By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Josh Hutcherson, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 75% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Two young brothers (Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo) are drawn into an intergalactic adventure when their house is hurled through the depths of space by the magical board game they are playing.

If only all family movies were like this.

Too often, so-called family films are mealy-mouthed cream puffs that appeal to the short attention span of their target audience, leaving the parents either bored to tears or fatigued from sitting through 90 minutes of explosions.  The scripts are subpar and tend to treat kids as if they’re not all that bright.

Not Zathura.  With his third film (after the forgettable Made and the Christmas neo-classic Elf), director Jon Favreau proved that he’s the real deal.  Here’s a REAL family film with something for everybody: comedy, family drama, peril, thrills, a killer robot, fearsome aliens, and nostalgia.

The nostalgia part is especially notable.  The board game at the center of the film is constructed to look like something made in the ‘50s or ‘60s, which, to the kids in the film, is practically ancient history.  But for me, I found the film nostalgic in the way it captures the kind of fun I used to have at the movies.

Not that I don’t still have fun, mind you.  It’s just that, when I was a kid, sci-fi and fantasy films felt more real, you know?  It was so easy to imagine myself as a resident of the Goondocks, or discovering an alien in the cornfield behind my house, or building a spaceship in the backyard with my two best friends.  Zathura captures that kind of feeling like few other modern family films can.  It’s a movie that has the potential to live on in the imagination after countless other films have vacated your consciousness.

And the VISUALS.  I don’t know what kind of budget the movie had, but it looks like a $100 million movie.  The killer robot is absolutely convincing, as are the aliens.  Which brings up another great element of the film: danger.  The bad guys in this movie may occasionally look a little cartoony, but they are not to be trifled with.  That’s something a lot of kid’s movies tend to get wrong.  The filmmakers lose their nerve in creating real villains, for fear of pissing off too many parents.  In reality…dude, kids can handle it.  Give the bad guys fangs and spinning saw blades.  It just makes it that much more satisfying when the bad guys LOSE.

Zathura barely made its money back, and that’s including domestic AND worldwide grosses (okay, I looked it up).  I could be wrong, but I’ll bet too many people thought it was a Jumanji ripoff.  It IS based on a book by the same author as Jumanji (and The Polar Express, as it happens).  But it is possible, I think, to see Zathura in its own light.  It’s a fantastic movie that will please all ages.

QUICK TAKE: Jarhead (2005)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 61%

PLOT: A newly minted Marine sniper is sent to Iraq as part of Operation Desert Shield, only to find himself slowly losing his mind as he waits for a chance to make his first kill.

If Three Kings was the Gulf War version of Kelly’s Heroes, then Jarhead is the Gulf War Full Metal Jacket.  It’s a glorious paradox: a war film where it looks like the hero may never get to fire his weapon.

Jake Gyllenhaal is phenomenal in the lead role of Swofford, but Jamie Foxx steals every scene he’s in, as Staff Sergeant Sykes.

There’s beautiful imagery in the film, from the oil fires in the desert, to an arresting dream sequence where sand makes an appearance from a very surprising place.

I don’t know why, but I empathized a LOT with the Swofford role.  He learns how to use his sniper rifle with deadly force, he finally gets shipped out to where the fighting is…and air power nearly makes him obsolete.  What are they even doing there if airplanes can end the battle in minutes instead of hours?

There’s a great line when someone hears a helicopter flying overhead, blaring The Doors from loudspeakers.  A soldier looks up with exasperation: “That’s Vietnam music…can’t we get our own music?”  These guys wanted to fight, to carve their place into the history books with honor, and blood.  They wanted to distinguish themselves from their fathers or grandfathers who fought in other faraway countries.  The soldiers in the Gulf War of this movie wanted to “do it right.”

Jarhead offers searing insight disguised by a simple story.  It puts me into the head of a soldier who wants to do the right thing, the honorable thing – hell, ANYTHING – and who finds himself frustrated.  It struck me, and still does strike me, on a level I never expected.  I don’t know if I’ve clearly elaborated that with this review.  But there it is.


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Shane Black
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 85% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A murder mystery brings together a private eye (Kilmer), a struggling actress (Monaghan), and a thief masquerading as an actor (Downey Jr.).

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is so good, it’s a total freaking mystery how this same director, Shane Black, wrote and directed one of the worst movies I’ve seen in the past 20 years: 2018’s The Predator.  Just had to get that out of the way.

I envy you if you haven’t seen this movie yet, because one day it’ll be on Netflix or something, and your curiosity will get the better of you, and you’ll experience for the first time one of the great comedy mysteries ever written.  The dialogue flies faster than an episode of Gilmore Girls, so prick up your ears and stay on your toes, cause this train waits for no one.  The laughs are big and genuine.  The surprises are legion.  The mystery itself is a bit of a head-scratcher the first time around, so maybe watch it again, and you’ll get it.  Trust me…you’ll want to watch it again.

Downey Jr. and Kilmer exhibit the kind of unforced chemistry that deserves comparison to Newman and Redford.  If they decided to stage a two-person show consisting of nothing but the two of them interrupting each other, I’d pay to see it.  The actor in me gets a rush watching them play off each other, with Kilmer tossing off some of the great movie insults of all time.  Example:

Harry (Downey Jr.): “Do you think I’m stupid?”
Gay Perry (Kilmer): “I don’t think you’d know where to put food at, if you didn’t flap your mouth so much. Yes, I think you’re stupid.”

The screenplay is just one of the many delights of this movie.  It’s full of “meta” scenes and dialogue.  A scene occurs, and the movie pauses while the narration tells us, “That is a terrible scene.  Why was it in the movie?”  Or the movie is clicking along and suddenly it pauses again and the narrator tells us, “Oh, s**t, I skipped something!  That’s bad narrating.”  Brilliance.  To paraphrase Bugs Bunny, they do that kind of thing all through the picture.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang utterly flopped in 2005, grossing a paltry $4.2 million domestically, against a $15 million budget.  What the heck happened?  You’ve got charismatic leads (especially Downey Jr., who was, even then, starting to resemble the Tony Stark we know and love), a beautiful femme fatale (Michelle Monaghan, hubba HUBBA), an intriguing mystery, lots of laughs, surprises galore, a snarky screenplay…this should have been a hit.  Did Warner Bros. refuse to advertise it?  Or did they advertise it incorrectly?  (20th Century Fox did that with Fight Club.)  Was it – gasp! – too smart for the general public?

Who can say?  Regardless of box office performance or name recognition, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will always stand, for me, as one of the greatest comedy mystery meta-noirs of all time.  (Of course, with that many genre tags, it may BE the only one of its kind…)

QUICK TAKE: Serenity (2005)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Summer Glau, Adam Baldwin, Chiwetel Ejiofor
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The crew of the ship Serenity tries to evade an assassin sent to recapture one of their members who is telepathic…and perhaps something more…

In a perfect world, Han Solo would still have shot Greedo in cold blood, not self-defense.  Universal would have stopped with Jaws 2.  Heath Ledger would still be around for at least one more Dark Knight film.

And in that perfect world, Serenity would have spawned two more films, each better than the one before, for a trilogy that would be in the conversation for greatest science-fiction franchise ever.

I do not say this as a fan of Firefly, the short-lived, devoutly-worshipped television show upon which Serenity is based.  When I first saw this movie in 2005, I had no idea why the pilot had dinosaurs on the cockpit dashboard.  I didn’t know why it was such a big deal to see River Tam, this wisp of a girl, performing intricate fight scenes right out of a Jackie Chan movie.  I didn’t know why the characters sprinkled Chinese or Japanese phrases in the middle of their dialogue (sometimes cursing in those languages).  Or why they talked like it was the old West instead of hundreds or thousands of years in the future.

Know what?  It didn’t matter.  Serenity is so well-made and well-written that, after the two main opening sequences, I rolled with it.  I had an immediate sense of the vast history of this “used” universe and the characters within it.  In this world (taking a cue from “Star Wars”), the good guys fly rust-buckets, not sterile starships.  It’s a pure visual pleasure from start to finish.

The great story, screenplay, acting (from actors who are clearly enjoying themselves), effective usage of visual effects, genuine surprises, and one bona fide shocker that had audiences gasping and yelling at the screen…it’s all here.  Shiny!