Saturday, May 24, 2008

Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Year: 2008
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia Labeouf, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt

If you grew up in the 80s, chances are you know the name Indiana Jones. He's like the godfather of adventure films. Indy is the well known part time teacher, part time archaeologist who would risk life and limb to save an artifact. The famed creation of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg has spawned three films, all of which are pretty damn good in my view. And now, like Rambo before him, Indy has been resurrected.

In the previous three films, the time setting is in the 1930s, during World War II. To address the passage of time, it's 1957 in this current film, during the Cold War era, the birth of the nuclear bomb and the paranoia of communism. The story begins with a group of Russian soldiers led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) breaking into Area 51 (yeah, no kidding) in order to steal a mysterious magnetic box, with the reluctant help of our good Dr Jones no less. Jones eventually leads them to the box, and then escapes their clutches despite being betrayed by his comrade Mac (Ray Winstone).

However, the Russians succeed in stealing the box, causing the FBI to blame Indy for the mishap and investigate him. Indy loses his job at the university, and just as he is about to travel elsewhere to start again, he runs into a young man by the name of Mutt Williams (Shia Labeouf). Mutt asks Indy for his help in saving his mother as well as an old friend of Indy's, Dr Oxley (John Hurt). Apparently, Oxley has made a startling discovery about a mystical crystal skull, something which the Russians are after. Indy and Mutt travel to South America to follow the clues and save Ox and Mutt's mother, who Indy discovers later on to be his old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).

The question on everyone's mind is of course, can this film deliver just as the previous films did? Well, yes and no. Yes, it's nice to see Spielberg, Lucas and Harrison Ford as Indy team up once more to bring us more chills and spills. And for the record, Ford can still do this. He looks older, no doubt, but he can still punch, whip, ride and fight with the best of them. It's his defining role, and he can't miss. Spielberg delivers the action well enough, throwing in a nuclear explosion, an exhilarating jeep ride through the jungle, ancient Mayans, giant ants and a quicksand sequence that is downright hilarious. Spielberg, noting the ageing action hero in Ford, lets the young successor Labeouf take part in a fencing duel with Blanchett perched atop two jeeps side by side. Good stuff.

But then, the story has to matter too, and this is where Lucas fails somewhat. Of all the things he decides to bring to Indy 4, he settles on...aliens! Hmm, did Area 51 exist that far back? Well, who knows? But putting Indy on a wild alien chase takes some getting used to. And Labeouf swinging on vines in the jungle? Please. That one looked out of place, as does the final matrimonial scene, I hope I didn't spoil it for you there.

Performance wise, other than Ford, it's all average to slightly above average at best. Winstone is stuck with yet another role that could have been left out of the story altogether. Poor guy, he will probably only be remembered for playing an animated character for his work in the past one year, and that one I didn't even bother to watch. Blanchett sports the worst haircut since Javier Bardem's in No Country For Old Men, which makes her look more like a comicbook character than a striking villain. Where's Monaram when you need him? Karen Allen, who looks like she's aged more than Ford since Raiders Of The Lost Ark, isn't too shabby reprising her role, while Labeouf is spot on as the rebellious Mutt. You can sense that he's gonna be the next action hero for this franchise, if they decide to continue.

I do like the various homages to the previous films: a picture and subsequent mention of Sean Connery and Denholm Elliot, who were both in The Last Crusade, a brief glimpse of the Ark from Raiders and Indy's fear of snakes revisited. Oh, and Karen Allen of course. But I still find it hard to put as much faith as I did in the previous three films in this one. Even the humour in Crystal Skull seems forced, and it misses more than it hits the mark.

It's a honorable try, but if you want a real Indy adventure, pick up The Last Crusade. It's my favourite, and it will always be. (3.5/5)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

Year: 2008
Director: Rob Minkoff
Cast: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bingbing

By now I'm sure everyone is all hyped up about the pairing of Asia's top two kungfu stars, Jackie Chan and Jet Li in this film. The two actors have wanted to star in a film together for a long time, and now this is the result. Does it live up to the promise?

Well, this being a Hollywood effort, how much hope can you put into this movie? As good as the Hollywood movie making machine is, it's never good enough in delivering a 100% solid film for either Chan or Li. Chinese actors tend to get stereotyped when given roles in Hollywood. Anyway, lets get to the review.

The Forbidden Kingdom revolves around a magic staff owned by the great Monkey King, who is imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord. The story begins in present day Boston, where a young boy named Jason spends his time watching old kungfu flicks on DVD, which he purchases from an elderly Chinese store proprietor. One night, after being coerced by the town bullies, Jason lets them into the old man's store. Trouble ensues and the old man is shot. The old man hands a mysterious staff (yeah, THE magic staff) to Jason and asks him to return it to its owner. Jason runs and before he knows it, he lands himself in ancient China!

Once there, he finds himself being pursued by the Jade Warlord's army. The warlord wants the staff for himself, of course. Jason then gets rescued by drunken master Lu Yan, and then later by a pretty girl called Golden Sparrow, who's skilful with throwing darts and knives. Later the trio run into a mysterious Silent Monk, who is interested in returning the staff as well. Jason sure is fortunate to have all of them to help him on his journey, but the tough part comes when he has to learn how to fight for himself. To this end, our two kungfu masters spare no leniency in training him. Meanwhile the Jade Warlord sends his top assassin, Ni Chang (modeled after the Bride With White Hair) to retrieve the staff.

Director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) and writer John Fusco (Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron) have made this film with obvious references to Chinese tales such as Journey To The West and The Bride With White Hair. The story that they have come up with is pretty much standard fare. A young boy who has yet to find himself, goes through many trials, half of which are comedic, to discover his destiny. Sounds like Karate Kid and Sky High, the latter film also starring Michael Angarano. Direction and storywise, it's not too bad. It lacks originality for sure, and the dialogue is very cheesy. But it works mainly due to the great action and fight scenes choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo Ping.

Chan and Li both do double duty here, Chan as the old man from the store and Lu Yan, Li as the monk and the Monkey King. For the fight scenes, it's no surprise that these two have no equal. They make all their fights look real and superb, and the long awaited sparring scene between them doesn't disappoint as well. It is about 8-10 minutes long, and as exciting as it is to watch, you can't help but feel that it's there just to please the fans, and not to move the story along. But I have to say that Li needs more English lessons, unfortunately.

Angarano is playing almost the same kid he played in Sky High, but he does a decent job. Collin Chou is rather disappointing as the villain, very stereotyped, and his English is even worse than Li's. Liu Yifei is easy on the eye as Golden Sparrow, while Li Bingbing is quite wooden as Ni Chang. Oh, we were talking about English here. Why do the characters speak English in China? Weird. There are scenes when some of them speak Mandarin, these should have been expanded, it would have made more sense.

At the end of the day, it's a nice adventure film that the whole family can enjoy and relate to. Everyone loves the ongoing battle between good and evil. But I do hope that the next time Chan and Li work together, it can be something more meaty and worthwhile. This is an effort that you can't take too seriously or you won't enjoy it.

Fans of Chan and Li will watch it, but they won't call it their favourite. It's an average film, at best. (3.5/5)

Friday, May 02, 2008

Iron Man

Year: 2008
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow

This is officially FF's 100th review, and what better film to win this honour than the film that starts 2008's blockbuster season, Iron Man. It's based on the Marvel comicbook of the same name, following in the footsteps of many other Marvel film adaptations such as Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four.

However, unlike the latter three, Iron Man is more on the life of its alter-ego Tony Stark, than the superhero character itself. Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is a billionaire cum playboy cum inventor of weapons for the military, and chief of his own company, Stark Industries. One day, after a demonstration of his latest weapon for the US military in Afghanistan, his convoy is ambushed by Afghan insurgents. Stark is seriously wounded and held captive.

The insurgents force Stark to build them the same missiles he just showed his military. They give him an assistant, a scientist named Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who also happens to be the man that finds a way to keep Stark alive despite his injuries. Stark agrees to their demands, but instead builds a metal suit to help him escape captivity. He dons the suit (which is heavy and clunky, but packs a mean punch) and breaks out in spectacular fashion.

Upon his return, he makes a prompt decision to stop building weapons, much to the chagrin of his chief advisor in Stark Industries, Obadiah Stane (Bridges). Stark is influenced by the fact that the enemy used his own inventions against him when they captured him, as well as against innocent people and intends to make up for it. He decides to rebuild the metal suit and improve on it, as part of his personal project. Despite lack of support from his best friend Colonel Jim Rhodes (Howard) and personal assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow), who fears for his life, Stark soldiers on with his plans. The end result is an impressive suit that has enough firepower and calibre to take down any enemy. However Stark faces betrayal from within that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

Director Jon Favreau, who is also a writer and actor, turns in excellent work for his film about the armored avenger. What Favreau presents to us is a film that doesn't dwell on the superhero theme, and yet makes it very exciting, imaginative and well grounded all at once. Compared to other Marvel adaptations like Spider-Man and Ang Lee's Hulk that take themselves too seriously, or Elektra and Ghost Rider that end up being over-the-top, Iron Man comes across as charming and witty, with enough action to please the adrenaline junkies, and still leave enough room for drama.

Downey Jr is probably tailor made for the role of Tony Stark. He gives Stark plenty of spontaneity, humour and charm, making him instantly likeable. Stark is supposed to be a vulnerable character deep down, who struggles with his demons and guilt, and in the scenes where the script calls for its revelation, Downey Jr doesn't disappoint in bringing them forth. He's ably supported by Howard and Bridges, whose characters are not just there to fill the screen, but to be intelligent and relative to the plot. Bridges in particular fleshes out his character Stane very well indeed. If you're an Iron Man fan, you'd know how Stane plays into all this in the end. Paltrow, whom I consider to be quite annoying (I'm no fan of hers) does surprisingly well also as Stark's loyal assistant Pepper.

What's worth mentioning also is the visual effects courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, who do a tremendous job with the battle scenes and scenes involving Stark in the Iron Man suit. I dare say it's a lot more fluid than the Spidey visual effects, and more believable too.

I'll admit that there were some lines uttered in the film's climax that sound too cheesy, but overall I had a fantastic time watching Iron Man. Marvel will surely be able to build a steady franchise from this character. Recommended. (4.5/5)


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