Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie

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The Fate of the Furious


Why so angry>

(2017) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Luke Evans, Elsa Pataky, Helen Mirren, Scott Eastwood, Kristofer Hivju,, Patrick St. Esprit, Janmarco Santiago, Luke Hawx, Corey Maher, Olek Krupa, Alexander  Babara, Eden Estrella. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

There was a big question mark hanging over the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise; with co-star Paul Walker gone, could the series continue to reach the heights it achieved with Furious 7? Well, in terms of box office and spectacle, the answer turned out to be yes. But does it hold up with the best of the films in the franchise?

Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is on his honeymoon with his girl Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, doing what most new husbands do on their honeymoon; get involved in a street race. He is also approached by Cypher (Theron), a world class hacker who has something on Dom but we’re not sure what. His wolfish smile, which looks for all the world like he’s displaying his fangs, turns into a world class scowl – see picture above.

During the next mission with his crew, Dom betrays them leaving Hobbs (Johnson) holding the bag, Cypher holding some Russian nuclear codes and the team unable to believe that Dom would turn on them. The world thinks Dom has gone Rogue but Mr. Nobody (Russell) thinks differently, even after Dom and Cypher attack their headquarters in New York City. Dom flees and Cypher uses her special skills to take control over every computer-enabled car in Manhattan, raining down cars on the team like a really bad hailstorm.

Cypher is after a Russian nuclear sub and with her launch codes could hold the world hostage for a tidy amount of cash but Letty, Mr. Nobody and the until-recently-incarcerated Hobbs have other plans, and they’re going to get some reinforcements of the most unexpected kind. Friend and foe will unite to take on this deadly femme fatale.

Now, I’m not going to beat around the bush; the action sequences are absolutely outstanding. The New York sequence is right there as is the climactic scene in which Dom’s crew chase down the submarine over ice – don’t even ask for sense here. Nothing here makes any. What we have is just cars going fast, things going boom and attractive guys and gals at the wheels of cars we couldn’t possibly afford. What better fantasy is there for a red-blooded American?

I think that the instructions here were to go big and Gray as well as screenwriter Chris Morgan may have taken it too much to heart. This is more in the James Bond territory now than what was once a simple underground street racing movie featuring a bunch of LA guys in wife beaters driving some cool midlife crisis compensators. There are gadgets, CGI and not a whole lot of character development which may be because there are way too many characters here. Too many to keep track of, anyway.

I wasn’t a fan of this franchise initially but starting with the fourth installment I began to get into it. Unfortunately, this is a giant step backwards and while it’s billion dollar worldwide box office guarantees an ninth episode (there will also be a tenth which has already been dated by Universal), I’m not looking forward to it with quite the anticipation of the previous few installments.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are great. You can’t go wrong with a heavyweight cast like this one.
REASONS TO STAY: This is the weakest entry in the franchise since Tokyo Drift. There are too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of violence and action, some sensuality and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were rumors that Diesel and Johnson were having some personal difficulties with one another; after Johnson posted his frustrations online, the two met privately and resolved their differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Need for Speed
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Cyclotron

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


The empire strikes first.

The empire strikes first.

(2016) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Stephen Stanton (voice), Ian McElhinney, Fares Fares, James Earl Jones (voice), Warwick Davis, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Ingvild Della. Directed by Gareth Edwards

 

Most movies, particularly those that build entire worlds and mythologies, leave tantalizing questions. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is no different. Some of those questions were answered by the three prequel films. However, one tantalizing bit of information – how did the Rebel Alliance get the plans for the Death Star – remained unknown. Until now.

Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mikkelsen) who has been shanghaied by the Empire into building a new super-weapon – a planet killer called the Death Star. The elder Erso convinces a freighter pilot (Ahmed) to defect and carry a message to Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a former Alliance member who found the Alliance not radical enough for his taste and had holed up on the occupied moon of Jedha. When Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna) discovers this, he helps spring Jyn out of a rebel prison and takes her to the Alliance to propose that she introduce him to Gerrera, who is almost like family to her.

Jyn sees the message sent to Gerrera and realizes that her dad has left a flaw in the system, a flaw that the Rebellion can exploit to destroy the planet killer but in order to do that they’ll either have to retrieve her father from an Imperial work camp or the plans from an archive on a closely guarded tropical planet. Accompanied by the blind monk Chirrut (Yen) who believes in the Force and fights like he’s dialed into it, and his friend the gruff sharp-shooter Baze (Jiang), they go to fetch Jyn’s dad. Unfortunately, hot on their trail is Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and Governor Moff Tarkin (Henry/Cushing) along with the Emperor’s new Lord of the Sith…one Darth Vader (Jones).

This is the darkest of the Star Wars films and by a lot. In order for the story to work, the odds have to be incredibly long and the Empire has to be justifiably evil. Both of those are true and it feels more realistic; the rebels don’t sail in and save the day at the last minute. It gets messy.

Jones makes for a nifty heroine in the franchise. She’s tough, she’s clever and she has good reason to do what she does. She’s no idealist but when push comes to shove she is in this for all the right reasons. Jones is an Oscar-nominated actress who is becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business now. She’s the perfect choice to play Jyn.

The rest of the cast boasts some impressive names and more than a few familiar ones from previous episodes, mainly in cameo form (Anthony Daniels shows up for just a few lovely moments as C3PO. Tudyk provides most of the comic relief as a re-programmed imperial war droid K-2SO and Whitaker is impressive as the fanatical Gerrera who is almost all prosthetics now.

The special effects are just what you’d expect them to be; the best in the business. The climactic fight has as many moving parts to them as you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie and the environments created are realistic and yet alien all at once. You are immersed in the environments, be they an Imperial garrison, a desolate asteroid, or the re-constructed Death Star itself.

Perhaps the most impressive special effect is bringing back the late Peter Cushing, who’s been dead for 24 years, as the odious Tarkin whose foul stench Princess Leia recognized in the very first Star Wars movie. Using a motion actor (Henry) to approximate the late actor’s build, the face of Cushing is digitally projected on Henry’s body and his voice synthesized. It is actually pretty unsettling in many ways. It doesn’t exactly bring Cushing back to life but it comes closer than anything I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie won a special effects Oscar just for that.

This is a marvelous film that hits every right note. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’re likely to be quite satisfied with what you get here (and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely seen it more than once already as I have). If you’re not a fan of the franchise, chances are this won’t make you one – while it does make a fine stand-alone movie, knowledge of what happened in the first Star Wars film is extremely helpful in understanding what is going on here. The only drawback is that some fans of the series might find the tone too dark – it certainly isn’t your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be.

REASONS TO GO: This is a real change in tone from the other Star Wars films. The special effects are absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: It might be a little bit too dark for the hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action, some of it strongly violent and of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Star Wars movie not to feature the iconic scrolling text at the beginning of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge on the River Kwai
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro

Keeping Up with the Joneses


One must keep one's focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

One must keep one’s focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

(2016) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, Yi Dong Hian, Art Shaffir, Marc Grapey, Karina Bonnefil, Darin Cooper, Angela Ray, Amy Block. Directed by Greg Mottola

 

Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, everyone knew everyone; we all were in each others’ business. Now, we barely acknowledge each other with a nod of the head. Does anyone really know who their neighbors truly are anymore?

The Gaffneys have a good life. Jeff (Galifianakis) is an HR guy at a big defense contractor. He’s basically a good guy but he hasn’t met a problem yet that he didn’t think could be solved with an aphorism and a stress ball. His wife Karen (Fisher) is an interior designer who has put her career on hold to raise her kids. The cul-de-sac in which they live in suburban Atlanta is well-to-do and close-knit. Jeff is as happy as a clam, Karen a little less so especially now that the kids are gone for the summer. Still, it feels like something is missing in their lives, something that doesn’t appear to be coming back anytime soon – a sense of excitement.

That is, until the Jones family moves in across the street. Natalie (Gadot) is super sexy and capable, absolutely excelling at everything she does; Tim (Hamm) is a travel writer, accomplished, handsome and pretty much an authority on everything. Tim and Jeff hit it off straight away, developing quite the bro-mance. Karen is a little bit more hesitant to connect with the ice-cold Natalie, although she is a little attracted to her sexuality (who isn’t?) to be honest. In fact, perfect Natalie has her a little bit suspicious.

And, it turns out, with good reason; the Joneses are spies and they have their eye on some chicanery going on at Jeff’s place of employment. It involves a mole within the company, a vicious arms dealer known only as the Scorpion and an agency that employs the Joneses who aren’t worried about collateral damage and with the Gaffneys now involved, there’s going to be a whole lot of that.

The ordinary people drawn into extraordinary espionage situations have been popular in the movies with things like True Lies and Spy among others. They act as avatars for the audience, drawn into a world of excitement, glamour and danger. Who wouldn’t want to be a superspy, suave and debonair or beautiful and deadly?

The four leads all interact well among each other, although surprisingly the best chemistry is between Hamm and Galifianakis although considering the two have been friends for awhile offscreen, it may be less surprising than at first glance. The two develop a relationship that is realistic and the kind of friendship most men want to have with other men. The ladies are sexy and made to give each other an obligatory kiss (why is it as a society we find women kissing each other far sexier than men doing it?) but given that Karen are so suspicious of Natalie to begin with whereas the more open Jeff is accepting of Tim right away that the two ladies don’t really develop a friendship as deep as the one the men forge. Perhaps that’s meant to be a commentary on the nature of interactions between women in general. Perhaps not.

The action sequences are for the most part unremarkable and mostly played for last. There is a car chase that’s reasonably cool (given that there are four people in the car that’s being chased rather than the usual two) but again, nothing new is added to the genre here. Of course, it’s not really a requirement that every action sequence has to be innovative.

This is the kind of movie that you really have to turn your brains off for and there’s no shame in that; sometimes what we’re looking for is just pure escapism. Still, you can have escapism without sacrificing story and character development and while the actors do game work here, they are ultimately betrayed by a script that doesn’t give them a whole lot of character to hang their hats on. Maybe the Agency ought to look into that.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between the leads is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: A predictable tired plot sabotages all the best intentions of the filmmakers.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of espionage action, some rude humor, scenes of sexuality and occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  One of three major studio releases in 2016 with the name “Jones’ in the title, the other two being Bridget Jones’ Baby and Free State of Jones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Cents

Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks meets the press.

Tom Hanks meets the press.

(2015) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Lucia Ryan, Wil Rogers, Nadja Bobyleva, Joe Forbrich, David Wilson Barnes, Mikhail Gorevoy, Steve Cirbus, Billy Magnussen, Noah Schnapp, Jillian Lebling. Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Cold War was in many ways, anything but. While the Soviet Union and the United States weren’t shooting at each other, that didn’t mean there weren’t casualties.

Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is a painter living in Brooklyn. The FBI thinks he’s a spy for the Soviet Union and they are following him, although he manages to evade their pursuit. He picks up a nickel on a park bench and discovers the coin has been hollowed out with a message left for him inside. However, eventually the FBI catches up with him and arrests him.

Eager to make a good impression on the world stage, rather than summarily executing the spy the government is keen on putting Abel on trial. They engage insurance lawyer James V. Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. At first Donovan wants nothing to do with it; he knows that representing an accused spy would bring him into a spotlight he doesn’t want he or his family to be in; he knows that people will hate him almost as much as they hate Abel but he truly believes that every man is entitled to a proper defense and decides that this is the least he can do to serve his country after having served it well in the Second World War.

He undertakes to defend Abel, advising him to cooperate with the U.S. Government but Abel refuses. Donovan grows to admire Abel for his loyalty to his cause, even if that cause is diametrically opposed to that of his country. Donovan endeavors to give Abel the most vigorous defense he can, knowing the judge (Matthews) in his case is predisposed to let Abel swing from the highest rope in the land. Donovan pleads with the judge to consider sparing Abel’s life, arguing that it would be a good thing to have Abel in hand just in case an American spy were to get captured, not to mention it would make America look merciful in the eyes of the world.

As it turns out, they were about to get a reason to keep Abel alive when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell), piloting a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, is shot down and contrary to his orders captured alive (his orders was to take a cyanide pill and kill himself before getting captured). The government, knowing that Powers has knowledge of their spy plane program that they don’t want the Soviets to have, discovers that the Soviets are making overtures for a prisoner swap through the East Germans and to Donovan. CIA chief Allen Dulles (McRobbie) sends Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange. However, the Berlin Wall is being built, splitting the city in two. Tensions are high and the East Germans have captured an American student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) who was studying economics there as a spy. Everyone knows that Pryor is no spy but now there is another element to the mix – and the Soviet and East German agendas might be entirely different.

Spielberg is a master storyteller and in many ways he’s the equivalent of Frank Capra. Hanks as I’ve mentioned before is the modern Jimmy Stewart and like Capra and Stewart, Spielberg and Hanks make as dynamic a director/actor pairing as we’ve seen in the last 20 years (with the exceptions maybe of Scorsese/Di Caprio and maybe Burton/Depp in that mix. This is the fifth time the two have been paired together and they’ve never made a bad movie.

And neither is this one. Hanks imbues Donovan with decency without making him cloying. Donovan’s faith in the Constitution resonates and once more, he’s absolutely right to. Donovan – and through him Spielberg and writers the Coen Brothers – preach that the Constitution is our roadmap to guide us through difficult situations; suspending it or ignoring it lessens us as a nation. Considering how fast and loose we’ve played with the Constitution in our War on Terror, the lesson has an extra importance especially now.

Rylance, who has won his share of Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, nearly steals the show from Hanks (a daunting task) by creating a man who is loyal to his nation, intelligent but also a human being, who grows to respect Donovan for his own loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. The real Rudolf Abel was a complicated man and Rylance conveys that.

The movie really is divided into two halves; the first part in which Donovan defends Abel which is essentially a courtroom drama, and the second in which Donovan goes to arrange the exchange which is more of a Cold War spy thriller. The first part actually works a little bit better than the second although it is in fact a bit drier in some ways; while I suspect the average moviegoer will like the second half better (the first can be slow-moving), it is the first where the meat of the message is delivered and has much more connection with me, at least.

For those who lived through the Cold War, the fear of nuclear holocaust was a real one you lived with every day. Duck and cover was a real thing. It looks quaint to modern eyes but it was the reality of the situation. People fully expected that World War III would be the last war – and that war would be inevitable. People in America really thought the Soviet Union was as evil as Nazi German. The Soviet citizenry probably thought much the same about America.

In some ways we haven’t grown much past those days. We still need an enemy to fear. We still lose our shit when someone outrages us. We still think the constitution should be suspended when it comes to terrorists, never realizing that once you go down that road that you can never go back – and that constitution that has guided us and protected us all these years becomes a little less shiny, a little less secure. The lessons from Bridge of Spies are extremely important in that regard; that they are presented in a well-crafted tale is icing on the cake.

REASONS TO GO: Spielberg and Hanks make a terrific pair. Rylance gives Oscar-worthy performance. Period of history brought ably to life.
REASONS TO STAY: Plods a little bit. Feels like two different movies…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some brief foul language and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed on the Glienecke Bridge near the end of the film is the exact spot where the events depicted in the scene took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Too Hip for the Room

Code Name: The Cleaner


Neither Nicolette Sheridan nor Cedric the Entertainment can believe their agents signed them up for this movie.

Neither Nicolette Sheridan nor Cedric the Entertainment can believe their agents signed them up for this movie.

(2007) Action Comedy (New Line) Cedric the Entertainer, Lucy Liu, Nicolette Sheridan, Mark Dacascos, Will Patton, Callum Keith Rennie, Niecy Nash, DeRay Davis, Kevin McNulty, Robert Clarke, Bart Anderson, Tom Butler, Beau Davis, Rick Tae, Kurt Max Runte, David Lewis, Gina Holden, Doug Chapman, Jacquie Steuart, Joanne Pesusich. Directed by Les Mayfield

I like a good spy movie as much as the next guy, maybe even more. Sometimes, you want something that isn’t James Bond, but the truth of the matter is that few spy films that are action-oriented can live up to the Bond series. Does this one?

Jake (Cedric the Entertainer) wakes up in a plush hotel room and from that moment nothing seems right. It’s a nice hotel room and all and there’s a briefcase stuffed full of cash in the room but things are off. For one thing, he can’t remember how he got there. In fact, he can’t even remember his own name. To make matters worse, he can’t remember what that dead body is doing next to him in the bed. He needs time to think, so he runs out, taking the briefcase full of money out with him. Unfortunately, he is seen leaving the scene of a homicide, and as if things weren’t bad enough, the dead body is in fact an FBI agent.

As he scurries out of the hotel lobby, he is intercepted by a beautiful blonde calling herself Diane (Sheridan) who claims she is his wife. She smuggles Jake out of the hotel one step ahead of the police and drives him to a gorgeous estate, which she tells him he owns. He is met there by an obsequious butler (Clarke) and a sinister doctor (McNulty). Jake, not quite believing any of this, overhears a conversation between the doctor and his “wife” explaining the need for the truth and that a high dose of sodium pentothal should do the trick. Unfortunately, it might also give Jake cardiac arrest. While Diane is fine with this, Jake is not and he escapes out the window.

Some of Jake’s memories are beginning to return, and he seems to be in the military. He believes himself to be a spy, and he disguises himself as a Dutch folk dancer (don’t ask) to sneak back into the hotel and retrieve an item he’d left in their property check room, which turns out to be an electronic pass into a high tech corporation called Digital Arts. Jake goes to a diner across the street from their headquarters and meets Gina (Liu), a waitress who tells him she’s his girlfriend.

She takes him to her place to see if it’ll jog any memories, but the memories that are coming back are disturbing. Something is definitely smelling bad at Digital Arts and it isn’t the game developers after a marathon code writing session. This could only be a job for The Cleaner.

Cedric the Entertainer can be considered a poor man’s Martin Lawrence, but that’s not accurate since these days, Martin Lawrence is a poor man’s Martin Lawrence. He’s full of shtick but for whatever reason he has enough charm to pull it off. I’ve always liked Lucy Liu, but she just has the most atrocious taste in scripts. For every Kill Bill that she does, there are far more Charlie’s Angels. Mark Dacascos, a terrific martial artist who was so good in Brotherhood of the Wolf is wasted here, getting to use his considerable skills in only one badly choreographed scene. I’d love to see him get some of the stuff that is offered to Jason Statham.

There is a little bit of charm here in what is ultimately highly disposable entertainment. The movie gets by on the charm of Cedric and Liu, and having Nicolette Sheridan strip down to her bra and panties doesn’t hurt either.

The story is very cliché – the plot is lifted whole cloth essentially from Total Recall  – and the action sequences are pretty pedestrian. The budget wasn’t high enough to permit spectacular visuals, so the filmmakers had to get by on a few fight scenes. The Dutch Riverdance sequence is excruciatingly painful, but most of the jokes merely fall flat.

This is a comedy that isn’t funny and an action movie without any real exciting action sequences, so you do the math. I caught this on late night cable and it made nice insomniac viewing, but for the most part this is disposable entertainment that is more disposable than entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Cedric and Liu are charming. Sheridan is beautiful in her lingerie.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks laughs and the action sequences are dull. Story is predictable and payoff doesn’t pay.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a good deal of sexual innuendo. There’s some violence but not enough to satisfy the more extreme crowd.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ecks vs. Sever
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Stop/Loss

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Harrison Ford tries to get away from Shia LaBeouf who is convinced he’s Marlon Brando.

(2008) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine, Alan Dale, Joel Stoffer, Neil Flynn, VJ Foster, Sasha Spielberg, John Valera, Ernie Reyes Jr. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

It only took 19 years but Indiana Jones did return to the big screen. Fans have been eagerly waiting the fourth installment of the series ever since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wrapped but was their patience rewarded with a movie worthy of the scruffy fedora and bullwhip?

It is the 1950s and the Cold War is raging full-bore. At a secret army base in the Southwest, a group of men dressed as U.S. Soldiers take over, led by an ice-cold femme fatale Soviet named Irina Spalko (Blanchett). With her are captured American agents Mac McHale (Winstone) and the legendary archaeologist Indiana Jones (Ford).

She is after a strange artifact Jones had dug up years earlier – a crystal skull, one of only 13 in the world. The Soviets are after it with the idea of using it for mind control. Indy of course wants to prevent this from occurring. He makes a game attempt to steal the Skull but Irina and her cohorts are too well-armed, too well-organized and too many for Jones to make a clean getaway – plus there is the little matter of a double agent.

Indy manages to escape from the Soviets by the skin of his teeth. When he returns home, he is accused by the FBI of being a double agent. He is allowed to go free because nothing can be decisively proven, but he is forced to go on an indefinite leave of absence from his job at Marshall University (to avoid being fired) because of the incident.

At a train station, Indy is stopped by Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), a greaser who tells him that Indy’s old colleague Professor Oxley (Hurt) had been kidnapped after discovering a crystal skull in Peru.  He also gives Indy a letter from his (Mutt’s) mom, also held captive, that contains a riddle written by Oxley in an ancient Incan language.

After being chased by Soviet agents, Indy realizes that this might be the clue he needs to recover the Skull from Irina and maybe just save the world again, so he goes down to Peru to find the Skull. Also hot on its trail is Irina and she’s holding both Oxley and Mutt’s mom hostage. But when Indy goes to rescue them, he discovers to his shock that Mutt’s mom is Marion Ravenwood (Allen) – his old flame. Now it becomes a race between Indy and the Soviets to find the secret of the Crystal Skulls with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

This was one of the most highly-anticipated movies of recent years and in some ways it was a victim of its own expectations. I don’t think anyone seriously thought that the newest Indy would be at the same level as Raiders of the Lost Ark but at the same time there was hope it might at least be better than the last one.

I think that for the most part it was perceived as a disappointment and I recall being disappointed at the time it came out. Coming back at the movie from a fresh perspective some four years after it was released, I have to say that it’s much better than I remember it being. Some of the stunts, like the swordfight on the moving jeeps, are among the best of the series.

There’s also some cringe-inducing moments, such as when Indy survives a nuclear warhead test by hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator. That one stretched incredulity to the breaking point. Still, by comparison this movie holds up well compared to the others despite the differences in style (more of a ’50s B-movie than a ’30s serial) and tone.

Ford steps back into the role of Indiana Jones without missing a beat and even 20 years later still has the physicality to do many of his own stunts. One casualty of the years is his chemistry with Karen Allen which I never thought was particularly strong in the first place, but they seem awkward together here, like a couple of people who had a fling years ago but have both moved on.

Worse yet is LaBeouf. He was the object of most of the complaints for those who criticized the movie and I do understand some of those issues – he feels out of place here. I think it’s because he’s trying too hard to do a Marlon Brando impression from The Wild One and it just seems silly. I don’t know that I would have cast LaBeouf as Indy’s son – but then who do you cast in a role like that? At least he has some understanding of big action films from the Transformers series.

Better though is Blanchett who as Irina makes up the best villain of the series, better than Mola Ram even. While Ram was evil and had the ability to pull your heart from your chest, he wasn’t a physical presence. Blanchett can shoot, kick, fight, swordfight and is at least as brilliant as Dr. Jones. She is a formidable opponent.

I think if you take this at face value there are some radical differences from the original trilogy, but then you have to expect that since everyone involved has gotten older. There’s more CGI here but it’s used really, really well. In fact from a technical standpoint this is one of the better movies of the last five years. It also adequately captures the spirit of the Indiana Jones movies – the wisecracking, the insane action – but doesn’t regurgitate it. It’s not a classic like the first and third movies are but it is certainly a solid movie I can easily recommend to just about anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Again, it’s Indiana Jones. Blanchett makes an excellent villain. Fine turns by Hurt, Broadbent and Winstone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: LaBeouf seems a bit out of place here. Chemistry between Ford and Allen not as strong. Concept somewhat weak as Indiana Jones films go.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some Indiana Jones-style violence and a few scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Indiana Jones series was always intended to be five films; however after Last Crusade Spielberg felt that he’ d reached a logical end to the series with the iconic final shot. However, after his son asked when the final two films would be made, Spielberg once again became interested. After Ford stated in a 2006 interview that if the movie wasn’t made by 2008, there would not be a fourth film in the series, Spielberg began fast-tracking the development of the script. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the history of the real crystal skulls as well as a fairly fascinating but ultimately incomplete story of the movie’s 14 year trek to the big screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $786.6M on a $185M production budget; despite being a critical failure the movie is considered to be a big financial hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Lovely Molly