Esteban H.'s Movie Ratings - Rotten Tomatoes

Movie Ratings and Reviews

Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow is not a director whose work I am too familiar with. I know the renown of Hurt Locker, but I never saw the film. I watched Strange Days many years ago, and I vaguely remember hating the film. However, Zero Dark Thirty is a great, great movie, and the credit for its brilliance (and simplicity) goes directly to... the director. I have seldom seen a movie that so successful navigates so many difficult themes and not exploit them for cheap emotional and shock effects.

In Hollywood, there is a tendency for overworking every explosion available to heighten the moment's intensity and ride on the expected audience's adolescent glee. Bigelow manages to make every explosive moments what they should be: inescapable and dangerous. Whether the boom is expected or not, it is always devastatingly true-to-life. This is a rare gift, with movies like Transformers making an art of blowing crap up and more "dramatic" films slowing down the moment to squeeze out the drama. Bigelow, instead, never exploits those effects, nor does she abuse the emotions. There are shocking and surprising moments that come and go exactly as you would expect them to come and go in real life.

And like explosions themselves, Bigelow also manages to use the explosive topics, events, or even political fights without any sense of exploiting the themes. There is no Osama bin Laden orange being squeezed for all its juiciness. This, despite the fact that the entire movie is precisely about finding him. The topic of torture is introduced right away, as would be expected, without any extra dramatization, or even political commentary. You'd think that clocking in at two and a half hours, plenty of things would have been exploited.

The temptation must have been there. Certainly, when seen through the eyes of a woman, the enigmatic and obsessive "Maya" (Jessica Chastain), the suffering of the suspects are depicted as painful to live through. But not just for her, but for all the agents involved. She's the one that keeps going, whereas her male counterpart quits (played by Jason Clarke). Certainly the moment the politics of it got explosive as the presidential debate got underway, you'd expect a film maker to start sharing some agenda. And yet Bigelow manages to keep a tight mouth about it all, even at one point showing Obama speaking while keeping her characters focused on the case at hand. In fact, Bigelow seems to suggest a more pragmatic, realist approach for how information can be obtained from enemies: this is depicted best in two scenes: the first, when one of the men on the receiving end appeals to Maya, her line is, basically, "you can make it stop any time by being honest." The second, when the same man is made to believe that his information saved lives and rewarded for it, making him reveal further details. The stick and the carrot, respectively.

Perhaps its flaw is in going on a bit long and teasing the audience a bit too much with what should happen. We all know where this is all going, and, even if we didn't know how this all gets there, we don't want to know every detail that exists, nor to see Maya write down almost every number all the way to the 129 or so it took for our leaders to act on the information.

Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is most intriguing not on the torture aspects, not on the violence, not even on its politics, but on the quality of our CIA itself. How lost, how confused, how easily undermined and manipulated, and depending on the tenacity of few agents to get a job done that almost slipped right through. If there is historical accuracy here, the real question is: how many jobs will continue to slip through?

Horrible Bosses
½

Horrible Bosses has enough hilarity to keep it going, but it sadly misses on its own premise. The actors are enjoyable (especially, it must be immediately remarked, a *wickedly* enjoyable Jennifer Aniston), and the exaggerated premise is a readily welcomed one in our work-obsessed society. Unfortunately, the pacing of the story is uneven, and the missed opportunity to really focus on what makes these bosses so bad is lamentable.

Unsurprisingly, the big name (and, you can believe it, big pay) actors get all the good parts, and not the three leads (though Charlie Day gets the most interesting character, a would-be-happy career husband). I found both Jasons unconvincing (Bateman and Sudeikis). The leads get dragged for an incoherent ride of entirely mindless amorality. And ultimately this misses what made the movie it is trying to be, Office Space, great: an all around well-balanced and well-carried script.

Kevin Spacey should be congratulated for being the most evil he has been since Seven, and Colin Ferrell for being any character I could watch for more than a few seconds compared with anything else he has done. His surprise nastiness reminded me of Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder.

But besides these noteworthy performances, it feels as though the movie loses its focus entirely once the hapless employees' plan to seek revenge takes off. It switches from being a very enjoyable Office Space to an awfully dragging Pink Panther.

To be sure, the writing is still interesting and at times even clever, and it is still producing laugh-out-loud moments. But it is barely staying afloat on the air the big names bring along. It was supposed to be about how bad those bosses were... it was not called "Horrible Killers." I'll be the professor here and say it: "focus, focus, focus."

X-Men: First Class
½

My expectations for Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class were very, very low, despite the high marks I gave to Kick-Ass. I am an X-Men fan, have been since I was a young comic book reader. Yes, the story of the X-Men from its beginning to around 2000 is very familiar to me. This movie is an atrocious violation of any canon found in the comics, and it cannot be redeemed in that respect. The saddest thing is that it didn't need to be.

Regardless of some of this disrespect toward the comics, which I will say more about below, I have to say: I really enjoyed this as a movie. The script and direction are fresh and dynamic, without as much as a dull moment. The pace is adventurous and at times it is actually framed like a comic book (reminiscing the few good things about Ang Lee's Hulk). Its action is an unexpected treat combining fast-paced fight scenes, espionage, and also the epic power displays often missing from the predecessors it prequels.

The effects are good, and look polished (one of the wealth of complaints everyone had for X3), even if there was nothing groundbreaking about them. One of the best things about the effects was the ease by which they were connected to the characters, despite the explosive nature of the powers. This was, I thought, especially well-done for Shaw.

One unusual treat is how the film tours the world without sticking to a lazy English, but transitioning into appropriate languages throughout. There is even reference to what everyone knows about Argentina involving some Nazis. In touring the world, it also tours history. While with obvious revisionist tendencies and exaggerations, just having a historical grounding is exciting, particularly to this history professor.

But what makes X-Men: First Class really stand out as a movie is the solid performances. From James McAvoy's transformation from a playboy to a heartfelt leader, to Fassbender's own transformations from revenge-seeking youth to crusader, to perhaps the most surprising treat of all: Kevin Bacon's diabolical Sebastian Shaw, repulsive as a Nazi, and yet elegantly refined as a super-powered Bond-like villain (as he is in the comics), the performances carry the film. Here, a few of the lesser characters are also worth mentioning, particularly Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique, whom I though I was going to hate coming in, but whom I learned to accept; the same could be said of Nicholas Hoults's Beast. The acting in each of these cases ranged from solid to spectacular. Perhaps best of all, in the case of Charles and Erik, was that we can envision these individuals becoming the characters we met in the original X-Men.

But speaking of the original movie, why do we need muted, irrelevant "bad guys"? Riptide and Azazel constitute a joke on the original irrelevant Brotherhood (i.e. Toad and the ridiculous "Sabretooth"). Sure, the White Queen features a bit more definition, but this is a problem with having so many characters. Worse still, a few others were invented for the film (Darwin and "Angel") and served absolutely no narrative purpose. Slimming the casting bill could have saved not just some production cost, but also face in the eyes of fans.

How I could envision having pretty much the same film: just Charles, Erik, and Mystique contracting with the US government meeting a technician mutant (Beast is stretching it, why not Forge?) versus Sebastian Shaw and his Hellfire Club, with his talented White Queen plotting turning a Cold War into a hot one. All the best in the movie is reserved for these characters.

Furthermore, while being unnecessary, the other characters function almost exactly as an insult to the source material. Here's that promised fanboy aside: How old is Moira (and how old to be working in the CIA)? Why doesn't Banshee speak with an Irish accent? What is Havoc, Cyclops's younger brother, doing in the 60's? How old is Beast? What on earth is Riptide doing here? Who was the Emma Frost in Wolverine? Etc., etc.

Thor
Thor(2011)

Thor achieves a level of competence in its execution that can surprise someone going with no expectations one way or another. Having had read no reviews beforehand, we went anticipating another Punisher or Ghost Rider. Instead, we were treated to a seriously entertaining movie that never stops entertaining, not even when the hero loses all his powers and enters a more "casual" role.

Part of the reason it works as a film is that the script feels like part of something greater to begin with. As ridiculous as the initial premise of Asgard and the god of lightning goes, it manages to connect it into a universe where it becomes very much acceptable. There is clear connection here to the rest of the Marvel universe, from SHIELD, to the scientific inquiries mentioned, to energy sources, to, well, Stark Industries and the upcoming Avengers.

The cast feels fresh, and execute their roles well, even if nothing like Downey's performances in the Iron Man franchises jumps at you. Chris Hemsworth is delightful, and manages to pull both the heroics of his Asgardian self and the entirely out-of-place viking-like figure in the midst of a small New Mexico town. His nemesis, Loki, is played to surprising satisfaction by Tom Hiddlestone (though the mythological Loki is mostly about simple mischief, in the Marvel universe he does take a more sinister tone, something captured well). In this case, Natalie Portman, playing the love interest of our hero, manages to stay low-key and inconsequential enough (considering her present super-star status) that she only aids in the delivery of the script. But outshining them is Kat Dennings, who plays an inconsequential scientist ("political scientist!"), but her secondary role is, simply, hilarious. The performances are funny and clever, they never stray too deep into drama and seriousness (despite Anthony Hopkin's unnecessary presence as Odin).

In fact, this is the real crown of the recent Marvel offerings, the sense of humor and self-mockery, which contrasts so well with the offerings of DC (failures and successes--Superman and Batman). The movies do not forget that they are, after all, based on comics. And, this, Thor nails. The ridiculousness of the premise is rendered humorously, to good effect. Kenneth Branagh is able to show us the gods for all their glory, and yet have someone run them over with a car or paralyzed with a taser gun to incredible effect.

And while comic in approach, Thor also contains take-away depth. The issues of ego in this movie are divinely examined. Loki's seemingly sacrificial self at the beginning is revealed in the end to be anything but, whereas Thor's initial arrogance ultimately is revealed to be sacrificial in nature. It may be exactly what one expects to happen from the beginning of the film. Indeed, it may be mere archetypes playing out. But they are gods, so why should they not embody archetypes?

127 Hours
127 Hours(2010)
½

There is no doubt that James Franco is an amazing actor. And he proves to be one of the most capable ones of our time in 127 Hours, playing real-life adventurer Aron Ralton. He is a character all too real, dynamic, dramatic, alive. The best takeaway from this movie is that Franco's career is just starting.

The movie itself, as a script, is fairly well done. There are aspects of it that feel hollow. Clear ploys to distract and entertain from an otherwise bleak position. These scenes are jumpy, ridiculous, entirely detached. It is hard to know how else the script could be kept going, how else to incorporate a wider cast. And yet, without being able to offer alternatives, I walked away from this film somewhat disappointed in the script itself. I would have liked to see more of Franco, actually, despite the fact he is 99% of the film. The rest was that shadowy and confusing.

Still, 127 manages to capture a moment in this man's life that is truly remarkable, and truly worth seeing. Franco's performance is mesmerizing. And the end product isn't nausea from what everyone knows about the story by now, but rather renewed hope and even pride in what humans are capable of doing to survive, even in the darkest circumstances.

Battle: Los Angeles

Despite dismal reviews, Battle: Los Angeles manages to hold up fairly well in traditional categories. To be sure, taking down an alien invasion has not offered much room for originality in a screenplay, at least since 1953's War of the Worlds. Battle:LA, however, is doomed by a particularly lacking spark of creativity. Witness, in contrast, the creativity of 2009's District 9, that truly flips the genre on its head. There is a limited attempt to change the angle a bit (it is not viewed through civilian eyes, but through a down-to-earth military lens), but none of the key elements of traditional alien invasions are forgotten. Hence we are treated to super-advanced alien technology, overwhelming numbers, destruction, dehumanization of people, horrible effects of weapons, inspirational human figures, and unexpected weaknesses in their technology that only our hero can figure out. Sadly, these elements are not even arranged in any refreshing way. Ultimately, it is simply a story we know too well and that predictably falls neatly into place.

The acting when it comes to Aaron Eckhart, is solid. Eckhart keeps piling on top-notch performances, even with a script that is wanting. In contrast, in a secondary role, Michelle Rodriguez keeps piling on mediocre "tough-girl" performances that are, to say the least, tired, and to say more, annoying. So while the acting is fine, it is also very modest.

The special effects (as well as the sound editing) are sufficiently powerful to merit a big screen release, but not sufficiently special to merit spending the small fortune ticket prices go for these days.

In fact, the flare of aliens and technology comes off as uninspired. These beings are not even frightening, particularly as they run and hide from marines. By and large, I was pleased the aliens employed "conventional" weapons (I suppose credit for originality is in order here, no shields or lasers), but they are invading a planet with one of the most absurdly pathetic strategic failures since aliens died from drinking bacteria in water (or from contact with water in the first place... Shyamalan...).

Much of the movie is laudable, from a focus on a wide variety of characters (though all the initial cast is male), to Eckhart himself, to a rather rare military-friendly approach that is refreshing these days. But its positive and mediocre aspects simply do not combine to a fresh entry.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
½

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the newest film in Edgar Wright?s very impressive repertoire (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). While this is no high drama or cinematic masterpiece, it is sheer beauty in cinematography... and so much more. This time, the film shines brighter than the source material (e.g. by including color), and audiences who came of age in the 90?s are bound to rejoice at repeated retro references (presumably because Canada is behind the times--even the show Seinfeld makes a quick cameo). The constant video game reminders (for example, calls to "Fight!" and "Finish Him!" from Mortal Kombat) are indeed a treat to nerds everywhere.

But if this movies was merely a concoction of nerdy treats, it would not be much of a film. Instead, the film offers itself as a rather profound parable of becoming mature enough to engage in healthy relationships. The irony is, as Scott Pilgrim navigates this world of nerdiness and immaturity, he emerges a man mature enough for a woman.

Critics will probably tear up the movie?s seemingly silly premise, the chaotic structure, the suddenness of everything, the jumpiness of scenes, the awkwardness, the lack of ?depth? of some of the characters, and what have you. This is because such critics, like most people who have completely forgotten how to be young, have worked tirelessly to forgo their own insecurities and to forget their own disastrously immature relationships of youth.

There is just such tenderness and timidity in the way the romantic angle is approached (despite ridiculous, painful-looking animated violence), that it is hard to notice how truly meaningful it is.

You see, Scott Pilgrim, played hilariously by Michael Cera, a bass player in an unknown band, is trying to get over an ex who broke his heart. Along the way he meets Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has lost faith in her potential to find lasting love. To establish a relationship with her, he must first break off his own past relationship, including a rather hilarious fling with a seventeen year old named Knives (?she?s Chinese?) played by new-comer Ellen Wong. Then, of course, Scott must confront the demons from Ramona?s own past. It is a symbolic gesture anyone who has tried a relationship with "baggage" from any side will immediately relate to.

Winstead?s rather depressing look throughout the film should indicate that, whatever absurdity may be taking place on the surface, just below there is something very serious taking place. Indeed, it is in following Ramona that one sees Edgar Wright?s subtle but powerful use of his actors? abilities. Wright?s direction has improved with every film, and here the demanded acting (despite Cera?s predominantly characteristic role) takes another step forward.

Beyond the explosiveness of it all, there is a vulnerability and naivete that Wright manages to squeeze from all his main actors. From the over-the-top ?evilness? of the exes--including a much more impressive Brandon Routh of Superman Returns infamy and a much more pleasing to watch Jason Schwartzman than in I Heart Huckabees--, to the wackiness and awkwardness Cera has perfected over the years (combined, here, with a super-hero side that seriously is enjoyable), to the beautiful moments portrayed by Winstead?s subtle expressions, there isn?t much of a flaw in the delivery from any angle. If there is a serious flaw, it is the unlikelihood of a comparably solid sequel.

Spider-Man 3
Spider-Man 3(2007)
½

When any movie has expectations as high as [i]Spiderman 3[/i], people are bound to feel let down, and to come back home without what they hoped for or expected. Having read a few reviews for the movie, I've come to the conclusion that several reviewers have a serious problem with how much the movie "jumps" and how it "tries to do too much." These so-called problems come from expecting director Sam Raimi to flawlessly execute the nearly impossible. You simply can't have a nicely flowing drama (which this movie innocently attempts to be) and so much action as is demanded by the franchise, in less than three hours. The fact is that the drama in [i]Spiderman 3[/i] is both what sets it apart from normal action movies (and draws in a broader audience) and its downfall. A movie that tries to wrap up three gigantic and complex enemies, a struggle with the "dark side," vengence and trust/betrayal themes, a romance, and even a Stan Lee cameo, all into a time slot that would facilitate enough showings a day to turn a strong profit, is bound to disappoint someone.

What marks this movie as a good movie is that it is not so disappointing, after all. The movie flows relatively well, and the daringly distinctive threads come together to form a very complex but still uniform design. Spiderman 3 has it all, and works. The special effects are unlike anything we've seen in the series thus far, and they may well be some of the best in cinematic history. The movements in the fights are simply stunning. The story has its touching moments, and some moments that really make you feel for the characters. James Franco's reinterpretation of Harry Osborn and the Green Goblin, while not quite the comic-book's vision, is perhaps what sets this movie as one of the best acted and most emotional comic-book movies made thus far. His performance is flawless, and sometimes with a rather cliche and wooden script at that. Humor is found, again, through J.K. Simmons, whose J.J. Jameson continues to impress as closer to the comic-book than the comic-book's. The traditional appearance by Bruce Campbell is once again, priceless.

The downfall of the movie is an over-stretched and unnessessarily long "dark Peter" section that leads to places that everyone can agree were entirely pointless and unnecessary. If this is how Raimi understands drama, he should stick to movies about the undead. Peter Parker, played by Tobey Maguire, is rendered idiotic. This runs in contrast to "dark Spidey" whose fights with the Sandman (Thomans Haden Church) and Harry are unexpected treats.

For a movie as complex as this one, better use of the film could have gone to make a) better use of James Cromwell than a few scenes of his Captain Stacy or b) involving his daughter Gwen (Bryce Howard) a bit better, or else c) for better explaining plot holes, like why Harry has a change of heart, or even d) to come up with a better origin for the black symbiote (i mean, why would the only meteor with one of these things--out of a shower full of them--conveniently crash right next to Peter? Considering plot points from the previous movie, it could have been introduced any number of ways, not the least of which could be a rock sample that Mary Jane's astro-happy ex could have obtained). And yes, yet again, it is Mary Jane (Kristen Dunst) who gets kidnapped and must be rescued; why not use Gwen Stacy here? Why not use Harry? Why not be fresh rather than recycling a tired script?

Still, to be fair, the script isn't all that bad. The theme of revenge works well, starting with Harry, continuing with Peter, and moving into Topher Grace's interpretation of Venom, which is mesmerizing to behold toward the end of the movie. The action is also not continuous or tiresome, as one may expect, it is surrounded by a plot that, while failing to come together flawlessly, is interesting and universally well-performed. The most poignant conflicts emerge not from massive, super-fights but from confrontations in an apartment between Mary Jane and Peter. Critics slamming this movie over plot problems or what have you, must remember that this is, after all, only a movie, and one based on a comic book, no less.

----

Edit: saw this movie again, and have to say... it is a bit worse than I had reviewed it. Those scenes I mention really drag, and the entire relationship angle just pissed me off. Still not as bad as people make it out to be, but... why Sam, why.

Inception
Inception(2010)
½

Christopher Nolan in his latest inc-... undertaking, Inception, has outdone himself in twisting the film upon itself, and quite vividly so. Have you ever had a dream from which you wake up, only to find out that it is still a dream? Well, I have not, but it is kind of a motif of everything from television comedies to horror. Inception squeezes the motif for all it's worth. The result? Everything you could possibly dream it could be.

With astounding and relentless special effects that never become too overpowering, with a pace of action that never loses focus and keeps the story rolling, at times even at snail-pace, with a soundtrack that blasts like a large vuvuzela aimed right at your chest, Inception aims to synchronize your heartbeat into its own rhythm, your brainwaves into its own feed. As if by a strong sedative, you will enter it as you might a dream. And there is never a dull moment in this dream, lest you awake: even when you know what is coming ("I bet this is a dream too... ah, I was right"), you rejoice in actually *seeing* it come to life in such a perfectly smooth way.

Leonardo DiCaprio is joined by Ellen Page and a few others into Nolan's brand of taking absurd plots as seriously as possible to convince the audience that the dream is not only relevant, but indeed life-or-death. If you thought Memento or The Prestige lacked for a compelling plot, you must admit that those movies worked in large part because the performances were exceptional and the film's execution put those performances into overdrive. As in those movies, everyone involved provides just what is needed for the whole to work.

Nolan employs simple ideas to twist them around as much as possible and squeeze out feature-length material, but that takes as much or more of a genius to do than writing a strong, linear, character-development narrative. It almost makes the normal "story" dull by comparison. With Nolan's movies, we do not need lengthy narratives or, really, character development (okay, maybe *some* character development). No, it is not exceptionally original in its dreams-within-dreams premise. No, it is not a very complex or plausible plot (for one thing, one may realize that their "inception" task hinges in a rather silly premise, and the reason for it to need to involve dreams at all is rather absurd).

Instead, Nolan has mastered something about films that I believe no other director of our time has mastered: the magic of the film itself, apart from a script or background material. What could never really work in a novel, works brilliantly and beautifully in a movie because he is able to put it all together in such a convincingly smooth way that we exit the theater mesmerized. It is a trick, but it is a sleigh-of-hand delivered so flawlessly that any magician would be astounded.

The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)
½

The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos) is a breath-taking, award-winning movie by Argentine director Juan Jose Campanella. It is mistakenly being called a "murder mystery" or criminal suspense movie. The truth is that, as the title suggests, this film exhibits unspoken intents that can only be discovered in the eyes of individuals: the deepest love or lustful desire, passion for sports or for revenge, willingness to die for someone or willingness to murderously hunt someone down.

The sophisticated plot is indeed delivered by means of a 25-year-old murder mystery, left open in the eyes of the ingeniously named Ricardo Morales, the mourning widow, and the detective who had been in charge at the time, the ironically named Benjamin Esposito (which means "little husband"), masterfully played by Ricardo Darín. The movie convincingly sets the same actors as much younger versions of themselves through parallel storytelling woven in such a beautiful way that there seems to be no time jumping at all. Through the course of the story love and hate, corruption and justice are turned over and over, until the audience is left questioning these at a philosophical level. Is there such a thing as too much love? How distant should or can we keep the past? When does justice become excessive? On and on, fascinating questions are raised and focused in such a way that answers appear reachable.

As many questions as are raised and as many elements as are combined in this film, this is no post-modern collection of mere sophistry. Instead, throughout the film there is a goal for every element, an answer to every mystery, and connections between all things and characters that in the end converge to produce a message. Perhaps the most incredible thing is how successfully Campanella navigates between dualism and relativism, indeed away from both. All characters are broken and flawed (at times extremely pitiful) but ultimately clear contrasts emerge between right and wrong, good and evil. Love is not a clean-cut pure thing, it has a dark side. But love in all its forms in the end is the only means to conquer corruption, overcome injustice, and, hopefully, repair a broken past.

The setting of this movie, Buenos Aires, is as remarkable as the complexity of the story and the acting. The city is presented in all its complicated roughness, racism, beauty, and melancholy. As an Argentine myself, there were moments full of nostalgia and pity. These feelings are amplified by the dialogue, which powerfully presents the mannerisms and the quirky and extremely profane way of speaking of "Porteños" (natives of Buenos Aires). Don't speak Spanish? No worries, while some of the laugh-out-loud humor and genuineness of the movie is inevitably missed in the subtitles, my friend, who speaks not a word in Spanish, was able to laugh at all the right times.

This is of course not a comedy, as funny as it gets. Toward the beginning, even as characters finish uttering hilarious but commonplace Argentine vulgarities, we are introduced to the victim of the movie in living color, or, rather, lack thereof. The degree of brutality becomes almost palpable, and not even a slight smile can survive the shock. So remains the tone of the movie: dark, foreboding, dangerous with the occasional hilarity. But even as the movie combines such mood extremes, it is able to weave in, not one but, two beautiful, sad, and moving love stories throughout. Esposito is moved by the love of the widow, but is himself struggling with something of a forbidden love for his boss, the also ironically named "Hastings" (the last thing she does is haste anything), played by Soledad Villamil. That the mystery is intrinsically tied to these tales of lovers is a beautiful way of reminding us how love gets tangled up in all the confusion and ugliness of life. The beauty of The Secret in Their Eyes is its ability to move its audiences as a film in as varied a fashion as eyes are able to in their own secret language.

Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2(2010)
½

Robert Downey, Jr is back as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2, what looks to be a second installment of at least a trilogy of movies. Iron Man 2 is full of everything we've come to expect... perhaps a bit too packed with everything we've come to expect.

This time around, Iron Man is faced with a combination of a super-nemesis known as Whiplash, played masterfully by Mickey Rourke, and a rather annoying business-nemesis, played by Sam Rockwell. All in all, Iron Man has a good share of challenges to overcome, not the least of which is the very power-source that saved his life, now apparently consuming him.

In meeting these challenges, Stark is not alone. In fact, he enjoys too many allies. The elegant Gwyneth Paltrow is back as his assistant, Pepper Potts. Samuel L. Jackson returns as the ever-pointless Nick Fury. Fury has of course brought along some other friends, perhaps most importantly, he has brought Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson with eye-candy finesse. Romanoff infiltrates to secretly review Stark's eligibility for this mysterious "Avenger" project (you may want to stick around after the credits for a bit more). Add in the mix Stark's old military buddy, James Rhodes (who will become War Machine to antagonize but ultimately help him), now played by Don Cheadle. This becomes too many people, and high-profile actors, fighting for the attention of our hero, and of the audience.

The big question becomes, can director Jon Favreau pull off the impossible and bring together this wealth of talent with a solid script that does not disappoint fans of the original movie, all within two hours? Amazingly, he accomplishes that which he miserably failed to do in Daredevil, he keeps it together and interesting. But he certainly does not succeed as he did in, well, Iron Man. The script manages to hold together as the film transitions through hilarious things Downey, Jr. does and says, beautiful sightings of Scarlett Johansson, and massive, sometimes breathtaking special-effect-laden battles. Favreau even manages to maintain focus on the hero, something Christopher Nolan arguably slipped on in The Dark Knight.

Still, Iron Man 2's plot becomes convoluted. And when this happens, it loses credibility. The problem is that the script is both very simple and very complex. At its core it is, simply, a story of personal healing vis-a-vis confronting revenge-inspired enemies. But when taking into account the ambitions and motivations of every character, you have a rather big mess in your hands.

It is without a doubt a summer blockbuster, and it mostly deserves to be. Everyone contributes strongly (particularly Downey, Jr. and Rourke), and nothing in the movie falls apart. The story, however, leaves much to be desired. Perhaps if the healing theme had been explored with a bit more depth, even darkness, suspense could have been generated, if not deeper meaning to chew on. Instead, shallow, predictable resolutions are provided. Ultimately the biggest flaw with Iron Man 2 is that it is about too much, yet not about much of value.

Kick-Ass
Kick-Ass(2010)
½

Few movies hit the right notes with every aspect of society. Usually those movies are movies intended for kids, to please every parent. Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass is not such a movie. It is bound to displease people whose sensitivities toward guns, or violence done to women or children (or violence done with guns by a 13-year-old girl) are wont to become unsolicited lectures. Of course, it most certainly should not, ever, be watched by anyone who has not, at the very least, started high school. You do not want to give ideas to susceptible members of society. But all those sensitivities aside, it cannot be denied that Kick-Ass really does just that.

No matter which angle one takes, this movie is loaded. Acting? From hilariously delivered awkwardness to stylistically natural evil, the acting in this movie is perhaps nothing Oscar-worthy, but it never suspends the audience's belief in the characters. Special effects? Seldom have fatalities and violence looked this glorious and sophisticated, perhaps not since Kill Bill. The action and cuts are well-paced. The film feels neither short nor long, and the ending is entirely satisfying.

The story itself interweaves two strands of character studies, one of Kick Ass himself, played by Aaron Johnson, who is the brave, if self-described as "naive," high-schooler who first suits up, and one of Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and her father, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage). It is, of course, Hit Girl that really steals the show, with the most stunning moves I have ever seen a kid do on film. The story has twists and turns that go beyond the good guys overcoming the bad guys. Even if elements seem to have been taken from all over the place in comic-book franchises (be it Batman or Spiderman movies or even Smallville), the story comes together as entirely fresh. Given all the character's frequently alluded love for comic-books, the borrowing does not at all feel even remotely inappropriate.

For a movie that's talked about as a parody of the comic-book story, it struck me as anything but. This should not be considered a "parody," but rather a "tribute" to the basic philosophy behind super-heroes. By becoming Kick Ass, the hero does not actually become anything more than a normal guy thrust into situations and opportunities to demonstrate a type of valor the rest of us only wish we could find an ounce of within ourselves. These demonstrations bring him closer to death than most of us feel comfortable even thinking about. And yet, these people are not people with super power, but rather people that feel like turning a blind eye to the evil around us, that mere self-preservation, is not doing anyone any good. And that is what a hero is: someone who can get past themselves for the sake of someone else. At one point Kick Ass is getting the beating of his lifetime by a gang who had been pursuing one guy. His assailants call him crazy, and ask him if he's willing to die for some scumbag. His response defines heroic: he would rather die than do nothing to help the victim.

Yes, vigilante justice is not exactly the best means to scoop the scum off the streets. But there must be something right about it. We can feel it, we keep going back to it, we thirst for it. We long for someone to forcibly take on the problems our regular system fails or refuses to solve. This is because were one to speak generously of real-life criminal justice, turning a blind eye to any form of corruption or incompetence, one would still say it fails to strike fear to those who bring about death, chaos, misery, and fear upon others. Those who condemn the moral message of the movie cannot deny that there is something, perhaps primal, that rejoices even within themselves when they see the good guys win, and the bad guys get retribution. My question is whether it is all that primal, or whether the fear to take on the dangers itself is the more base, animal instinct: that of cowardly self-preservation. You or I may not have the courage to transcend our selfish genes, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the desire to see such courage is the least evolved one.

District 9
District 9(2009)

District 9 stood out this summer as a surprising treat from a new director, Neill Blomkamp. What it provided was terrific performances by unknown actors, a captivating story of survival and desperation, accelerating action and suspense, and a fantastic visual achievement both by way of special effects and by way of its set: filmed in the slum districts of Johannesburg. What a contrast this small-budget international film makes with the big-budget American effort found in Avatar.

Whereas Avatar is riddled with blatant attempts to showcase how humanity is destroying the earth (not to mention the evils of Western culture, colonialism, and capitalism), District 9's message is subtle and far less patronizing than Cameron's preachy subtext.

The most incredible element in the movie is the dynamic morality given to the parties involved. The aliens, far from being just victims (unlike the Na'vi), have crash-landed, reproduced beyond control, and, as reported by innocent civilians, kill, steal, and do all sorts of horrible things. They may have been technologically advanced, but they act like beasts. By the way they constantly behave, there is no doubt most of the allegations we hear are real. Humans are, of course, no saints themselves. In an attempt to deal with this growing problem, they engage in relocation, killings, and ultimately horrific science experiments.

Only when the two unwilling heroes, one from each camp, are forced to join forces out of desperation and find common ground, is understanding even remotely possible. And this is the message of the South African movie--it is indeed adequate that it should come from South Africa: that our differences will never be resolved through the forcing of contrary wills, but that we must find common ground and common goals.

At times the film clearly borrows from horror classics (e.g. The Fly). And the film itself can be gritty. Indeed, it is purposefully gritty in style. But some of the scenes seem somewhat ridiculous (how does the alien kid control the battle armor so well?). But what is incredible is that, although this movie was filmed with such a small budget, the special effects still look phenomenal. One sees not only the smooth interaction of the aliens with humans and objects, but we see even how bloody they get between the scales after significant physical abuse. The attention to detail is impressive.

Lastly, the film itself is dynamic. We find not only fast-paced action scenes, but also gruesome violence that forces the viewer to stop and consider what just happened. We find absurdity and humor, but never easy plot formulas like a romantic arc (indeed inter-species relations are a constant source of hilarity). The action builds up, without stock battle or chase scenes. Ultimately, one realizes that at the end it is about a very human drama, and that much sadness always prevails.

If I had to issue a science fiction award for 2009, this would definitively win. It is not a perfect movie, but it is certainly an incredible ride that transcends the science fiction genre.

Avatar
Avatar(2009)
½

James Cameron?s new movie, Avatar, offers a visual entrance to a world of incredible wealth of beauty, ferocity, and grandeur; but as a movie, it offers none of those things. There is almost nothing in this movie that is new or relevant. If you are seeking fresh ideas, you may want to go shop somewhere else. Elements of this movie are clearly inspired by (I say it's "inspired by? instead of ?it ripped off? at the insistence of the director that his movie was so many years in the works) a lot of things that many Americans are not immediately exposed to. But nerds of my caliber know better, if they are avid enough to get past the sensationalism.

Anyone who has read Orson Scott Card?s phenomenal Ender Series, has ran into the idea of a "mother tree" (Speaker for the Dead, 1986). A tree that an alien species depends on, makes their home, communicates with, and are bound to in a spiritual and physical sense, that carries their memories and history. All such--very specific--elements are depicted unashamedly in the screen in wondrous detail, with the exception that it is now the "home tree" instead of an actual "mother tree." Likewise, floating mountains, as repeatedly depicted in the trailers, were an integral part of the anime The Vision of Escaflowne (1996), as well as others. People familiar with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1982, 1984), another anime, will recognize a bit more: nature?s own revenge, tendrils to connect and communicate with, and so forth. If familiar with Princess Mononoke (1997), you?ll see even more stark similarities: savage-animal riding with primitive weapons, of course, but also a great forest spirit, who incidentally also brings people back to life, and, even more astonishing, the exact same contrast between a mining-based industry with guns, and natural harmony. The entire plot, I would argue, could be summed up by putting together the same Princess Mononoke and 1990?s Dances with Wolves (this latter in terms, especially, of the romance plot, and of the classy change of heart and sides). Military mecha, showcased throughout this film, are, of course, also a popular Japanese icon, but the style used in the movie is also suspiciously similar to the military mecha last seen in Matrix: Revolutions.

Speaking of The Matrix... I will be surprised if there is no lawsuit once the money rolls in. I do not want to give the movie away, but the premise of the avatar, and its thematic development, particularly as one scientist (played by Cameron-veteran Sigourney Weaver) explains how it all works, has a particular Matrix feel to it. A certain wire connection also seems to be taking place, in a more "organic" way. Too close not to raise some eye brows.

It was also rather disappointing how unambiguous the rampant Platonic elements are. One could spark the same nerdy debates that raged when The Matrix first came out. But here the dualism goes beyond merely the mind-body (or soul-body) dualism, but is even more problematic in the chasm created between good and evil forces, so flatly portrayed.

And of course, evil takes the shape of... a greedy corporation. This is no surprise with Cameron, since the ?Company? was the real horror in Aliens, the Company and its incessant greed. The depth of Cameron?s political wisdom is clearly incalculable. After all, this company is willing to do whatever it takes to get richer, even if it has to destroy an indigenous population. Sounds familiar? It should. It should remind you of every white-guilt theme you have ever heard. Money is bad. Colonizers are greedy, evil people.

?We give them education, technology? the company man complains, ?what else do they want?? How about a bit more depth or realism? Why are the bad guys entirely remorseless and single-minded (even if the company man puts on a guilt-laden look here and there), and why is there no element of evil in the indigenous people? In short, why are the company people and its mercenary force as human as the original Terminator and why are the Na?vi so infernally humane? Why are the aliens alone what I'd actually understand to be a truly "human" force? Sure, there?s a few good guys in for the ride. Among these is Jake, the main character played by Sam Worthington fresh from playing a purely-good machine with a heart in this year?s Terminator Salvation (not a Cameron film), a purely-good human and Na'vi avatar with ?a good heart.? This is as flat a character as they come. The only flaw he was given by the director is his ability to say ?shit? here and there. Since Cameron obviously saw Princess Mononoke, he should have taken some tips from it about character depth. I suppose that is another Platonic element in Cameron?s mythology, embodiments of true ideal forms.

The film is indeed beautiful, and the 3D is simply breath-taking. It will draw you in, and keep you there. But it offers almost nothing by way of an original story, and its shallow characters seem irrelevant throughout, whether they live or die. The dialogue, for something supposedly years in writing, is riddled with cliches ("I trusted you!" yells the Na'vi romantic interest, in perfect English). In the end, one comes out entirely enmeshed in the wonder of the world, which is truly beautiful. But it may as well have been a documentary about this world, since there?s no story here to speak of.

Star Trek
Star Trek(2009)

From someone who enjoyed watching [i]the Original Series[/i], [i]The Next Generation[/i] and particularly [i]Deep Space Nine[/i], this review could qualify as one of an insider. No, I barely watched pieces and bits of [i]Voyager[/i], and few also of [i]Enterprise[/i]. I watched every movie at least once, although some of the older movies have left my memory. So what is my verdict of the fresh new take? It is a solid move from Paramount, but it is not going to live up to extremely high expectations, and it is certainly not going to please long-time fans completely.

Well, old fans may be outraged at a couple of technical issues. First, a certain unexpected romance is one that I found very hard to swallow, it almost made me uncomfortable. There is no precedent for it at all. Second, and perhaps most important, Vulcan. I will not say anything about it, but it is a rather drastic change in the [i]Star Trek[/i] universe. There is a bit of shifting around with transporter technology that does not sit well. And finally, Iowans (where much of the early movie takes place) will be sad about one key change and curse the day time travel was invented.

But the movie has a whole lot going for it. First, the acting is superb. The actors not only live into the roles of their predecessors, they give them fresh life. Second, the special effects are not abused (something that one can say about some of the later [i]Next Generation[/i] movies), but their use is often breathtaking. Third, there is every tribute paid to the original show, and the characters and designs look and play out just right. Fourth, the action is nothing short of top-notch Hollywood material. And finally, the story contains the right amount of everything: humor, action, drama, irony, and inspiration, all rolled into a believable, if somewhat conveniently pasted together, film.

Someone I saw it with called this pasting together ?contrived.? However, we knew coming in that certain things simply *had* to happen, and the film gives every explanation for why those certain things do happen, contrived would be if there was no such explanation. The only contrived moment is when they conveniently find Scotty.

Unfortunately, this ultimately is not the best [i]Star Trek[/i] movie, which is precisely what it was aiming to be. Despite superior acting, effects, and designs, it is a long-shot from being so. What drags it down is not those technical bits that will upset Trekkies, but rather the lack of creativity in the script. The story is simply not original?even within the bounds of [i]Star Trek[/i]. One could call certain things formulas, but the entire plot depends on used goods. Romulans have a gigantic ship that threatens to blow up Earth? C?mon, haven?t we just been there in [i]Nemesis[/i]? Sure, it wasn?t exactly Romulus that was in question then, but it even involved miners. Giant ship travels back in time to wipe out the Federation with only the crew of the Enterprise to stop them? C?mon, haven?t we only recently been there in [i]First Contact[/i]? Time travel creates a mess and alters history? How many episodes can one think of with time-travel changes? Most recently I can think of ?In a Mirror, Darkly,? an Enterprise episode, where a time-traveling USS Defiant causes all sorts of messes. Heck both those plot devices were employed in [i]The Voyage Home[/i].

Still the opportunity to start [i]Star Trek[/i] fresh is exciting, and the cast is phenomenal. This is a new, rawer [i]Trek[/i]. It is still carrying the charm of the tradition, it still fascinates in grandeur shots. But it is not as charged as it could be. What is missing right now is a story of its own, a life of its own. This film depends too much on the tradition that brought it through, even as it moves past it. And the writing depends far too much on old ideas. If it is to be its own [i]Trek[/i] in the future, it desperately needs a compelling reason for the [i]Trek[/i].

Bella (Beauty)

[i]Bella[/i] is a story of redemption and renewal. It is an at times profound, but too often blatantly obvious, effort. It is also a simple story that at times becomes a bit hard to follow. And this is not because much of it switches into Spanish. The difficulty comes due to chronological leaps that seem contrived for the purpose of throwing off the viewer in hopes of a surprise ending, leaps that thus attain only questionable artistic value. But this is not the film's biggest flaw.

There are minimal cultural issues raised, instead the director guides through the all-too-human brokenness of various individuals. This at times can be beautiful. Sadly the symbolism tends to be thrown at you in obvious ways. This is the film's biggest flaw. The most clear examples: The main character, Jose, played by Eduardo Verastegui is an almost insultingly blatant Jesus figure. You caught the beard and hair, did you also catch the fact he is wearing what amounts to a white robe for most of the movie? Or, for that matter, that his entire story is one of atonement? Adding injury to insult, our secondary main character, played by Tammy Blanchard has a bathtub baptismal scene (complete with full immersion) which precedes a meal together at a long table where all differences are reconciled. Characters are forced to melt down before coming out as their true selves, all while the butterfly motif pervades the film, painfully reminding us that the characters have to transform.

All this is not to say the movie is not good. The acting is solid, with very believable performances by everyone involved, although it can at times seem over the top. Humor lightens up the mood in various scenes that touch us in their humanity. All of this is praiseworthy. The story, however, is rather simple, and the ending all too neat. But this is not a bad movie, and the uplifting resolution of the symbols, expected or not, is emotionally rewarding. [i]Bella[/i] certainly deserves a viewing.

Quantum of Solace
½

[font=Verdana][size=2]The story picks right up from [i]Casino Royale[/i] in [i]Quantum of Solace[/i], the latest 007 entry. Incredibly, the first "sequel" in the Bond movies. For those who quit the franchise after so many failed attempts last decade, this new Bond should give you second thoughts about shelling some cash for sheer action and coolness. This is not the pathetically acted "suave" Bond of Pierce Brosnan, this is a rough, intense, and at times reckless Bond, but one very well-acted by Daniel Craig. He is so, because, as we learned last time around, he is just beginning to learn how to be a 00 agent, and continues to be tortured by the loss of Vesper, the love of his life. Worry not, action-seeker, the rather emotional issue gets resolved in this very movie, which only at the end earns its title. When the classic gun barrel scene comes up at the end, you get the point: Bond is finally the Bond you knew.
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How does the film achieve this? Through an almost ridiculously wide assortment of chase sequences through land, sea, and air, hanging from things, jumping cross buildings, gun fights, fist fights, facing not just "bad guys" but also the Secret Service itself, and the CIA to boot. Yes, at times it seems like too much.

And yet the action is not exactly relentless, as some reviewers would have you believe. But it comes at you fast, so fast sometimes, that it's hard to know what is actually going on, or if what is going on could actually physically take place in real life (answer: probably not). When the action stops, you are treated to some character development. Bond, you see, is picking up the pieces, even in his hard-shelled way. He is learning who his friends are, and he is listening to others, even if he appears entirely out of control.

And of course, no Bond movie would be complete without a Bond girl. How does newcomer Olga Kurylenko measure up as Camille Montes? Quite nicely. Arguably, no one could be expected to replace Eva Green's enigmatic and powerful presence as Vesper, and indeed Kurylenko is a completely different character. Camille Montes is a badass who pulls guns, beats bad guys, and is not afraid to fight, even if, as Bond girls are bound by nature to do, she seeks his aide and comfort in the end.

All in all, not bad. The plot is well-executed, and it is hard to nail what, if anything, is missing. Perhaps lines. Bond doesn't exactly say much, except quick snippets of dialogue that gets us to admire his wit. If one saw [i]Casino[/i], one can note how no train scene establishes Bond's charm and intelligence, and no card-game defeat scene establishes his temper and pride. To understand who this guy was and who this guy is becoming as the story of [i]Quantum Solace[/i] unfolds, everything in [i]Casino[/i] is taken for granted. But for someone who only occasions these films, one may be at a loss.[/size][/font]

The Dark Knight

Or: Why [i]The Dark Knight[/i] might be the best super-hero MOVIE, but not the best SUPER-HERO movie.

In Christopher Nolan's latest take on our favorite bat-obsessed vigilante, we are treated to some of the finest acting and some of the finest directing ever given to a comic book star (not to mention this franchise).

There is little doubt that Heath Ledger, once doubted by fans for being casted as The Joker, deserves an oscar nod. He basically carries what would otherwise be a fantastic action movie into solid acting gold. Every scene devoted to our dear deraged jester is delivered in ways no one would expect from the same charmer of [i]Ten Things I Hate About You[/i], [i]A Knight's Tale[/i], or even the broken soul of [i]Brokeback Mountain[/i]. Once one walks out of his performance in this movie, one truly feels the tragedy of having lost one of America's finest actors--and lost him so young.

It is however in the characters that something goes missing. Without a doubt The Joker steals the show. But also Commissioner Gordon, admirably played by another great actor, Gary Oldman, takes center stage throughout the film. Harvey Dent, "Two Face" to-be, played elegantly and flawlessly by upcoming Aaron Eckhart (well-established by his marvelous performance in [i]Thank You For Smoking[/i]), takes center stage throughout the film. And of course, many other "smaller" roles are further examined and further developed, occupying a great deal of this stage, including Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawnes, fittingly replacing the catastrophically uninspired performance of Katie Holmes in the previous movie (still not a compelling character). As one can see, this does not leave much room in the stage.

Who is missing? Batman, of course. The Super Hero. Batman is simply the means by which things get resolved throughout the movie (or at least carried to the next conflict). The deus ex machina, as it were. In this sense, [i]The Dark Knight[/i] is a failure to deliver on its main promise: a movie about Batman. A movie that could have provoked far more philosophy than whether or not vigilante justice should be welcomed. A movie that could be about good questions Batman typically is about: how we face our fears, how we take responsibility, how we pick up the pieces, and what separates good and evil. Most of these, if touched, are only touched on by accident.

Of course, the gadgets are back, at times ridiculous, but always cool. The action is intense, as is the suspence. The movie keeps moving and yet does so with an ease that only Christopher Nolan has figured out. But its focus is lost, and the guy we came to love in the first movie, with all his conflicts and with all his dilemmas, is merely relegated to an excuse for the rest of the movie. A good excuse, of course, but still an excuse. Not only is Batman blamed for everything that happens in the movie itself, but we can see from a viewer's perspective that the story is compelling with or without Batman, if only the premise could be done without him. Since it cannot, Batman is necessary. This lack of focus becomes evident in some scenes: when Batman has less resolve, when Bruce is confused, when he depends on others to make decisions for him. Who is the movie about, anyway?

Don't get me wrong, I came out of the movie marvelling at its beauty and its brilliance. But in retrospect, it seems that it had but one flaw, a significantly large one. While the movie is cinematic brilliance, the comic-book focus on Bruce Wayne and Batman is certainly lost.

Wanted
Wanted(2008)
½

A lot of bullets go through heads in this summer?s [i]Shoot 'Em Up[/i], that is, [i]Wanted[/i]. And that is exactly what you figuratively need to apply to your own head if you wish to enjoy what is an outrageously violent and unrealistic movie. If you can tolerate the laws of physics bent as if there really was a [i]Matrix[/i] all over again (without the bothersome "explanation"), then you are in for a treat. Impossible jumps, bullets that turn in midflight, bullets that go faster than sound across vast distances, cliffs that never end, and wounds that should not heal but do, are all in the arsenal of this special effects spectacle.

What is missing, incredibly, is acting. Nothing noteworthy in this department. Morgan Freeman virtually reprises his flat role from [i]Lucky Number Slevin[/i], Angelina Jolie moves as she did in [i]Tomb Raider[/i] or [i]Mr. and Mrs. Smith[/i]. On a second thought, if there is anything really missing in this movie, it is her. Not only is she now skeletal, having entirely lost her feminine physique, she also has no lines. Besides a sappy back-story for her character she delivers in the third person, she is virtually silent, even in places where she should obviously deliver. This is Angelina Jolie, but she is basically an afterthought in the script, despite being on screen all the time. It's like, "oh yeah, and she's in there too, kicking butt and stuff."

Forget my comparison with [i]Shoot 'Em Up[/i]. The problem with Timor Beckambentov?s film, is that it fails to be smart, even if it achieves entertainment. I don't know how the graphic novel plays out, but in the movie the big "twist," expected or not, is just "oh yeah, why not." There is no emotional value, no complicated story, no real need to feel confused, you just take it in to go on to the next action scene. Sure the movie tries to put "emotions" in (a very ridiculously out of place kiss scene may be such an attempt), but it fails catastrophically at the end, when our hero, played by James McAlvoy, comes out much like Mr. Pink did so many years ago. Overall the plot feels like a bumpy and violent straight line without much of a moment to sort through, to reflect, and to add that little element so few movies add these days: character. It starts with a guy that just doesn't care, it ends with an audience that feels much the same way.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
½

[i]Raiders of the Lost Ark[/i] was a fun, adventurous, and at times suspenseful movie. It had fresh wit and charm. While there were special effects and contrived plot tools, it was entirely carried by the ease in which Harrison Ford played the hero, Indiana Jones. The story was original, the characters were alive. Two sequels solidified a formula, and while never as good, they kept the charm alive despite being lame movies.

But formula isn't enough. [i]Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [/i]doesn't just have a rather elaborate name; the entire movie is an elaborate fabrication that makes no sense, from beginning to end. It is a painful experience to sit through. Not only does it repeat a lot of the elements already established in this franchise to no good end, it insults the previous movies with an incredibly long laundry list of painful mistakes. The mistakes go beyond merely following the exact same formula as the previous movies (e.g. Jones always goes through critters and corpses, ancient people always had intricate mechanics in their works, and bad guys always follow Indiana Jones to the end).

When you start watching the movie, the first character you see is not a human being, but a silly little CG animal (a hedgehog?) that barely escapes with its life. Don't worry, it will come back. This is followed by an entirely pointless car race scene with some entirely pointless extras. There will be many more silly little CG animals. All critters will (barely) escape alive, even if clearly CG. Kids are watching, of course. Humans do not fare as well. Harmlessly polite security guards will be surprisingly massacred within a cut that shows the savagry of our villians. Of course, they are evil, they just kill the gate guards to then have safe passage into the most secretive US installation. And of course, soon you'll find that it doesn't just store the Ark from the first movie (fanboys rejoice), it also stores an [i]alien body[/i]. So now we've jumped into Sci-Fi.

None of this idiocy should come as a surprise, considering that George Lucas begrugdingly accepted this script despite it's lack of silly things. George Lucas, as everyone knows, the same genius behind the horrendous exercises of cash-flow that were the [i]Star Wars[/i] prequels.

The only things in this movie worth saving are Cate Blanchett's performance (she's able to pull off whatever the heck kind of character Spielberg and Lucas wanted from her), and of course, it's nice to see our old buddy Indiana Jones back in action. But nothing else is good, not even the ridiculous special effects. That is because they are usually infuriatingly stupid.

The plot of the movie is hilariously pathetic. What does it involve, you ask? Read of if you don't mind learning what you shouldn't waste money on:

Spoilers:

Indiana Jones escapes from the middle of an atomic explosion in a refrigerator. Shia LaBeouf convinces him to pursue another mystery, keeps calling him old (duh). Jones inexplicably and instinctively figures everything out. A nun in Peru is the keeper of some jail for lunatics. Lunatics throw poisoned darts at our good guys. Scorpion bites don't do anything. Guy is made stupid because of looking at a skull (probably an alien skull). Indiana Jones isn't made stupid for that. Good guys wreck havok of bad guys, but the bad guys just don't mind at all. Indiana finds girl he dumped ages ago, loves her again, oh, and guy with him is his son. They escape and are trapped again many, many times. Shia plays Tarzan flawlessly. Ants attack, eat a bad guy. A skull keeps the ants away (no joke). Waterfalls, [i]three[/i] times. Yes, there are aliens, yes, they have taught humanity how to do some pretty simple things, like cultivate grains and watering them (our own sophisticated brains weren't enough, apparently). An ancient Amazon army attacks, but they are afraid of the skull (just like the ants). And yes, the aliens harbor a friggin' space ship in the middle of the amazon. The Amazon army is obliterated by four bad guys with soaked guns and bullets that still work. Aliens died and buried themselves in a ridiculously intricate tomb surrounded by a museum they kept for ages. One had somehow lost its head (no joke), and getting it back to it will reenrgize everything, including combine 13 of them into one living one (huh?). The will grant a wish, but then change their mind. Space ship destroys the "kingdom" and all treasures that aliens kept hidden for tens of thousands of years, apparently they didn't [i]really[/i] care. So after countless of "close calls" involving extremely unlikely adventurous "stuff," all the good guys live to have a happy wedding ending (no joke).

This isn't stuff I made up to diss the movie, the movie is beyond stupid. There is much, much more that could be said about it to clarify the extent of its own stupidity. Way to go Spielberg and Lucas, way to go.

Iron Man
Iron Man(2008)
½

I have never been a fan of the Iron Man comic books, not because I didn't like it, but because I just skipped those in favor of X-Men or Spiderman titles. So for me it is difficult to establish the quality of the movie in terms of accuracy or any such thing. But there are some things about this movie that simply makes this movie one of the top three best comic-book-based movies I have ever seen.

For one thing, Robert Downey, Jr. is phenomenal. Don't read reviews and say to yourself, "oh I'm sure he's funny, etc., but this is just a silly movie." You have to see this performance for yourself. The way he acts in this movie could be oscar-worthy were a comic-book name not attached to the film itself. He is that enjoyable and natural as Tony Stark. The rest of the cast is solid, even Gwyneth Paltrow, with a would-be almost inconsequential role, seems fitting as the not-a-knockout secretary Tony finally realizes is the only person that actually cares for him. But don't worry, this is not a romantic deal, at least not in the conventional sense. She is almost in every way a cross of Alfred and Mary Jane.

There is really nothing that will dissappoint one in [i]Iron Man[/i]: even after the credits roll there is a bonus surprise that will just astound fans. As another reviewer elsewhere suggested, about the only bad thing about it is that it ends too quickly. You wish there was more, much more. But this, of course, is why sequels were invented.

The special effects are, for once, truly special. The way the technology seems to actually work (or fail, or go nuts, or collapse) is so realistic, you almost wonder why, short of some energy source that only Stark can figure out, such armor has not already been developed. The art is beautifully rendered, from stark, painful cave scenes to his techy home, to the confrontation between Iron Man and the fighter jets so now-famously captured in the trailer.

Besides the quality of the film itself, there is a depth that one can grasp if one is looking for it that is not typically as well-put or well-thought out. You see, as a weapons dealer for the US government, Tony Starks comes to the realization that his weapons are not merely agents of helping good guys, but that they can be used by anyone. As the movie progresses, he begins talking systems, he begins, in short, to describe the powers that generate warfare and suffering in the world. He begins to believe in the possibility of resisting such powers.

His transformation, while it makes for a strong vehicle to the action, also provides the viewers a subtle but relevant criticism of the "we got the bigger guns" mentality that so influences our military spending. What is Stark to do with this realization? Can he cut his role in this system? We quickly find that it is not as easy as that, and we quickly see how easy it is for good intentions to become entirely destructive.

Beowulf
Beowulf(2007)

Beowulf at the outset will remind the viewer of Shrek. The first few frames, that is. Any resemblances to the family-oriented franchise dissipate within seconds, through images of human depravity at work. While Beowulf successfully avoids both full nudity and gratuitous violence, there is a clearly adult spin to everything, and the gory brutality should have earned it a clear R rating. Bodies are brutally slammed against sharp objects. Male nudity is humorously kept at bay in a fashion reminiscent of Bennie Hill or Austin Powers, humor that seems entirely misplaced. A kid's movie this is not.

The visuals are almost flawless, probably surpassing any milestones previously set in CG animation. At times, however, there is no doubt that computerized faces are attempting emotions, and this distances the viewer from the drama. This serves as a good reminder that we still have not perfected CG effects to render believable emotions (whereas this has not been an issue with other forms of animation). One has to wonder why, exactly, the movie was not simply done with classic special effects and acting; if money had nothing to do with it, rather than artistic preference Still, there is sheer brilliance at work in the effects: the rendering of ludicrous battles involving sea monsters, people, the dragon, and, of course, Grendel are spectacular.

But it is with Grendel that the movie displays its true colors. While the animation for this creature is nothing short of phenomenal, certainly the highlight until Beowulf faces the dragon, it is the theme that Grendel presents that separates the movie from the epic, and that establishes the depth and quality of the production.

Anyone familiar with the epic knows that Beowulf is fairly one-dimensional. A reminder: Beowulf kills Grendel, mother comes in for vengeance, Beowulf pursues her and chops her head of and offers the head to the king, then becomes king somewhere else, where he has to face a dragon and dies. That?s it.

What the movie does with this basic story of heroism and sacrifice is not just artistic liberties, but creative genius. Without spoiling the movie for anyone, the one-dimensional ideal is elevated to human status, complete with faults, regrets, shame, and a quest for penance, for redemption. Grendel?s murderous nature is explained, and Grendel himself becomes more human, and in fact even pitiful. The encounters with Grendel are terrifying indeed, but not so much because of his monstrous appearance, but more so because of [i]who[/i] Grendel is. Likewise, by the end, Beowulf is no longer the mere warrior who early on utters, ?if we die, we die for glory.? Beowulf?s death at the end is loaded with meanings entirely lacking in the original text. Beowulf becomes a person, like you and I, stronger, but also weak, also flawed, and also in need of atonement. Even the dragon becomes more human, all the closer to Beowulf, and for that reason, all the more tragic in the end.

These added themes may be perceived as superfluous liberties taken by people living in a different context, flooded with Christian values, themes and imagery. The producers after all are not living with the pagan glorification of battle, but rather with the Christian disdain of it, with the Christian insistence that each life is precious. They do not rejoice, with the epic?s king, in the virtues of alcohol abuse and fornication, but rather focus on the idea of sin and how sin impacts everything around us. After all, we live in a post-Christian world, not in the transition to a Christian world. However, this is oversimplifying the situation. First, Beowulf was a Christ-figure anyway, the noble servant that was ready to die for his people in an epic that combined Christian and pagan influences. Second, the death is no longer deemed a self-less sacrifice for his people, but for the few Beowulf loves, and even more so for his own personal peace. In the process, Beowulf becomes more human, and more believable, despite his inhuman strength and agility, despite him being computer generated. It is an updated story to be sure, but for the better.

For the Bible Tells Me So
½

[i]For the Bible Tells Me So[/i], a documentary about the present conditions of homosexuality in our culture and especially in our churches, was long overdue. The documentary starts off in a slightly comedic but still very serious tone about why we Christians, and people in general, should be welcoming of homosexuals and not condemn them. The arguments offhand have not worked to convince the Christians who laboriously oppose what they deem an agenda, or a propaganda campaign, to defeat the "authority of Scripture." If the movie was merely this, it would be fairly futile and entirely forgettable.

Fortunately, the movie has only about a third that is real "argumentation" for anything. Soon, the movie becomes a real-life drama concerning real people facing real challenges. [i]For the Bible Tells Me So[/i] is, primarily, a collection of stories, a collection of families, of real, touching conflicts arising from having loved ones come out. These stories are so moving, so honest, and so full of life, that they are impossible to watch without sympathy, without nodding, without shedding a tear. The families involved come from many different corners of the church. Sometimes the outcomes are full of joy, other times, they are horrific. In each case, the film allows the families the honesty of expressing exactly what they believe.

Remarkably, it never becomes a simple "us" versus "them" polemic, but allows each of the participants to grow and face their own emotions. While some are converted entirely, others remain skeptical to the end. Everyone, however, is transformed by the situations, as one would indeed expect; and yet not as one would actually expect to be enabled to view on film. The magic of this documentary is in how carefully the images are portrayed so that one never feels coerced into "taking a side," despite the movie's clear goal in the matter. As a whole, it can be viewed by anyone, from any perspective on the issues, and be well-received.

Finally, the documentary takes the perspective of faith, being sponsored and funded by various churches rather than by interest groups. This means that while decrying the fundamentalists and their anti-gay hypocrisies, misjudgments and malicious tendencies, it provides people of faith plenty of opportunity to view exactly what being of faith and a loving individual toward all human beings really means. The movie features stories that will be familiar to those following the debates, but it portrays these in a personal and spiritual way.

Once the credits roll, it is hard to conclude that Christianity is the problem; rather, one comes out convinced that it is Christianity that ought to fix the problem. This, perhaps, is what appealed to me the most. The movie does not aim at the faith or religion of individuals, even though it could just as well have. In contrast, the film ultimately works as a call to action to religious groups, as a reminder of what family ought to be like, both within a home, and within a gathering of believers or the church universal.

Once
Once(2007)

[i]Once[/i] is a movie about a moment, about a time in your life that's in between, a time that is uncertain and that cannot be easily labeled or classified. It is, in short, a movie that is set in a place where movies never dare to be set. A place that has no ending, no beginning, and no resolution. A movie about a story that is written more by the viewer than by the scriptwriter.

That the acting is so perfect and so fresh and believable almost makes one suspicious that the people being filmed could not know it. But most remarkable still is the casual way that music entwines with the fabric of the story, etching the pattern and framing the movie in a way that is both heart-breaking and cheerful. There is one scene, just after the guy and the girl meet, that encompasses the entire movie. It is a tender moment, a moment of wonder and genius, a moment of love and kinship, but there are boundaries and differences still: it is a radiant portrait of today's Europe. As the scene and the music come to an end we realize that the movie could too, that at that point, it would be perfect. But the movie still has so many more surprises in the form of both conquests and disappointments to come at that point, that goes to show that "perfect" would be lacking in any story. A "perfect" moment may come once, but human life always continues after such moments, and it can be even more beautiful with the pain and disappointments it most often offers.

If the songs do not stick with you long after you leave the theatre, and if you don't feel your heart stretched with the characters, you may in fact not be a very emotional human being. If you don't feel that the reign of American cinematic dominance is over after watching this movie, you may in fact not be watching enough movies.

Resident Evil: Extinction

Evil has a way of not being scary in these movies; what's really scary is the ridiculous amounts of things that clang, clash, and make noise in creepy places. When one discovers that this movie is a collection of such cheap tactics to get you scared, one realizes that the movie has totally missed the point. [i]Resident Evil[/i] was supposed to be about zombies and about killing them, when elevators and lasers became more threatening in the first, one had to wonder if the point was missed. The zombies become a ploy for rather tired action scenes. And in this one, the action scenes are not even as explosive or as interesting as they were in [i]Resident Evil: Apocalypse[/i] (or in the original, for that matter).

Alice, played by Milla Jovovich, is back and badder than ever, of course. At the same time, one continuously has to wonder why she has to dress so hideously. Or, why she has to manage to strip completely in each of her movies. Combine the two, and you're left unsure why she even bothers with clothing at all.

The acting is tired, and even outrageously ridiculous. The characters from the last film carried over each seem completely unnecessary. The black guy, played by Mike Epps, epitomizes unnecessary redundancy in films. Almost at the very beginning of the movie he is contaminated, and almost toward the end he turns zombie, in a car, with someone. Umm, yeah, we kind of already saw that. The entire time one is screaming at the screen either telling the script that it would make more sense for him to lock himself somewhere and save his own friends, or else yelling for the movie to just give up trying to produce more content.

Still, it's not all bad. The intro scene putting us up to date is a fairly neat treat. There is some really ridiculous stuff happening here to keep fans jolly. The crazy scientist (Dr. Isaac) is back, with some of the most disgusting and hateful acting by Iain Glenn yet. He is one bad, bad man. The cool lasers from he first movie (which should get their own credits), are back and just as mean. A zombie rehabilitation scene is actually comical. The god-like powers hinted at from the last installation are put in check in a fairly believable way, which is credit to the screenplay. And the ending just about makes you want to sit through two more hours of this stuff. It does, because in all frankness, there is little that is more entertaining than watching zombies getting a gunshot hole in the head and getting their bodies slashed apart.

Shoot 'Em Up
Shoot 'Em Up(2007)

If you thought Clive Owen had made a career mistake to make an almost (writing-wise) mindless action movie, think again. What surprises most about Owen's ability to capture the audience is his sincerely nonchalant spot-on acting. Even as the movie is sure to fall into the obscurity of cult-following (if even that), Owen's credentials are only strengthened here. If anyone is less concerned about a given scene than the almost inconsequential cast around our main star, it is Owen himself. In the course of this movie he happily kills people not only under every conceivable attack form and with a ridiculous array of means, but also during the most absurd types of scenes, whether it may be delivering a baby or else making love to the beautiful, if of questionable morality, partner of his, played by Monica Bellucci. If the movie has a praiseworthy point, it is that Owen achieves a stellar performance even under rather pathetic and ridiculous instructions.

What works well in this movie is the fact that it refuses to take itself seriously, much as [i]Kill Bill[/i], Vol. 1. The humor in the movie, even if dark and at times of low taste, continues to surprise the viewer as each page of the short script is turned. The violence, as a consequence, is not gratuitous because it is not entirely realistic.

The script is comically simple. Not only is the most violent movie of the year about gun-control, it also has a morbid way to remind its viewers to eat their vegetables. Finally what sets the story off is that Owen is unexpectedly put in charge of protecting and seeking a safe haven for a baby who's lost his mother. But despite the apparent continuation of last year's [i]Children of Men[/i], there is little to link the latter's highly-praised ethical rollercoaster with [i]Shoot 'Em Up[/i]'s misguided, if not entirely bankrupt, sense of morality.

The most tragic aspect of the movie is indeed the fact that the entertainment is achieved solely by the death of countless "goons." Yes, one forgets that these "goons" and "villains" are indeed human beings, as they are dehumanized in the course of the movie, especially as the violence becomes almost cartoonish in nature. This is ultimately why the movie is far from valuable art. Indeed, it is anti-art, it is the sheer pulp of violence exploited for the mere thrill of the ride. Whereas violent movies nearly always involve needless deaths and rather absurd excuses to depict them for viewing pleasure, this movie achieves the distinction of naming itself precisely for this premise. [i]Shoot 'Em Up[/i], as the title goes, is exactly what the movie does through and through. While violence can be artistic, whether depicted realistically or not, here we seem to be getting violence not for art but for violence's sake. And that is just not tolerable.

The flimsy script that carries scene to scene is entirely unimportant. Even the neat little connections within the film remain largely irrelevant in the end, when all that matters is that our hero can still kill these "gangsters" and "criminals." What are the moral implications of a movie that not only forces us to care almost nothing for the why's but also invites us to enjoy and take pleasure in the dying agonies of misguided individuals?

As far as film-making goes, the movie could be said to be brilliant. Beginning to end, it is non-stop action, "badassness," humor, and wit, and naturally non-stop brilliant stone-cold acting from Owen. It is the very nature of the movie that keeps the end result from being praiseworthy, however enjoyable any of earth's sinful individuals might find it.

Stardust
Stardust(2007)

It is no secret that Hollywood has been in decline. From endless remakes, to basing everything in comic books and video games, and otherwise uninspired and tired plots, the idea machine seems to be needing oiling or replacement. Seeing [i]Stardust[/i] gave me some hope.

For one thing, the trailers were full of life. Especially because [i]Across the Universe[/i] looks very promising. But it seems that even the movie producers are realizing the malign effects the lack of imagination is having in long-term prospects for continued success. Fresh faces and writers are key to prosperity in films. [i]Stardust [/i]seems to be part of this new trend (one can only hope). By introducing Charlie Cox as the lead, and surrounding itself with a supporting cast full of new faces (at least to me), it does precisely what it ought to do.

Unfortunately, this point is also where [i]Stardust[/i] could be most harshly criticized. While the old faces perform well, this movie could have been far better with a different cast. Don't get me wrong, the acting is all-in-all solid and oftentimes hilarious. But many of these roles perform themselves. Michelle Pfeiffer as the evil witch is phenomenal, but almost anyone with any talent could have achieved this archetype with the provided script. The same goes with the incredibly eccentric sky pirate played by none other than Robert de Niro. Why high-profile people? This film could have had cut costs by a third with a less demanding crew. And perhaps the weakest link is Claire Danes who, although lovely on the film, is not as convincing for an other-wordly, heavenly being as an unknown face would have. I mean, she is still the girl from [i]My So-Called Life[/i] and from [i]Romeo and Juliet[/i], that lovely, innocent girl who is trapped in weird circumstances and constantly falling in love. Isn't it a bit tired?

The movie is a tour-de-force of writing by Neil Gaiman (even if not always rendered perfectly by director Matthew Vaughn). It is so imaginative and yet so familiar and consistent that one is instantly able to fogive the absurdity of it all. Particularly charming are the princes, who not only are ambitious and vicious power-seekers, but also haunt the screen with hilarious comic relief. Along for the ride are a host of ridiculously funny characters that surround an otherwise bleak narrative wherein all powers seek the fallen star, with only one standing in their way, our hero, Tristan, both comically and charmingly played by Charlie Cox, who comes out of nowhere with this performance, as far as I can tell.

The effects are nothing out of the ordinary, nor are the costumes, but it is the blend of everything that benefits the end-product. Details tie everything neatly, and the characters continue to reinvent their relevance as the film progresses. And in the end, the "happily ever after" so stereotypical in fairytales of this sort, is deserved and even takes new meaning.

[i]Stardust [/i]is not a perfect movie, by any means, but it is one heck of an entertaining one. Whether Hollywood will continue to delight us with original stories (even if taken from novels) is another question. If it should, it may prosper still in the coming decades, if it fails to, films like [i]Pan's Labyrinth[/i] have already proven that the world stands ready to take up the mantle.

Evan Almighty

Evan Almighty is the massive follow up to Bruce Almighty, both directed by Tom Shadyac. There are more negatives to positives to point out, so if you really had your hopes up for the movie, you may want to drop this review. There are spoilers ahead, so be warned.

The movie is, in every way, inferior to its predecessor, which itself wasn't exactly a great movie. Sure, there are many laugh-out-loud moments. But it's as if the movie was meant to be half-comedy and half-cheesiness, and the second half of the movie is a) simply not funny, b) disorganized and plot-less and c) painfully ridiculous.

Evan Almighty is densely packed with plot problems. Some examples: Why were the animals coming from all over the world to follow Evan Baxter (naturally well-played by Steve Carell) when they aren't needed in the story? Why the entire talk about beautiful valleys versus cities when all God wants is to show how important family bonds are? What, really, is the family struggling with? If it's just time, can't we just cut to a weekend where time is found and avoid the entire movie? Why does Evan need to look and start acting like Noah, when it's Evan's issues at stake? How did Evan Baxter jump from a local newcaster to a national congressman when he needs a teenage boy to tell him everything, from who any given representative is to issues of law and policy? The ludicrous nature of the movie worsens greatly as the film progresses. No one questions that animals can help build an enormous ship, and no one really asks with any seriousness why all these bizarre things are taking place. It's as if flat characters needed only for one-liners really populated the entire world Evan lives in.

The reward at the end of the movie is a huge cliche about family values, the same one any person can expect when the movie opens but would pay not to see.

And yet the main problem with the film, in my eyes, is that the movie pretends to be a religious comedy, complete with messages of good versus bad. But, again, Evan Almighty misses the mark completely when it comes to thinking theologically. It would be worthwhile to use this movie for a church discussion--not because it's theologically equipping, but for the opposite reason: because it's theologically disastrous. The developers and people involved carefully avoid thinking critically about faith issues by sporadically throwing little plot hints, each problematic. For example, God, played in a charmingly tiresome way by Morgan Freeman, in one scene suggests that rather than a story about destruction and wrath, the Flood is a story about relationships, how couples and families stuck together. How cute. Except that it isn't about that at all, it is about God wiping away a humanity that does not know right from wrong, does not worship, and does great wickedness. Yes, death and destruction and wrath. You can't really get around the fact that these things are there in the story, even if we water it down (no pun intended) for children's sunday school classes. And then the "flood" comes in the movie, and no one raises the question of how much waste, chaos, disorder, and probably death is involved in the movie's disaster. The little plot hint here is that the destruction only carried the ark from point A to point B; but if this is the case no ark was needed and certainly all the trees God killed to get Evan to build, and all the properties God destroyed in the process render God an outrageously inconsiderate guy. One reporter at the end says something like, "what will we do with all these animals? God brought them, I guess God will have to take them back." Yeah, well, God just made his day a lot busier if he's expected to fix all the messes he's caused through the length of the movie; instead, he's just happy watching Evan spend some time with his family. This isn't God, this is Loki.

It's the lack of theological thought and the avoidance of ethical questions that ultimately bring this movie into the not-recommendable category. At about half-way through the movie there is enough issues and complications raised to weave into valuable lessons for the watcher about ecological issues, about stewarship or waste of resources (at the beginning of the movie Evan is depicted as driven by consumerism), about corruption, and about trusting God. These issues are dropped and avoided. God appears to be an idiot, preferring to make sure a dog can drink some water rather than impacting a system that destroys all his creation. Anyone with a theological mind will find this movie deplorable.

And this is a shame, talented directors like Tim Burton or Tom Tywer have made great movies with intensely theological issues that do not even pretend to be religious. Evan Almighty, with its massive church-based campaign (i was tagged to a pre-screening by being church-affiliated), is poisonous to our theological self-respect precisely because it pretends to be religiously relevant. Wouldn't these movies (Bruce and Evan) have been both funnier and stronger had they not involved God at all, but a psychological breakdown that turned out to have ethical and moral implications?[url="http://../p/tom_shadyac/"] [/url]

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth is the best movie to have been released in quite some time, complete in every way with cinematic perfection. Guillermo del Toro's fusing of cruel fantasy and even crueler reality provides us with a film for this newest generation, taking paradox, mystery and sacredness seriously, without providing either easy or hard answers. Some will slam this movie for not trying hard enough, others may say it tries too hard. Perhaps, ironically, some will say both. Ironically, because these people will have a hard time relating to the rising generation, the generation that is okay with paradoxes.

At heart, Pan's Labyrinth is a paradox of two mutually dependent, and even inclusive realities that should never interact, but somehow still do. When they interact, they interact in much the same way spiritual people claim the spiritual world interacts: in such a way that only those that believe can see. In this case the girl Ofelia, played beautifully and flawlessly by Ivana Baquero, is the believer who can implement a complicated program for her own salvation, so to speak. Or perhaps not so to speak, as the end approaches. Here's hoping Ivana is something of a new Elijah Wood, producing high-quality acting into adulthood. The acting in this movie is perfect, dark and fascinating, putting much of contemporary American artists to shame. Maribel Verdu and Sergio Lopez provide solid performances as the good and evil dynamics that carry the less significant part of the plot: a tale of rebellion in light of authoritarianism set with the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop.

But ultimately this is a tale about coming of age and what it is to be human. What kinds of choices set us apart from machines, animals, or delusions? At the end of the film there is little question about what good is and what bad is, and yet there is plenty of reason to believe that Ofelia's quest is complete, significant, and salvific--even if cruel, senseless death is involved, even if it seems non-salvific at all to those outside the quest.

What is director del Toro hinting at? That there's a deeper meaning to the things we confront in the news today? Could it be an eschatological comment on the pains of the world today? Or that escaping into fantasies, whether filmed, played, or injected into the bloodstream, only leads to disaster? Could it be a religious metaphor about sacrificing for others? Is del Toro instead commenting on the escapism of today? Or could it be a social commentary on how inhuman those who follow orders for the sake of following orders are today? Could it be all these things at the same time?