Forbidden Kingdom

Jackie Chan has been trying to crack the US market for almost three decades, now. The funny-man made the best decision of his life when he threw off the shackles of “The New Bruce Lee” and took his cue from Chaplin and Keaton, and yet his multiple runs at America have met with limited success.

His latest run, starting with the watchable Rush Hour and cute Shanghai Noon–followed by the less watchable Tuxedo, Around the World in 80 Days and The Medallion–have mostly not lived up to the combination of physical comedy and light-hearted action that made his ‘80s and ’90s films so much fun.

Meanwhile, Jet Li, since his break-through performance as the frightening assassin in Lethal Weapon 4–his death at the hands of Martin and Riggs being the least believable part of an increasingly silly series–has had grim role after grim role.

Nonetheless, both have legions of fans, and hope springs eternal for each new outing. To have both in the same film is bound to produce a massive geekasm amongst the kung-fu-philes.

And dropped in the middle of this is poor Michael Angarano. The White Guy. I’m guessing the Italian guy from Brooklyn. In between praying they weren’t going to remake Karate Kid and wondering why they didn’t use an Asian kid, I did notice that he did pretty darn well. But more on that in a moment.

I particularly revile The Karate Kid, with its inaccurate portrayal of everything having to do with the martial arts scene of the ’80s and the absurdist notion that you could learn to be a good fighter by doing janitorial work for a few days. So hints of that film send off warning flags big time. (Bit maelstrom fun fact: Ralph Macchio would go from being the world’s greatest karate guy with a minimal amount of effort to the world’s greatest guitarist with a minimum of effort. We hate that guy around here.)

The Forbidden Kingdom is a mishmash of Chinese mythology done up in a sort of Indiana Jones style. There’s a lot of bloodless death, and the big baddie dies (whoops! spoiler! as if you didn’t know) a particularly gruesome way, in the manner of Temple of Doom or the closing scene of Lost Ark. At the same time, it could have been PG, because it’s all comic book level action and violence.

There were some serious overtones, such as the lead betraying his friend who looks to get killed as a result, and Golden Sparrow’s family being killed, but these are pretty common tropes in Chinese cinema, and about the level of Batman’s parents being killed. I admit to initially being surprised by some of this, hearing how family friendly it was all supposed to be, but it is. It’s just somewhat different from the modern western approach.

Heck, even The Flower, who worries about such things, didn’t get too worried. She would occasionally hug my arm but she’s the kind of girl who likes a little scare in the theater. (She’s absolutely fearless at Knott’s Scary Farm, however. Go figger.)

This is basically a road movie, a buddy movie, a revenge movie, in which a modern kid is thrown back into a mythical Chinese time and given a quest to fulfill a prophecy. Along the way, there’s fighting. Lots and lots of fighting. But the rules are pretty straightforward: Minions are dispatched quickly; heroes (and super villains) are almost never seriously hurt.

Rounding out the cast are Collin Chou (of the Matrix trilogy) as the evil Jade Emperor, the wicked beauty Bingbing Li as the witch with white hair, and the breathtaknig Yifei Liu. Really, the best thing you can say about them, is that they hold their own when working with Li and Chan. (Likewise, Li and Chan integrate well with them as a team; despite the hammy roles they play, they don’t chew up the scenery.)

On this journey, Angarano has to go from being completely ignorant of real kung-fu to being able to fight amongst the immortal masters.

How does that work? Well, the way every huge plot hole in this movie works: By not bothering to explain it, really. (Star Wars doesn’t really explain Luke Skywalker’s flying abilities, either, though some retconning in future movies does. The first one doesn’t seem to have suffered from that plot hole, though.)

The Boy nailed it really: He enjoyed it more than he thought he would because they set us up early on as to what kind of movie this is going to be exactly. And then by keeping the execution fun and lively.

Special kudos to Jet Li, here, portraying the Monkey King. He does a nice job and its good to see him smile–he has a nice smile! And while he doesn’t have Chan’s highly honed clowning ability, the two have a good dynamic.

Another nice thing about this movie is that mixed in with the CGI and the wire-fighting, we’re treated to real images of China, which has a marvelous and under-utilized (in American movies) variety of landscapes.

Finally, add to the whole mix a pitch-perfect score by Harry Gregson-Williams, and you have yourself–if not a great movie, a good time for the whole family.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Judd Apatow has a knack for producing films with familiar themes that nonetheless take new angles. Knocked Up is basically a romantic comedy with the added complication of a baby (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek anybody?) while Superbad is both a parody and paragon of the teen sex movie.

It’s rewarding, then, if not surprising that Forgetting Sarah Marshall takes the break-up flick to a new level. This movie’s average shmoe lead (played by screenwriter Jason Segel) is an unambitious composer whose girlfriend is hot actress Sarah Marshall (played by Kristen Bell).

Early on, of course, Sarah dumps Peter and the inconsolable chap tries having sex with all manner of creatures to take his mind off her. This is a pretty funny, if unusual, montage. Next, he decides to get away from it all, and through a not entirely improbable set of circumstances, ends up at the same hotel as the ex- herself.

Now, the formula for a break-up movie requires: a) the couple to get back together; b) the lead to find happiness with a new love. And according to Hollywood rules, the new love has to be hotter than the old one–no easy feat when starting from the flawless Ms. Bell.

Enter Mila Kunis. She of the blue & green eye. You know instantly that Peter is going to hook up with Rachel.

I saw Mila live with the “Family Guy” crew when they went around before the hit-and-miss revival of the series. It was very funny and, not surprisingly, Mila (who seemed shy) was overshadowed by the two Seths, the writers and even Alex Borstein (who also seemed shy, but would occasionally break into an uncanny and startling monkey impression).

Since I’m not familiar with “That ‘70s Show”, I didn’t otherwise know her work. (OK, except for the odd American Psycho 2.) It was interesting to note that, yes, she’s actually doing a voice for Meg on “Family Guy” and also that she effortlessly portrayed the role of at-least-as-hot-but-way-lower-maintenance girl.

The fourth major character in the movie is vacuous rock star Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand (who, while English, seems to be aping Johnny Depp’s pirate accent).

Now, it would be easy–and most break-up films go this way–to portray Sarah as a bitch and Aldous as an asshole, and have Peter’s relationship with Rachel be his vengeance against them. But there are a lot of wrinkles here: When we think Sarah’s totally unjustified, we’re given a look into her POV that indicates otherwise; when we think Aldous is completely useless he turns out to be kind of cool, and helpful to a newlywed basket-case; and when we think Rachel and Peter are going to hook up, he and she have issues.

In other words, instead of the usual “you’re the cause of all my problems” movie, we get a movie where everyone’s situation is more-or-less of their own making.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast is typically awesome, the surrounding stories making even minor characters feel fleshed out. Apatow regulars Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd, for example, and the two plus-sized Taylor Wiley and Davon McDonald are consistently funny.

The icing on the cake is excerpts from a rock opera based on Dracula, and featuring puppets, a CSI-like crime show (only barely parodic) and some marvelously awful rock lyrics.

Despite having a different writer and cast than previous Apatow films, it’s still in the same vein, so if you didn’t like the previous flicks, you’re not gonna like this one either. If you did, though, this is a strong entry in the canon, even for him.

The Ruins

So, out of desperation, we picked the movie that seemed the least likely to suck, and that movie was the Mayan-based horror flick The Ruins. Written by the same guy who wrote A Simple Plan, Scott Smith (who also wrote the screenplay, but with the initial “E” in his name), I figured, well, even if it wasn’t going to be to my liking it probably at least wouldn’t be totally run-of-the-mill.

The first 20-30 minutes? About as totally run-of-the-mill as it could possibly be. We’re introduced to our college-age (natch) characters, off on a last fling in Mexico, somewhere in the vicinity of the old Mayan empire, who are funnin’ and sunnin’ by the pool, on the beach, wherever good times are had.

Then they get the wacky idea to visit a ruin–off the maps! unknown to civilized man! what could possibly go wrong!–and head off into an area where (natch) cell phone signals won’t reach.

You know, back in the ‘90s, there was all this competition focused on providing cellular service, with many companies planning to launch satellites, until they figured out that repeating towers was lots cheaper and, if not nearly as good, as good as they cared to be since they’d probably already decided service wasn’t going to be a primary concern. But just think: If they’d gone satellite, they could have saved a whole bunch of people a lot of trouble.

But I digress. Anyhoo.

(What do you think about using the quote style for digressions? I’m quoting my own rambling consciousness.)

We even get some gratuitous (but not entirely unwelcome) nudity from Laura Ramsey, ensuring her death, and guaranteeing that top biller Jena Malone would be the sole survivor. (That’s a joke, not a spoiler. Or is it?)

As you can imagine, hijinks ensue up on the old Mayan pyramid, and some old Mayans get pissed, and some flesh is rent, and some chick starts screaming…somebody loses an eye…or a leg…maybe both.

I’m not going to give it away, because there was an “oh” moment for me early on when I realized what the “boogen” in this flick is going to be. Let me say I’ve seen a few movies with similar premises and most of them suck in part because of the limitations of the boogen in question.

Yet, surprisingly, the movie actually takes off when it gets to the horror parts. There’s some decent suspense, a few creepy moments, some–well, I don’t scare much in movies, but if I did, I know which couple of scenes would have done it.

The Boy was even pleased, and he is an increasingly tough customer. He’s revising his opinion down a bit over time, but that could just be because he likes being a tough customer. But he’s still defending it as “not stupid”, and that’s high praise indeed.

So, you could do a lot worse, unless you really don’t like horror flicks.

This week is going to be rough; I don’t see a thing playing within 30 miles from my house that a) doesn’t seem steeped in mediocrity; b) I’ve not already seen.

But things should pick up shortly. Forgetting Sarah Marshall looks pretty good, the Chan/Li movie will be disappointing–how could it not be?–but maybe not crushingly so, and I have high (heh) hopes for Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay. It’s stupid humor, yes, but it’s welcome stupid humor, so long as they don’t get political.

And that’s just the majors. Eventually all of last year’s cruft will clean out of the art houses and we’ll start getting some good, fresh stuff again.


Regular readers (both of you) will know I’ve decided to defy the demand for pointy breasts, last week with Jane Russell’s magnificence(s), and this week with the lovely Carole Landis.

A rather tragic figure, Landis appeared in an early blog post here about Turnabout. Her comedic work in that movie is marvelous, aping John Hubbard’s (exaggerated) masculinity, often while in this flowing nightrobe that displayed her femininity (insofar as movies of the time were so allowed).

However, Miss Landis’ breakthrough role was in the original One Million Years B.C., also for yukmeister Hal Roach. For better or worse, her performance here has long been over-shadowed by Racquel “fuzzy britches” Welch’s in the remake.

Nonetheless, it seems fairly clear that Landis’ talent (to say nothing of her talents) was squandered.

Landis’ co-lug for B.C. was the large-headed Victor Mature (whose only excuse for his name is tht he was born with it). Landis and Mature would later star with Betty Grable in the proto-noir I Wake Up Screaming.

The Other Adam Carolla Project: The Hammer

If you don’t like Adam Carolla, you can stop reading this now. Seriously, there’s nothing here for you.

I’ve found Mr. Carolla amusing since his Loveline days on MTV. His working class-style approach often made a lot more sense to me than Dr. Drew Pinsky’s educated opinions. Reasonably, a guy who spent a big part of his life as a boxing trainer before and a carpenter before becoming a comedian has made a funny movie about a carpenter who has a chance to box in the Olympics.

As might be expected, the hero of the film, Jerry Ferro (played by Carolla) is basically a loser. But he’s not a loser because he hit hard times or was ground down by someone. No, he’s just a loser because, well, it was easier and more fun to get high and play video games. This is probably truer to life than most similar stories, and keeps it from the typical melodramatic pitfalls.

The story begins when, on his 40th birthday, he loses his and his pal’s (crap) job and his girlfriend, but manages to channel his frustration into his boxing. This turns into a shot at the 2008 Beijing Olympics–or does it? Boxing is a young man’s game, generally speaking (and as near as I can tell, the age limit is 36) but the movie gives us certain expectations without dealing to heavily in fantasy.

Joining Carolla on his 88 minute journey are his Nicaraguan buddy Oswaldo (played by Oswaldo Castillo, Carolla’s real life construction pal) and cute-as-a-button Heather Juergensen, as a Public Defender with a love of underdogs. Old timer Tom Quinn, looking and acting like he’d been born to play the role of tough-as-nails boxing coach Eddie Bell, also coaches a deeply religious flyweight (Jonathan Hernandez) and Carolla’s much younger rival played by Harold House Moore.

Adam has chemistry with everyone, and the only time I felt he overplayed his hand a bit was on a date to the La Brea Tar Pits. Apart from that this movie is tight, funny, even suspenseful–you don’t know how far he’s going to get–and gives us enough back to where we feel rewarded for rooting for the guy, but not so much that we feel pandered to.

It’s a delicate balance.

It’s also a good reminder that you can make a good comedy/drama for under a million bucks.

It should get a wider release.