Hot Tub Time Machine

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★☆

Summary:  So ridiculous it had to work.

Hot Tub Time Machine Poster

Perhaps there is benefit to the unusual equation.

It’s rare that I believe a film will be good on a gut feeling.  Typically I like to read reviews, talk to people who have seen it, and then actually watch the film myself before labeling it as enjoyable or bad.

Not so with ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’.

I had no reason to like it. Just watching commercials for it, it should have looked too ridiculous for me to believe it would have been good. I should have wanted to denounce it as a stupid, ‘Hangover’-with-a-gimmick, rip off film that would go for cheap laughs and cheat me out of ten bucks. I should have had a bad feeling about this film. But I didn’t, and that has made all the differences.
Yes, I saw all of the commercials for it, and I said to myself, “Self, we have to see this movie! And we also have to stop referring to our self in the third person!” Okay that didn’t really happen, but the point is that I had a good vibe out this movie, and I convinced a group of friends of mine, who unfortunately did NOT share my optimism, to see it. Long story short, we all were thoroughly entertained.

So, (in case the blatant title and all the commercials didn’t tell you the gist of the plot) four guys whose lives are decidedly crappy get whisked away through the power of “some kind of hot tub time machine” back to 1986, to a very memorable and pivotal weekend they spent together. Hilarity ensues as they relive it, deciding whether or not to change their actions and change the future, and in the end renew their fraying bonds of friendship with each other.

It’s not that this movie isn’t dumb. It’s not that it isn’t a ‘Hangover’-with-a-gimmick film. Believe me it is. But what saves is that the filmmakers say, “Yes, we know it’s ridiculous and stupid, but just go with us on it and we promise we’ll make you laugh all the way through.” And they do. Really, it’s surprisingly witty dialogue and jokes that work more than half the time that make this film entertaining. I couldn’t help but smile when they talk about the recent bomb of ‘Wild Hogs’ when mentioning male bonding, or how one of the time travelers changes the future and becomes a member of Motley Crue.

So, if you’re a fan of spoofs and time travel, give this film a watch. You’ll be surprised at how much you laugh.

(Note from James: From what I understand, however, the film is very much R-rated, so I’ll leave it at that.)

Attack Of The Clones (Episode II)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Still plagued with problems similar to its mixed predecessor, ‘Clones’ shows us just a little more of what we wanted to see, and when it works, it works.

Thank God for Drew Struzan.

Thank God for Drew Struzan.

Review:  As the ‘Star Wars’ Prequels carried on, Lucas kept pushing technological innovation, enabling the crew to achieve a vision of the space opera that is much closer to Lucas’ original conception of it.  Circa 1974, Lucas had written a spectacular and veritably impossible-to-make film called ‘The Star Wars’, which included hundreds of elements that would show up in all of the final films.  The technology necessary to transfer this rough draft to the screen in a convincing manner wouldn’t exist until the early 2000s.  Along with its wild action and splendor came story elements, especially in the second Prequel, ‘Attack Of The Clones’.

The Jedi protagonists, Anakin and Obi-Wan, inherited the relationship between the “Jedi Bendu” master and apprentice in the original ‘The Star Wars’.  Their bickering, Anakin’s desire to be free of Obi-Wan’s wise restrictions, etc. are all there.  This works pretty well in the ’74 script, but seems kind of out of place in this film because Anakin and Obi-Wan have been master and padawan for about 12 years, while in the ’74 script the apprentice had been transferred from the tutelage of his dying father to this new master, and was bitter about it.  No such bitterness aught to be here.  This criticism aside, once again, the master-apprentice relationship is the strongest interplay of the movie.  The other relationships are somewhat lacking, or just bad.  In particular, and infamously, the romance between Anakin and Padme, which is pretty badly written.  The weakest aspect of Lucas’ original ’74 ‘The Star Wars’ draft was the dialog, and it comes back from the dead to torment the Prequels.

Thankfully, though, the technology had finally caught up with Lucas’ idea of what the action should look like and feel like.  The visceral scope and feel of the birth pangs of the Clone War are pretty spectacular.  Their main weakness is a lack of the warm character interplay familiar to the Original Trilogy.  Part of this weakness is again the dialog, especially in how the actors choose to deliver it.  It comes across as either stilted or overblown, most of the time, and the actors who seems most comfortable with the material and sound more convincing are Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Frank Oz (Yoda), and Christopher Lee (Count Dooku).  These folks are good enough at their trade that performing against a soulless blue screen — a major drawback to the new tech — doesn’t hamper them too much, even when the writing lets them down.

The best part of the movie, the part worth seeing, is Obi-Wan’s travels across the galaxy to unravel the mystery of the Kaminoans and their clone army.  The action is much, much closer to the tight, visceral tone of the Original Trilogy in his scenes, and he’s a likable guy going up against a well-done enigma.

Philosophically, the film suffers a bit, because the romance is so trite (despite being of great importance to the story), the clone army isn’t examined in the ethical light that it should have been, and the Separatists bad guys are never given a sympathetic light that would have explored the degeneration of the Republic.  Nevertheless, I will do what I must.  I’ll try to dig in and infer things from the narrative.

The forbidden romance seems to be an attempt to explore the ancient struggle of love vs. duty, which also shows up in classic works like ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’.  Is following one’s feelings, especially love, more imperative than performing one’s previous high obligations?  A possible solution is to suggest that the particular duty be judged in a utilitarian manner, which, in addition to being hilariously ironic if you know anything about ethics, would allow a person to weigh the benefits of either path without a blind devotion to his duty, or his love.

The clone army is pitted against the Separatist’s mechanical army.  The clones, being human beings, can react rationally and creatively to any number of situations, despite being genetically altered to be obedient without question.  The droids are easily taken by surprise and require a great deal more control from their flesh-and-blood masters.  The clone army contrasts with the droids while shedding light on something more terrifying, something directly connected to the rise of Darth Vader and the Empire:  The blending of machines and mechanical principles with sentient beings, a kind of “Anti-Force”.  The clone army are created with mechanical manipulation, they eventually lead to the creation of the Empire (which dominates and manipulates people as if they were mechanical), and the Empire is also created with the help of Darth Vader, who is transformed into a person who is mostly machine.  The enemy droids themselves are just a part of the Sith gambit to capture the Republic.  To contrast with the Sith use of machines to manipulate life, Lucas holds up the pristine planet Naboo in the Prequels, and the planets Yavin, Endor, and Degobah in the Original Trilogy.  They each are tied to characters that represent biological communion with the Force and oppose the Empire, the Sith, and the perverse use of machines.  Here’s what I think Lucas is saying:  Biology and spirituality are symbiotic, but machines should never have this kind of relationship with biological beings.

The Separatists, an evolution of the villains from Episode I, are the great dupes of the Prequels.  They’re portrayed as unsympathetic and unjustified in their separation from Republic control.  The only time that a major character makes a statement that shows some understanding of their point-of-view is in Episode III.  The Separatists are basically greedy.  There’s no indication (in this film) that they have a good reason for waving goodbye to the Republic.  So, we’re never able to explore in greater detail the real underlying problems with the present system that Darth Sidious exploits.

I’m surprised I was able to get that much out of it.  This is a good movie, but it could’ve used a rewrite.

(Future me:  Actually, I had a chance to read the whole second draft of this movie, and was very impressed.  It dragged on at a couple points, but was overall much better than the final film.  Ironically, the rewrite might have hurt it this time, though it was probably necessitated by length.)

The Phantom Menace (Episode I)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Though suffering from lackluster characters and a plot that lacks common sense, ‘The Phantom Menace’ still manages to get back some of ol’ ‘Star Wars’ charm.

Such a great poster.  Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any film.

Such a great poster. Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any franchise.

Review:  I admit it.  I’m a sucker for ‘Star Wars’.  I’m a huge fan of the Original Trilogy, but I was also one of those people whose childhood was jazzed up considerably by the anticipation and experience of the new Prequels, and who then ungratefully proceeded to denounce them as inferior.  I think it’s totally fair to say that the Prequels are inferior, but in a stunning twist, I’ve finally made peace with my generation’s installments of the beloved space saga.  I don’t hate them anymore.  In fact, I like them.  A lot.  The trick is to recognize what exactly Lucas was going for.  It’s supposed to be his own kind of ‘Flash Gordon’ or ‘Buck Rogers’, not an airtight, gritty sci-fi movie along the lines of ‘Blade Runner’ or something.  These are family-oriented fantasy films, so ‘kiddy-ness’, in varying doses, is to be expected.  The bad writing is another issue, but we’ll tackle that film-by-film.

‘The Phantom Menace’, while a great, accessible sci-fi adventure in the same vein as the Original Trilogy, has one central weakness:  It lacks a strong dramatic train of thought.  The Originals all had their great focuses that fueled the action.  This first Prequel starts off with a pretty good pace and suspense, but this kind of erodes, only to return at the end of the film.  It gets bogged down.  The podrace sequence is pretty cool and dangerous, but should have been less of a detour.  It is necessary to the plot, but lacks the tightness and character impact that practically every moment has in ‘A New Hope’.  This signals the beginning of a problem that plagues all three Prequels, that of a sense of unpolished scripting that could’ve been fixed by a rewrite or two, or three.  Episode IV, by contrast, was practically overwritten, and was fully mature as a story.  It’s not that George Lucas is a bad storyteller, but I suspect that he was unwilling to replicate the painful process that created the Original Trilogy, which I can’t blame him for.

Anyway, nevertheless, the film is pretty strong.  Liam Neeson plays the best character in the piece, as Obi-Wan’s master, Qui-Gon.  Actually, that master-apprentice relationship is the best written part of the movie, with a pretty good conclusion in their duel with Darth Maul.  Which segues me to the villains, the weakest aspect of the film, and of the Prequels in general.  Darth Maul makes an excellent Sith villain, mysterious, dangerous, and used like a potent seasoning.  The shadowy Darth Sidious, later the Emperor in the Originals, is great.  The problem is, they’re mostly in the background in this film, and the up-front bad guys — the Trade Federation — are pretty darn lame.  They are not intimidating in the least, and suck the urgency right out of the movie.

The other supporting characters are also pretty weak, especially the dreaded Jar-Jar Binks, who isn’t that bad, except for being slathered all over the movie like barbeque sauce.  Young Anakin and his mother, Shmi, are actually an exception to this rule.  They do pretty well — despite slowing the pace down far too much.

Philosophically, here’s my take on it.  An interesting — and very controversial  — addition to the Force mythos is the idea of a biological connection to it through “midi-chlorians”, apparently symbiotic creatures that live inside of everyone’s cells in differing concentrations.  There is some complaint that this saps the mysticism out of the Force/person relationship, but it can be argued that this was a pretty clever way of showing synchronicity between science and spiritually in ‘Star Wars’.  Because the midi-chlorian count in Anakin’s blood is the determining factor of his special identity, this shows that this new take on the Force is a subtle but central theme in ‘The Phantom Menace’.  Lucas has said that part of his motivation for making ‘Star Wars’ was to reintroduce a mythological and religious logic to youth of his generation.  Since he’s continued to be interested in educating young people, it may be that ‘The Phantom Menace’ includes this theme in order to combat a burgeoning anti-spirituality, embodied in “The new atheism” of my generation.  It certainly seems consistent with Lucas’ understanding of fantasy that transforms real paradigms.

The next major theme I want to cover is the titular threat, ‘The Phantom Menace’.  There are several interpretations of what this refers to, the most common — and possibly canon — guess being that it is Darth Sidious, the evil Sith pulling the strings to topple the Republic.  Or, I would suggest, it refers to Anakin Skywalker.  Lucas has stated that the story of ‘Star Wars’ is all about Anakin, and since this is the chronological first in the series, it would make sense to refer to the protagonist.  Yoda states, when young Anakin is brought before the Jedi Council, that he senses a dark and evil future for the boy, or, one could say, a phantom menace.  This nagging fear of Anakin’s evil fate will eventually swallow up the story of the Prequels, as it rightly should, so even though Darth Sidious becomes the mechanism by which Anakin is brought into his destiny, it’s reasonable to conclude that the phantom menace is Anakin himself.

Anyhow, this is actually a pretty good and fun ‘Star Wars’ movie.  It’s arguably the most kid-friendly (the intense climatic lightsaber duel notwithstanding).  Certainly, there’s no good reason to be bitter about it or condemn George Lucas to fanboy hell for “ruining your childhood”.

Patrick’s Top Ten Directors (Without An Order)

Well, apparently I’ve been called out on the Silver Mirror for a top ten directors.  Here we go.  My Top Ten Directors (again in no particular order):

Sergio Leone

I feel a little guilty about stealing a little of James’ top ten thunder here, but it’s a proven fact that Sergio Leone is made of pure awesome.  His movies are violent, comical, and (surprisingly) touching.  He doesn’t allow himself to get boxed in by labels or genres.  Even if you’re not a fan of spaghetti westerns or gangster films, you can’t help but watch his movies and smile just a little.

Hayao Miyazaki

This man is the Steven Spielberg of animated films.  Movies like ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’ show powerful story telling and an incredibly beautiful sense of art, all the while delivering a powerful and yet not anvilicious message.  He shows that animation isn’t just for kids, it’s for adults too.

Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner knows how to make a good movie.  Well, as a matter of fact, he knows how to make a lot of different kinds of good movies.  He’s done everything from horror movies like ‘Misery’, to dramas like a ‘Few Good Men’, to fantasies like ‘The Princess Bride’, to family movies like ‘Stand by Me’, to comedies like ‘This is Spinal Tap’.  Few directors have such a resume.

Akira Kurosawa

The excellence of Akira Kurosawa cannot be understated.  He is the mastermind behind Japanese epics full of action, slow motion, quick cuts, and badass samurais.  He’s not too well known in the U.S. of A., but he ought to be, considering that such famous films as ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ wouldn’t have existed without his work.

Ridley Scott

What can I say?  This is the man who made ‘Alien’, ‘Blade Runner’, and ‘Gladiator’.  He’s a master of despotic story telling that still shows a surprising amount of action.  Let’s hope his next film, ‘Robin Hood’, lives up to his other classic works.

John Carpenter

John Carpenter is a master of horror and suspense.  He has scared audiences to death with films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Thing’.  He’s also responsible for the arguably coolest character in the history of film, ‘Escape from New York’s’ Snake Plisken (“Call me Snake”). Badass!

John McTiernan

I think action directors are very underrated.  John McTiernan helped resurrect the then-ridiculous genre in the late 80’s and early 90’s with such classics as ‘Die Hard’, ‘Predator’, and ‘The Hunt For Red October’.  He’s made his fair share of bad films, but when it comes to action films, you can count on him to deliver.

Woody Allen

Woody Allen is great about telling very personal stories that also manage to make you laugh your ass off.  His insights are unique and yet relatable at the same time.  His movies about everyday people caught up in the struggle of day-to-day life are forever entertaining.

Clint Eastwood

Not only is he a badass actor, but a master director as well.  He shows seemingly hard-hearted people slowly learn to open up to others, and it’s a powerful effect.  Films like ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Gran Torino’ mix subtly and raw power.  As the Smashing Pumpkins might put it, he is a bullet with butterfly wings.

Don Bluth

Don Bluth dominated my childhood. Films like ‘The Land Before Time’ and ‘The Secret of NIMH’ I still love to this day.  There’s a certain mysticism he employs in his films that is, well, empowering.  The characters in his movies are always just a little more real than in other animated stories, and it makes them that more relatable and really less “kiddy”.  That’s the great staple of his animated films.  They aren’t just for kids, they really are for all ages.

Elements Of The Screen: The Movie And The Game

Hey, folks!  It’s time for another article in the ‘Elements’ series!

This one’s more or less in response to Roger Ebert’s article “Video Games Can Never Be Art”, and therein I express my dismay at his point-of-view, and I attempt to explain how the evolving artistic world of video games better illustrates what a movie ought to be.

Click here to make the leap: The Movie And The Game

Classic Review: Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

Stars: ***1/2 out of 4

Summary:  It is indeed a triumph of escapist entertainment, that cemented the ‘Indiana Jones’ legend.

This poster, like Led Zeppelin, gets me pumped.  I think I'll go out, and kick ass or something.

This poster, like Led Zeppelin, gets me pumped. I think I'll go out, and kick ass or something.

Review:  Back in the day, this installment of the Lucas/Spielberg adventure film series was the most controversial among fans.  Some people loved it for its guts (in the sense of gumption) and its gore (not in the sense of Al) and its rousing sense of catharsis.  Others hated it for its darkness, horror sequences, and its difference in style from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  Of course, it has been retroactively absolved of its sins by the fan community at large since the release of the similarly controversial ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’.  Nevertheless, here’s where I stand in the argument.

The first thing that must be done in the viewer’s mind before experiencing ‘Temple of Doom’ is the realization of a simple fact: This film is not ‘Raiders’.  All four ‘Indiana Jones’ movies have their own rules, textures, and stories that distinguish them rather largely, even though they are (arguably loosely) connected by inner continuity.  The second thing is that the viewer must not go in unprepared for the film’s darkness.  I do sometimes wish they had stuck with the original title, ‘Temple of Death’, because the frankness and implications of it are more in line with the film’s tone.  The tone, however, is the film’s greatest cinematic weak point.  It swings very broadly from a zany sense of comedy-adventure akin to mainstream 1930s films of the same vein, and a bleak, horrific atmosphere more akin to horror films of the 1980s.  The clashing sensibilities of these two tones is what has made the film so controversial.

What the movie communicates, though, by contrasting the two, is Indy & Co’s journey into (basically) Hell and back.  The established lightness of the film gives the heroes something to go ‘back’ to once the conflict is over.  ‘Temple’ does take risks, but it takes them only so far.  If you’re prepared for what’s going to happen, the horror sequences, while disquieting, only serve as a backbone for Indy’s roaring rampage of revenge on the villainous Thuggee cult, which is what we’re hoping to see.  The bad guys nearly triumph, but the good guys do win in the end.  As a distinct story, this is what makes ‘Temple’ worth seeing: It’s an update of the classic myth of the hero’s journey into the underworld.  Though ‘Temple’ has Hindu sensibilities on account of its Indian setting, the story has a pronounced Christian flavor.  The notion of Christ’s decent into Hell to rescue the captives is, in a way, mirrored by Indy’s rescue of the slave children.  To quote St. Cyril’s words about Christ, ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely’.  In the same way, the only thing left in the devastated and emptied Temple of Doom is the lonely statue of Kali, with no one to worship it or satisfy a demonic blood lust.  There’s a purely human hope expressed in seeing the Hero return from Hell with a train of freed captives.  We have to believe that even the most horrible things that exist can be destroyed by a bond of love and nobility.

The controversial nature and timeless tone of ‘Temple’ cemented what ‘Raiders’ had begun.  Indy’s legacy was established, though the series now had the scent of smoke.

James’ Five Most Anticipated Films Of 2010

Hey folks.  Here’s the five movies due to be released this year that I am most looking forward to.  Pretty much what the title said.  Oh, and they’re in no particular order.

The A-Team


Here’s the why. I haven’t seen any of director Joe Carnahan’s stuff, but I like the look of this. I’m a massive fan of the old show, and I sure hope Joe is too. At least he picked the right actors. I think. TBR June 11th.

Tron Legacy


Here’s the why. The original ‘Tron’ was strangely awesome, mostly due to its leading cast. That’s why the new one has my attention, as they brought back Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner. The User abides.  TBR December 17th.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Here’s the why. Jerry Bruckheimer, producing, knows what makes a genre movie work.  Judging by the trailer, they went as all out on this one as they did on the ‘Pirates’ movies, in terms of casting and visual impact, so it may be the first really decent — or good — video game adaptation.  Well, I’ve heard some decent things about other video game adaptations, but if this is one is really fun, it will probably be the benchmark. TBR May 28th.

Inception

Here’s the why. It’s Christopher Nolan’s latest “mid-Batman” movie.  ‘Cuz, you know, he made ‘Batman Begins’, then ‘The Prestige’, which was quite good, then ‘The Dark Knight’, now ‘Inception’, then ‘Batman 3’ or whatever.  I’m thinking it’s going to run along the same kind of quality. TBR July 16th.

Iron Man 2


Here’s the why. ‘Cuz it’s just so cool. TBR May 7th.

Yeah, I know these are all action movies, and most of them have a sci-fi/fantasy bent.  I’m an 18-year-old male who enjoys things like shooting guns, smoking pipes and wishing I had a girlfriend.  Sue me.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Adrenaline soaked, fist-pumping action, and a decent moral argument, as well.

Frustratingly, there's still no Titans.

Frustratingly, there's still no Titans.

Review:  Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion maestro, provided the effects for the original 1981 ‘Clash of the Titans’, and behold, it was very good, in an ’80s cheese kinda way.  It really wasn’t that great, though, and so it was one of those properties that more or less deserved a remake.  The opportunity was there to take the mythology-blending concept of the original and infuse it with a stronger story and better characters.  To my surprise, the new movie does just that — if not totally to the extent it could have.

It’s a tighter, leaner affair.  Instead of humanity simply bowing to the whims of the famously capricious and arbitrary Greek deities, as in the ’81 film, here they reflect the real world 21st century resurgence of humanism and rebellion against the religious norms of the past.  The citizens of the city of Argos are waging an all-out war on the gods, mirroring the overthrow of the Titans by the gods themselves in the distant history, as told in the stars.  The Olympians control the good and bad fortunes of humanity, and to the people of Argos, it has become apparent that they have become a liability to the socially evolving race.  As people get more powerful and intelligent on a personal and societal scale, what need have they of the mercy and favor of the dangerously fickle gods?  Boiling down this cosmic struggle into one man, of course, is the protagonist, Perseus (Sam Worthington), who discovers he is the half-human son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), and watched over by the ageless, knowledgeable and sexy-cute Io (Gemma Arterton).  There’s nothing particularly Oscar-winning about these performances, or by the rest of the large and very fun supporting cast (including Ralph Fiennes as the villainous Hades), but they fit perfectly with tongue-in-cheek and grandiose nature of the material.  The action is all fantastic, of course, but what makes it awesome is how enthusiastically played everybody is.  No one seems the least bit bored, here.

The great moral statement made by the new ‘Clash’ is the conclusion of Perseus’ story arc, and what separates him from his morally schizophrenic father: Simple humility is the correct response to power.  The gods failed to be better than the dangerous Titans because they saw power as entitlement and superiority rather than a burden or call to serve.  Perseus, the movie seems to say, is what we ought to expect from both the divine and mankind.  “We fight and we die for each other, not for you,” Perseus tells Zeus.  Which, of course, encapsulates the good of humanism, which when properly understood, is in no way antithetical to Christian theology.  “God became man,” says Christian St. Athanasius, “So that man may become god.”  Christ, like Perseus in ‘Clash’, chose to live and die as a man rather than as God, and in doing so elevated mankind beyond our comprehension.  The Christian God is nothing like the domineering Zeus.  Jesus has nothing to prove, except His love, and humbles Himself to achieve that end.

‘Clash’ is a rip-roaring yarn, and great entertainment.  Go see it.

The Hurt Locker

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  …Dude.

How about a spot of tea?

Uh... How about a spot of tea?

Review:  Whoa.  ‘The Hurt Locker’ is killer.  This is not a product of hype, here; it really is that good.  The fact that it defeated the big, bad ‘Avatar’ is awesome, and is a testament to a simple fact:  3-D is (until proven otherwise) an irrelevant addition to cinema.  Seriously.  You might as well install smell-o-vision, water sprayers or dynamic, vibrating chairs in cinemas.  Theme Park rides are cool, and are indeed a kind of art, but they are not the same as cinema.  The heart of cinema is the characters and their universe, not eye-candy.  If you can buy the characters, it really doesn’t matter if the film is dead silent or extravagant in every way.  Music is also integral to cinema, and not in any way superfluous, but 3-D definitely is.  It has yet to prove itself as its own art.  Even the beautiful ‘Avatar’, I believe, was hurt by relying too much on it.  If 3-D is going to be respected, it can’t be a crutch.  But I digress.  Let’s talk ‘The Hurt Locker’.

The premise of director Kathryn Ann Bigelow’s opus is a quote from journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”  After this quote fades away, we’re thrown into war-torn Iraq, focusing intently on a small U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit.  In the first scene, they try to disarm a bomb — and it ends with the unit leader running from the explosion.  What happens next shows us that the rules are much more realistic, and therefore harsher, than your typical thriller.  He dies.  You can’t just run from a bomb, here in ‘The Hurt Locker’.  They either explode and kill you, or they don’t, and chances are not good.  The unit gets a new leader, who quickly shows himself to be reckless and ruthless in his bomb-disarming tactics.  These “disarming” sequences are anything but that; they scare the hell out of you.  Hitchcock would be proud.  Music, performances, cinematography, etc… it’s all perfect.

This is a movie about all-consuming addiction in the form of war, or more accurately, in the form of adrenaline.  It affects us all, in some way or another.  Some people get their buzz from arguments, from gossip, from politics, from purposefully fed paranoia, from natural danger, or from dodging bullets and disarming bombs.  What happens to Sergeant James is what could happen to any of us adrenaline addicts; He loses his love of life and of people to his thrills.  As in the classic sci-fi film ‘Forbidden Planet’, the animalistic base nature, the ‘id’, is what threatens the protagonist.  In this case, he gradually loses his higher ambitions, indeed his humanity, to it.

In contrast to ‘Avatar’, this is how a moral message should be told in a story.  It should be organic, not overbearing.  I’m awfully glad this won Best Picture.  It has restored my faith in the Oscars.

Spider-man

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Moral, big-hearted and accessible superhero action, lacking the strong thematic interplay that has made subsequent superhero movies great.

Review:  After 2000’s ‘X-Men’ helped resurrect the cinematic future of superheroes everywhere, it was inevitable that Marvel Comic’s flagship character would finally get his proper live action adaptation.  The project was in development hell since at least the 80’s, and at one time was attached to James Cameron — with an awful script.  Thankfully, it eventually ended up in popular cult filmmaker Sam Raimi’s capable hands, with a screenplay by David Koepp.  The ultimate result helped cement the public’s faith in this new generation of superhero movies, made lots and lots of money, and was pretty darn good.

It’s easy to look back at ‘Spider-man’ with cynicism after the uber-excellent Nolan ‘Batman’ movies, which have taken all new superhero films to the next level of expectation and story complexity.  It’s the family-friendly, sometimes comic and very high-spirited kind of ethos that defined Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ that the filmmakers draw on for ‘Spider-man’, and thank God they did, since it was a movie set in New York that was released the summer after 9/11/2001.  The angsty-ness that is present in ‘Spider-man’ is much more subdued and related to the coming-of-age story that forms its backbone.  ‘Spider-man’ was a crucial breath of fresh air after the baptism of fire that had defined the previous Fall, and the coming-of-age story, centered on personal tragedy and the loss of security, resonated with young people.  For young adults who saw the movie that summer, the classic ‘Spider-man’ moral of “With great power comes great responsibility” meant something.  With the War on Terror threatening to consume their future, and faith in U.S. homeland security dramatically lessened, I wonder how many of them drew upon their great power of courage and took up the great responsibility of a soldier?

As a standalone film, though, just how good is it?  Well… still pretty good.  Though it has some strong themes, it would’ve benefitted from greater complexity, in my opinion, but as I said, it may also be best that it didn’t try to be more.  It has its goofiness, and the Green Goblin design isn’t that great.  The optimism and strength of the performances are what sell the movie.  Special effects had not quite yet caught up with the potential of the superhero, but they would for the sequels.  Danny Elfman proved he can write more than one great superhero score.  I laud his ‘Batman’ stuff a lot, but this score is pretty close.

Highly recommended, even for fans of ‘The Dark Knight’.  It makes a good, lighter counterpoint, but lacks the epicness of Donner’s ‘Superman’.