Monthly Archives: May 2008

Sex and the City (2008)

A lady told me that the Sex and the City movie is like “the Super Bowl for women,” and I couldn’t agree more, especially with the way box office receipts are already shaping up. The smash TV show seemed to become its own brand, launching designer duds and trinkets into the mainstream for single women. I willingly saw the Sex and the City movie with my wife on opening night, and I must say it’s an interesting experience to watch the film with a packed house of estrogen. The woman next to me was on a roller coaster ride of gasps and tears, at once passing out tissue to others that she had planned ahead to bring. I was never much of a fan of the show. I found the humor to be pretty lazy and the characters to be somewhat annoying after so many episodes; truth be told, I think I can only watch three before having to walk away. I open this review detailing my biases but with that said, four years after the TV show’s finale, the Sex and the City movie feels like a deflated after party.

Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is planning her life with her beau, Mr. Big (Chris Noth). They find a swanky Fifth Avenue apartment and he buys it for her, then she feels jitters about what might happen if they break up and she’s homeless. Naturally, this causes them to get engaged. Of course something goes wrong before the “I do’s” and Carrie must pick up the pieces of her life.

She has her three friends to reach out to. Career girl Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is living with her husband Steve (David Eigenberg) and their son. She and Steve have had quite a dry spell when it comes to sex, and one day he strays and cheats on her. She feels violated and she immediately moves out. She won’t listen to Steve’s apologies. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is happy with her husband and adopted Asian daughter. That’s really about it for her. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is living out in L.A. managing her boyfriend, the hot actor Smith (Jason Lewis). She feels isolated and misses New York City. She also feels somewhat like a cat without her claws, as her sexy neighbor presents quite the temptation.

Writer/director Michael Patrick King seems to have condensed an entire season into a movie. It feels like eight episodes packed together but with little central momentum to provide some form of cohesion. There’s no larger scope, not meat to this story, but King feels like he has a checklist of female “events”. So we get weddings, canceled weddings, fashion shoots, pregnancies, and lots and lots of shopping. Sex and the City ends up transforming into hard-core consumerist, female wish fulfillment pornography. The film is heavy with subplots and many of them feel like retreads that the TV show would have already covered and recovered after six seasons. The movie feels overly melodramatic and it isn’t much fun. Carrie spends most of the film moping and heartbroken; she spends a Mexican vacation intended to be her honeymoon in bed. Samantha has to spoon-feed her in order to get her to finally eat something. For some this will come across as moving and heartwarming, but for me it came across as pathetic. King’s idea of comedy doesn’t help. The jokes are pun-heavy and corny, and most sound like they should be followed by someone saying, “Badum dum dum, yeah.” When a film has to resort to a dog humping things over and over you know it has issues.

The movie medium is not the ideal place for these ladies. In half hour doses they come across better, but when blown up to a gargantuan 145-minute length, they become self-absorbed and vapid stereotypes. I didn’t like any of the characters. Perhaps you will. The characters come across as whiny, insecure, and pretty myopic. Miranda holds onto her self-righteous vigor about refusing to forgive her insanely ingratiating husband’s one-time affair yet she holds onto the guilt that her spur-of-the-moment comment doomed Carrie’s wedding. She doesn’t tell her friend about what she said, encouraged by Charlotte to button up out of kindness. In turn, Carrie doesn’t tell Miranda what a mistake it was to make a clean break from Steve after he cheated once. Carrie does this out of kindness to their friendship. They are prolonging each other’s misery. And later Samantha returns with an extra 15 pounds in tow thanks to her constant eating to douse her impulses to cheat. The gals react with such shocked expressions it becomes uncomfortably mean.

Jennifer Hudson shows up after the hour mark to become Carrie’s new assistant, and she serves as a saintly reminder of how optimistic and buoyant love can be. The character is a total waste and seems tacked on to a story desperately searching for fertile narrative ground. Apparently with oodles of free time Carrie needs someone to check her e-mail for her. I don’t understand why any one of the girls couldn’t have filled this role; it would draw the characters closer together and make the movie shorter. In fact, Charlotte is given shamefully little to do in the film. Her biggest concern is how perfect her life is. Her 4-year-old child (she’s overly meek and barely speaks a word, they might want to have that looked into) is nothing but a prop. She appears in scenes of the girls talking, or shopping, or talking about shopping, but rarely if ever do we see Charlotte dealing with motherhood. Her character’s biggest moment onscreen is crapping her pants. Yes, you read that right.

The rampant consumerism is depressing, especially at such a bloated running time. I’m not going to charge the film with setting back feminism or anything but why do the main characters have to be so shallow, brand-conscious, and live to splurge? The emphasis on buy, buy, buy to make yourself feel good is a rather sad and empty message. I get that the TV show and the movie are supposed to tap into a woman’s fantasy, and the film really panders to Carrie’s princess indulgences and demands. So of course we’re going to get several montages of fashion and shopping and gads of product placement overkill. Seriously, the Sex and the City folk must be pocketing some major dough from all the fawning recommendations they make over brand names (History fact: Louis Vuitton died in 1892). But here’s the thing — the clothes don’t even look good! The difference between designer fashion and complete clownish garbs is practically nonexistent. The outfits these women wear are horrendously garish and bizarrely impractical even for high-end New York career women (high heels on NYC streets?). I’m stunned by the idea that the fashion that these characters wear is deemed glamorous.

The movie didn’t have to be this clunky. The men are all relegated to the sidelines for giant portions of the film, only to show up and act penitent or selfish. The film’s conclusion, where Carrie and Mr. Big reconcile, looks like it might take its own advice and “write its own rules” but then it ends blandly predictable. Sex and the City could have explored the interesting dynamic of four women well into their 40s and how they navigate the waters of relationships and carnal cravings. Samantha herself turns 50 during the course of the movie and, let’s face it, she has probably gone through or is about to experience menopause. Samantha was always the most promiscuous character, so wouldn’t that be an interesting conflict and feel a bit more realistic? Then again, realism isn’t exactly what Sex and the City is about. If it were there would be no way that Carrie’s terrible, platitude-riddled writing would spawn three best-selling books.

Fans of the Sex and the City TV show will likely enjoy the big screen version of their favorite gal pals. After six seasons, I suppose a 2 hour 25-minute movie won’t feel long enough for the die-hards with their cosmos at hand. I am admittedly not a fan of the show, and the movie comes across as long, draggy, aggressively shallow and a tad disingenuous. The actors mug hard, which looks bad when it’s blown up to fit a movie screen. The jokes are pretty stale and the plot spirals into too many subplots. I don’t really want to spend another 145 minutes with these women, especially if this is how they’re aging and maturing. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Son of Rambow (2008)

The film takes a few notes from 2005’s Millions and presents an amateurish tale of English schoolboys making their own amateurish sequel to a Rambo film. From a visual standpoint the film looks great, it has a slightly offbeat appeal, but there just isn’t any substance here beyond the imaginative visuals. The friendship between the two boys, one a bully and the other a lonely kid apart of a strict religious sect, doesn’t draw much out of the characters or the actors. The kooky stunts and homemade moviemaking made me smile and gives the film a fun, quirky energy. But then Son of Rambow seems to butt heads when it enters more serious dramatic territory like family loss and betrayal. The tone is uneven and the mixture of slapstick and whimsy and real pain and suffering never fully works. Certain subplots like a cool French foreign exchange student (who may not be so cool after all) feel grafted onto a story that needs direction and depth. They feel like distractions. Writer/director Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) tries to imbue the project with a childlike spirit but the story needs a whole lot more emotional focus and a whole lot more work. This ain’t no Millions.

Nate’s Grade: C+

August Rush (2007)

Am I too cynical for my own good? I’d like to think that I appreciate authentic works that tug at my heartstrings, and I’m a believer in the power that music can have, which are part of the reasons I named Once the best film of 2007. In comparison, August Rush tries to go all message and winds up skirting over why I should even care what happens to its characters.

In 1994 or so Lyla (Keri Russell) is a concert cellist in New York City. Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is the lead singer in a rock band touring the area. They meet atop a rooftop, look deeply into each other’s eyes, and then have sex. Parents, do not condone this behavior with your daughters and sons. But they’re separated through lame circumstances and nearly miss each other several times. This romantic encounter has spawned a son growing in Lyla’s womb. She gets into a car accident late in the pregnancy and was told by her manager/father tells her the baby has passed away. He is a liar because the baby was born and he signed it up for adoption.

Flash forward 11 years. The child has gown up into the likes of Evan (Freddie Highmore) who lives in a boarding school for orphan boys. He knows his parents are out there in the world somewhere and he believe he can find them through the connection music. He gets lost in New York City and follows a troop of child musicians to the Wizard (Robin Williams). He looks after a gathering of orphan musicians that play on street corners. It’s like Oliver Twist meets American Idol with an extra dose of sugar. Sure enough Evan stars drawing a crowd and the Wizard wants to make sure he doesn’t lose his biggest earner.

This film is a ludicrous and manipulatively maudlin mess. August Rush plays all the big notes; the film’s script is entirely comprised of big moments that waddle and crash into one another, and as such it ignores any details. Like the fact that Evan has the ability to connect to his long-lost parents simply by strumming an instrument, but he’s never heard of musical notes or touched an instrument until he was 11. If the kid hears music everywhere, which reminded me a lot of Bjork in the superior Dancer in the Dark, wouldn’t it stand to reason he would try to, I don’t know, play music? Now I’m not saying he’d have access to every musical instrument at the boy’s boarding house but surely he could have drummed something? I find it unbelievable that a musical prodigy would wait until he was 11 before he picked up an instrument. Also, he learns what sounds are labeled as what letter notes by a cherubic little tyke with some powerful pipes of her own. He goes immediately from learning what an F sharp is to scribbling complex musical notation on blank sheets of music stanzas. How does he know all the symbols and placements and everything that the little girl did not teach him in their brief instructional moment? I’ll go back even further. How come Lyla and Louis give up trying to find each other so easily? Why does Louis wait 11 years before he searches the Internet for Lyla, who, being a world-class cellist, would not exactly be low profile? And why does a pregnant Lyla not do more to, you know, get in contact with her child’s father when he’s even in the exact same city? It’s details like these that August Rush hopes to will the audience to ignore, but to me it was proof time and again that the film’s indifference to plot, character, and maintaining any level of credibility even on a heightened “urban fairy tale” level.

If you replaced the stars then this movie would prove to the world that it belongs on the Lifetime TV network. It’s a melodramatic free-for-all that turns the topic of music into a quasi-religious experience. Now I know for many that music actually can maintain a religious level of power and sweep, but I challenge people watching August Rush to replace the word “music” in the dialogue with any other word to fully realize how cheesy the dialogue is. Let’s try replacing “music with “the force,” and now read this choice line of dialogue: “You know what [the force] is? God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, every where, even the stars.” And: “[The force] is all around you, all you have to do is listen.” This is the kind of film where characters can look up into the void with wistful, wide-eyed looks and somehow connect over the ether. That’s how the characters stay together and eventually reunite in a predictable and sappy manner.

The music itself is rather unremarkable. It’s well composed but I wouldn’t be able to recall it again even if I had a gun to my head. When the movie trumps the message of the transcendent power of music it doesn’t help when the music it presents is less than special.

The acting befits the same cheesy atmosphere of the movie. Highmore is pretty vacant and looks like he’s shrugging from scene to scene, that is, until he bangs his hands against a guitar neck and everyone somehow calls this genius. I think part of Highmore’s problem is that regular folks just think that honest-to-goodness geniuses don’t really have to work hard for results. This is, of course, false. Mozart was a prodigy, yes, but he didn’t just yawn and write down invisible notes that were dancing in front of his eyes waiting all day to be transcribed. He worked hard. Highmore just looks off into the distance and he seems to be in a trance. It’s annoying.

Russell gets to pine for something just outside her reach (turns out it’s a son) but she doesn’t flash an iota of the grace and magic she showcased in Waitress. Meyers gets to “sell out” and then reunite his mid 90s alternative rock band. Here’s the thing — the sound EXACTLY THE SAME after 12 years and yet on their first gig back together they have a huge crowd? The movie is trying to tell me that the tastes of pop culture wouldn’t change in a dozen years. Williams manages to give hints about a troubled past as a musical prodigy eaten up by a system hungry for the next big thing. He also bellows and growls and comes across like a creepy Fagan for a team of street urchins.

August Rush is sticky, sappy, manipulative and maudlin feel-good rubbish. This is the kind of movie that most people will probably never get. Perhaps people who live, breathe, sleep, and eat music will feel more inspired by its message of human connection and spiritual fulfillment via the power of music. That’s swell but it still doesn’t excuse the fact that August Rush is a overly serious, laughable, syrupy work. If you’re going to dismiss its faults as the film being a “fairy tale” well then the film still doesn’t establish any hard rules for its universe. The characters are still one-note and behave in annoying and moronic ways because the plot demands it of them. And classifying the film as a fairy tale still doesn’t make the music any better. I can’t believe this stuff had a shot of beating the spectacular songs from Once for 2007’s Best Song Oscar. In fact, August Rush wishes it was Once because that low-budget charmer was able to communicate the power of music honestly and profoundly with the added benefit of beautiful tunes. I would like to recommend that all people thinking about renting August Rush.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

I lived in New Haven, Connecticut for a year while my wife was earning her Master’s degree at Yale. We hated it. New Haven is a college town that doesn’t know it’s a college town, so everything closes at 10 PM, there are no student prices for anything, and the people there more or less sucked. We were happy to depart from the Nutmeg State. Then the week after we were going to leave was when Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and the production team for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were coming to town. They were going to film a motorcycle chase along Chapel Street (where I walked to work every day) and all along the Yale campus. Finally, a reason to stay in New Haven presents itself and it has to happen after we escape. It’s not often one of the most anticipated movies comes to your doorstep.

I could have been an extra in the motorcycle chase, which set in 1957, could have used a long-haired Beatnik type (played by yours truly) for an exaggerated reaction shot. I could have been sipping on an espresso and then Indiana Jones could have zoomed by on the bike snatching by hot beverage, leaving a long-haired Beatnik type (me again) to mug shamelessly for the camera. It would have worked. Alas, it was not to be, though it certainly would have made this ages-in-development sequel more enjoyable on my part.

It’s been a long time since part-time archeology professor and full-time treasure hunter Henry “Indiana” Jones (Ford) beat the Nazis. The world has gotten a lot more complicated thanks to the Cold War, the atomic bomb, and the fact that Jones is now well into his 60s. It’s been 19 years since his last adventure but the man with the bullwhip and the dusty fedora still has a knack for intrigue. Soviet KGB agents have captured Indy and his friend Mac (Ray Winstone) and taken them to the Area 51 warehouse. They’re seeking a recovered artifact of alien origins that can wield tremendous power, as they always do. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is the head KGB agent and likes to threaten her enemies with a riding crop (perhaps she earns some extra money on the side punishing bad, bad comrades). Indiana Jones manages to escape and is pursued by the Soviets and blacklisted by his government due to his perceived involvement with Russia.

Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) seeks out the help of Dr. Jones. Mutt is a greaser on a motorcycle that might be a chip off the old block. His parents are in trouble. The stepfather that raised him (John Hurt), an old archeology buddy of Indy’s, has traveled to South America and found a legendary crystal skull. The bizarre artifact would lead the way to the mythical golden city and crazy amounts of Mayan supernatural power. Unfortunately, the skull has also made him as batty as a bat and Spalko is going to kill him. Indy and Mutt fly down to South America to save the crazy old man. Oh, and Mutt’s mother is also in danger, and she would be none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who has plenty of romantic history with a certain swash-buckler afraid of snakes.

Seeing Ford back in action just feels right. His character has grown into a bit of a curmudgeon but he’s working the same territory Bruce Willis did last year in the long gestated Die Hard sequel. He’s an old man serving some justice to all these young punks that won’t get off his lawn. The film acknowledges his age and mostly uses it as a means for comedy (he cracks that a life of adventure isn’t “as easy as it used to be”). Ford looks more alert than he has in years.

Blanchett is one of our finest actresses on the planet but she has serious trouble maintaining her Ruskie accent; she alternates between Russian and British the whole movie. Her dominatrix-styled villainess is certainly interesting, and man does she have great posture, but the film doesn’t really know what to do with the Soviet bad guys. They become more or less Nazi stand-ins and seem to repeat the same ambitions that the Nazis carried out in two or the three previous films. Allen has aged magnificently and is a welcome return. She and Ford have terrific screwball comedy chemistry and pick up right where they left off in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. LaBeouf does a solid job even though he doesn’t have any meat to his character after his Marlon Brando-like introduction in leather jacket and motorcycle. Instead, Spielberg continuously winks at the audience about Mutt’s obvious familial line. It wouldn’t be a Spielberg movie without some family dynamic.

I’m pleased to reunite with Indiana Jones, I like the new characters, and I even like Mutt, but the story the characters are saddled with is lousy. This is the script that Ford, Spielberg, and co-creator/producer George Lucas all agreed upon? I’m not one of those people that have an issue with aliens being the primary movers and shakers in the plot (in informal talks with friends, many are upset that little green men are the stars). The first three Indy films dealt with a religious supernatural power and now this new installment covers a space alien supernatural power, so that doesn’t concern me. What bothered me is that Crystal Skull is a murky mash-up of [i]Temple of Doom[/i] and Stargate. Once the primary characters reach their hidden temple the movie takes a nosedive. Spielberg almost crafts an anti-intellectual message, where finding out the reality behind the magic ruins the soul. The exact story behind the Crystal Skull is frustrating in how oblique it is, and Spielberg doesn’t want to offer any clarity. I’m at a loss to explain exactly why anything happened in the concluding 20 minutes, least of all how an alien race must have a very different definition of the word “gift.”

Never before has the action in an Indiana Jones film come across as so campy. This is likely the most disappointing part of Crystal Skull: the action is too tongue-in-cheek. There were moments where I thought the film was one step away from Army of Darkness. Spielberg is enough of a brilliant tactician to know how to setup and build satisfying and stylish action, which normally involves organic complications and letting the audience fully grasp what’s happening. This means no rapid-fire edits and plenty of long, high angle shots to get the big picture. And when he’s in his groove, there are few that can top Spielberg when it comes to an action sequence. There are points in Crystal Skull where the action is rollicking and joyously packed with excitement and wonder. The opening sequence inside Area 51 starts the film off with a bang, the motorcycle chase through Yale is well choreographed, and a car chase in the jungle is fantastic in the amount of back-and-forth scuffles and emerging obstacles. It’s by far the film’s high point and then there was one point where Mutt was swinging from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan and he enlisted the help of monkeys. It took me completely out of what had been a rip-roaring action sequence. Then there’s the moment where Marion drives everyone off a cliff and onto a tree that bends to drop them safely before smacking back like a rubber band. I’m not asking for complete believability in an action caper but I’d prefer it not become an embarrassing Looney Tunes cartoon. Crystal Skull is filled with little moments that will completely yank you out of the movie.

The action sequences feel too pat for the material the film wants to cover. Even that great jungle car chase could have been boosted with some extra ingenuity. The scene opens with the Soviets driving a vehicle that is slicing the forest to splinters and clearing a path for the caravan of cars to follow. Now I know the Spielberg of 1981 would never have introduced such an interesting machine in a unique setting without using it later. The Spielberg of 2008 is different because this nifty blade mobile isn’t even seen again after its initial introduction to establish how a car chase in a jungle could be possible. The action relies too heavily on distracting CGI that takes the action sequences on annoying, over-the-top detours. Just because computers can make it happen doesn’t mean it’s always a good avenue to go down. In short, the CGI is undercooked and over used.

I also need to speak frankly about the CGI — it is terrible. However, when I watched Crystal Skull my party got a tad lost on the way to the theater so the only seats left were the third row from the screen. I spent the entire movie with my neck craned up. Perhaps if I saw the film in a position it was more intended to be seen the special effects would come across as more professionally polished, but from my neck-cramping position they looked pitifully amateurish for a major summer blockbuster with Spielberg and Lucas’s names attached. The effects work is shockingly shoddy, but the practical production design is amazing. Unfortunately, this does not balance out in the film’s favor.

I’m coming across as harsh but I only get this way when my expectations are raised because of a pattern of quality. The three prior Indiana Jones films were lively, imaginative, and deeply charming and satisfying adventures that leaned toward the exaggerated but still managed to thrill without feeling dumb. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the few perfect movies in existence, in my opinion, and set the standard for all action/adventure movies to follow. It’s unfair to expect the same sensation watching a sequel 19 years after its predecessor, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does manage to hone in on the same spirit that made the other Indy films such high-flying thrill rides. If you set your brain to a low frequency, enter the theater with lowered expectations, and already know that at one point Mutt will swing from vine to vine like freaking Tarzan, then Crystal Skull will provide the necessary popcorn entertainment you’d seek in a summer blockbuster. It is possible to think Crystal Skull ranks up with its predecessors but that requires so much contortion that I wouldn’t know how to arrive at that opinion. I suppose we should all resort to the consolation that even with E.T. taking over the plot, this thing could have been a lot worse. Just remember that if an alien offers you a “gift” to run in the other direction.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Iron Man (2008)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau seem like decidedly odd choices for a studio to hand over a multi-million dollar potential comic franchise. Iron Man certainly isn’t one of the better-known super hero properties but Marvel Studios felt confident that having Favreau behind the lens and Downey Jr. in a heavy suit of armor was the right direction. They couldn’t have been more right. Iron Man is a rock solid action vehicle that flies by in a blast. My biggest complaint: the film never utilizes the ready-made theme song by Black Sabbath.

Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is the billionaire CEO of Stark Industries, a high-grade weapons manufacturer creating bigger and better ways for people to kill each other. His life is a never-ending party, going from gambling to girls to gizmos. His assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), keeps Stark as grounded as he can be. Stark is traveling to Afghanistan to demonstrate the awesome might of some of his new missiles when his convoy is ambushed. One of Stark’s own weapons sends shrapnel into his chest. He is kidnapped by terrorists (read: Arabs with guns) and held captive inside a cave. Stark is kept alive by a glowing electromagnet do-dad in his chest that manages to keep the shrapnel from entering his heart. Raza (Faran Tahir) orders Stark to build him a missile or else. So Stark does what any mechanical boy genius would do: he builds a giant suit of armor and busts his way out.

Stark’s friend Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), an Air Force officer, rescues him in the desert. Once back at home in his Malibu mansion, Stark has a personal epiphany. After seeing the human damage his weapons cause he no longer wants to manufacture weapons. His business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and the board of directors are not interested in Stark’s revision. They want to keep doing what they do, making weapons for the highest bidder. Stark begins building a more advanced mechanical suit based upon the prototype from Afghanistan. He will use his technical expertise and great fortune to destroy his own weapons, even if he has to become an ironclad superhero to do so.

Downey Jr. is Iron Man, yes, but he IS Iron Man. He makes this character, this movie, and serves as the film’s ambassador to an audience that has grown tired of mopey teenagers imbued with super powers. His character is a man going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, reevaluating his life and trying to find meaning in his work. There’s something satisfying about watching an older adult wreck of a man taking on a genre that feels like it’ stuck in a high school atmosphere. Downey Jr. is a fantastically engaging, talented actor and when he turns on his narcissistic quick-witted charm it is impossible not to be won over. He provides the film with a tremendous spark and manages to make a womanizing, alcohol-swilling, super wealthy arms peddler/playboy into a figure of sympathy and a hero for the masses. Downey Jr. has expert comic timing and makes Tony Stark a cool swinging superhero. Just listen to his line deliveries and the energy and pacing he puts into the dialogue; it’s terrific. He also gives Stark the necessary drama to pull off the weight of guilt.

Iron Man is also a victory for Favreau as a director. The Swingers star has become a stealthily competent director. He helmed 2003’s Elf and 2005’s underappreciated Zathura and I suppose Marvel Studios saw what I saw in those films. The direction is focused and he makes smart decisions, never overwhelming an audience and always centered closely to the story. Favreau is more concerned with storytelling than noisy, empty special effects. Hell, Iron Man doesn’t even enter the film until an hour into it. There is a confidence and patience to his direction; it manages to convince an audience that they will be rewarded for their time.

Favreau doesn’t pander and knows well enough that practical special effects will inspire the greatest sense of awe in a summer flick. Iron Man‘s special effects are almost seamless from the practical to CGI. I enjoy popcorn action movies so much more when I’m not nit-picking the special effects. This isn’t a slam on CGI itself, but computer effects have the tendency to declare their fakeness. Sure the special effects were amazing in last summer’s Transformers (how it lost the visual effects Oscar to the subpar Golden Compass I’ll never know), but the CGI-ness of it could be overpowering. When I cannot decipher a special effect automatically, then I know I have been fully immersed in the action. Favreau smartly lays out a bevy of nifty practical effects for the first half. By the time he transitions to broader CGI then he’s already laid the foundation for realism.

Favreau isn’t the best action director but this only presents an issue in the film’s last act. The action sequences in Iron Man take a back seat to watching Tony Stark piece together his new life. I was more interested in seeing Stark test and reconfigure his designs. The construction of Iron Man, to me, is more intriguing than seeing a man in an iron suit battle some guy in a bigger iron suit. The fun is watching him become Iron Man. The action sequences are serviceably kick-ass but too short. I loved watching Iron Man punch people and seeing their bodies fly backwards. Even at over two hours there just isn’t a whole lot of traditional action to Iron Man but this suited my tastes. I’d rather watch an actor with Downey’s talent interact with an A-list cast than watch robots fight and smash personal property.

Iron Man is aided by a strong script credited to two of the writers of Children of Men. It’s structured as an origin tale but it takes its time to set up events and characters that will have lasting meaning. Stark confronts being a weapons manufacturer in a post-9/11 world. He finally stops and asks, “What is the cost?” His own company is double dipping, selling weapons to both sides in a conflict, weapons that will kill U.S. men and women pledged to protect America. Stark has a true change of heart, both figuratively and, later, literally with the assistance of Pepper. There’s a political undercurrent to the film’s drama that manages to be timely and provide at least some thought to go along with the popcorn thrills. Iron Man finds a way to force its characters to combat real moral questions that result from their actions.

The supporting cast has a combined seven Oscar nominations for acting, so this is a step above the acting level of a Fantastic Four. Howard is mostly underwritten but he provides a nice sense of camaraderie with his friendship with Stark. Bridges is an obvious villain just from the first sight of his bald dome and big, bushy beard. He’s got a mean scowl but Bridges provides a warm and fatherly guide for Stark. But man, when he gets menacing he is rather scary. But my highest praise in the supporting work goes to Paltrow, who coolly delivers arch snappy one-liners in a retro do-everything secretary role. And yet the role also offers some reflection, like after dancing in public with her boss she worries over gossip and what perception will construe the moment into. She, his employee, wearing a plunging backline dress that looks gorgeous on the actress, dances with her boss, an infamous womanizer. And then in this moment of doubt there’s a nice, unexpected moment for both a comic book movie and a would-be romance, and the “would-be” is the correct term. She has great chemistry with Downey Jr. and watching the two of them playfully bicker is another reason Iron Man soars above the confines of genre and formula. Plus she looks great with red hair.

Iron Man is a great start to the summer movie season and will be hard to beat. It doesn’t have the psychological depth of Batman Begins or the high-flying fun of Spider-Man 2, but this film certainly deserves to be mentioned in that same group. Favreau has crafted a respectful comic book movie that manages to place special effects in service of an interesting story played by extremely engaging actors. Downey Jr. is the movie’s secret weapon and he delivers a smart, witty, charming, sardonic and enormously entertaining performance that anchors a fine example of what big budget popcorn filmmaking done right looks like. Batman and Spider-Man might want to be on the look out because the new kid on the block is generating some serious heat.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Hottie and the Nottie (2008)

Paris Hilton is certainly a polarizing figure. The hotel heiress and tabloid star inspires so much hatred from the public and yet others still fawn over her. She simultaneously inspires ire and interest, and filmmakers have been trying to give their movies a publicity boost by adding Hilton into the cast. It didn’t work wonders for 2005’s House of Wax, though audiences got to witness Hilton get nailed (tee hee). Most of her starring ventures have been straight for DVD, except for this year’s beauty-and-the-beast crude comedy, The Hottie and the Nottie. It was released just in time for Valentine’s Day (hooray!). According to the numbers-crunching website Box Office Mojo, The Hottie and the Nottie played at 111 theaters for a mere three days before being yanked for DVD. It made a total of $27,696, averaging a pitiful $250 per screen. That averages out to 28 people seeing it per screen for its entire theatrical run.

Nate Cooper (Joel Moore, Dodgeball) is a 26-year-old dude who is just dumped by his latest near psychotic girlfriend (Kathryn Fiore). His latest dustup in love makes him reflect fondly to his first experience with the L-word. It was first grade and Christabelle moved into town. Nate moved to Maine after the first grade and never saw her again (seriously, does anyone ever remember the first grade with such clarity and deep feelings?). He decides to track down the adult Christabelle (Paris Hilton) who is working in Los Angeles. But before he can woo the “hottie” he has to get around the “nottie,” said nottie being the hideous likeness of June Phigg (Christine Lakin, Georgia Rule, TV’s Step by Step). Christabelle and June have been friends since the first grade and Christabelle has sworn a vow of abstinence until she can find a guy for her friend. Nate goes to great lengths to find a man willing to plumb the depths of “nottie-tude,” including hypnotizing a man (Adam Kulbersh, the only funny actor in this mess) into associating the image of June with a space babe. Then along comes Johann (Johann Urb). He’s a chiseled hunk who works as a dentist and insists on helping June’s unorthodox chompers for free. He seems too good to be true and Nate is convinced that Johann is buttering up the “nottie” because he really has his eyes set on scoring with the “hottie.”

This movie is a garish spectacle celebrating the vanity of Paris Hilton. The central premise is that Hilton is the pinnacle of beauty and that no man could resist her. The script is filled with all sorts of flattering compliments on how Hilton is the perfect specimen of desire. Early on she’s described as Nate’s “first real vision of beauty” and the one “all other girls will have to measure up to.” Men line up just to watch her pass by on her jogging route. She just doesn’t turn heads she makes men lose their minds, pour drinks in their laps, and force their wives to slap them in the face. She even has an albino stalker. Johann asks Christabelle, “Have you ever done any modeling? You have great bone structure.” The movie is a shallow 90-minute tribute to Hilton’s superficial genetics.

The film tries to champion a misguided message but fails miserably. There’s some lip service paid to inner beauty but Nate never sees the “nottie” as a “hottie” until she starts to physically transform and reconfigure her body. He remains shallow until the ugly girl meets the demands of others. No one seems to see her inner beauty until she focuses on the outer. Not only this, the film presents no rationale why Nate would start to fall for the “nottie.” There is no groundwork, they just all of a sudden talk more, make a few jokes, and then it’s straight to the longing looks and soft emo music. It makes no sense even for a cheap romantic comedy. Then there’s the whole concept of Hilton as a moral character who advises the less physically gifted of the species that the secret to love and happiness is to be yourself. Paris Hilton telling others to just be themselves? What kind of ridiculously hypocritical message is that? She pressures her ugly friend to lose her virginity as fast as possible. But remember to be your self, kids.

The dialogue is full of clunkers. Christabelle tells Nate, “I think a life without orgasms is like a world without flowers.” Um okay then. When she gets into the requisite third act fight with Nate, Christabelle says, “I am out of your league. You can’t sing, you can’t dance, you’re a terrible athlete and a really crappy liar.” Now what does that mean exactly? It’s meant to be dramatic but it ends up with a different meaning. Christabelle is inferring she can sing, dance, is an athlete, and… is a good liar? I would also like to know what the hell Nate does as far as a job, because it’s never mentioned and yet he has the time and money to buy lavish gifts like $2000 spa treatments.

The comedy is excruciating. The Hottie and the Nottie is physically nauseating to watch. I’ve written before that there’s a difference between gross-out and just gross, and this movie doesn’t seem to understand this. I nearly vomited after seeing an infected toenail land in some guy’s mouth. Snot bubbles, varicose veins, gnarly teeth, extreme acne, and overgrown hair are not comedy without context. Presented alone, they compose a vile health department slide show. There’s nothing funny in just being gross. Beyond that, the film is fairly lazy and obvious with its setups and punch lines. There may have been one moment that genuinely made me laugh and that was because it was unexpected. There aren’t any memorable or even remotely clever comic set pieces. The script by Heidi Ferrer (Princess, Dawson’s Creek) seems to completely misjudge the rules of comedy and romance and credibility.

It is difficult to describe Hilton as an “actress” because her whole public persona she’s built for herself something of an act. The film seems to cut around her limited acting skills because there’s never a shot that lasts longer than two or three sentences. If director Tom Putnam is honest with himself he will some day release a fascinating commentary about the pains of directing this movie.

But special mention must be made to a man that feels so audacious he must put the term “the” in front of his name. (The) Greg Wilson plays Nate’s only friend in this reality and oh God is he terrible. He does the word “terrible” an injustice. He seems to be shouting every line completely overboard as if he were on some glib VH1 pop culture show where every line feels like it should be followed by a rim shot. His jokes are groan worthy and his spastic line delivery is all over the place. The man comes across as the most obnoxious actor in a film that stars Paris Hilton. I wanted to punch him in the face every second I saw his smirking expression.

The child actor that plays young Nate, well, this freaking kid looks like a an adult pretending to be a six-year-old kid. He reminds me of the child in 1979’s The Tin Drum who wished her would remain a child forever and never physically changes, even after the hormones set in.

This is a vapid excuse for a movie and a waste of time. And yet, for my vast knowledge on the world of bad cinema, The Hottie and the Nottie is awful, unfunny, stomach-churning, and morally repulsive but it is still a better movie than Meet the Spartans. Hell, at least this flick even attempts a three-act story structure with something close to characters. I’ve heard complaints that The Hottie and the Nottie would be viewed more fairly if Hilton was not the lead but I argue that Hilton and the film are inescapable. She served as an executive producer on the film and approved the material, so of course it’s going to be flatter her and present numerous situations where Hilton can strut and pose in revealing outfits. She’s less of a character than a loop of masturbatory fodder. This is just a sad, icky film that serves one purpose: to stroke Hilton’s vanity. But remember kids, just be your self.

Nate’s Grade: D-

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