Raising the bar.

The Big Mac has long been the gold standard, the sandwich by which all other fast food is measured. The Big Mac is a standard unit of Fast Food Badness. When Subway wants to sell you their sweet onion chicken teriyaki sub, they tell you that three of these sandwiches have less fat than a single Big Mac.

When you combine two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions, then enclose the whole thing in a sesame seed bun, you get 30 grams of fat and 560 calories. Yum.

The folks over at Hardee’s have just introduced a new burger that makes the Big Mac look like a small garden salad with light Italian dressing.

It’s the Monster Thickburger. “Two 1/3-pound slabs of Angus beef, four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese and mayonnaise on a buttered sesame seed bun.”

Hey, Big Mac. Thirty grams of fat? Amateur! How about 107 grams, baby? Oh, and 560 calories? Child’s play! Try 1,420 calories on for size. Or two.

Yeah. There was way too much blood flowing through my arteries anyway. Does this beast come with a free trial prescription to Lipitor, by any chance?

While restaurants like McDonalds are dropping the “Super Size” in an attempt to make their menus a little more friendly to health-conscious folks, it’s interesting to see Hardee’s bucking the trend and taking fast food gluttony to new heights. Damn the cholesterol! Full speed ahead!

Burnout 3: Takedown

Burnout 2: Point of ImpactFor the record, I love Burnout 2: Point of Impact. In one session, Miscellenous G™ and I played for twelve hours straight this past spring. It was absolutely ridiculous. We spent hours and hours passing the controller back and forth, trying to complete the 30+ crash zones. We spent more hours unlocking races and vehicles or in furious competition with each other. The marathon session started at 0200 and concluded at 1400 hours (that’s right, we didn’t begin playing until 2am). There were times when I was falling asleep on the couch with the controller in my hands, but still we played on.

The unmatched sense of speed, the playful physics, the promise of unlocking better, faster vehicles, and – most of all – the wanton destruction puts Burnout 2 at the top of my list of racing games. To me, there was little room for improvement.

Burnout 3: Take downThen I rented Burnout 3: Takedown from Blockbuster. I’d played the game before, at the House of Baab, but we hadn’t even scratched the surface. We played the Party Crash mode, where one controller is passed around the room as each player attempts to create the mother of all traffic accidents in a busy city intersection. It was a lot of fun, and I could see the differences between this installment and its predecessor, but it wasn’t until I sat down in my own home and started playing from the beginning that the game really began to shine.

Everything that I like about Burnout 2 has been amplified in the sequel. The sensation of speed is now completely insane. When I kick in my boost, it feels like I’m controlling a barely-contained lightning bolt. The physics still give a wink and a nod to realism, but each car does handle differently. I can almost feel the difference in weight between the compact and the muscle car, in everything from acceleration to cornering to how each impacts other vehicles in a crash. Thus far, I’ve only played with these two types of cars, but there is a veritable automotive feast as yet undiscovered; everything from classic hot rods to Formula racers to fire engines and garbage trucks.

Throughout the single player game, barely a race goes by where something is not unlocked: a new event, a new course, a new vehicle. It’s not necessary to win a race to unlock something, either. There are dozens of different goals that open new content. Takedown goals, signature takedowns, crash totals, burnout totals, and more. The “score” in this game is measure in so many different ways that it seems I’m always hitting some milestone or another.

The big message in Burnout 3 is “risk = reward.” The more aggressively you drive, the more chances you take, the more stuff you unlock. Burnout points are gained by driving into oncoming traffic, almost hitting another car, smashing into your opponents, tailgating them, getting “air”, drifting around corners, and most of all, by forcing your opponents to crash.

When you manage this last feat (and it’s not terribly difficult to do), the game shifts into Impact Time. Everything slows down to show you the out-of-control heap of steel, fiberglass and rubber that is your opponent’s car smashing into a wall, plowing into another car, or flying off the road. You get big points and the all-important boost bar (more on that in a bit) gets bigger. If you manage to arrange a Signature Takedown (such as Pillar Driller, where your oppenent is forced to crash into a support pillar, or Gone Fishin’, where your opponent sails off the road and into a lake) the points are even bigger. Risk = reward.

But that’s not all. You can even take out opponents when you crash. Holding down the A button after you wreck triggers Impact Time and allows you to apply “Aftertouch,” affecting the direction in which your burning wreck moves. Steer it into one of your opponents and you’ll cause him to wreck too, getting points for an Aftertouch Takedown, and your boost multiplier continues to grow.

Boost is like nitro. When you do crazy stuff, your boost bar starts to fill (with flames, no less). Take out your opponents and it grows, allowing you to boost for a long, long time. Hold down the boost button anytime there’s even the slightest bit of fire in your boost bar and your car jumps forward like a rocket. Boosting anytime is a big change from Burnout 2, in which you could only boost when the bar was full. When the boost button is down, the sensation of speed is mind-boggling. Blue fire shoots out of your vehicle’s exhaust and every fiber of your being is concentrating on the road and what obstacle might be coming up next. The sound of bullets whizzing past your ears is actually the engines of other cars you overtake. One false move and you’re eating concrete.

Boost, as I said, is all-important. It seems impossible to win some events without the boost. Burning Lap events pit you against the clock. Medals are awarded at three different lap times. Even applying liberal doses of boost, I’ve found it extremely difficult to score better than a bronze on some courses. Burning Lap events must be run without error. A single wrong move and any hope of getting the gold is shattered as your car sails over a guardrail.

Other event types include Crash, Elimination and Road Rage. The first has already been discussed: drive your car into a busy intersection and cause havoc. Elimination is a five lap race with six contestants. After each lap, the trailing car is eliminated. Road Rage is just what you might expect: take down as many of your opponents as you possibly can. Each game mode (and there are others) is a different flavor of fun, but they all stick to the same “risk = reward” formula.

I’ve completed less than 10% of this game and I’ve only ventured outside the United States once (there are two other zones: Far East and Europe). I’ve unlocked two vehicle classes and a dozen or more vehicles. I have executed Signature Takedowns, Aftertouch Takedowns and basic Takedowns. I have crowed triumphantly as the only opponent between me and the finish line is forced into the back of a bus. I have marvelled at my luck after narrowly escaping certain doom. I have sworn at my opponents when they nudge me into a median and sparks fly as my car is reduced to a flaming scrapheap. I have sworn in frustration as I crossed the finish line seconds to slow to gain the silver and eons too slow to capture the coveted gold.

And I have enjoyed every last second of it.

The gameplay is simply incredible. No matter how many times I have to repeat a race or a crash zone to try to push my score into gold medal territory, the adrenaline still pumps with every drift, slam, crash and burn. The replay value is immense. Everything I loved about Burnout 2—everything that kept me coming back for more—is back and better in Burnout 3.

If I have one complaint, it is with the Crash Nav, which is to say the course/event selection menu. It seems rather clunky to me. Instead of lining up each course, the menu shows you a map with icons representing different tracks and events. Navigate to a track and you are presented with a list of events at that location. It makes quickly selecting a specific event something of a pain. Still, the gameplay is more than worth a few extra seconds spent navigating through the menu.

Star Wars Trilogy DVD

Star Wars TrilogyI’ve had a little time to recover from the emotional upheaval brought on by my little revisionist fiction rant last week. I’ve also had time to watch the entire original Star Wars trilogy in the manner dictated by its creator.

First, the good. Everything looks brilliant. The entire trilogy looks as though it could have been released in theaters yesterday. There is nary a speck or scratch to be seen. The folks over at LucasFilm did a fantastic job of restoring the films. Every image is crisp and clear, and some of the less-than-pristine effects have been cleaned up quite a bit. In Return of the Jedi Luke Skywalker’s battle with the rancor looks much less blue-screen-y than it did in previous releases. Also in Jedi, the evil black floating blob on the left (screen right) side of the Emperor’s face that was present in some scenes has been completely eliminated. Viva la technology!

The sound is equally impressive. Yes, there are a couple of oddities in A New Hope, but it’s far from disastrous. The revamped THX sequence that plays before each of the three films was mighty mighty on my surround sound system, and almost everything that followed was aurally satisfying.

And guess what? The magic isn’t gone. A New Hope still has the same effect on me that it did when I first saw it so many yesterdays ago. Yeah, Greedo shoots first. In the DVD version, it’s pretty much simultaneous. I can live with it, really. It doesn’t make Han any less bad ass. Also, the DVD version of Jabba the Hutt is far superior to that seen in the Special Edition. It’s still not quite there, but it’s a huge improvement. All in all, the first of the trilogy suffers least from Lucas’ most recent meddling tweaking. I watched it on the 21st and was fully prepared to watch it again on the 22nd, when Miscellaneous G™ came over to watch The Empire Strikes Back.

Ah, Empire. Of the three original films, it has always been my favorite, for several reasons. First, Vader was at his nastiest. Second, it introduced Yoda (who seems far more alive as a puppet than as a computer-generated image) and Boba Fett. Throw in AT-ATs, snowspeeders, Cloud City, Lobot (hell yeah!) and a cliffhanger ending, and you’ve got the best of the best.

Alas, it is my beloved Empire that suffers most in the DVD release. The changes Lucas introduced with the Special Edition were largely benign: an expanded Wampa ice creature scene (good), an extended Cloud City landing for the Millennium Falcon (bad; the computer-generated Falcon looks far too flat), a more open, airy Cloud City (good), Luke’s scream as he falls (bad, bad, bad; this greatly diminishes Luke’s bravery in choosing death over the Dark Side) and an extra line from Vader (bad; clearly not James Earl Jones). Lucas actually removed the aforementioned Special Edition scream, for which I applaud him. Unfortunately, he also completely emasculated Boba Fett.

Boba Fett has a mere three lines in The Empire Strikes Back. The first is on board an Imperial Star Destroyer. Darth Vader instructs a group of bounty hunters that they may use any methods necessary to apprehend Solo and his companions, but the fugitives are to be delivered alive. Addressing Boba Fett, he says, “No disintegrations.” Fett responds, “As you wish.” Three little words, and the manner in which they were delivered in pre-DVD releases was an acquiescence, but not a submission. To maintain continuity, Lucas opted to dub over Fett’s original voice. What we now hear is Temuera Morrison, the actor who portrays Jango Fett in the prequels. Morrison’s delivery of the line is entirely devoid of menace. No longer is there a sense that Fett is dangerous, formidable and respected. Instead, he is obedient and submissive. In Vader’s presence he has no spine whatsoever.

That’s a lot to read into three little words, isn’t it? It’s an entirely subjective debate, of course. To me, Fett is transformed from mysterious, edgy bounty hunter into just another of Vader’s whipping boys. His second line doesn’t really improve the situation. “What about Solo?” he asks on learning that Han is to be frozen in carbonite. “He’s worth a lot to me.” Maybe it’s the accent. Maybe it’s that the emphasis has moved from “lot” to “me.” Whatever the case, it simply grates on me. Whether or not I’m able to grow accustomed to this change after further viewings is unknown.

Thankfully, Fett’s final utterance is Morrison’s best attempt at capturing the bounty hunter’s previously menacing, gravelly voice. “Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold,” he says, as he stands guard outside Slave I, ensuring that no one will snatch his long-sought prize at the last minute.

Boba Fett comes out of this new Empire with some of what made him cool chipped away by Lucas’ revisionist hand. While it could be argued that Fett’s dying (or not) scream in Return of the Jedi certainly didn’t help his badass image, that is an entirely different film. Within the confines of The Empire Strikes Back, Boba Fett’s badassedness was matched only by Darth Vader’s; but that was a long time ago, before the technology was available to tell the story right.

Still, not all of the changes in Empire are bad. I was quite pleased (despite my initial trepidation) with Ian McDiarmid’s recreation of the Emperor. The dialogue was changed a bit, but not enough to incite outrage, and the overall effect was quite good. Here, at least, I can appreciate the new continuity.

Finally, we move to The Return of the Jedi. Long recognized as the weakest of the original trilogy, even at its worst Jedi doesn’t approach the levels of decrepitude achieved by The Phantom Menace and its even feebler successor, Attack of the Clones. With the Special Edition, it came pretty darn close, though.

Of the original trilogy, Jedi got the most Special Edition attention. Unfortunately, that attention was realized in the form of a musical number in Jabba’s palace that was, in simplest terms, awful. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, it was more cartoon than CG, wretched and horrifying. The original song, Lapti Nek wasn’t exactly a high point in the Star Wars saga, but it was at least passable.

Still, that’s Special Edition. That’s old news. It isn’t until the very end that the far-reaching hand of Lucas twists Jedi, replacing the ghostly image of Sebastian Shaw with that of Hayden Christensen, who looks as though he’s trying out for the Jack Nicholson role in a remake of The Shining. Seriously, there’s nothing in his gaze that says, “I’m at peace now, thank you, son. Thank you for freeing me from the grip of the Emperor and redeeming me.” No, it’s more along the lines of, “As soon as you look away, I’m going to kill and eat the little green fellow and the old man. Now go, my son, leave me.” I suppose it could have been worse. It could have been Hayden’s scarred head Luke revealed when he removed Vader’s mask.

In the end, this is Star Wars. None of the changes Lucas made – whether they be Special Edition or new to the DVD – can truly negate the fact that this trilogy has finally made it to DVD. Yes, it would have been nice to see the original versions. No, I don’t think Lucas is going to reconsider. So I’ll take what I can get, and I will enjoy it. The magic, as I said, is still there, even if the magician seems quite mad at times.

He hurts me so bad, yet I keep coming back for more…

George Lucas
George Lucas, Inveterate Tinkerer

Despite the fact that George Lucas has repeatedly beaten my inner fanboy like piñata at a birthday party, I still take my place in line every time he releases something new. I did it for The Phantom Menace, I did it again for Attack of the Clones, and today I’ve forked over still more of my money for the DVD release of the “original” Star Wars trilogy.

It all started with Greedo. The slimy Rodian has always been a troublemaker, but the extent of his ability to vex wasn’t evident until the Special Edition in 1997. Suddenly, his trigger finger was slightly more itchy, and it was this that began (though we didn’t yet realize it) Lucas’ descent into madness. Not content to take this plunge alone, the man opted to drag my beloved trilogy along with him.

Perhaps we should have seen it even earlier. Perhaps even in 1983, when we first witnessed this exchange on Endor’s forest moon:

LEIA: Luke, don’t talk that way! You have a power I … I don’t understand… and could never have.

LUKE: You’re wrong, Leia. You have that power, too. In time you’ll learn to use it as I have. The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it, and … my sister has it… Yes. It’s you, Leia.

LEIA: I know. Somehow … I’ve always known.

If that wasn’t warning enough, the following scene with Leia and Han should have driven it home. But I was ten, then. It wasn’t until later that I recognized just how bad the acting in those two scenes was, and I wrote it off as a fluke.

Then came The Phantom Menace. I had convinced myself in the year leading up to its release that cute little Jake Lloyd could act. I had assured myself that the prequel would manage to capture the magic of the originals … magic that I still see when I watch them today. I did such a good job that I talked myself into a year of denial after Episode I was released. I saw it in the theater three times, not recognizing that each consecutive viewing chipped away at the fine, delicate and oh-so-fragile construct of faith I’d created. Then, I bought the DVD and it all crumbled, the shards of my deception repeatedly lacerating my psyche like a shower of razor blades.

Still, I saw Attack of the Clones on opening day. By now, though, the veil had been lifted. I watched in horror as Lucas’ pawns played out his demented game. Anakin and Amidala were like zombies, loving one another not because of any magnetism or attraction, but because their wicked houngan master commanded them to. When the characters opened their mouths, it was as though they spoke the words of a crazed abductor, pasting words and letters cut from a newspaper onto the script. Special effects were at one turn impressive and another dismal. Each passing moment saw Lucas grind his bootheel viciously into the small of my inner fanboy’s back. My disillusionment was complete, utter, and irreversible. Or so I thought.

In days gone by, I shook my fist with impotent ire when Mr. Lucas declared that the original trilogy would not be made available on DVD until after the prequels were complete. Then my heart was lit with a piercing ray of hope when he announced that the trilogy would, in fact, be available much sooner. I longed to see each frame of The Three rendered in flawless, digital brilliance. The promise of this buoyed my faith once more, faith I had thought crushed and broken, lying in ruins beneath a sea of injustice and callous disregard.

I remain forever weak and easily manipulated. George rings the bell of promise and my mouth is filled to overflowing with the saliva of blind, eager hope. I kneel before him in humble supplication to his will, and once more taste the bitter steel toe of his boot as he delivers yet another punishing blow. Rumors trickle in, whispers of changes beyond those made in the Special Edition. Greedo will forever shoot first. The ghostly visage of Sebastian Shaw’s Anakin Skywalker will be replaced with that of Hayden Christensen. Boba Fett’s voice has been redubbed by Temuera Morrison. In the name of continuity, of course.

Lucas argues that the completed saga will be more cohesive with these changes in place. A fair assertion, but would it be so difficult to include the “alternative version” of the original trilogy? These three films, six hours all told, have integrated themselves so thoroughly into my life over the past twenty-seven years that I daresay I’d not be myself were their influence somehow expurgated. This statement is not mere hyperbole, it is reality. It is also an inescapable fact that there are those whose lives have been even more influenced by the phenomenon that is Star Wars than my own. It is at once sad and reassuring to recognize this, for whatever the length and depth of my own fandom, I am comforted to know that I am—at the very least—not as bad as that guy.

In the end, I will always do as I have done today. I curse myself under my breath as I lay my money down and take this latest offering from Lucas and his band of rogues. The attraction of experiencing these three movies in DVD format far outweighs the disappointment I feel in witnessing further changes to what I feel ought not have been so sullied in the first place.

You win, George Lucas. I have taken yet another step on the path to the Dark Side.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowSky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Giovanni Ribisi,  Ling Bai and Sir Laurence Olivier

Directed by Kerry Conran

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is an homage to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear. It is filled with giant robots, ray guns, island fortresses, space ships and just about every other staple of the genre imaginable. What makes Sky Captain unique is the manner in which it is all brought to life.

Apart from the actors, almost nothing in Sky Captain actually exists. If an actor isn’t touching it, chances are it is an entirely digital construct. Every frame of this movie has been altered in some way during post-production, whether it be a simple softening of the focus or the insertion of a wildly stylized set. The end result is a feast for the eyes; so much so that I spent the first ten or fifteen minutes getting used to the visual style.

Thankfully, the story is pretty straightforward. This really is an homage, so there’s not really a whole lot of depth to the plot. The viewer can afford to get lost in the visuals for a while without fear of losing track of the story.

Which is not to say that Sky Captain doesn’t spin an entertaining yarn; it certainly does that. Though it suffers from some less than stellar dialogue, the combination of breathtaking visuals, ripped from a pulp magazine story and all around decent performances by the cast was enough to keep me engaged throughout the entire film.

At this point, there are so many things I liked about Sky Captain that it becomes difficult to sort them out and determine where exactly they should be plugged into the review. First, there are the characters. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Polly Perkins and Jude Law’s Sky Captain (AKA Joe Sullivan) are each a spot-on tip of the hat to the stereotypical nosy reporter and dashing hero that the aforementioned serials helped create. Ditto for Giovanni Ribisi as Dex, the genius mechanic. The only role I haven’t really been able to pin down a stereotype for is Angelina Jolie as Captain Cook, but she wears an eye patch and, well, that’s enough.

Then there is the enigmatic Ling Bai, who portrays the nameless but thoroughly deadly adversary with whom Sky Captain and company must constantly contend. She’s part Darth Maul, part ninja, part Marcel Marceau and all woman. Sort of. She doesn’t utter a single syllable throughout the entire movie, but her presence is guaranteed to make things interesting.

Finally (as far as characters are concerned) we have Sir Laurence Olivier as Dr. Totenkopf, whose diabolical scheme the heroes must thwart. Olivier died in 1989, so his appearance in Sky Captain is certainly noteworthy. Conran tips his creative hat to The Wizard of Oz in bringing Olivier back to the screen.

Next, the style of the film. It may have been enough to borrow story elements and characters from those classic serials, but Kerry Conran went a step further. Every scene, every cut and every fade utilizes some mechanic that hearkens back to 1940. Whether it be a newspaper montage, a radio tower broadcasting concentric circular signals, three hands pointing skyward to herald the arrival of Sky Captain or lines of longitude and latitude superimposed over the Earth to show the journey of a flying airplane, it is all another, superbly executed nod to the black and white adventures that drew people back into the theaters week after week.

There’s very little that I didn’t like about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I thought that Michael Gambon, portraying Polly Perkins’ gruff-yet-caring editor, could have used some more screen time. There was also a line (in Tibetan) about Gwyneth Paltrow’s nipples that seemed rather out of place. Finally, there was a horribly disfigured man whose makeup/mask was a little too over the top for my liking. In a movie where nearly everything is over the top, that’s saying a lot. The difference is how well everything else blends in, and how this particular effect did not.

Some will probably say that Sky Captain is an example of using visual effects to compensate for a lackluster story. I don’t think that’s the case at all. While the story certainly isn’t fantastic, it’s definitely passable. The visual effects simply allow Kerry Conran to present the story in a manner the audience has never experienced before. It’s bluescreen film-making done right, and with spectacular results.

Dreamcatcher and The Bourne Supremacy

DreamcatcherLaura and I watched Dreamcatcher over the weekend. I’ve gotta hand it to Stephen King: he’s definitely imaginative. It was one of the most interesting and unique takes on the whole “alien invasion” theme I’ve seen. One might be tempted to compare the plot to that of It, but despite some similarities in the way the story is told, I don’t think that would be fair. The characters do feel like they’re re-releases of those we’ve encountered before, though.

The Bourne SupremacyThursday night we went to see The Bourne Supremacy. It passed the Keep Laura Awake Test (or KLAT, I guess), and I thought it was a good flick. I enjoy characters who are able to (believably) keep one or more steps ahead of their adversaries and can think on their feet and improvise in almost any situation. Jason Bourne is this type of character, and the movie does a good job of keeping his skills within the realm of the possible. He’s not James Bond, he’s better than Bond because he feels real. I don’t recall any point where my disbelief was unsuspended, and that’s good.

I watched Ultimate Film Fanatic on IFC Friday night. Six contestants were vying for the title in the mid-Atlantic region. As each hopeful is introduced, they tell the audience why they’re going to win. My favorite was the kid who said, “I own over 1,000 movies in their correct aspect ratios… and I’m only 21.” It wasn’t my favorite when he said it, but it became my favorite when he was eliminated on the first question of the first round. The category was “Deniro: The Sellout Years.” The question was something along the lines of, “Deniro played Fearless Leader in the 2001 film that pitted him against this cartoon duo.” The kid clearly didn’t know, so after a pause he just said something about not watching bad movies, so he wouldn’t have seen the one in question.

You have to watch bad movies, kid. It’s part of being a movie geek. It’s part of how you discover what makes great movies great and what makes the turkeys gobble. If you avoid the bad movies simply because everyone says they’re bad, you’re not a movie geek, you’re a sheep without the experience and information necessary to form your own opinions. Over time, the number of bad movies you’ve seen will far outnumber the great ones. It has to be that way, else the great ones won’t be great. They’ll just be average.

Movie Review: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Spider-Man 2 (DVD)Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Starring Toby Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Donna Murphy, Daniel Gillies, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn, Cliff Robertson, Willem Defoe and Satipo.

Directed by Sam Raimi.

I think Spider-Man 2 is a flawed gem where superhero movies are concerned. In terms of action, I think it far surpasses its predecessor. It also does a very good job of moving the story along and developing the characters. Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius is far more interesting and sympathetic than his comic counterpart has ever been. Spider-Man 2 is, I think, about as faithful an on-screen representation of a comic book superhero as has been seen to date. At times, though, it seems that Raimi and company have performed the task of translating the ink-and-paper characters to the screen too well.

Spider-Man has always been about a guy who is, deep down, very unsure of himself. He has been given incredible powers but he is constantly aware that they are both a gift and a burden. Peter Parker lives in fear that his enemies will discover the true nature of his connection to Spider-Man and use his loved ones as leverage in their evil schemes. Never mind the Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter, Doctor Octopus or the Lizard, Spider-Man is his own toughest foe. Add to this the fact that he is beloved by some and reviled by others (including Peter Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborn), and Spider-Man is about ready for weekly sessions with a psychoanalyst.

The problem with Spider-Man 2 comes when all of this angst and turmoil gets thrown up onto the big screen. Peter Parker is suffering the downfall of maintaining a dual identity and everyone around him is aware of the results: he can’t keep a job, his grades are slipping, he’s always late, always tired. When not swinging through the streets, saving innocent children from evil traffic and generally struggling to make New York a better place for everyone, the man behind the mask is forced to endure a seemingly endless parade of concerned friends and family offering their analysis and advice. It is the over-long, overwrought speeches that make the action-free scenes of Spider-Man 2 difficult to watch. Peter is preached to by everyone from his personal physician to Doctor Octavius, from Mary Jane to (worst of all) Aunt May. The first movie had its overly-earnest bits of dialog, but the sequel really turns up the volume.

This type of stuff works all right in three panels of the comic book, but it’s just too much for the screen. That’s not to suggest that Peter’s problems be “dumbed-down” for moviegoers, just the opposite. Stop beating us over the head with it, or at the very least use a softer hammer.

Spider-Man 2 is, as I said before, a flawed gem. The action scenes are consistently brilliant, imaginative, well-executed and fun to watch. J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson made me laugh out loud every time he was on screen, as well he should have, and there were some absurdly comedic moments scattered throughout. Some of these worked (the elevator scene) and one would have worked better if it had been a bit shorter (Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head). In the course of the movie I saw the potential for at least two villains with which Sony and Sam Raimi could assault the web-slinger in future installments. I found the movie to be largely satisfying. If the speeches had been toned down a bit, the flaw in Spider-Man 2 might not have been so noticeable.

Bubba Ho-tep

Bubba Ho-TepBubba Ho-tep (2002)

Starring Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout and Bob Ivy

Directed by Don Coscarelli

The Bubba Ho-tep Special Edition DVD contains two audio commentary tracks. The first, not surprisingly, is commentary by director Don Coscarelli and star Bruce Campbell. The second is commentary by “The King.” That’s right, Elvis himself comments on the movie (recording at “an undisclosed location”) at the request of the director. One of those “favor to a friend of a friend of a friend” things.

Based on a novella by Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba Ho-tep is about Elvis, who isn’t nearly as dead as the general public has been lead to believe. The King (played by Bruce Campbell) is alive and (relatively) well, spending most of his time laid up in bed at Shady Pines, a rest home in Mud Creek, Texas. In a coincidence far too bizarre to consider, this rest home also happens to be the current domicile of none other than JFK (Ossie Davis). Together, the decrepit duo must defeat an ancient, soul-sucking Egyptian mummy who has been preying upon the residents of Shady Pines.

Why The King of Rock and Roll is spending his last days in a gloomy rest home is explained in a series of flashbacks, as is how an ancient, soul-sucking Egyptian mummy came to be in Texas. And JFK? Well, there’s an explanation for his presence at Shady Pines, too; as well as an explanation for him being black.

Ossie Davis and Bruce Campbell play their parts very well. Their interactions are amusing and occasionally touching. Campbell looks the part of an aging Elvis (thanks in no small part to some excellent makeup), and Davis looks the part of an aging Kennedy about as much as any elderly black guy playing an elderly white guy could. As for the ancient, soul-sucking Egyptian mummy, he looks about like you’d expect an ancient, soul-sucking Egyptian mummy living in Mud Creek, Texas would, complete with feathered cowboy hat and stylin’ boots.

The film moves at a decidedly geriatric pace, and there’s not all that much action. Anyone expecting Evil Dead 4 is in for a big disappointment. Still, the main characters are old men, so it’s fitting that the movie not rush along at breakneck speeds. The story is driven largely by dialog, a good portion of which is Campbell’s cantankerous Elvis voice over. When there is action, it is action suited to old men. Every move the heroes make is likely to send them back to bed with a broken hip. When the main character needs a walker to get around, it’s not likely he’ll be doing back flips or flattening the mummy with a crane kick.

Though there isn’t a single Elvis song throughout the entire movie (pesky copyrights), the soundtrack is nonetheless pleasing. The original music by Brian Tyler is very fitting, especially the rich, moody guitar in the main theme. On my home theater system, the sound and music filled the room, making for a very satisfying viewing experience.

The true gem on the DVD is that commentary by “The King.” Elvis is watching Bubba Ho-tep for the first time, and he comments on Bruce Campbell (he’s seen Campbell in some “Evil Death” pictures, but isn’t going to rush out to see his next movie), Ossie Davis (a classically-trained actor who must have been paid a lot of money to do this picture), the film’s budget (the must have spent all the money getting Ossie Davis), and the disturbing amount of profanity (The King would never cuss in front of a lady). The commentary is littered with references to Elvis’ own films and anecdotes about making them, and is interrupted several times when The King takes calls on his cellular phone.

I’ve yet to watch the Campbell/Coscarelli commentary, but I’ve got another couple of days before the movie is due back at Blockbuster, so I’ll likely have a chance to see it before I return the DVD.

Bubba Ho-tep may never achieve the cult status that the Evil Dead films have, but it gives Bruce Campbell a chance to show what he’s capable of when not portraying the dunderheaded Ash or relegated to playing thirty-third fiddle in Sam Raimi’s latest Spider-Man film. I’ve seen several reviews that proclaim this to be Bruce Campbell’s finest acting to date, and I don’t disagree. The slow pace and lack of constant action are likely to alienate a certain subset of Campbell’s fans, but for the rest of us Bubba Ho-tep is a worthy addition to his filmography, and a big step on the long path to atoning for Congo.

Van Helsing (2004)

Van HelsingVan Helsing (2004)

Starring Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Robbie Coltrane, Will Kemp, Elena Anaya, Samuel West and Stephen Fisher

Directed by Stephen Sommers

Hugh Jackman is cool and the ladies love him. He’s a total badass (see: X2: X-Men United), he’s good looking (see: Hugh Jackman), and he sings and dances (see: Oklahoma!, The Boy From Oz). Hugh Jackman is also probably the sole reason that I not only saw Van Helsing on opening night, but Laura saw it with me.

Van Helsing is brought to you by Stephen Sommers, who was also responsible for Deep Rising,The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King, among others. I’ve seen three of these films and liked one (Deep Rising, which was a campy, tongue-in-cheek monster movie). Van Helsing may well have been advertised as “from the writer/director of The Mummy and its ilk,” but either I didn’t see those spots or I subconsciously blocked them. Whichever is the case, had my conscious mind been aware of the writer/director’s previous efforts, I might have gone into Van Helsing with slightly different (read: lower) expectations.

I can say this: I didn’t like Van Helsing. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say much more without venturing deep into spoiler territory.

Van Helsing begins in Transylvania, 1877. The villagers have their torches and pitchforks at the ready and are marching on Castle Frankenstein. The doctor is in his lab, the beakers are bubbling and the sparks are flying. The opening sequence is presented in black and white, as an homage to the Universal monster movies of old. Lightning flashes, switches are thrown, electricity courses, and the good doctor exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Dracula is pleased with this pronunciation. See, the count is Dr. Frankenstein’s financial backer. A sort of Vampire Capitalist, if you will. Victor is a bit naive, and it comes as quite the shock when he learns that Dracula has sinister designs for his creation. The doctor wants nothing to do with it, and he pays the ultimate price for his folly.

This is an unfortunate moment for Victor Frankenstein. It is also an unfortunate moment for Dracula and for Van Helsing as a whole. Bad for Victor because he’s dead, bad for Dracula because the monster breaks free of his retraints and starts wreaking havoc, and bad for the movie because Dracula’s bite is the first glimpse of things to come.

I’m talking about special effects. See, when Dracula bites Dr. Frankenstein, it’s not a simple matter of canines extending. No, we get a cross between a tiger shark and a boa constrictor. Teeth everywhere, distended jaw, you know the drill. It’s over-the-top and it looks like open-mic night at the SFX House. Bad.

The monster is able to incapacitate the vampire and, cradling the body of his creator in his arms, flees the castle pursued by an angry mob of villagers. There’s no escape for the monster, who winds up trapped in a burning windmill, crying as the whole mess collapses around him.

A year passes…

The homage is over, so when the scene opens on Paris at night, it’s in full color. Van Helsing is hot on the trail of Mr. Hyde, who turns out to be Shrek’s unpleasant older brother and a hallmark of shoddy computer-generated characters. Everything about Hyde is wrong. He swings from the rafters of the church, moving like an orangutan on speed. When he’s face-to-face with Van Helsing, there’s no eye contact. Oh, the slayer is supposed to be looking him right in the eyes, that much is clear, but he just … misses. Can’t blame Jackman for that. After all, he was probably looking at a tennis ball. Hyde just never fits into the scene.

Hyde isn’t particularly interested in a peaceful resolution, so a tussle ensues. It’s a chance to show off some of Van Helsing’s nifty gadgets and assault the audience with more bad “groundbreaking” special effects. In the end, one of the combatants is not so alive anymore and the other is declared a murderer by a crowd that has gathered on previously empty streets.

Van Helsing goes to confession and finds that the Church has another assignment for him. He’s working for a secret mutli-denominational agency that fights the forces of darkness on Earth. His mission: go to Transylvania and deal with a vampire problem. If Anna Valerious dies before the Count, then nine (nine!) generations (ha-ha-ha!) of her family will be denied entrance into Heaven. Q Division has some new nifty gadgets to help with the job. They’re also sending along a friar named Carl for comic relief.

Anna isn’t the sole hope of the Valerious family, but her brother Velkan isn’t Kate Beckinsale, so he’s going to be effectively removed in the next scene. Velkan is out hunting a werewolf, and he gets himself into a sticky spot. Turns out he’s not hunting alone, though. His sister and a dozen villagers are there for backup. Alas, though everyone is armed to the teeth, Velkan’s gun is the only one loaded with silver bullets. Yeah. Oops.

There’s a lot of shooting, a bit of caged and uncaged werewolf slobbering, and eventually Velkan and the werewolf wind up going over a steep cliff and into a river. So long, Velkan. So long, werewolf. For now.

Van Helsing boards the H.M.S. Surprise but forgets to take any of Master and Commander‘s fairly realistic water effects with him. After a brief sea voyage, he and Carl arrive in the village and are met with less than open arms. The vampire brides arrive just in time to allow Van Helsing to prove his benevolence, and they bring along some of the worst blue-screen effects in recent memory.

A cow is thrown through a roof, the villagers panic, Van Helsing shows off his new gas-powered repeating crossbow, and Anna shows that she is one resilient woman. Actually, she gets the living shit beat out of her and bounces back like a super ball every time. Doesn’t matter whether you throw her through a window, off a roof, or through a window and then off a roof, she comes right back at you with her sword a-swinging. She’s tough. The cow makes it, too.

Anna and Van Helsing should team up, but she’s not convinced. She’s going monster hunting, and she’s going right now. Van Helsing discourages her with a spray of Bat Gas, and when she wakes up, he’s gone and there’s a werewolf stalking her. Great.

This isn’t the same werewolf that took a swan dive with Velkan. In fact, we never see that werewolf again, and there’s no explanation for its absence. Perhaps “there can be only one.” No, this werewolf is none other than Velkan himself, bitten by his dance partner and thus lycanthropated. It’s his first full moon, so he’s shedding like nobody’s business.

Van Helsing isn’t nearly so far away as we might expect, and he comes rushing in to save Anna from a lifetime of scratching at fleas and licking her own crotch. Anna does prevent Van Helsing from killing the werewolf, however, so there’s a good bet that we’ll be seeing him again later.

Meanwhile, Dracula and his brides are scheming to bring their evil offspring to life. Seems that Frankenstein’s monster was going to be key in this little plan, but he was lost in that windmill fire. Big D is banking on Velkan’s werewolf blood being the key, so the furry chap is tied to a platform and raised up to be used as an unwilling conductor for unhealthy doses of direct current. The juice passes through Velkan’s body and outward along cables that are attached to the spawn of the undead, who are encased the same lumpy, brown, disgusting sac that every spawn of every undead from every other movie have been encased in since time immemorial. And the sacs are filled with the same white goo, too.

The fruit of Dracula’s loins are brought to life, and the brides lead them down to the village to feed. Alas, the werewolf blood wasn’t enough, and the little cherubs pop like green zits about five minutes later, leaving their mothers to wail and moan. The spawn of Dracula, by the way, look pretty much like the amazing bat boy of Weekly World News fame.

After a brief fracas with the bad guys (Dracula employs dozens of belligerent Jawas), Kate and Leopold escape the castle and come across the same windmill that Victor and his big boy fled to a year ago. The floor isn’t entirely stable, and they wind up falling through to a cavern below where, lo and behold, Frankenstein’s monster still lives. Anna wants to kill the monster, but Van Helsing can sense evil, and boltneck ain’t it. Three darts from a blowgun in the back, and the monster is subdued.

Frankenstein’s monster, by the way, is pretty much the best critter in the whole movie. As Van Helsing says, he’s not evil. He’s also got green lightning in his brain and his heart. It’s one of the few effects that’s actually pulled off throughout the movie. He turns out to be a very helpful fellow, despite the fact that Van Helsing offers to trade him for Anna.

Oh, yeah, Anna. Dracula captures her. There’s a big chase involving a werewolf, the brides and a carriage pulled by Transylvanian horses. In the process, Van Helsing is bitten by the werewolf, Anna is captured, and every child learns that reindeer Transylvanian stallions really can fly.

Van Helsing and Carl (who has been researching the history of Dracula and the Valerious clan this whole while) plot to get Anna back without giving Dracula the monster. See, Van Helsing lied. Unfortunately, Dracula found out where the monster had been hidden and captured him anyway. Nonetheless, Anna is rescued.

Van Helsing (or, Gabriel, as Dracula calls him … they’ve got a little history, these two, despite the fact that Van Helsing can’t remember it) is going to turn into a werewolf. That’s bad. But Carl calculates that they’ve got forty-eight hours before the next full moon.

Stop. Rewind a bit. Forty-eight hours? Wasn’t Velkan just attacking Anna during his first full moon? Yes, he was. But that’s not important right now. The fact is, the full moon is coming in forty-eight hours. Don’t ask how. It just is.

Carl has managed to figure out how to get to Dracula’s Castle, so everybody packs up their gear to go after his toothiness so they can stop his evil plot. There are thousands more bat sacs hanging from the ceiling of Castle D, and now that they’ve got the monster, the happy family will soon hear the flitter-flut of little wings in the halls.

The good guys also learn that Dracula has a cure for lycanthropy. Why? Well, if a person of strong enough will were to be turned into a werewolf, he might be able to resist the vampire’s command. Oh, yeah, and the bite of such a werewolf would kill Big D.

Gabriel frees Frankenstein’s monster and turns into the only halfway-decent looking werewolf in the movie. Dracula turns into Venger, from the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. They grapple. Anna and Carl coerce Igor into showing them where the antidote is, but he double-crosses them. Carl manages to get away, but the final bride shows up and proceeds to kick Anna’s cute little ass.

The monster rescues Anna, and there is way too much swinging on cables between The Two Towers. Again, the bad bluescreen rears its ugly head. Carl throws the antidote to Anna, then rescues the monster from certain death. Gabriel bites Dracula. Anna swings into the wrasslin’ room, administers the antidote just in time, then dies.

Yes, dies. Anna has taken beating after beating throughout the entire movie, then dies after Were Helsing pushes her onto a couch. It’s just too comfy! Gabriel howls and transforms back into Shirtless Hugh Jackman and the ladies in the audience wipe another bit of drool from the corner of their mouths.

Van Helsing takes Anna’s body back to the Ewok village to the top of a hill, where he burns her on a funeral pyre. And I whispered, “Mufasa!” as her ghostly visage appeared in the blue sky, a single, shimmering tear running down her cheek.

Movie Review: Hellboy (2004)

Hellboy (DVD)Hellboy (2004)

Starring Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, Biddy Hodson and Dr. Niles Crane.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro.

When I got home from work Friday night, there was a pair of tickets for a Saturday afternoon matinée of Hellboy on the table. Though I’ve never read the Hellboy comics (graphic novels, whatever), I’ve been psyched about the movie since I learned that Ron Perlman would star. I became more psyched when I saw the first trailer a couple of months ago.

It should be noted that I love movies based on comic book heroes. I love good movies based on good heroes, I love bad movies based on bad heroes, and I love everything in between. It should also be noted that I know the difference between a bad comic book movie and a good comic book movie.

Did you see:

  • Captain America starring Matt Salinger? That was a bad comic book movie.
  • The two made for TV Captain America movies starring Reb Brown? Those were both bad comic book movies.
  • The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren? Ouch.
  • The original X-Men? What’s this? That didn’t suck! That didn’t suck at all!
  • Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire? Sweet! It’s the Spidey I’d always hoped to see on the big screen!
  • X2: X-Men United? Hell yeah, we’re on a roll!
  • Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck? Oops! Can’t win ’em all I guess. But it’s not a total dud.
  • Hulk, starring Eric Bana and a bunch of green pixels? Flawed, but I still enjoyed it.

Hellboy is this year’s first superhero movie. Later this month, Thomas Jane will attempt to right the wrongs perpetrated by Dolph Lundgren and company when The Punisher hits the big screen again. Then there’s a bit of a wait (unless you count Van Helsing, opening May 7th) until Spider-Man 2 hits in July. After that … well, I don’t know of anything after that, off the top of my head.

First off, Laura and I both liked Hellboy. For a movie of this genre, that’s saying quite a bit. I’ll sit through just about anything superhero-related (see: the Captain Marvel and Captain America black and white serials of 1941 and 1944, respectively). Laura is not nearly so patient, tolerant, or forgiving of her movies. Granted, she enjoyed X2 quite a bit, but there’s a big difference between what she’ll sit through and what I will.

Though my knowledge of the original source material is admittedly scarce, I do know that Ron Perlman is the perfect choice to play the title character. Hellboy is cock-sure, laid-back and a bunch of other hyphenated stuff. He’s also very funny and can be incredibly sensitive. Perlman brings every aspect of that personality to the screen flawlessly. Couple the performance with excellent makeup/prosthetics/costuming, and you’ve got a brilliant lead character.

David Hyde Pierce is another fabulous casting choice. Granted, it’s just his voice, but that voice fits the character and the physical manifestation of Abe Sapien to a tee. The body is supplied by a fellow named Doug Jones, of whom you’ve probably never heard, but have probably seen in other movies.

Rounding out the “freaks” is Selma Blair as Liz Sherman. She’s a very dark character, with a lot of insecurity, fear, and self-loathing. She’s also Hellboy’s love interest. Oh, and she tends to start fires with her mind when she’s traumatized. Like pretty much every other character in the movie, this is a solid performance and I have absolutely no complaints.

The rest of the good guys: John Hurt as Professor Broom, Rupert Evans as Agent John Myers, and Jeffrey Tambor as the oft-irritated Doctor Manning.

And then there are the bad guys. Nazis. In the history of cinema has there ever been a better group of bad guys? Look what they’ve got going for them: they’re snappy dressers, very punctual, extremely well organized, utterly ruthless, goal-oriented, and they’ve got some of the best theme music in history. They are, as Miscellaneous G™ points out, instantly identifiable as the bad guys whenever they appear. There’s never any ambiguity about it. Whether the protagonist is Indiana Jones, Captain America, or the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, as soon as you see a Nazi on the screen, you know he (or she) is a bad guy. Period.

These particular Nazis (including the lovely Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S.) have joined forces with that dastardly villain, Rasputin. Seems that poisoning, shooting, stabbing, clubbing, hanging and drowning the bearded bastard just wasn’t enough to keep him down. Now (well, starting in 1944, actually) he’s helping Hitler’s jackbooted flunkies open a portal to the depths of outer space, where dark and hungry gods slumber in H.P. Lovecraft’s shadow.

It is in this manner that Hellboy arrives on Earth. The portal is opened, but the Nazis are thwarted by a young Professor Broom and a bunch of Uncle Sam’s finest boys in uniform. The portal is closed before the real baddies can catch the interstellar express to Scotland, but not before Hot Stuff, the cutest li’l devil you ever did see, gets through.

Another bad guy I should mention is Kroenen, ’cause, damn. I mean, this guy is quite possibly the single coolest masked baddie since the mother of all masked baddies, Darth “Don’t Call Me Ani” Vader. He’s the clockwork Nazi who takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Actually, he takes an impaling and walks away from it. He deflects bullets with two wicked swords that he keeps hidden up his sleeves. And get this, he doesn’t even have to deflect those bullets! Seriously, they just bounce off him! But he deflects ’em anyway, because he’s just That. Bad. Ass.

So, the bad guys are defeated (for now) and Hellboy is adopted by Professor Broom. Jump forward sixty years. Hellboy is now Ron Perlman, Professor Broom is now John Hurt, and that damn Rasputin doesn’t know when to say when. He’s back (thanks to the remarkably well-preserved Ilsa), he’s stirring up all kinds of trouble, and it’s up to Hellboy and company to put a stop to it.

What follows is a smash-bang romp that only pauses for breath a few times before the end credits roll. There’s a satisfying amount of action mixed with a classic Beauty and the Beast love story that stops shy of being overly sappy, special effects that don’t (always) scream “look at me, I’m a special effect!”, and a liberal dose of laugh-out-loud Hellboy one-liners.

Unfortunately, there’s also a sticky bit with the story that doesn’t play out very smoothly. The biggest stumbling block for me: a strange clue that – in a logical leap worthy of Burt Ward’s Robin – takes our heroes to Moscow in an attempt to put an end to Rasputin’s shenanigans once and for all. In the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!” Of course it is, but a trap of which the machinations are subtle and confounding.

Not surprisingly, right prevails. Laura was quite pleased that, despite the availability of Agent John Myers – who is quite the dashing fellow and a downright decent guy, to boot – Hellboy gets the girl in the end. Overall, I was very, very pleased with the movie. Despite the convolution of the story midway through, it remained a treat to watch, and I fully plan on seeing it in the theater again.

Afterthought: As I wrapped up my review of Hellboy, I realized that I had all-but completely neglected the movies based on DC superheroes in my earlier list. For the record, I thought that the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman movie was a complete riot. The first Batman movie starring Michael Keaton is in my top five favorite superhero movies of all time. Unfortunately, someone at Warner Brothers got it into their head that the villain in each movie had to be a bigger star than the guy playing Batman. That, in addition to various other insanities perpetrated on the productions, drove the franchise into a plunge that reached rock bottom with Batman and Robin. I’m hoping against hope that Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale can breath some much needed life and dignity back into this beloved character. Superman suffered a similar fate, and whether or not he can be revived remains to be seen. By today’s standards, the first movie in that series seems a bit on the hokey side, but Christopher Reeve played Clark Kent and his Kryptonian alter-ego perfectly, and that performance stands out against dated costumes and special effects.