THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM

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The Forbidden Kingdom is a martial arts/fantasy romp that makes no excuses for itself. The movie isn’t supposed to be a thought-provoking emotional journey. It’s just good, clean fun with a lot of over-the-top violence thrown in. I sat down, gave my adult self a brief leave of absence, and thoroughly enjoyed myself with predictable plot twists, stunted character development, and villains who were just bad without getting into why they were villains.

Jackie Chan plays Lu Yan, an Immortal that drinks to keep his power flowing. Kind of like Popeye, only with wine instead of spinach. His kung fu is mighty, but more than that, he mugs for the camera and takes pratfall after pratfall in a way that only he can. I enjoy watching him work because he’s so good with facial expressions while he’s pulling off incredible feats and taking a lot of physical punishment.

Jet Li plays a dual role as the Monkey King and Sun Wukong, a somber monk. As the Monkey King, Li gets to access a humorous side of himself seldom seen in his movies. He’s been relegated to the tough guy role as either villain or hero in most of his films. When he first appeared in the movie in heavy makeup, I didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t till I watched him go into action that I knew who he truly was.

The movie centers around Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) as he tries to find his way in the real world. He loves kung fu movies and has made a friend of Hop, an old Chinese pawnbroker. After the initial setup where we see that Jason’s life isn’t really great, thugs force him to help them break into Hop’s shop. While there, Jason tries to protect a strange staff that Hop says has been there for a hundred years or so.

As the danger increases, Jason gets transported to a mystical world, joins up with Jackie Chan, and is told that he’s the Traveler, the one who will take the staff back to the Monkey King. From that point on, the movie turns into a road film, with death and adventure around every corner.

I loved the fantasy elements in the film. The choreography of the fight scenes was excellent. Jackie Chan and Jet Li were flawless, and it was awesome to see them working together for the first time. For martial arts enthusiasts, The Forbidden Kingdom is a visual treat.

Even better, the camera work takes advantage of the beautiful countryside and the elaborate-looking sets. I felt that if I could step back into ancient, mythical China, this is exactly what I would see. Angarano evidently picked up martial arts pretty effortlessly, because he looks good in action.

Golden Sparrow (Liu Yi Fei) provides a semi-love interest for Jason, as well as comic relief. She has a mission to kill the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) for murdering her parents. She also squares off agains Ni-Chang (Li Bingbing), a white-haired female warrior who wants the elixir of immortality.

I bought the Blu-ray version because I wanted the high-def experience and was willing to pay the extra bucks for it. The digital video was absolutely amazing, filled with detail and eye-popping color. The audio side of thing delivered thunder through the subwoofer and a range of sounds through the other speakers that followed the movements on the screen.

The Blu-ray also delivers interesting features. Although I was familiar with the legends of the Monkey King and the Eight Immortals, the video presentation was welcome and I saw new resources I hadn’t seen before. There were deleted scenes and commentary, but I have to admit that I was looking forward to the blooper reel. Jackie Chan movies generally include outtakes that run during the credits. I noticed them missing at once, but was relieved to see the inclusion of the blooper reel. Chan shows the mistakes that happened during the filming, but he also shows the accidents he suffered through. Viewers will find themselves torn between laughing out loud and cringing in sympathy.

Watching this kind of movie is a lot like buying a favorite candy bar. You’re not going to get anything new out of it, but that chocolaty deliciousness will hit the sweet spot – which was exactly what you were after when you bought that treat. I watched this with my son and we had a great time. I recommend this one for family nights and evenings when you just want to vege out.

 

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WALL-E

Wall-E hit theaters today and packed the seats a noon at my local movie house. I’ve enjoyed every Pixar movie that’s come out, and this one is no exception. However, I have to admit that after the deluge of trailers that have haunted the television set later I was expecting to be blown away.

I wasn’t blown away, but don’t misunderstand. The movie was a good romp that kept all the tykes in the audience on the edge of their seats throughout, and there were quite a few giggles for the adults too, but the movie just hit all the expected twists and turns without becoming anything more than an adventurous love story mixed with ecological and physical health issues.

The movie takes place about eight hundred years in the future. Message #1 comes about when all the viewer can see is endless mounds of compacted refuse stand as towering high-rises. Wall-E, our everyman hero, toils alone in the garbage heap that used to be our planet. Well, there’s no denying that axe because everyone in the film grinds that one home. When there was nowhere left to stack refuse, humanity abandoned the world and went out into space.

That’s a sour but realistic take on the world’s current population, but I have to wonder if a spaceship would actually launch into space with no destination. According to the story, the people aboard the Axiom have been in space for 700 years. How was population growth maintained? How about food sources? If the ship was capable of regenerating food and water every day, why wasn’t that done on earth? But I digress. In my defense, Pixar writers and developers generally do a much cleaner job of world-building.

Wall-E is an adorable character. The thought and care that went into his construction is immediately evident. In a way, he reminded me of Johnny Five from the movie Short Circuit, but that was good because Johnny Five was a kid-friendly character and movie as well.

I loved Wall-E’s mannerisms and the motions he was capable of as he went about his daily job of crushing trash. His home was a delight and many of the kids, including mine, laughed and enjoyed everything. Pixar is so good at details in these movies that I’m constantly surprised at the depth to which they think about everything. Having Wall-E visit the graveyard of his fellow robots was a great touch. It introduced the pathos of his loneliness, pointed out his eventual future, and explained how he kept working away after wearing out parts. The bit with him hanging his treads up as he entered his home was terrific.

Eve is a robot of a different sort. She’s sleeker and more powerful, and definitely quicker on the trigger. I didn’t quite warm up to her as much as Wall-E, though she is our heroine and female romantic lead, but the expressions they were able to create with her eyes alone were fantastic.

Wall-E continues showing up for work every day even though the rest of the world has bailed on him or become totally dysfunctional. That was incredibly touching, though no explanation is given for why he developed a personality. Eve’s arrival to search for plant life (though we don’t know that for a long time, and there’s not really any reason given for why the Axiom couldn’t simply have gone on to another planet) changes Wall-E’s existence forever.

The fact that he was able to fall in love with her was great and served the story, but Eve is portrayed as having no personality. I had to let that go because part of me wanted to be an adult and learn how the AIs had progressed that far. See? I struggled with technology versus fantasy throughout the film, but that may have just been men.

When I looked at the movie through a child’s eyes, I was kept happy. The characters are cool. The visual aspects are beautiful. And the pacing is thrilling.

I was impressed by how much could be done with the computer “voices” of the characters. The feeling and emotions I projected on them were as much from the situations they were in as from the tonal quality.

I also especially liked Auto, the robotic second-in-command of the Axiom, because he was so nasty. His design as a ship’s wheel was awesome, and the holes in the ceiling that allowed him to pop out anywhere was exciting and made for tense moments.

The plot is simple and straight-forward, but the Pixar people obviously had a blast putting this one together. It runs like a Swiss watch and hits all the emotional triggers for the audience as plucky Wall-E and Eve take on Auto to bring the earth back to the people lost in space.

Wall-E is definitely going to be another hit masterminded by the Pixar people. One of the best treats is the short cartoon feature before the movie. Don’t get to the theater late and take a chance on missing it. This one left me laughing out loud because it was so inventive and wildly funny. Take the kids out to this one. And if you don’t have any kids, take yourself out and be a kid for a couple of hours. You’ll have great time.

KUNG FU PANDA

My ten year old is currently working on his senior red belt in karate, so when we started seeing trailers for Kung Fu Panda I knew it wouldn’t be long before we’d have to see it. Sure enough, opening weekend arrived and we took our seats.

I’m a big fan of kids’ cartoon movies, really looking forward to Wall E, but I wasn’t too sure of this one. Jack Black can be hit or miss with me, and I really wasn’t aware that Dustin Hoffman, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and Angeline Jolie were involved with the movie until the end credits rolled. The voices sounded familiar, but that’s not unusual given the quality of voice work these days.

The opening montage of the movie made me sit up and take notice at once, though. That artwork alone was worth the price of admission to me, and if they’d produced the movie in that format it would have been interesting to see what kind of reaction reviewers would give the finished product.

The movie quickly settles into predictability, though, but it’s a pleasant trip and I was satisfied. My son was ecstatic as he watched the events unfold. He wasn’t surprised at the plot’s twists and turns either, but the bright color, rapid pacing, and quick action is mesmerizing for the adult mind as well.

Po, the Kung Fu panda of the title, works in his father’s noodle kitchen. His father is a goose and the explanation for that is never given, though it is a distraction during a more serious moment when Po’s father reveals an important secret to him. Black provides a great vocal characterization of Po and I found myself rooting for him even though I knew he didn’t really have anything to worry about.

The villain sequences were actually chilling. Seeing Tai Lung (Ian McShane) held in prison was impressive when you realized what he had to escape from in order to become the all-encompassing threat deal would have to deal with. The darkness and threat of those scenes might cause some concern for younger children, but I loved the cinematography and the amazing choreography of Tai Lung’s escape.

The unwillingness of the Furious Five to embrace Po as a student is as predictable as his eventual winning them over. But the pacing makes that easy to absorb and enjoy. The relationship between Shifu (Hoffman) and Oogway is warm and moving, and the scene where the great turtle ascends to the Celestial Heavens is powerful.

After everyone learns that Tai Lung has escaped and is once more menacing the countryside, the Furious Five launch into interception mode and go after him. Again, the fight sequences are huge and enjoyable, truly knockout efforts. But it’s no surprise that they’re defeated.

Shifu takes Po off for lesson and the sequence where Po becomes the Dragon Warrior is a lot of fun. Still, after Po is trained and ends up getting the Dragon Scroll (which is gotten with Oogway’s staff in a marvelous little puzzle piece), everything still looks like they’re going to lose anyway.

While helping the villagers abandon town, Po speaks to his father and gains an incredible insight that causes him to stand his ground against Tai Lung. I have to admit that the thinking behind this reveal wasn’t all that deep, but it was effective. And it proved to be the catalyst the brings about the battle between Po and Tai Lung. That fight is a great one, and even though I knew Po would win, I still found myself sitting on the edge of my seat. My son was doing the same thing.

Kung Fu Panda doesn’t break any new ground when it comes to children’s animated entertainment, but it sure serves up a feast that hits the spot. This is one you’ll enjoy on a lazy Sunday afternoon with the kids, then again when it comes out on DVD.

 

NANCY DREW

Nancy Drew is one of those iconic heroes kids who read tend to grow up with. I know I shared several of her adventures (read on the sly because I’m a guy) when I was younger. I read the Hardy Boys out in the public eye, along with the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr., Ken Holt, and Rick Brant.

But Nancy’s adventures were always somehow more mysterious and more fun. They concentrated on the twists and the turns of the mystery, and the secrets of the suspects that Nancy had to ferret out. Although created by the Edward Stratemeyer Syndicate (as were the Hardy Boys, the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, Sr. and Jr., and the Dana Girls), most of Nancy’s adventures were penned by Mildred Wirt Benson. Benson wrote some of the best Nancy Drew mysteries ever printed (23 of the first 25).

The first books came out in 1930, and movies swiftly followed due to public familiarity and interest in seeing the character on the big screen. Four Nancy Drew movies appeared in the late 1930s. In the 1970s, a television series starring Pamela Sue Martin as Nancy Drew came out. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries became a hit and ran from 1977 to 1979. Television tried Nancy Drew as a series again in 1995, and a made-for-tv movie with Nancy in college came out in 2002.

Nancy Drew remains a solid sales force in video games. Based on her book adventures, the video games offer players a chance to point and click clues to solve mysteries. So far, 19 video games have come out from Her Interactive Inc. A new game was also made for the Nintendo DS game system.

Making a new movie about Nancy Drew seems almost a no-brainer. Warner Bros., the original studio that made Nancy Drew movies, returned to bring the new movie to life.

Directed by Andrew Fleming, the film is a delight for family night. Instead of having Nancy in her element in her hometown, she’s thrown into wild and wooly Los Angeles where she’s a fish out of water. She keeps a lot of the old-fashioned sense and sensibility from the original series, which makes her seem like a goof in modern times, and I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely won over by the treatment. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the sheer likeability of young Emma Roberts (father Eric Roberts and aunt Julia), I wouldn’t have bought into the representation of Nancy.

What I ultimately ended up doing is filing away my preconceived imaginings of Nancy Drew and embracing this version. I no longer thought of her as the Nancy Drew I grew up with, but more like a granddaughter of the original series heroine who hasn’t quite come into her own yet.

The Nancy Drew in this film isn’t quite finished, but I loved the pluck and drive of Miss Roberts’s presentation and thought she was fabulous.

There’s actually a lot going on in the film. I think that too much of it actually extends beyond the scope of the mystery and that made the personal plots as well as the crime solving fall apart at times. We see that Nancy is an overachiever and that she doesn’t fit in with the L. A. girls, but that subplot kind of staggers along till it solves itself (with the arrival of Ned Nickerson – Max Thieriot). Likewise, the mystery gets torn up by Nancy’s efforts to be “normal” and make her dad happy.

I would have preferred the movie focus on the mystery and the subplots to have branched out of that. Still, there were comedic moments provided by those subplots that were enjoyable and made the film move quickly.

Since Nancy got to pick the house that she and her father live at while in L. A., she chose one with a mystery. A Hollywood actress went missing for five months and was later, after her return, found dead in her pool while at her party. The murder was never solved, and that draws Nancy’s sleuth senses into overdrive.

I liked the mysterious clues, the secret passageways, and the riddles and clues that eventually lead Nancy to the solution of the murder. The film contains enough narrow escapes, chases, and threatening phone calls to keep every young detective (and mystery-loving parents) interested.

Josh Flitter plays Corky, a pre-adolescent would-be rapper Lothario that absolutely steals the show at times. He was one of the primary ingredients that kept reminding me this was not the Nancy Drew I grew up with, but I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at his antics. His sense of timing and delivery is awesome, and I’ve just found out he’s going to be in the starring role of Ace Ventura, Jr..

Bruce Willis has an uncredited cameo in the film that’s funny to watch. But, again, it’s one of those things that really detracts from the overall mystery. Nancy’s adventures in the novels, especially the early ones, focused tightly on the pursuit of the solution.

My ten year old had seen Nancy Drew books in the school library, but we haven’t read any of them yet. The movie hooked him and he sat with his mom and me to watch the whole film. He had a blast, so I can recommend this film to parents with kids wholeheartedly because he can be a tough audience.

I had a great time with Nancy Drew, and I think Emma Roberts will win over readers familiar with the teen detective in spite of the differences and escalated humor, and make new fans of kids that haven’t ever seen Nancy in action before.

The special features on the disc are skinny, but worth watching. The cast and crew obviously had a good time filming this one.

 

DIGGING FOR THE TRUTH: The Complete Season 1

For three years, real-life survival expert and explorer Josh Bernstein had what I considered to be the coolest job on TV. I’m an avid historian, so probably a lot of people won’t award the same number of cool points to the job or Bernstein that I do, but I’m okay with that. When I was a kid, and even now, I dreamed of doing what Bernstein got to do on The History Channel’s Digging For The Truth.
As a kid, I grew up on the novels of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and reprint pulp magazines of Doc Savage. All of those books, at one time or another, featured lost civilizations or historical conundrums that experts have argued over and wondered about for hundreds and thousands of years. Josh Bernstein got to saddle up horses, camels, motorcycles, and jeeps to ramble around the world in an effort to bring light to several of these puzzles. These explorations weren’t without peril, though. Bernstein risks his life through long, high climbs, flash floods, and the real threat of bandits.

I think part of what really makes Digging For the Truth work for me is Bernstein’s obvious enthusiasm for what he’s doing and what he’s working on. Even before The History Channel discovered him, Bernstein had been involved with survivalist schools and was a double major in anthropology and psychology. He worked his way up from a student at Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) to CEO.

Throughout all of the episodes, Bernstein remains eager and attentive, a teacher to the television audience as well as a student of the people he meets while researching a subject for the show. He is extremely intelligent, educated, and reachable. I always got the impression that if I ever met him, he’d sit down and talk and be just one of the guys. That’s the same quality that makes Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs, so appealing.

This first season DVD collection offers 13 adventures. As always, Bernstein sets up the question he wants to answer, ascertain, or illuminate for his audience. He doesn’t always get answers, but the journey is fun and a lot is learned along the way.

“Who Built Egypt’s Pyramids?” and “Nefertiti: The Mummy Returns” first aired on the same night. I wish they’d broken them up on the DVD set because they seem too similar in some ways. In fact, some of the people Bernstein talks to are the same people. It probably made sense to shoot them at the same time, or close to each other, and maybe sitting through them in a single sitting when the show was new was all right, but they do have a degree of sameness that may led uninitiated viewers into believing the shows are all going to be about the same. That’s a disservice to the DVD collection.

In “Who Built Egypt’s Pyramids?”, Bernstein travels to Egypt (and really strikes a chord for all the Indiana Jones fans out there, which I’m sure didn’t sit well with Bernstein) to speculate on the construction of the pyramids. A lot of the footage is breathtaking, and Bernstein gets permission to go to areas in the pyramids that aren’t open to the public and haven’t been seen in years. Seeing the history scrawled on the walls is amazing. He even brings in the extra-terrestrial angle, but that’s not touched on too much. The stone splitting bit was fascinating.

When I was a kid in school, we learned about Queen Nefertiti in history class. Tutankhamen hadn’t been found at that point (which, I suppose, dates me a little), so this famous Queen was the high point of the class. We even made makeup out of egg whites as I recall. But I didn’t know there was as big a mystery to her as there obviously was. Until Bernstein revealed that someone had tried to erase her history in the Egyptian culture, I hadn’t a clue. Then I was hooked on the mystery as he started chasing down clues.

“Pompeii Secrets Revealed” was beautiful and grotesque at the same time. The volcano looked wonderful, as did the caldera and the outlying lands. Bernstein’s historical facts were as interesting as ever, especially when I realized that this was where Pliny the Elder had gotten killed while his son watched. But the plaster casts that were made of the bodies of the people who’d burned to death were macabre. I enjoyed the recreation of what had been happening there the last few days before the volcano finally blew. I was also surprised to learn how the lava stone was used to construct the buildings, and that the underground could be gotten to through an opening inside a small grocery story. These are just some of the things I love about this series.

The episode “Hunt for the Lost Ark” sounds too familiar. But Bernstein’s real-life adventures are anything but. The climb up the side of the mountain to the monastery (where even the animals are only male) was dangerous, and Bernstein didn’t try to hide the fact that he struggled with the climb. I like his honesty. The idea of the bandits scaring them enough to try to get across a flash flood area added more suspense to the tale, even though I knew they had to get out alive. Bernstein traveled more in this episode than in any other.

“The Holy Grail” is another one of those historical objects that so much has been written about. Despite the fact that it was supposed to be the cup (or bowl) that Jesus Christ drank out of at the Last Supper, it was lost. Add to that the fact that it was supposed to be used to catch the blood of Christ as he hung dying on the cross, and you have a hard time believing anyone could misplace it. Even as much as I thought I knew about the Grail, Bernstein wrapped even more stories into the mix.

In “The Iceman Cometh”, Bernstein sets out to solve a 5000 year old mystery. The frozen man discovered in 1991 had been the object of much speculation – especially after it was discovered that he was probably murdered. The exploration of the Iceman’s clothing and weapons is awesome. Bernstein also had some hair-raising adventure along the way with the blizzard and near-crash of the helicopter.

H. Rider Haggard wasn’t the only author who was fascinated with the legendary lost mines of King Solomon. Edgar Rice Burroughs renamed it Opar and used it in a few of his Tarzan novels. “Quest for King Solomon’s Gold” brings up a lot of the history of Ophir (what is now – most experts agree – is Pakistan or India). Still, as Bernstein points out, a number of questions remain.

“The Lost Tribe of Israel” involves a lot of Biblical history and ends up merging with the – relatively – new science of DNA linked to the discovery of possible ancestors. Again, this is a topic fantasy and science fiction writers have played with for years. Bernstein’s search takes some unexpected turns which still has archeologists and historians arguing.

I have to admit, I either didn’t know about Nazca lines or I had forgotten. But once Bernstein started elaborating on the “Secrets of the Nazca Lines”, I was hooked. These people created huge, elaborate drawings of stones (geoglyphs) in the desert that no one at that time could really see. It was at least another 1200 years before the airplane was invented. Bernstein covers all the possible reasons, but his explanation of how the people of that time were able to create those lines was what really sucked me in.

El Dorado is another famous legend that’s been lost in history. In “The Search for El Dorado”, Bernstein looks for the lost city of gold. I didn’t know about the new document that Bernstein worked with, and the last I’d heard, everybody generally assumed El Dorado was somewhere in the United States. The search, and Bernstein’s conjectures, was fascinating as always. I’d really thought this episode would only cover stuff I was already familiar with, but Bernstein always ferrets out more information and legend.

“Giants of Easter Island” was great. I can remember looking at pictures of those giant statues (moai) when I was a kid and wondering what the people who’d made them had sculpted them for. The moai have a look like nothing else I’d seen before this program. Bernstein’s participation in the Birdman practices was awesome. I’d heard of them before, but there were supposed to be closed to outsiders.

“Mystery of the Anasazi” isn’t as interesting, to me, as most of the other episodes. Again, this was a mystery that too many people are familiar with. They’re also familiar with most of the theories about what happened to them. Still, Bernstein does a good job with the presentation and the landscapes were filmed beautifully.

One of the things that I like best about the DVD set is that my son can enjoy the shows as well. History is one of the most ill-treated subjects in the public school system. I never had a really good history teacher until I was in college. Bernstein is bringing history to life for my ten-year-old in ways that excite and thrill him, and leave him with questions and a desire to learn more. In the end, I believe that’s the mark Bernstein and The History Channel wanted to leave with this set, and they achieved it.

Digging For The Truth The Complete Season 1 is a great addition to the armchair archeologist’s collection. It’s also good to have on the shelves for home schools and for parents who want to expose their kids to history that’s not just found on the pages of books that don’t carry that same excitement and enthusiasm Bernstein brings.

 

 

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