Picofarad #13 Movie reviews

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Iron Man (2008)

Review by Chris French

Directed by Jon Favreau
Running time: 126 minutes

The only comic books I've ever read were, and are, the EC Comics imprints-- Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Shock Suspenstories, Two-Fisted Tales, et cetera, et so on, et so forth. When a film based on the Iron Man comics comes out, I am ill-equipped to review it based on How A Fan (or Fanboy) Will React; I have to come at from the POV of the Great Washed Mass (because, as we all know, it's the comic book geeks who are the Unwashed Mass...).

The beginning is typical for the first movie in a putative series, establishing the origin of the character. In this case, the character is one Tony Stark, billionaire weapons mogul (I think he's supposed to build other things, but weaponry is the important feature here). Being a Corporate Mogul, he could not conceivably care less about anyone or anything, an attitude which (as usual) is spun 180 degrees after a convoy he is riding in is ambushed, and he is taken prisoner by Random Terrorist Types ("random" in this case being code for "Islamic"), and forced to build for the terrorists a clone of his most-advanced new weapon. Being a pack of ass-scratching barbarians, of course they fail to notice that, besides Stark building an ultrapowerful power source (whose purpose at that point is to keep his heart from being shredded by bits of shrapnel which have been left in there to move the plot along) from spare parts, he has also fabbed a complete armored suit, which is mostly bullet-resistant and has flamethrowers on it. Cue Obligatory Escape Sequence, involving a Secondary Character Who Goes On A Suicide Run So The Hero Can Escape (with all the accompanying "No, I can get you out" and "I have no one left to live for" folderol) and the Hero Discovering His Company Is Supplying The Weapons The Bad Guys Are Using Just Before Blowing The Place To Hell And Gone (too bad Harvey Korman is dead; he needs to shoot a few Hollywood writers in their feet for overusing clichés).

Stark returns to civilization, and (shock, awe) announces he's getting out of the weapons business. The reaction of his second-in-command, Obadiah Stane (played by a nearly unrecognizable Jeff Bridges-- Tron was a long time ago...) should make it abundantly clear to viewers exactly who's been shipping Stark's weapons to the bad guys. There then follows a series of scenes-not a montage, precisely; the scenes are too long-showing the development of the Iron Man suit, with the anti-gravity weapons (Grav Lances, perhaps?) and flight capability. Random ass-kicking ensues.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Stane is working on getting hold of Stark's newest toy, on the assumption (correct, as it happens) that it will make a marvelous new income-generator on the blow-stuff-up market. One thing leads to another (including a scene which demonstrates why techies never throw anything away), and there is the obligatory final battle between Stark (as Iron Man) and Stane (as Iron Man With More Strength and Meanness, But Also With A Critical Flaw Established Earlier In The Flick). Do I even need to tell you who wins?

What prevents this from being an "eh" review is, oddly enough, Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark. He never overplays the role; he never underplays it, either. I suspect playing Stark was, for Downey, Method acting-he's already been the Annoying Rich Prat in Reality. There's also a couple of nice moments involving Stark's superhero MO; I especially enjoyed Stark's takeout of some Islamics raiding a village, and leaving the survivor to the villagers-subtle, but effective. "I could kill you myself, but I'm sure these folks would like a crack at your crack." If the reader can get past the four-color-ethos plot devices and clichés, this flick rates a Watch. (And stick around after the credits; they set up the next movie there.)

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

Review by Chris French

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Running time: 124 minutes

I'm old enough to remember when Raiders of the Lost Ark first came out. Mainly I remember the Flying Wing used in the airport battle sequence, but then, I like airplanes. Hearing that a fourth Indiana Jones movie was being made, after a decade-and-change gap since the last one, I expected a lot of hype, followed by disappointment when the flick didn't "live up to the hype". So I conspicuously avoided any of the media lead-up to this flick; I wanted to judge it on its own merits, not the frenzied yapping of the nostalgia-addicts and others.

The movie is set in the late '50s; not even modern SFX can cover for the fact that Harrison Ford is O-L-D Old. In fact, a good chunk of the early part of the flick deals with The Famous Person Whose Glory Days Have Long Since Passed-think Richard Petty after about 1985 (and why Ned Jarrett retired as NASCAR Grand National Champion), and you'll have some idea of where they're going (that this sequence also contains nods to the late Denholm Elliott and the retired Sean Connery helps hammer the point home).

The plot has attracted no little attention-- apparently, people think the idea of "Aliens Visiting Earth" is silly; of course, the cubic assloads of Jewish, Hindu, and Christian Mythology the first three movies buried viewers in were perfectly OK, but Aliens-- no, too silly. When we first see Indy, he is in the hands of Soviet special agents (Spielberg has allowed as how he won't make movies containing Nazis anymore; however, Uncle Joe's Finest, who killed ten times as many people-- Jews included-- as Adolf's, are totally cool...) who are looking for a Magnetic Crystal Skull (?!) which, if reunited with others of its kind, will give the person responsible some sort of undefined Ultimate Power. This leads to a chase through Area 51 (including the obligatory nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark), culminating in Indy somehow surviving a Nuclear Blast by hiding in a refrigerator, a tactic I don't ever recall seeing used in the old civil-defense films of the period.

Indy returns to civilization, gets suspended from his teaching job (this is the Tailgunner Joe McCarthy era; any time Feds appear, then, one is assumed guilty until proven so-- very subtle, guys), and trips over a teenager (this will become important later) named Mutt Williams (insert unkind jokes about how the kid was conceived here) who delivers a message from one of Indy's fellow archaeologists, who disappeared in the area where the Crystal Skull was supposed to have come from. One car chase later, Indy and Mutt are in South America, looking for the missing man. The usual roundelay of finding clues, being chased by bad guys, and making snarky remarks follows. What comes as a surprise is the introduction of a character not seen since Raiders-- Marion Ravenwood, Mutt's mother. And guess who the father is? (Cue The Empire Strikes Backjokes. And yes, the time frame fits -- 1937-1957.)

This is what one would expect from the Indiana Jones series-it's silly in places (many places), it's brim-full of pseudoscientific babble (time-travel, aliens, telepathy, etc.), and it references not only its own series, but several others. It does show certain signs of the Continued Wussification of Hollywood-for instance, at no time does Indy ever get to fire his revolver-and some of the jokes fall flat. I'm not going to say it's as epically lame as Temple of Dumb Doom, but neither is it as enjoyable as Last Crusade. It gets a resounding Eh.

The Chronicles of Narna: Prince Caspian (2008)

Directed by Andrew Adamson
Running time: 144 minutes (US)

Suppose, for a moment, that you are the head of a relatively new media company whose purpose is to get a more Christian perspective into the movies. Suppose further that you are contemplating an adaptation of Prince Caspian, and have found some problems with it. For instance, C. S. Lewis delights his young audience by having some of the heroes, including the Christ-equivalent, destroy two schools. This is probably okay with your base, which likes home-schooling anyway, but you worry about what other people would think. Also, they destroy the schools in the company of Bacchus, Silenus, and a whole army of maenads, who are definitely not approved members of the evangelical theology.

So you discard the whole party section, only now the story is significantly shorter and Susan has lost most of her screen time. Hmm... say, aren't those obsessed fantasy people always writing those fan romances where they pair up their favorite characters? Aha! Fix her up with Prince Caspian, and maybe bring in more of the teen segment. Besides, lots of people think she was banned from Narnia for discovering boys, never mind that Polly and Lucy made it to adolescence too and still managed to come back at the end, so you can set up some foreshadowing there.

Now, about lengthening the story. Aha! There's that part where they don't pay attention to Aslan and regret it. Only getting worn out from trudging through the forest in the wrong direction with pockets full of raw bear meat isn't terribly cinematic, you know? There has to be a better way of hammering the point home, like, like... Yes! An ill-conceived attack on Miraz's castle! You can add half an hour easily with all sorts of Narnians and Telmarines running about and beating each other up, and make everyone feel really sorry about it.

Now, for the final touches: Pad it out some more by making Peter stay a whiny egomaniac rather than regaining the grandeur of the High King. Make Doctor Cornelius more familiar to modern audiences by dressing him up like Albus Dumbledore and telling the actors to call him "Professor". (But cut out the stuff about him being a magician; the base doesn't like that, and Warner Brothers might sue.) Whoops, that character was brown-skinned in the book, and you're already going to be in enough hot water with the good guys being nearly all white and the bad guys all having dark skin and weird accents. Well, let's see who we can exchange... aha! There's a centaur you're giving about the same amount of face time, so you can make him black instead. Make The Door in the Air look cooler, expand the summoning scene, invent some extra story at the beginning because you did that last time and everyone liked it. Now make that movie, and ignore the cries of the fanboys!

Prince Caspian was my least favorite of the Narnia books, so I'm able to look at this mostly dispassionately and accept it as the sort of thing that happens to fantasy books when big movie companies get hold of them. But if The Voyage of the Dawn Treader gets the same treatment, my rage will know no bounds.

Review by Chris French

I have never read Prince Caspian, nor any of the other books in the series. (Please keep this in mind the next time you, or someone you know, says, "Everyone has read [whatever]"-- I'm not Everyone.) So I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to feel about a movie version of it (as opposed to, say, tarship Troopers...).

The first image I'm confronted with is a woman in a medieval setting giving birth to a child. Usually this means someone else is for the chop; most likely someone in line for the throne. Shock, awe-- moments later we're treated to the medieval version of the Bad Guys Surrounding The Place They Think The Good Guy Is, Shooting It Full Of Holes, Then Discovering The Good Guy Wasn't There. This isn't convincing in modern action movies, where the bad guys carry assault rifles; when it's medieval types using crossbows, it's downright embarrassing (never mind the fact that no one ever thinks to look before firing). And this is before the opening credits. Why don't they sell pain relievers at the snack stand?

The second image I'm confronted with is something I've seen before-- London during The Second Great Unpleasantness. Guys in hubcap helmets; sandbags everywhere; no bodies, though. If they were trying to indicate why the kids who are the focal point of the story might want to change realities, it isn't all that effective; a couple of corpses would have done wonders here.

Soon enough, our heroes are summoned back to Narnia-- only to learn "it's 1,300 years since you left". Not even Star Trek: Voyager was this unsubtle with the Cosmic Reboot Switch. Narnia has been overrun by Spain-- sorry, Telmar; the bad guys are so obviously modeled off the Conquistador period of Spain, I spent most of the flick wondering when Christopher Columbus was going to make a cameo as Christopher Columbus. There's a kind-of-sort-of rebellion being "led" by the title character, though it seems mainly to involve waiting for Our Heroes to show up-- at which point Our Heroes decide the best course of action is to wait for Aslan to show up and Deus Ex Machina the Spaniards Telmarines to death.

Well, most of them decide that. The High King, Peter, decides the best course of action is a frontal assault on the bad guys' castle. (I can surmise from his decision- making skills exactly why he's called the High King-it's called "dope" for a reason....) Between underutilization of the Free Narnia Air Force (the one bit of strategy they got right, in both this movie and its predecessor: If you have flying animals, the phrase "air power" suddenly becomes important; as does, in this case, "airborne insertion"), the obligatory "You killed my father; prepare to die" dialoguing session, and the fact that castles are designed with courtyards in order to provide the defenders with a shooting gallery, Peter and Caspian go on to get a great many of their followers massacred. This leaves me with the distinct impression that Narnia might be better off without these congenital-mental-defectives.

This leads, inexorably, to the Final Showdown at the good guys' stronghold. The High King tokes up takes up responsibility for his EPIC FAIL-- and decides the best way to solve the problem is to engage in one-on-one combat with people whose main notable feature is Being A Bunch Of Dishonest Scumbags. This leads to a good ten minutes of watching Peter and the head bad guy beat on one another. If you think I'm spoiling anything by saying "Peter wins, but the bad guys then arrange to make it look as though the good guys backstabbed them, you really need to get to the theatre more often.

This allows the Climactic Final Battle, where the Spaniards Telmarines, thanks to Caspian and what has to be the weakest stone pillars ever made, get to reenact the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg (hmm...) in 1864-- as Union General James Ledlie's division (oh, look it up, for crying out loud). As usual for such flicks, though, the inal battle is purely an aside to the youngest hero hieing off to find Aslan. She duly hies, Aslan is duly found, and the bad guys are duly D.E.M.-ed. Caspian is installed as the new King, and Our Heroes are shipped off to their dreary, boring lives in Britain.

I suppose this flick might mean something for someone who's actually read the books; to me, it's just plain dull-- the sole high point being the realization that someone finally figured out "hey-- the good guys have creatures which fly; we can drop things on our foes, we can have the Travelocity Gnomes pretend they're GAU-8s, we can insert troops over castle walls and turrets...." Apart from that, this film is to be Avoided. (They got rid of the Beavers, too-- bastards.)

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