A ranked list of the movies I saw this year. Now we are down to my favorites.
You Knew Where This Was Going, Part One: Movies I Really Liked
1. Batman Begins - I'm not saying I'd choose the Batmobile over Herbie--although, to be honest, I guess Herbie's a bit on the needy side--but if I have to choose between a serviceable interpretation of my favorite character and a rock-solid interpretation of one of my other favorite characters, I have to go with the superior movie. At last, a Batman movie with respect for the character, respect for the comics, and respect for the audience. It's everything Batman always deserved and everything Bat-fans never dared dream they'd actually get, outside of animation.
2. Herbie: Fully Loaded - This one is going to be a bit long-winded, I'm afraid. A flawed movie, to say the least. Some of the CGI is painfully obvious, especially an inaccurately modeled Volkwagen--in numerous close ups!--late in the film. I still believe the "Large Marge" freak-out Herbie was a huge mistake. The relentless pace leaves no room for the characters to breathe. Lindsay Lohan's performance, while decent, is obviously phoned in, and Justin Long sometimes seems lost. It all goes a bit too gooey over NASCAR at the end. And I can't escape the feeling that the movie is kind of clumsily assembled.
This blog makes an interesting argument that Lohan's character reflects the modern obsession with undeserved celebrity. Certainly, it seems unnecessary that her character has a promising, desireable career lined up before she gets into racing--the fact that Dean Jones was a washed-up driver in the original Love Bug was more engaging and sympathetic. It's harder to care when someone has a great job anyway, but just really wants to race. "Pathetic Failure Vs. Realizing Your Dream" is more dramatic than "Glamorous ESPN Job Vs. Even More Glamorous Car Racing Job." So it would have been nice if Lohan's character was ever in danger of actually failing.
Instead all that negative stuff gets passed on to the men in her washed-up racing family, because in Hollywood movies these days, leading ladies have to be perfect and good at everything. She's a great driver, and has a big-time sports journalism career right out of college, and she's a great skateboarder--even though they had to cut down the skateboarding scenes because all the special effects in the world couldn't make Lindsay Lohan look at home on a skateboard. (For an excellent article on the formulaic blandification of movie heroines, check this piece out--it's from the LA Times but the original isn't available on their site anymore.)
Many critics have pointed out that for all the fuss that's made over Lohan being a "great driver," Herbie's magic makes it irrelevant. The movie fudges it by suggesting that it's Lohan and Herbie's connection that fuels the magic, but even so. The point in The Love Bug was that Dean Jones wasn't a particularly good driver, and he had to come to terms with that and appreciate the gift that he'd been given.
I'm not trying to excuse these faults, but I admit that this is more scrutiny than this movie was meant to withstand. As a Herbie fan, a lot of the things that bugged me before, I've gotten used to. I'm pretty much used to the expressive sound effects they've added to Herbie, and even the eyelids and bumper are fairly inoffensive now. I wish they'd used the original decals, but I can tolerate the new ones.
And the movie has its strengths as well. Matt Dillon is the best Herbie villain since David Tomlinson and Keenan Wynn--he nails the tone perfectly and it's a delight whenever he's onscreen. While the climactic NASCAR race is underwhelming, the Demolition Derby scene is quite good, and surprisingly emotional.
The entire sequence starting when Lohan acquires Herbie, and lasting through her street race with Trip, is excellent, as good as the corresponding sequence it rips off from Herbie Rides Again. The actual driving in the street race could stand to be more aggressive, but other aspects of the scene, like Herbie "keying" Trip's car with his mirror, Lohan's horror at being trapped in a race, and the use of "Born to be Wild" are priceless. Plus this race includes Herbie's railslide and his skateboard-esque kick-turn, the best CG effect in the movie.
Eventually, Lohan even reveals some character flaws. When Dillon tempts her into "cheating" on Herbie with his stock car (with all the weird sexual subtext that implies), it's one of the movie's best scenes.
Finally, with its location shooting and modern style, Fully Loaded is the only Herbie movie that actually makes us feel like we're inside a VW--something the originals, with their studio-bound half-cars never quite accomplished.
Ultimately, Herbie: Fully Loaded succeeds as an effective feel-good family movie, easily better than Herbie Goes Bananas, and arguably better even than the dramatically inert fan favorite Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. (Monte Carlo is funnier, though, if only for the presence of Don Knotts.)
Embarrassingly enough, for years I've literally dreamed of discovering a new Herbie movie--seriously, I have dreams where I'm in obscure video stores, and, what's this?--and now it is here. There was the 1997 TV movie, which was a tremendous disappointment and an embarrassing blemish on the resumes of both Herbie and Bruce Campbell--but it does prove that not just any Herbie movie will do. Despite its faults, this one passes muster.
3. Kung Fu Hustle - Madcap cartoon surrealism and imaginative, masterfully choreographed action. Like Shaolin Soccer, distinctively Chinese humor that's somehow mean-spirited without being ugly about it. Goofy and over-the-top ridiculous yet unsettlingly violent. The story is all over the place, but why should you give a shit?
4. The 40-Year-Old Virgin - Heartfelt and sincere, yet raunchy and hilarious. A perfectly realized, authentic geek life packed with details drawn from genuine observation and experience. Deals honestly with sexual anxiety without making the virgin a buffoon--or at least, no more a buffoon than his experienced friends. But yes, it is too long.
5. Initial D - This Hong Kong anime/manga adaptation--the highest grossing movie of the year in Hong Kong!--features lovely drifting action and tons of it. Plus an underdog racer trumping souped-up rivals and the most endearing abusive alcoholic dad since Homer Simpson. Sometimes it's the simple pleasures that matter.
6. Ong-Bak - Brutal and distressing in parts, but the best action movies tend to have violence that skirts the edge of your comfort level. Spectacular.