Saturday, May 31, 2008

Son of Rambow

Every once in a while, a movie will come along that will remind me why I love movies in the first place. Everyone has that movie that permeated their imagination so thoroughly that it changes you. A movie so in love with the art of moviemaking that it inspires you to go home, pick up a camera, and start making movies in your own backyard. For these guys, it was Raiders of the Lost Ark. For me, that movie was Clerks.

For Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), that movie was First Blood. Will's childhood is one of bible study and prayer meetings; one in which any and all pop culture is strictly forbidden. That is, until he meets a loner named Lee Carter (Will Poulter). During his first visit to Carter's home, Will watches a pirated copy of First Blood (which Lee videotaped himself at the local theater). Carter enlists Will to be the stuntman in his amateur film, which Will soon turns into his chance to portray the son of John Rambo.

It's easy to say that writer/director Garth Jennings' film plays deeply in the power of imagination. And it does. However, what's more interesting is that the film not only depicts Will's enormous wellspring of imagination, but follows through and shows us the fruits of his and Lee's labor. After all, half the fun of making a movie is showing it to others, right? All the stress of working with others, the ingenuity of having to do everything yourself, Son of Rambow is an ode to the plight of amateur filmmakers, young and old.

Underneath the plot of two cineastes making a movie is an even more poignant story of a friendship between two kids who couldn't possibly be more different, and maybe shouldn't be friends in the first place. The pairing itself is a typical Odd Couple team, but the two young stars handle the script like pros. They never come across as annoying or grating, but more like the playfully ambitious duo that they're portraying. For their part, the supporting cast do a fine job, including Jessica Stevenson (Spaced) as Will's overprotective mother.

If the film has any faults at all, it's that it doesn't go for broke as often as I might have liked. I'd have liked another scene or two for each of the film's subplots to develop a little fuller. But then, that would have likely betrayed the simplicity that Son of Rambow seems to champion. The film does begin to lose its way near the end, but then so do Will and his newfound film crew. Once things come to a head during the 'getaway scene', the film gets itself back on track and proves to be all the more touching for it.

Jennings' script brings Will and Lee's friendship full circle, and plays on your emotions in some unexpected ways. The sheer joy of storytelling at play in Son of Rambow is something that more films need to adopt, and quickly. Jennings' film is a lot of things, but tedious is not one of them. Simply put, the ending sold me on the film perhaps even more than the whole of the film did. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, but I absolutely appreciate the journey, and look forward to taking it again on DVD. As far as movies about kids being kids go, Son of Rambow is something special.

4 stars (****) out of 5.

Catching Up

I hate that I never got around to posting reviews for either Prince Caspian or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Time just wasn't on my side in the last week or so.  

However, if you'd like to hear my thoughts on Prince Caspian, head on over to my podcast's homepage at and listen to our most recent episode.  In a nutshell, the film is really no better or worse than its predecessor.  The only marked improvement is in the effects work, which were at times very impressive.  Depending on what you thought of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that might mean the film is right up your alley.  Personally, I rate the film a 3.5 out of 5.

As for Indiana Jones, I've got my nitpicks about it, but for the most part enjoyed the film very much.  For the full list of complaints, grievances and whatnot, tune in to the next episode of Front Row Center, June 9th at 9 PM.  Then, Trent, Watson and myself will do all sorts of arguing about Indiana Jones, Kung Fu Panda, and probably a number of other things.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

25 Years of Jedi

It's been 25 years since Return of the Jedi hit theaters Memorial Day weekend of 1983. This isn't much of a milestone for anyone except the hardcore Star Wars fans, but it's certainly an interesting anniversary. It means the original Star Wars trilogy in full has been around for a quarter of a century. Now, I wasn't yet a twinkle in my parents eyes when Jedi came out, but of all the original Star Wars films, it's had the greatest impact on me as a fan of the series, and as a film viewer in general.

The way my dad tells it, as soon as I was able to start watching anything, he tried to get me to watch Star Wars with him. The first issue was I was a fidgety little creature and refused to sit still long enough to watch the whole thing. The second issue was that the only Star Wars movie we had on VHS was Return of the Jedi. I'd say once I was six or seven years old, I finally got curious and asked to watch it. Now, Star Wars really didn't click for me until I was probably ten or eleven, right around the time the Special Editions reached theaters. By that time, I'd finally seen the first two films, but the damage was already done. I'd watched Jedi first, so I knew Darth Vader was Luke's father, I knew Luke and Leia were siblings, and I knew everything turned out okay. Clearly, none of this dissuaded me from wanting to see A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. And I did, and I loved them just as much as I loved Return of the Jedi.

Today, my favorite film in the series is Empire Strikes Back, but I still hold a special place in my heart for Jedi. For all intents and purposes, Jedi is sort of the black sheep of the series. The first act is an oddly staged con to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt. To this day, I'm not entirely keen on it. The battle over the Sarlacc Pit makes the sequence worth it, but to get there you have to slog through some pretty grim stuff. Then, of course, there's Luke's final visit with Yoda, which has always captivated me for some reason. I think it's because seeing the old master on his deathbed first makes the spry, goofy Yoda in Empire kind of jarring to watch.

The second half of the film more than makes up for the oddly paced first half. The three-tiered Battle of Endor is the ultimate climax to the series. There's a good reason why they didn't change a single bit of it for the Special Edition. The model work at play here is the best I've ever seen, and with the advent of CGI I doubt I'll see anything top it. The land battle between Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, rebel troops, Ewoks, and stormtroopers, while a tad on the silly side, is still exciting. Then, of course, there's the duel between Luke and Vader, with the Emperor watching from the sidelines. The duel in Empire is the more captivating of the two, but there's a real drive and urgency to this duel that's always sent a chill down my spine.

(Author's note: In the middle of typing this, I suddenly found Return of the Jedi on TV. Clearly, I'm not the only one who knows whose birthday it is.)

Additionally, Ian McDiarmid's Emperor has always kind of haunted me. Sitting on his throne, bored disdain for everyone, including Darth Vader, oozed from his jet black robes. I remember him freaking me out most of anything from the Star Wars movies, and that was almost certainly by design.

I could go on all day about what I love about Return of the Jedi. It's one of the four or five movies that molded me into the film lover I am today. But instead, I'm just going to wish Jedi a happy 25th, and I hope to enjoy it for many decades to come.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a movie to finish.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The List Project

Just for simplicity's sake, I think I'm going to shut down the Extended List Project and incorporate it into this blog. I've been far too infrequent with updating it, and since I have this blog anyway, there's not much reason for having two. So, I'll still be posting oddball lists like I'd been doing at the List Project blog. They'll just be posted here.

Also if anyone is interested, my podcast (Front Row Center), will be broadcasting live tomorrow night at for the very first time. The upshot of this switch is that listeners can log on to the website and chat with us live during the show. So if anyone's interested, you can find out show's page here:

We'd love to have an audience for our first episode with TalkShoe (which is actually our 29th episode)!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Speed Racer

I've made nearly a dozen false starts in trying to write a decent review for Speed Racer, and I simply can't do it. So I'll put it in simple terms: Speed Racer is the single most exhilarating film experience I've had all year. It does things with narrative film language that I can honestly say I've never seen before, and the Wachowskis aren't breaking the rules. They're simply showing us new ways to think about those rules, and the way Speed Racer tells its story never betrays the way we understand it. Intricate flashback sequences only work to advance every facet of the plot instead of bring things to a halt just to tell us things we may not need to know. As the story unfolds, things remain clear and easy to follow, which is essential, because at its heart Speed Racer is absolutely a kids movie.

The move and its basic plot are both very simple, things that kids will easily understand. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) and his family have racing in their blood, so much so that their oldest son, Rex, left the family behind to make racing a more respectable sport. Boiled down to the basics, the movie is about Speed trying to be the best driver out there. But built on top of it is a story about underhanded business deals, mob connections, and clashing ideas regarding the nature of competition. Some of this might go over kids' heads, but for the rest of us it makes Speed Racer's plot all the more twisted and fascinating.

And that's one of the things that the entire movie does so well. The Wachowskis do a remarkable job of stylizing the reality of this world, while at the same time making it seem strangely believable. The aesthetic is like nothing you've ever seen, yet the characters' motives and reasoning are tied to some very real-world concepts. The fact that businessman Royalton (Roger Allam) tries to intimidate Speed with stories of the business behind the racing world is the kind of thing that I'm sure MBAs pull their hair out over. It's too complicated for some kids to wrap their heads around (or even care much about), but for the older viewers, it makes the meat of the film that much juicier.

It's been almost a week since I saw the movie, and I'm still coming down from the visual sugar rush. The colors are vibrant, the editing style is frenetic, Michael Giacchino's
score swirls and pops with memorable themes, and yet it's all surprisingly easy to follow. I am astonished at how fluid the visual overload of the film was. Super-extreme close-ups, camera tricks that could only be achieved with CG, and stylistic pastiche of computer-generated and hand-drawn backgrounds, and gloriously imaginative set designs all make Speed Racer the kind of film with which scholars like David Bordwell would have a field day.

From the exhilarating races that make up the crux of the film to the goofy antics of Spritle and Chim-Chim, the film never struck a sour note with me, nor was the length much of an issue. There were slow patches, but those were quickly remedied with action sequences that never looked like the ones that preceded it. For my money, there's simply nothing like Speed Racer, and that's a great, great thing.

Now, a quick perusal of Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic will show you that most critics are panning the film for being too much eye-candy for not enough payoff. My guess is that none of these critics are prepared to admit that Speed Racer represents a new way of watching and making movis. The visual overload is all part of the experience, and the hyper-kinetic storytelling is very much a 'love it or hate it' style. I've never been a big fan of the cartoon series, mostly because I never really saw it much as a kid. I know enough to know what to expect out of the film, and as such Speed Racer exceeded expectation. I can't wait to see Speed Racer again, and in a nutshell, that's all that needs to be said.

****1/2 (4.5 stars out of five)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

New Direction

Alright, here it is. A new lease on life for PCJL. From here on out, you'll be getting movie reviews, essays, and all kinds of weird stuff that I'll be writing about. Included in that are updates and links to my podcast (Front Row Center), as well as updates for my other blog, the Extended List Project.

First up is a review of Speed Racer.

Stay tuned!