The Einstein of Mindless Action

2005 11/18

A review of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. (It’s badass.)

Robert Downey Jr. is a Pimp.  Not literally.A good movie review always starts with a really lame play on words involving the title. I am the king of really lame plays on words. Here’s mine for today: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang kicks-kicks ass-ass. Hearty laugh. Move along. Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer star, Shane Black writes and directs.

Shane Black created the action film as it exists today. You may not consider that much of an achievement, but, just like every other genre, action movies can be done really well and really, really poorly. Shane Black has always been a writer who did action movies really well. Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight are all films written by Black. They feature clever dialogue, creative action and inconsistent direction.

Lethal Weapon, if you recall, is the movie that invented a lot of what are now action clichés. Watching it again it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t unoriginal, it was THE original. It sets up many of today’s most frequent action mechanisms: One black cop, one white cop, (an unlikely duo) are forced by events beyond their control to investigate a case together. Soon they’ve uncovered a vast and explosive conspiracy that threatens the very fabric of… whatever. Although they don’t always get along, they have snappy conversations and earn each other’s respect. Soon enough there’s a huge fight scene, good guy kills the bad guy, gets the girl, gravy.

I’ll be the first to criticize formulaic filmmaking like Steven Sommers and Steven Spielberg (The evil Stevens. The good ones are Soderbergh and McQueen), but Mr. Black always mixes things up. Through Robert Downey Jr.’s movie conscious narration, Black pokes fun at the conventions of the action movie, several of which he created. In one scene Robert Downey Jr. and his main love interest in the film, Michelle Monaghan, are reminiscing about a set of old Dashiell Hammett-like novels that recur throughout the film. They just happen to mention that at the end of each novel the hero is always tortured and then kills like sixteen guys. Of course as Kiss Kiss develops, this is exactly what Downey Jr. is forced to do.

In addition to the customary witty banter between Val Kilmer and Downey Jr, Mr. Black employs a new dimension-Black Humor. An instant classic is the scene in which Downey Jr’s character accidentally pisses on a corpse and then is forced to explain himself. Also new to the Shane Black experience is a small budget. When Lethal Weapon hit in ’87 the Hollywood establishment was so impressed that Shane Black has been pretty prohibitively expensive ever since. So any movie that could afford “The Shane Black” was a huge budget movie. This time around, with Black directing, it’s a more intimate affair. More dialogue, less explosions.

This is destined to be a forgotten classic. It’s worth a little extra work to find.

Originally written under the name Bob Genghis Khan for The Outlet.
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Fake Slackers Have Fun with Movie

2005 08/12

A review of Wedding Crashers. (It’s good.)

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play the titular roles.Wedding Crashers features funny-men Owen Wilson (co-writer of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore) and Vince Vaughn (whatever) as two adorable, but directionless slackers who specialize in picking up women at weddings. Recruited to crash one last wedding before the season ends, both find women who are more than a fling and learn a valuable lesson about life. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are completely unleashed on what would be an average comedy, chewing up the scenery, the script and everything else in sight.

Through all my experience in the film distribution business (working at a videostore) I’ve learned to deal in genres. I love the over simplification and generalizations that occur, and the formulaic nature of Hollywood certainly lends itself to this form of description. Wedding Crashers is a comedy. But sometimes normal genre descriptions are not enough. For instance, there are a number of different kinds of comedy. There are comedies that aren’t funny, yet don’t seem to belong in the drama section, and there are light dramas with funny moments that are mistakenly categorized as comedies. There are mockumentaries, satires, children’s humor, unintentionally funny movies, and more. Of this brand of more obsessive compulsive genrification, Wedding Crashers is a “fake slacker comedy” and a “gosh, aren’t movies fun movie”.

The fake slacker comedy: This is one of my favorite kinds of movies. Here characters purported to be ne’er do wells provide giggles through their hilarious hi-jinx, which, though colorful, do not technically represent “slackery” (Slackage? Slackhood? I like slackery) because they are clearly the result of hard work. Wedding Crashers falls victim to this phenomenon. Not only do Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson meticulously research the weddings they crash, but both men are so charismatic there is little reason that either of these characters actually needs to crash weddings to pick up women. This renders the actual slacking activity extraneous.

The gosh, aren’t movies fun movie: One of the things people often say about Jackie Chan movies is that the outtakes are the best part. That is because of this phenomenon. You see, a movie doesn’t actually have to be funny to make you laugh if the people making it look like they’re having fun. This makes you WANT to laugh. If you want to, you will, whether it’s actually funny or not. The idea that movies are fun to make is the last great Hollywood lie. Movies are excruciatingly difficult 14-18 hour a day affairs 6-7 days a week for several months straight. And yet people love to believe that their favorite Hollywood stars have a ball everyday at work. And it’s in this aspect that Wedding Crashers excels. The genuine laughs are magnified by this effect.

Wedding Crashers falls into these categories, but make no mistake, it’s very enjoyable. The twists all come where you expect them to, and it has the requisite scenes of Owen Wilson walking around heart-broken while sad music plays. But hey, you see comedies for the plots like you see mysteries for the jokes. Enjoy.

Originally written under the name Bob Genghis Khan for The Outlet.
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The Candyman Can’t

2005 07/28

A review of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (It’s bad.)

Johnny Depp’s Willie Wonka meets Michael JacksonThere are several schools of thought on the art of the remake. First there is the “respect for the classic” school. Here the filmmaker wishes to show the die hard fans how much he loves the original and thus goes out of his way to create a faithful rendition. Perhaps the worst remake of all time in this respect was Gus Van Zant’s “Psycho”, a shot by shot duplication of Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film. However watching the classic as performed by Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn is ultimately entirely useless.

Second is the need for originality. Remakes that have had the most success seem to do so by moving in the opposite direction from the original. Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” and F. Gary Gray’s “Italian Job” both virtually ignore their predecessors. By this method, a film can at least succeed or fail based on its own merits, without constant comparison to the original. This approach renders the original and the remake irrelevant to each other.

Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” attempts to find some middle ground. Burton unsurprisingly revamps the visual look of the film, creating another oppressive and twisted yet beautiful looking world, while preserving the subversive feel of the original. However the original’s lollipop land look combined with its satirical content to create a deceptively dark tone. As with many of his films, Burton’s dark look belies a deceptively light and kid friendly tone.

The most obvious difference is that of the title. It is ironic that Tim Burton chose to re-invoke the original title of Roald Dahl’s novel, considering his new version focuses most on the character of Willy Wonka, while, Mel Stuart’s “Willy Wonka” focuses most on Charlie. You may recall the turning point in the original when Charlie returns Wonka’s everlasting gobstopper, proving himself pure of heart, and atoning for his earlier mistakes. You may miss this plotline from the new film. Instead, Burton focuses on the origins and familial troubles of Willy Wonka himself.

Another major departure is Mr. Wonka himself, the reclusive genius who runs Wonka Enterprises with an iron fist. Here Tim Burton and Johnny Depp made a conscious effort to be different. The beloved performance Gene Wilder delivered was dapper, smooth, and rather well adjusted for a recluse. Not surprisingly Johnny Depp delivers a gem of a performance to match, playing the character as rude and eccentric, meanwhile looking like a glammed-up Michael Jackson (the scary version).

The film really runs into a rocky area musically. The numbers by the Oompa Loompas, which are particularly forgettable, come across as tacked on. The original film had musical numbers through out, including the memorable “Candy Man”. In “Charlie” the interludes feel so extraneous that they take away from the forward motion of the film.

Overall Tim Burton delivers a serviceable but not great adaptation of a movie that did not need to be remade. The experience is enjoyable mostly due to Johnny Depp’s brilliance and partly for love of the classic.

Originally written under the name Bob Genghis Khan for The Outlet.Charlie and the Chocolate Factory thumb

The Gray Side of the Force

2005 06/30

A review of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. (It’s good.)

Revenge of the Sick, Dude.  It’s pretty sweet.When George Lucas first sat down and wrote the script for Star Wars: A New Hope, he had in mind some of his favorite childhood science fiction serials. The idea was to use modern technology to create a new space opera like the classic Buck Rogers episodes he loved as a kid. So he set about creating the most complex web of characters, weirdest alien species, the most extreme plot twists and religious overtones he could possibly think of. By the time he finished there was enough story to fit 3 films.

And he never had too many ideas again.

And he never had too many ideas again.

After the success of Star Wars, the utter pop culture sensation it became, he tried it again. This time he traded science fiction for adventure and the Indiana Jones trilogy was soon born.

These series were successful, not because they targeted children, the appeal seemed universal at the time, but because they contained children’s sensibilities. The naïve beliefs cherished by the young — good is good and bad is bad — were the laws of Lucas’ mythical universes. When children watch these films, they find a world that makes sense to them. When adults watch these films they are transfixed by powerful nostalgia. Like a child, Lucas saw the universe in black and white; the dark side and the light. This simplicity was his greatest strength. Complexity, “the gray side of the force,” has become his greatest weakness.

During the making of Episodes I and II Lucas was courted by the gray side. In these films, Lucas revealed a world where the cosmic heroes known as the Jedi Knights worked for a largely corrupt and ineffective bureaucracy; where mothers had to make complicated decisions and give up their children; where planetary wars were fought based on financial interests; where a vast conspiracy controlled both sides of every conflict. Without the easy drama of pure right and wrong, George Lucas inept. The gray side, though mature, was too complicated for any sensationalist “universe-in-the-balance” light saber duels. And aside from its cartoonish special effects these films offered little in the way of actual entertainment.

Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker/Darth VaderIn Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Lucas returns from the gray side. In the new film, Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker is transformed by the Evil Chancellor Palpatine into a snarling, baby-killing enforcer. Though his skills as an actor (the critical death of Episode II) have not improved, Skywalker is no longer the hero — he’s the villain. The good news is it’s very easy to hate a villain, even one played poorly. This time around, Ewan McGregor assumes the hero’s mantle and has the necessary acting chops to match. Even Lucas’ direction seems invigorated by the return to form, delivering his most visceral film to date. Decapitation, mutilation and general excessive violence spell good action sequences where, yes, the universe again hangs in the balance.

In short, Episode III is so good it reminds you why you liked Star Wars in the first place. Movie goers turned off by the last two installments can return with confidence.

Originally written under the name Bob Genghis Khan for The Outlet.