Monday, November 19, 2007

The Wizard (1989)

I'll be the first one to admit that I'm a child of the '80s. And growing up in the era before Microsoft and Sony dominated the video game market, there was nothing cooler than the Nintendo Entertainment System. The little black-and-gray box that revitalized the sagging video game industry when it hit North American stores in 1985 was a source of hours of fun for my generation. Its popularity knew no bounds, to the point that many people (the ones I knew, anyway) began referring to video games on any console as "Nintendo games." By the end of the '80s, the Nintendo name had branched out into cartoons, breakfast cereals, and all kinds of other merchandise.

But perhaps the most bizarre thing affiliated with the house that Super Mario built was a 1989 film titled The Wizard. With a story that's an odd amalgam of Rain Man and The Who's rock opera Tommy, The Wizard features so much product placement from Nintendo that it might as well be titled Please Buy Our Stuff: The Nintendo Movie. The giant Nintendo flag that The Wizard flies does give it a certain charm, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good movie.

Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards) is a little boy with a big ol' bucket of issues. The emotional and psychological trauma he suffered after watching his beloved twin sister drown two years earlier has caused him to develop a mental disorder similar to autism, rendering him virtually catatonic. Perpetually clutching a little metal lunchbox for reasons unbeknownst to his loved ones, he has become obsessed with California to the point that not only does the state's name comprise the bulk of his vocabulary, but he's made a pretty annoying habit out of trying to run away to California.

The poor kid's worsening condition has actually led to the fracturing of his family. Jimmy, who lives with his mother and scumbag stepfather (Wendy Phillips and Sam McMurray), has little to no contact with his half-brothers Corey (Fred Savage) and Nick (Christian Slater), who live with their father Sam (Beau Bridges). When Jimmy's mother and stepfather have Jimmy put in an institution rather than deal with his odd behavior themselves, Corey is the only one to respond to the news with righteous indignation.

Corey breaks Jimmy out of the institution, and the two runaways hit the road for the Golden State. And hot on their trails is Sam and Nick, as well as a rather sleazy fellow by the name of Putnam (Will Seltzer), a bounty hunter hired by Jimmy's mother and stepfather to bring him in by any means necessary. And when I say this guy is sleazy, I mean it. He's more weasel than man.

While embarking upon their trek, Corey and Jimmy cross paths with Haley Brooks (Jenny Lewis), a free-spirited adolescent con artist who herself is hitchhiking towards the bright lights of Reno. But after Jimmy posts an incredible high score at a bus stop's arcade, Corey and Haley realize that they're in the presence of a gaming prodigy and immediately change their plans. They pool what meager resources they have and start hitchhiking across the country to Los Angeles, the location of a high-stakes video game tournament with a grand prize of 50,000 dollars.

But to get there, the three runaways will have to stay one step ahead of those who wish to end their adventure while butting heads with Lucas Barton (Jackey Vinson), a Power Glove-wielding punk that has mastered the fine art of all things Nintendo. Though no matter what obstacles stand in their way, the trio remain undaunted in their quest to enter Jimmy in the tournament and prove that he doesn't belong in an institution.

If you've seen it, then you know that The Wizard is a weird movie. And to tell you the truth, it's easily one of the most preposterous pieces of cinema that I've ever seen. Maybe the fact that I'm reviewing the movie after watching it as an adult in 2007, instead of as a kid circa 1989, is screwing with my perception. If I was currently within the proper demographic for The Wizard, this review would be, "Dude, this movie is awesome! Nintendo is awesome! Universal Studios Hollywood is awesome! The Power Glove is awesome! The whole flippin' thing is awesome! Wheeeeeeee!" But now, I'm all, "Dude, those three kids are gonna get kidnapped and molested and killed and molested again and buried in a shallow grave somewhere. This isn't going to end well at all." I mean, when you start realistically thinking about the idea of three kids hitchhiking from Utah to California, the movie becomes more and more illogical. (That's the thing about adulthood; you develop the ability to discern the weirder, more unsettling subtexts of movies intended for younger audiences.)

But then I remember that it's a family movie that is essentially a gigantic commercial for Nintendo, with references to — and blatant placement for — Hostess, Wonder Bread, Dairy Queen, Frosted Flakes, Universal Studios Hollywood, 7-Eleven, Pepsi, the magazine Cosmopolitan, Hollywood Squares, Tom Petty's album Full Moon Fever, and the city of Reno, Nevada. So yeah, with all that advertising, you can pretty much guess it'll have a happy ending and nothing bad is going to happen to anybody but the villains. I was seven years old when the movie came out, so I probably would have been better off reviewing it then.

But seriously, the movie has Nintendo's fingerprints all over it. Nintendo's best sellers at the time — famous titles such as Double Dragon, Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, Metroid, Super Mario Bros. 2, and Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest — are all shown or referenced, the Power Glove is lauded like it's the holy grail, and the movie's grand finale might as well be footage of a giant neon sign advising viewers to go purchase Super Mario Bros. 3, which was released two months after The Wizard hit theaters. Even the movie's catering was done by a company called Mario's Catering. Watch the closing credits if you don't believe me. The only thing from the late-'80s Nintendo catalog that's missing is the "Rob the Robot" accessory.

And if you're the kind to partake in such, why not turn The Wizard into a drinking game? Here's the rules: take a shot every time Jimmy says "California" in that spaced-out little voice of his, and another shot whenever there's some form of product placement for a product or company that isn't Nintendo. I would say to take a shot every time you see or hear a Nintendo reference, but then you'll have died of alcohol poisoning by the end of the movie.

The Wizard may be a mediocre movie that time may not have been kind to, but it is a hard movie to hate. Even if you're less than impressed, I doubt you'll come away calling it the worst movie you've ever seen. Part of the reason why is the direction by Todd Holland. Though he and cinematographer Robert Yeoman film the movie with all the production value of a cheap made-for-television movie, they still manage to bring forth a certain liveliness that improves the movie's quality. Nobody is ever going to accuse Holland's work here of deserving any awards, but it's definitely serviceable.

My only real problem is the number of bloopers, especially involving the games. A lot of them aren't really going to matter if you aren't too familiar with the games, nor do they really take away from the movie, but some of them are so obvious that it's a bit distracting. I'm not really going to get too in depth about the bloopers, since you can easily find a list of them via a search on Google or IMDB. But you'd think a movie intended to sell you video games would have a little more accuracy in regards to those games.

Another part of the charm comes from the script penned by David Chisholm. I've said a few times in the review already that The Wizard is a 100-minute commercial for the Nintendo Entertainment System, with product placement to the point that it very nearly becomes Nintendo-sponsored propaganda. But that's not the only thing the movie has going for it. It also has an absolutely ridiculous plot that's crammed chock full of the schlockiest melodrama this side of the Lifetime Channel. It's way too sappy and contrived, and seems mostly cribbed from other, better movies.

Chisholm's also written some tremendously goofy dialogue ("I love the Power Glove. It's so bad.") and scenes that make no sense at all (how can Corey and Haley give Jimmy advice on how to play Super Mario Bros. 3 when none of them knew the game even existed prior to the contest?). And let's not forget the underage cigarette girl pitching trays full of candy during the sequence in Reno.

Throw in the fact that the Nintendo stuff horribly dates things, and you've got a movie that doesn't really sound all that good. But somehow, despite being material that isn't all that strong, it's actually fun in a kitschy kind of way. Plus all the Nintendo stuff that gets worked into the story makes it a fun look back at an innocent time when everybody was a gamer, not just nerds.

But perhaps the most charming element of all is the cast. The highlight would have to be Fred Savage, who was more than likely cast due to the success of The Wonder Years. He does turn in a decent, likable performance, really overcoming the flaws in the material. Jenny Lewis is also quite fun as the feisty counterbalance to Savage's character, the silliness to his seriousness.

And then there's Luke Edwards, the final member of our team of three. Practically nothing is asked of him, and he spends the movie playing a character that, for the most part, doesn't really do anything at all besides sit in front of arcade machines. It's almost like someone told him to imitate Judith O'Dea's performance in the original Night of the Living Dead. If he wasn't a necessary part of the story, you'd almost forget he was there.

Christian Slater and Beau Bridges are also really good, but they're both better than the material. Lastly are Will Seltzer and Jackey Vinson as the slimy bounty hunter and cocky gaming whiz, playing their characters as so unlikable that they make you want to jump into the movie and pelt them with assorted fruits and vegetables.

I don't believe anyone who's seen it will argue that The Wizard is a work of art. But it's just too silly to not enjoy at least a little bit. And while the younger gamers that only really know the PlayStation and the Xbox won't get what makes The Wizard so fun, it's a thoroughly fun look back at why kids my age had it so well as the '80s came to a close. With Nintendo everywhere, a last act featuring a chase through Universal Studios Hollywood, two New Kids on the Block songs on the soundtrack, and a young, mullet-sporting Tobey Maguire in a "blink and you'll miss it" cameo, The Wizard has earned its cult status among lovers of the '80s retro movement. It's not great, it's barely good, but it is most certainly engaging and, frankly, a real guilty pleasure. So I'll give it two and a half stars, and a recommendation to those who wish to wax nostalgic about the Big N's glory days. Go check it out.

Final Rating: **½

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)

I believe I'm accurate when I say that are very few movies based on video games that are actually good. I could count the number of good video game movies on one hand and have fingers left over. One of these rare movies is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, based on the insanely popular game franchise distributed by Eidos Interactive. Nobody will accuse the movie of being a groundbreaking cinematic achievement, but it was entertaining, and that can go a long way.

Unfortunately, Paramount Pictures had to go and muck things up with a sequel. Following the precedent set by New Line Cinema's pair of Mortal Kombat movies, Paramount followed up a fun, charming movie with a sequel that throws up all over itself before patiently waiting to die. That movie, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, is a downright poor sequel that could have been so much more.

Once again, our story centers around adventurer Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie), who MI6 attempts to draft into service in their hunt for evil scientist Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hinds). Reiss is hunting for the mythical object known as Pandora's Box, and MI6 needs Croft to find it before he does. Though reluctant, she agrees to help them out after learning that Reiss is working with Chinese gangster Chen Lo (Simon Yam), whom Lara wants to get a piece of after a violent encounter between them a few days earlier.

But her help comes with a catch; Lara stipulates that a past associate, a mercenary by the name of Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), be freed from a prison in Kazakhstan so he can assist her. MI6 complies, and he and Lara traverse the globe to find Reiss and stop him from acquiring Pandora's Box and unleashing the evil inside it.

I'm almost afraid to really go into everything wrong with Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, because if I start, I don't know if I'll be able to stop. I can forgive a movie's flaws as long as it does something to make up for them. The first Tomb Raider movie succeeded in overcoming its flaws by being a lot of fun, but this sequel doesn't have much of anything to help it. It does so much wrong, but can't seem to do anything right. The direction is pedestrian, the script is absurd beyond words, and the cast seems like they'd rather be off doing something else. I would say that The Cradle of Life is less than the sum of its parts, but that sum isn't too high either.

I guess we'll start with the movie's fearless leader, Jan de Bont. De Bont's first movie as a director was the very awesome Speed, but I'd go out on a limb and say that his directorial career has gone downhill ever since. And with The Cradle of Life, it appears he may have scraped the bottom of the barrel. (Though after Speed 2: Cruise Control, he maybe scraping the ground underneath the barrel.)

De Bont just shows a general ineptitude, poorly crafting an already ludicrous story. He and cinematographer David Tattersall do a poor job of filming the movie (though there are a few fleeting spots of brilliance), and de Bont grossly overuses the slow-motion feature on the editing equipment. Does every action scene need two or three slow-motion shots? I'll be the first one to complain about super-fast editing in action scenes, but this takes it to the opposite extreme. It's excessive to the point that it makes Uwe Boll's overuse of badly-done "bullet time" effects in House of the Dead look nearly acceptable. Everything blends together in a big, monotonous blur after a while, with no one scene really standing out from any other.

And it doesn't help anything that a lot of the sets don't look like real places at all. Even the stuff shot on actual locations, especially the Hong Kong stuff, looks like it was filmed on some cheaply organized Hollywood backlot. That really takes away from anything positive about these scenes. And then there's the fact that de Bont apparently made the movie with gay men and jealous girlfriends in mind, because most of Lara's sex appeal is gone. One of the video game heroine's primary traits is that she's going about her business in the sexiest way possible, but de Bont goes about things like he's trying to avoid showing her in any sort of titillating situation. Many of her outfits — specifically the skin-tight silver wetsuit, as depicted in the poster above — don't really do a whole lot for her. And when she's actually wearing the flattering costumes, the scenes are badly shot and edited. So yeah, de Bont's work is pretty much crap.

Next up is the piss-poor script, written by Dean Georgaris from a story by Steven F. de Souza and James V. Hart. Sure, he didn't write the final script, but I want to blame Steven de Souza for the script's lackluster quality. I say that because after writing and directing that absolutely dreadful Street Fighter movie, nobody should ever let de Souza anywhere near a movie again. Well, at least not video game movies. The script is badly composed, vacuous, full of lame dialogue ("You can break my wrist, but I'm still going to kiss you."), and boasting an incredibly unsatisfying ending with no real payoff and scenes that are flat-out insane.

Take, for example, a scene near the beginning of the movie. Separated from her boat off the coast of Greece, Lara decides to cut her arm and let a little blood in order to get the attention of a shark. When a shark does show up, what does she do? She punches the shark in its nose (causing it to whimper like a hurt puppy), then grabs its fin and catches a ride on its back. What the hell is that?! Seriously, what is that crap? Who decided that was a good idea? I'd expect that out of one of one of those awful Jaws sequels, but this? Sigh... sometimes I just don't know what to make of the world anymore.

Lastly is the cast, who are, for the most part, sadly unimpressive. That's a real bummer, too, because the cast was one of the strongest parts of the first movie. While I thoroughly enjoyed Angelina Jolie's work in the previous film, her performance here left a lot to be desired. She's awfully wooden in the role, like she realized just how bad the movie would be, and only put forth enough effort to make sure that her paychecks didn't bounce. That's a real shame, too, because a good performance from Jolie probably could salvaged at least a small piece of this drek.

And not only is our heroine dull, but our villain hands in an utterly banal performance as well. Ciarán Hinds does a really substandard job, making his character one of the worst cinematic villains of this decade. Simon Yam is decent, but his screen time is so limited that we can never really get a feel for him. The best performance, though, comes from Gerard Butler. He plays his role the same way Jolie played her character in the first movie, with a brash cockiness that makes him worth following.

I wanted to like this movie, I really did. But there's not a whole lot about it to like. Gerard Butler's watchable performance and Alan Silvestri's acceptable music just aren't enough to save the movie from being 117 minutes of downright boring tripe. And that's really the worst part about the whole thing: it's so boring. I actually had to watch the movie in pieces, because I kept getting distracted by other, more interesting things. Like watching paint drying and grass growing, those sort of more interesting things.

My final verdict for Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is two stars, and I'd like to close with a little advice. If you have to watch a movie featuring a mythical golden box that kills people when it's opened, make sure you watch Raiders of the Lost Ark instead of this. At least they opened the box in that movie.

Final Rating: **