Friday, February 27, 2009


Potential spoilers ahead. Fair warning.

The late 1990s were a special time to be a Star Wars fan. The original trilogy was re-released in theaters. Sure, the additions Lucas made varied in quality. But more than that, there were rumblings of the absolutely unheard of. For the first time in fifteen years, it sounded like there might actually be a new movie -- no, a new trilogy -- on the way. Back then, we didn't know what to expect. There was no inkling in anyone's mind that the eventual trilogy would feature Hayden Christensen complaining about sand or Liam Neeson ruining the magic of The Force. Hindsight is 20/20, but back then you could've cut the anticipation with a vibro-axe.

That's what Kyle Newman's long in the works Fanboys is all about. It's 1998, and Star Wars fans are holding their collective breath for Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Four friends hatch a plan to break into Lucasfilm headquarters and steal a workprint of the film, and each of them has their own reason for making the journey. Eric (Sam Huntington) wants to make peace with his best friend, Linus, who's dying of cancer. Linus (Chris Marquette) wants to go because he won't live to see the May 19, 1999 release date. Windows (Jay Baruchel) wants to go for the chance to finally meet his online girlfriend. Hutch (Dan Fogler) wants to go because it's his van they're driving. And Zoe (Kristen Bell) tags along because the movie would be a total sausagefest otherwise.

What follows is pretty much your standard road trip comedy, albeit with a severe Star Wars bent. The film hits every road movie cliche, and wastes no time in geeking out at every opportunity. Along the way, the guys have run-ins with gay bikers, a gaggle of Trekkies led by Seth Rogen, geek guru Harry Knowles (badly caricatured by Ethan Suplee), and more celebrity cameos than you can shake a stick at.

A movie like Fanboys really lives and dies by it's Star Wars jokes. Honestly, it's about 50/50. For every good joke or visual gag, there are an equal number Star Wars lines quoted out of context that are clearly meant to be funny, but simply aren't. Referring to your friends by saying "These aren't the droids you're looking for"? Really? Come on. Granted, there is one line involving a doctor that's pretty great, but other than that I could really do without these. Also, from a Star Wars fanboy's perspective, the movie sometimes seems too generic. Whenever a character asks another character a piece of Star Wars trivia, it's embarrassingly easy. It makes one wonder if the writers are really Star Wars fans at all. You guys couldn't do a little more research?

And overall, that's my biggest complaint with Fanboys. It ultimately feels too light; like they could've delved a tad deeper into the fandom. I'm not asking that they make a bunch of weird, obscure references to the expanded universe or anything, but a little true fanboyism might gone a long way. Of course, there is a fine line to walk. Go too geeky and you risk alienating casual viewers who don't know an ewok from a cooking wok. To their credit, each of the main cast acquit themselves well, especially Dan Fogler, who looks and acts like the fat little brother Han Solo never had.

Much has been made of the "Linus has cancer" subplot, which Harvey Weinstein tried to cut out entirely a year ago. Star Wars fans went ballistic, boycotted Superhero Movie (how well did that really go over??), and got the subplot re-added. After all that mess, I'd say it was worth it. While it's remarkably light for such a depressing plot point, it works. It keeps the film firmly grounded as Eric and Linus' journey, rather than just about four dudes on a road trip. There is a decent payoff in the end, but it's almost entirely undercut when we learn what their initial feud was over in the first place.

Ultimately, Fanboys is sort of a "Star Wars fans only" affair, and while it doesn't have the R-rated teeth of a Sex Drive or even a Road Trip, it's definitely a fun little ode to the pursuits of one's youth. For fans, the movie is a nice reminder of the collective mindset of a decade ago. Even if you hated The Phantom Menace, you know you couldn't wait to see it. And if the movie has one ultimate success, it's in reminding us that Tom Petty was right. Waiting WAS the hardest part.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Top Ten of 2008

It's February, and that means my one month grace period on culling together my list is officially over. So now, I've seen most of the Oscar bait, I've mulled it over, and I've come to my final decision on what I think are the best movies of 2008. You'll find that my list is genre-intensive, and that's primarily because I felt 2008 was the best year for genre cinema since 2005, perhaps even since 1989. Comic book films finally went legit, Dreamworks created a film every bit as dynamic and visually crisp as the best of PIXAR, and certain films did a wonderful job of highlighting the marginalia of populer culture.

As I've done in the past, I'll give you my 20-11 list, then count down from ten to one, explaining myself along the way.

20. In Bruges
19. Mongol
18. Frost/Nixon
17. Son of Rambow
16. Tropic Thunder
15. Man on Wire
14. Valkyrie
13. Burn After Reading
12. Quantum of Solace
11. Gran Torino

10. Kung Fu Panda - As great as WALL-E is, I find Kung Fu Panda the more purely entertaining film. It's got a gorgeous animation style; it's funny, never resorting to fart jokes or pop culture references; Hans Zimmer's score is one of the most dynamic and engaging scores of the year; Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman sell their characters remarkably well; and the action sequences are simply tremendous. Kung Fu Panda makes my #10 spot because it thoroughly surprised me. I was expecting to love WALL-E; I wasn't expecting anything from Kung Fu Panda.

9. Speed Racer - Perhaps the most misunderstood movie of 2008, I think Speed Racer is destined to reach Blade Runner-like heights of cult cinema. As cartoony as a lot of the movie is, the visual effects are a monster leap forward from anything I've ever seen, and more than sell the world that the Wachowskis set up. It's probably the geekiest movie of the year, really only playing to one particular audience. The people that seem to get the movie absolutely love it, and I proudly count myself among them.

8. Let the Right One In - I've made it pretty clear how little respect I have for the vampire genre. More often than not, vampire stories shirk the rules when it's convenient to the plot, and that never ceases to bug me. Either follow the rules, or don't bother. So when a movie like Let the Right One In comes along, I have to take notice. Even the title follows the rules of the genre. But beyond simply being a successful vampire flick, this is a movie about a surprisingly intense friendship with some potentially dangerous consequences. It's far, far more successful than that other vampire movie from last year. Of course, that was no contest.

7. Milk - Regardless of your personal politics, it's hard to deny Milk as a powerful biography and political success story. Gus Van Sant subdues his more artistic sensibilities to allow Sean Penn all the room he needs for one outstanding performance. Even then, Van Sant does some really unique things with archival footage, and it helps tell Harvey Milk's story remarkably well. Of course, the reason to see the film is for Sean Penn's performance, but Emile Hirsch, James Franco, and Josh Brolin give equally successful turns.

6. Hellboy II: The Golden Army - 2008 was perhaps the best year for comic book films ever, and in the year of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it's easy to overlook a film like Hellboy II. Everything Guillermo del Toro learned from Pan's Labyrinth is on display here, which includes an extraordinary amount of visual effects (practical and CG), makeup effects, and sheer imagination. Hellboy II really lives and dies by Ron Perlman's performance, and he performs admirably. Along with Speed Racer, this is certainly one of the most creative films in quite some time.

5. Iron Man - Now, The Dark Knight might technically be the better film, but (like Kung Fu Panda) I find Iron Man more purely entertaining. Robert Downey, Jr's turn as Tony Stark is simply one of a number of wonderful performances in 2008, and he goes a long way in making the film watchable. Of course, Jon Favreau's steady direction and knowhow for marrying practical effects with CG also help make Iron Man the popcorn action flick to beat in 2008. Only time will tell if Marvel Studios can parlay Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk into an equally successful franchise, but until then, Iron Man is a better film than we probably deserve.

4. The Dark Knight - And then there was Batman. To me, the success of The Dark Knight always seemed like a foregone conclusion (sorta like my reaction to WALL-E). My expectations were very high, and they were met. That's not to slight the film's achievement. Christopher Nolan deserves a lot of credit for springboarding from the already admirable Batman Begins into a film that's considerably more complex. Heath Ledger's take on The Joker is, indeed, fantastic and disturbing, but it's Aaron Eckhart's turn as Harvey Dent that really breathes life into the film. As a superhero film, I doubt The Dark Knight will ever be topped.

3. The Wrestler - As harshly brutal, gruesome, and starkly realistic as Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is, you'll be hard pressed to find a more likable film, and the reason for that is Mickey Rourke's performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a has-been pro wrestler faced with his own mortality. It's easily the best performance of 2008, and the film is one that you're not likely to forget any time soon. It's bound to be Rourke's signature performance, and it's almost certainly Aronofsky's best film. If you don't shed a tear for Randy at any point during this film, you just might be a robot.

2. WALL-E - As I've pointed out before, my love for WALL-E seemed predestined. I'd been looking forward to it ever since I saw the teaser attached to Ratatouille. A PIXAR sci-fi movie? I'm there. But what I found was not just a great sci-fi story, but a remarkably moving love story as well. The things that Andrew Stanton and his team do with visual storytelling is awe-inspiring, and it's one of the most deft and agile animated films ever made. And as much as I've kinda dumped on it so far in this post, let me make it clear: I absolutely adore WALL-E. It's one of the more life-affirming films of the year, almost as life-affirming as...

1. Slumdog Millionaire - WALL-E may be the most deft and agile animated film ever made, but Danny Boyle's tale of a lovestruck youth competing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to win the attention of the girl of his dreams is every bit as deft and agile in its storytelling. The way Boyle and his team deal in flashbacks and time jumps is not only astounding, but remarkable in how fluid much of the film ends up being. It's a film that's not always easy to watch, but the ultimate reward in watching Jamal succeed in his journey is like nothing else I saw in 2008.