession, I finally gave it a watch this past Sunday night. When it finished, I felt very sad for two different reasons. Reason 1, the movie was too important to not get a wider release. Reason 2, I never saw this classmate again and did not have a chance to thank her for introducing this gem to me.

Bang Bang You're Dead first premiered on premium cable television. The majority of the film is seen through the eyes of Trevor (Ben Foster), an average high school student save for the fact that he threatened to bomb his school and its football team in the previous year. This would be enough to earn most folks a permanent expulsion from school, but he is miraculously given another chance to stay thanks to his counselors and his film teacher (Tom Cavanagh) who campaign for his reinstatement. Fortunately, this is really the only time that the movie asks us to suspend our disbelief.

Throughout the movie, Trevor interacts with what I like to call "believable stereotypes", the best thing the movie has going for itself. We have seen these characters before, but rarely do we see them as realistically portrayed as in Bang Bang You're Dead. There are the jocks; gifted athletes that abuse their natural strength to stir fear into the hearts of those less fortunate. There are the troggs; outcasts that wear dark clothing and never stray too far from their comrades. The neglecting parents; those that care for their son/daughter but cannot relate to how his/her mind works. And then there's the kind-hearted teacher; the character type first made famous by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society but is perfected here by Tom Cavanagh's performance.

Trevor's threat to detonate his problems away were the result of a war between his gang of troggs against their jock enemies. Everyone knows he was behind it and his fellow classmates constantly refer to him as "the terrorist."

What his peers don't know about Trevor is that he has a fondness for filming anything and everything using his trusty hidden portable camera. His footage will later prove to be critically important in advancing the plot forward and allowing the audience to fully sympathize with this troubled teenager. Trevor captures footage of the jocks stuffing people (including himself) into trash cans, lockers and even urinals while they also using derogatory slurs to insult their victims. All the while, none of the school's faculty seem to have any awareness of these happenings.

While Trevor continues to suffer through psychological torture, his film and drama instructor Mr. Duncan tries to get a new project off the ground; a new stage play he's written titled Bang Bang You're Dead. The play is aimed toward teenagers and its goal is to explore what goes through the minds of the attackers and victims in an environment where bullying drives someone to murder. Aware of his history, Mr. Duncan offers the lead role to Trevor. He feels that Trevor would play the part well and hopes it may also serve as a healing process to bring closure to the events of last year.

The play seems to be of little help to Trevor who is still hanging out with the wrong crowd. He soon considers settling the score once and for all....

I was impressed with how authentic the stage play scenes were. The style was perfectly simple and the acting was very much like what you would see in typical high school productions. Then I found out that the blocking and dialogue was taken directly from a real stage play first performed in 1999. Much like how it is seen in the movie, the play was received with criticism from outraged parents that didn't understand its purpose. Footage of the original performance can be seen during the end credits.

No doubt many viewers will be shocked at the behavior demonstrated by the antagonists. Are today's schools really like this? They certainly can be. The movie rightly points out how much conflict can occur when the proper authorities are not looking in the right direction. Viewers will be further shocked to discover that the movie blurs the antagonist line brilliantly. It is not a good guys versus bad guys story. With the possible exception of Mr. Duncan, all characters are flawed and are not given the proper guidance to enrich their lives. This environment is not uncommon and that's the message this film tries to get across.

The film is not without its flaws however. The psychological torture montages are well executed, but since a great deal of it is seen through Trevor's camera, it made me wonder why he didn't present this evidence to the appropriate party sooner. He was obviously hurting. So why did he have to keep it to himself and use it as a last will testament. I suppose an argument could be made that he wanted people to feel sorry for him, but I don't see how anyone could not feel sorry for him when that footage is viewed at ANY setting.

I was also annoyed at the recurring jabs toward violent videogames, though to be fair that could be the fault of the stage source material. At one point, Trevor's stage character said he didn't think much of killing because he thought it was like a videogame. Games have often been the target of critics when linking violent behavior to the suspects' pastimes. The only way for a game to influence your perspective of reality is if you were still learning the concept of reality or were already mentally disturbed to begin with. Blaming a "children's toy" is the easy way out of accepting your own negligence.

Bang Bang You're Dead's strengths easily allow you to forget its faults. It's a violent wake-up call and one that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

To find out if you can fully relate to Trevor, consider this paraphrased dialogue that sums up his whole character.

"Have you ever felt the kind of depression where you feel like you've got nothing to lose and you don't care if you live or die? Well, I have."

Rating: 8

Friday, June 4, 2010

Off-Topic Commentary: Armando Galarraga

For whatever reason, I have been on a baseball addiction lately. No doubt it's just another phase. Sports always come in phases for me. In elementary school, I watched baseball to see superhumans knock home runs out of the park. In junior high school, I couldn't get enough basketball. Watching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant tear up the court in between renditions of that catchy NBA on NBC theme was my ideal weekend. In high school, I sat in awe watching professional tennis players hitting drop shots with such grace that no one in my backyard courts could come close to imitating. Now that I'm in college, it's back to baseball again. Go figure.

Detroit is a big-time sports town. The fans here in Michigan have always shown high enthusiasm for our home teams and also demonstrate wide knowledge and passion for their favorite sports. While we haven't always been blessed with winning seasons, (I'm looking at you, Lions.) every pro and college sporting event I've attended are always filled with fans who scream their hearts out as if their heroes are always in grasp of championship honors. It's a special kind of pride.

But the biggest fans can also have the biggest tempers. If something doesn't go their way, things often become ugly. On Wednesday June 2nd, an event happened at Comerica Park that fans in attendance and fans watching at home will never forget. And if it wasn't for the actions of a certain individual, it could have also turned into one of the ugliest messes that Comerica Park has ever seen.

I wasn't watching when it happened. I was at a bar with friends when my father sent me a text message informing me of the final result of the second game of the Detroit Tigers vs. Cleveland Indians series. He knew that I tried to watch as many games as possible so it soon became a habit to keep me updated on things as they occur. Here is what I read:

Tigers won 3-1 galla got rob of a no hitter by a bad call from the ump all the tigers were screaming at him

It took a few moments to sink in. He was referring to one of the Tigers' starting pitchers; Armando Galarraga. Until June 2nd, Galarraga hadn't proved himself as anything more than a talented athlete that only produced decent results. On this day, he was having the game of his career. He found himself at the top of the ninth inning without walking any batters or allowing any hits. The rabid Detroit fans were growing excited and nervous as they knew they were very close to witnessing history. If he succeeded in getting just three more outs, Galarraga would become only the twenty-second pitcher in MLB history and the first Detroit Tiger to achieve a perfect game.

The first batter of the inning hit a long ball to left-center field. It appeared certain that the ball would sail over the fielders' heads and allow the runner to cover at least one base. Knowing what was at stake, center fielder Austin Jackson hustled over to the drop point and just barely made the catch. Thunderous applause from the crowd and a sigh of relief from Galarraga.

The second batter grounded out to the shortstop. Easy play.

Then came the third batter. He hit a chopper towards the gap in first and second base. First baseman Miguel Cabrera leaves his position to go after the bouncing ball. Galarraga runs over to the base to make the catch. The batter runs his arse off to beat the throw. Cabrera makes the historic throw to Galarraga who catches it on base just a split second before the batter reaches it.

First base umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe.

The fans and both teams stood in shock and disbelief.

In a span of approximately five seconds after the call was made, Galarraga smiled in triumpth, then his jaw dropped, then he smiled again. It wasn't an evil smile. It wasn't a sarcastic smile. It was a smile that translated "Wow. That was close. Can you believe it? Oh well. Still one more out to go."

The next batter grounded out. The game was over.

Galarraga did not say a word to Joyce or even approach him after the call was made. His teammates did that for him. Every one of them got in Joyce's face; most notably Miguel Cabrera, catcher Gerald Laird and manager Jim Leyland. Joyce ignored all of their protests and left the park to a round of cussing and boos. Galarraga left to a huge ovation and was still smiling.

Fans at home saw the replay of the moment that will live in infamy. The runner clearly did not beat the throw. Jim Joyce made the wrong call and cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game and a place in the record books.

The bar I was located at had several televisions all broadcasting different local sports channels (i.e. Fox Sports Seattle, Milwaukee, etc.). Just minutes after I had received the text message, footage of the infamous call began to appear on all the networks along with each city's featured TV journalists discussing and debating the issue. It was the talk of the sports world.

The next morning, I read the local press to learn the aftermath of last night's drama. Jim Joyce saw the replay and admitted that he had made a mistake. He did not make excuses either. He insisted that his point-of-view was perfect. He just missed the call.

Meanwhile, sports talk show hosts criticized the MLB and its commissioner Bud Selig for their refusal to implement instant replays as an option to challenge questionable calls. They insisted that the situation could have been easily avoided and the majority believed Selig should use his authority to reverse the fateful decision and award Galarraga his perfect game.

Speaking of which...where was Galarraga during all this chaos? Still smiling evidently. He knew in his heart that he had pitched a perfect game and that was enough for him. In fact, he seemed more concerned about the animosity Jim Joyce would face rather than whether or not the call would be reversed.

Jim Joyce had a reputation for being among the best major league umpires. He made very few bad calls and countless good (and even great) calls. Unfortunately for Joyce, the good calls are almost always taken for granted. Armando Galarraga understood this better than anyone. When questioned if he had ever talked to Joyce after the game, Galarraga said he had given him a hug.

"Nobody's perfect," he said.

Considering what was at stake, Galarraga had every right to hold contempt for Joyce. His quick forgiveness and good nature regarding the situation seemed to trigger a ripple effect among fans and peers. Gerald Laird admitted that his actions were out of line and were driven by motivation to give his teammate his due credit. Jim Leyland went on record to praise Joyce as a great umpire and expressed hope that the fans will show proper respect to him, less than twelve hours after screaming in his face.

Leyland got his wish. The next afternoon following the incident, the Tigers were scheduled to finish off the series with the Indians. Joyce (who decided to work even after he was offered the day off) and his fellow umpires took to the field accompanied by polite applause. There were boos too, of course. But they were not nearly as loud as you'd expect from a Detroit crowd. Galarraga was given the duty of delivering the lineup card to Joyce where the two had another chance to embrace, this time in public. A teary-eyed Joyce put on his face mask and got ready for work. Galarraga went back to the dugout still smiling. Miguel Cabrera and Gerald Laird also made sure to give Joyce a pat on the back.

The Tigers performed exceptionally well and won the game 12-6.

A fan sign at Comerica Park read: "Congrats Armando for the first twenty-eight out perfect game."

They say that time heals all wounds. In my lifetime, I had never seen a wound this big get bandaged up and cured so quickly. You can argue that the situation isn't really cured and that the MLB still has to answer for their blunders but you would be missing the point. In the grand scheme of things, Galarraga's denial into the MLB book of records was really not that big of a deal. Throughout all this drama, he had his heart in the right place even in the heat of the moment where Comerica Park fell silent.

Galarraga handled the situation as perfect as anyone can ask for, which in my opinion is far more important than any perfect game of baseball.

Rating for Armando Galarraga: 10

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Iron Man 2

Title: Iron Man 2

Year of Release: 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Date Viewed: May 26th, 2010

Tony Stark is back and this time he has a larger number of friends and enemies to trade sarcastic quips with. Robert Downey Jr. reprises the title role and delivers another solid performance in a franchise that is still teetering on the edge of greatness and mediocrity.

The previous film ended on a refreshing note where the entire world learns of Stark's true identity as Iron Man. It's a bold break from tradition where the hero must stay under the radar and keep his identity a secret just long enough to save the world. How does this new burden affect Stark's ego? It doesn't. He's as cocky as ever and not even the U.S. army can intimidate him into sharing his heavy-duty armor creations with them. In his own words, he has successfully privatized national defense

But we soon learn that his behavior is just a mask to disguise his true inner turmoil. The special chemistry element that saved Stark's life is now slowly destroying him. He must find a new element or die trying.

To make matters worse, a menace arrives in the form of Ivan Vanko, (Mickey Rourke) a Russian weapons specialist and bird lover that creates an arc reactor of his own. He targets Stark at a public event and causes fear and destruction, resulting in fueling the Army's determination to acquire the resources.

To make matters even more worse, Vanko aligns himself with Stark's rival industrial hotshot Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell as quite possibly the only man more conceited than Stark) to form a dangerous alliance of corruption and destruction. (Hey, that sounds like a great name for a pro wrestling tag team.)

Fortunately, Stark has some old and new friends onboard for the challenge. Gwyneth Paltrow reprises her role as Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Colonel James Rhodes, a role that deserves far more character development than what is given. Rounding out the good guys list is Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Scarlet Johannsson as new assistant and undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natalie. If this sounds like a lot of characters, that's because it is. And the film suffers a bit from that type of overload.

Luckily, we have plenty of action scenes to take our mind off that. In fact, the action is much improved over the previous film; offering elaborate brawls to simple brawls to an all-out weapons fest with jaw-dropping visuals. If the Iron Man films were siblings, Iron Man 2 would be the younger more hyperactive one. Aside from some dragging moments within subplots, the action is mainly consistent and should provide enough fun to keep the comic book fans smiling after they leave the theater.

Along with the action, the casting provides the main strengths to this style-over-substance offering. Downey Jr. doesn't miss a beat with his performance. Johannsson provides some nice eye candy and Rourke is surprisingly intimidating in a role that is normally reserved for clumsy big guys.

On the negative side; despite a lot going on, the film feels incomplete. I realize that they're trying to set up for the inevitable Iron Man 3, but a movie should be able to stand on its own in case an unforeseen event should happen that affects production. Some characters and subplots were nearly forgotten by the conclusion. One particular subplot involving Tony Stark's father as the key to his son's survival seemed a bit too convenient; a rushed plot device used to pretend that the film has more depth than is actually there. And must we be reminded every ten seconds that there is a human inside the Iron Man costume? It's annoying to see those cut-away close-ups of Downey and Cheadle during the most exciting scenes. Part of the fun that comes with a superhero film is watching the human disappear while the superhero takes over. It's denied here.

Speaking as a movie fan and not as a comic book fan, a great Iron Man film has yet to be made. What exists are two good films that know their audience and deliver on what they pay for. I guess that's all you can really ask for. Iron Man 2 is recommended for the fans as a worthy follow-up. For those who still haven't boarded the train, you may want to rent a car instead.

Rating: 7