Worlds of Pain
Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. This week we look at a couple of movies which, let's face it, don't have a huge amount in common, other than the fact that they eschew innovation and novelty in favour of a fairly solid grasp of traditional techniques.
Rawson Marshall Thurber's Dodgeball: A True Underdog story hasn't got a huge amount going for it at first glance. Starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, neither of whom are exactly Kubrick-like when it comes to rationing their appearances, and with a plot most movie-goers will be able to predict in their sleep, it looks like an appropriately dodgy prospect.
Stiller plays White Goodman, owner of the mighty personal fitness chain Globogym (slogan: 'We're better than you and we know it'), a man with interesting dress sense, engaged in a constant losing battle with the English language. His latest undertaking is to buy and tear down local gym Average Joe's (motto: 'Failure is an option') by foreclosing their mortgage. Vaughn plays Peter, the owner of Average Joe's, a laid-back dude who is mildly perturbed to learn he needs to raise $50,000 to save his business. Luckily one of his slightly peculiar regulars spots that the upcoming national Dodgeball championships are about to be held in Las Vegas, with $50,000 as the first prize. So Peter and his band of losers, freaks, and delusional maniacs form a team and enter - little realising that White has learned of their scheme and put together the most formidable Dodgeball team in history, just to thwart them...
On paper Dodgeball looks slightly like last year's British comedy Blackball, which made the same kind of sports-related jokes (and had Vaughn in it too). However, on screen they are much different, mainly because Dodgeball is very, very funny, occupying territory somewhere between an Austin Powers movie and a very long Simpsons episode (one of the voice cast of the latter show has a cameo here). It's not sophisticated. It's certainly not subtle. But it did make me laugh a lot.
Mostly this is down to Thurber's gag-rich script which leaves no stone unturned in search of a punchline. True, the film relies to an astonishing degree on the comedic potential of the word 'balls' and also of people being repeatedly whacked in the head and/or groin by heavy objects - but somehow this doesn't get tiresome. There are lots of other bits of this film that shouldn't be nearly as funny as they are - most obviously, Alan Tudyk's character, who is under the impression he's a pirate - but Thurber gets away with it through verve and charm and energy.
Stiller is impressively OTT as the rather grotesque villain of the piece, complementing a rather deadpan performance by Vaughn. There's a nice ensemble performance from the guys playing Vaughn's regulars, and somewhere in the middle of all this is Christine Taylor as Vaughn's love interest, probably the closest this film gets to having a normal person as a character. Rip Torn gives one of his rip-roaringly overplayed turns as a Dodgeball coach, too. There are also a number of big-name cameos at unlikely points, but to say who they are would only spoil the jokes.
This hasn't been a particular good year for pure, knockabout comedies so far, Shrek 2 excepted, which makes Dodgeball a welcome release. It won't change anyone's life (except maybe the writer-director's) or pioneer a new movement in comedy. But it will make you laugh, whether you want to or not. A lot of fun.
Steel Eye Span
One of the more popular tools in the arsenal of the film studios when it comes to advertising their new releases is the behind-the-scenes documentary, most of which tend to be about as credibly objective as something by Leni Riefenstahl. I saw one the other day promoting David Twohy's The Chronicles of Riddick, which claimed 'this movie will take you to a world unlike any you've ever seen before!'
Well, er, no it doesn't. This movie will take you a world entirely like many others you've seen before, assuming you're at all familiar with SF movies of the last quarter-century or so. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, of course, but let's be clear about what we're dealing with here: a rare example, years after the prime of the subgenre, of a blatant Star Wars knock-off.
At the start of the movie we find the titular shine-jobbed man-mountain (played, like you need telling, by the great Vin Diesel) on the run from bounty hunters. Riddick is a bit irked to learn they've been sicced on him by his old mucker the Imam (Keith David, reprising his role from Pitch Black) and sets off to find out why. Well, it turns out that the Imam's home planet of Helion Prime is in the path of a mob of rampaging interstellar masochists called the Necromongers, who are basically cranky Jehovah's Witnesses with funny hats and ray-guns. The Imam and his new friend Aereon the Elemental (Judi Dench - yes, really) think that Riddick is the only one who can kill the Lord Marshal of the Necromongers (Colm Feore) and have thus set about tracking him down. But can Riddick be bothered to save the universe? Where does he get his goggles from? And whatever's happened to Radha Mitchell's movie career..?
Other than a rather effective but not-too-long sequence midway through which clearly takes its cues from the original movie, Riddick really isn't very much like Pitch Black. The first film was clearly inspired by Alien, a fairly 'hard' piece of SF as movies go. The Chronicles of Riddick, as its rather portentous title suggests, is a different kettle of fish, a piece of baroque space-opera owing heavy debts to things like Star Wars, Dune, and even Star Trek.
That the new movie is able to forge these much-used elements together to create something new and fairly interesting is mainly due to some impressively ornate production design and some strong performances. Diesel is effortlessly charismatic despite being given some rather choice dialogue to deliver (he still talks as if his tongue is bit too big for his mouth, too) and he's well supported by Keith David as the Imam and Alexa Davalos as his youthful ward. Judi Dench gamely takes things commendably seriously, while Thandie Newton very nearly draws your attention away from her various costumes, and primo henchman du jour Karl Urban does his 'troubled warrior' act again.
On the other hand, The Chronicles of Riddick is frequently troubled by unnecessary silliness: silly accents, silly names, and silly set pieces. While most of the special effects are fine, the CGI beasties of the planet Crematoria (told you there were some silly names) are very manky and not a patch on the original Pitch Black monsters. The lack of discipline in Twohy's script is also irksome: we hear at great length about the Necromongers' quest to reach a legendary zone known as the Underverse, but this turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with the actual plot, merely being an excuse to give Feore's character super-powers so his climactic duel with Diesel isn't utterly one-sided. (Twohy's direction is nearly as bad, being entirely too fond of strobe lighting.) That said, the actual conclusion of the movie manages to be both startling yet logical: it's one of those rare endings that leaves you really wanting to know what happens next (something this movie's poor US box office makes rather unlikely).
For all its CGI wizardry, The Chronicles of Riddick is really a very retro piece of film-making, the sort of thing that came out all the time in the early 80s. These days, of course, the Star Wars prequels pretty much have the 'bombastic space opera' marketplace all to themselves. If you like them, you'll probably like this. It's not in the same league as Pitch Black, but as fairly brainless action-hero fun it's entirely acceptable.