Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Dir. Steven Spielberg

Viewed: In the Balcony

Generally speaking I'm a fan of Mr. Spielberg. No other filmmaker made such an impression on my childhood imagination and my budding love for film. From Duel to Jaws to ET to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc, Spielberg was mainlining fascinating stories and rich wonderful characters into my most precious of memories. And not only that, but he filmed these stories in a striking fashion that was unrivaled in mainstream film at the time; creating images along with those stories and characters that are forever burned in the minds of a generation of film fans. For these early movies of his, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Empire of the Sun, Spielberg gets a pass on some of his many missteps of the past 20 years or so. It's not that I overlook such botched efforts like Hook or A.I., or turn a blind eye to the problems they have, but I can forgive him and easily dismiss the movies so that I can continue to look forward to his next one -- which at his rate probably won't be too far down the line. For every Hook there is a Munich, every Terminal a Shindler's List.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull falls short of being a smashing success, but it's entertaining enough to just avoid being one of his clunkers. Keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who sat through a marathon of the original trilogy at the Wang Center many years ago. I will say that I'll happily watch this one any day over Temple of Doom. That one is painful, Crystal Skull on the other hand is simply awkward and convoluted at times and never really gets off the ground. It starts and stops in a lot of places -- giving you scenes and sequences that promise to get the boulder rolling only to have it trail off to the side, awaiting the next push. Like Lucas said long before the movie was released, it's neigh impossible to live up to 20 years of anticipation. But there are some glaring issues that make this movie fall short of expectations.

We start off in the desert, Area 51 circa mid 1950s, about 10 years after the Roswell incident. After Indy and his colleague are pulled from the trunk of a car by Cate Blanchett's team of Russian goons we find out that he was on the ground crew in charge of cleaning up the Roswell crash site and now he's being forced to help the Russians find one of the objects pulled from the crash so they may use it for their nefarious means. And so it goes for a little over two hours. Indy gets captured, figures out some piece of the puzzle, escapes, gets captured again, etc. It seems Blanchett's been globe trotting in search of alien remains that contain super psychic powers that she wants to use to give the Red Scare even more menace. One problem is that the sought after crystal skulls don't really offer much in the way of menace or the inherent awe that comes with religious objects like the arc of the covenant or the holy grail. There is of course age old theories about some of our oldest wonders being given a hand in creation by extra-terrestrial (or extra-dimensional?) visitors, but as well as that idea being the lynch-pin of an Indiana Jones story might sound on paper, it comes off a lacking on screen. I can buy the premise for the sake of the movie but I can't help wishing they'd gone off in search for Atlantis or something with more thematic heft than crystal skulls.

But that's not to say there isn't some great moments to be found here. There's a beautifully executed chase sequence early on that winds through the streets and corridors of the university where Indy teaches. It's the sequence of the film that comes closest to sustaining that feeling you get in the best moments of the first three films, when you want to let out a hoot and a holler and run off afterwards to buy a Fedora. There's a few fleeting moments before and after this sequence and they're enough to keep you invested until the big finale. Harrison Ford is still fun to watch in the role, especially when he gets that long lost twinkle in his eye when he cracks some elaborate code or riddle. Shia LaBeouf actually helps the movie rather than harm it like some fanboys had worried. As hollow as Transformers is, I think he did ok there too. But he offers some actual humor and soulful moments in the movie and manages to fit in quite comfortably surrounded by Ford, Blanchett, Ray Winstone and John Hurt -- an intimidating cast a less experienced actor could easily get lost in.

Not that anyone's really given a scene to show off their goods. It's fun to see Karen Allen back in her Raiders part, and she appears to be having a blast judging by the wide grin she has on her face even when she has a machine gun blasting apart the windshield of a jeep she's driving through a jungle, but in her case that's her only contribution to the plot (unless you count giving birth to Indy's kid some 16 years ago as a plot point). Winstone's character seems to only be around to make groan inducing plot twists while Hurt plays crazy old guy strictly from the book.

I'm not going to compare this to Raiders. I don't think anyone was really thinking that this movie was going to top the original. So if we compare it to the scope of The Last Crusade it's easy to see why this one falls short. Not only was the dialog for Last Crusade written by Tom Stoppard, who's wit is sorely missing from Crystal Skulls, but part of the charm of these films is the globe trotting -- seeing that red line zig-zag across the map. In The Last Crusade we get taken to Italy, Germany, Spain -- throughout Europe -- when they're in those rat filled catacombs of Vienna and racing through the canals, I believed it. In Crystal Skull our two exotic locales are the Nevada Desert and the Amazon jungle -- both of which did nothing to prevent me from thinking that they ever left California. I know this series is supposed to be an homage to the B-movie serials of the past but they were always the classy, bigger budgeted extreme of the genre. I don't want to think that they're hanging out on a set in Burbank, I want the movie to take me to South America and make me feel like I can almost smell the sweat coming off of Indy's hat -- not the caft-service table just off screen and Harrison Ford's can of Ensure just out of reach. These back-lot sets also mean you have more boxed-in framing and no natural lighting. It's like they were hedging their bets from the very beginning and trying to keep the budget as low as possible. I guess some of the blame should be directed at George Lucas since Spielberg's only really been a director-for-hire in this series. I'm sure Lucas pushed Spielberg a bit towards his love of shooting everything in front of a giant green screen and filling in the rest later.

Well, hopefully Spielberg is saving his frequent flier points for Tintin. Crystal Skull won't make The Unwatchable's list but comes closer than I care to admit. I'm sure it won't be the worst movie I see this summer, and maybe coming off of the funny, witty excitement of Iron Man set the bar too high. It's enjoyable enough as summer movies go, but unfortunately you have to judge it as part of a series, of which it ranks a solid 3rd.

Friday, May 9, 2008

IFFBoston - One last thing (The Shorts).

I'll finish up with a small comment on the shorts that I saw at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. They were fabulous. They were red and cut off just above the knee and had this immaculate stitching that was just...

Woman in Burka -- Shown before the brilliant My Effortless Brilliance, it is one of those peeks inside the entertainment/tv/movie world that actually works and is accessible to viewers that aren't showbiz savvy which is usually the pitfall these kinds of satires. Maybe because it takes place in New York it seems a whole lot more genuine and truthful than the multitude of LA showbiz stories that spew forth every year. I'm still experiencing PTSD from a "comedic" short about LA that I saw during this years BUFF.

Anyway, we follow an actress as she auditions for the roll of Woman in Burka for a low budget film of the same name. A quintessentially hilarious moment arises when three women are in a room waiting for their audition and one of the casting guys come in and says, "I loved you in Law & Order" and all three woman say thank you. And indeed all three actresses in this scene are L&O veterans and the fact that two of them are white, one with red hair, and they're all under the impression that it doesn't matter if you're wearing a burka is a running gag in the film. That, and that the movie's screenplay is notoriously horrible. It's a continuously funny short that basically gives you a day in the life of a New York actress. So much so that when trying to cast the actresses ex-boyfriend they were able to cast the actresses boyfriend, Sam Rockwell. Nice touch.

Apocalypse Oz - I can almost say I despised this little film. I don't even know if I want to call it a film or simply a smattering of half-baked ideas that try to string together Apocalypse Now and the Wizard of Oz via Mod Fuck Explosion (a movie worth a watch if you can find it). It comes of as extremely annoying and obvious. The performers put in good effort and there's certainly some great shots that were had but the end result is a badly paced and cringingly scripted mess. And I'm not just saying that because the over-excited woman behind me had an insane cackle that erupted in to my ear every 10 seconds. Thankfully she left after the short.

Film Makes Us Happy - What a heartbreaker. A husband videotapes his wife's emotional breakdown as she basically gives him an ultimatum: Me and the kid or film. Of course the kid is an adorable little, two year oldish girl and his wife is a first generation immigrant who came to America with 100 dollars but managed to get into school and meet our filmmaker who struggles to get any of his work seen, wakes up at the crack of noon and is basically draining their bank account dry. It's certainly a sobering story for any aspiring filmmaker and it's a devastatingly emotional delivery from the new mother and wife of the guy who shows up at the apartment with his friend behind the camera and decides to sit down in the kitchen and point a mike at his wife so that they can record the supposed last argument they'll have about film. Painful but good.

I think that's about it. I should mention the award winners. But first, I will point out that the Audience Award balloting system it completely flawed. I don't exactly know how they go about calculating who wins the Audience Award but it's fundamentally flawed from the get-go. The theaters that show these movies vary from small, medium, large and extra large. Now just about every movie I went to sold out. So if the movie in the small theater sells out, and is only showing once, and gets every person in the theater to give it a best possible vote -- how is it supposed to compete with the movie in the extra-large theater that sells out and gets 50-50 votes? not to mention the fact that sometimes there's a person taking your ballots at the end of the movie and sometimes there isn't. Same goes for giving you the ballot to begin with.

So take these how you will (do wish I got around to seeing Goliath)...

AUDIENCE AWARD WINNERS:

Narrative: MY WINNIPEG
Documentary: LIFE. SUPPORT. MUSIC.
Short Film: TONY ZOREIL (TONY ZEAR)


JURY AWARD WINNERS:

Narrative:
Grand Jury Prize: BALLAST
Special Jury Prize: MOMMA'S MAN

Documentary:
Grand Jury Prize: SONG SUNG BLUE
Special Jury Prize: SECRECY

Short Film:
Grand Jury Prize: MAN
Special Jury Prize: GLORY AT SEA!

Programmers Choice Award: GOLIATH

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Iron Man

Dir. - Jon Favreau

Viewed: From the Balcony

I look at a comic book movie the same way I would any other adaptation. If I'm not familiar with the source material I might simply want a good story with good characters told in an entertaining, cinematic fashion. If I am familiar with the source material of course I'll be coming in with greater expectations (that is if I'm a fan of said material). I'll be looking with a much more critical eye to see if the filmmakers captured the characters the same way I pictured them in my head when I read the book; see if the dialog and pacing still capture the same tone that I liked. These are the same questions I ask if it's an adaptation of a novel, an autobiography, a comic book or the back of a cereal box.

And I don't think comic books, superhero or otherwise, have to be treated as silly material only to be dealt with in a check your brain at the door way. Batman has always been the moody bastard of the DC clan. Marvel has always been about the brighter color pallet and one-liners while DC sprung from horror comics and is more about noir influences and pulpy narration. But these aren't steadfast rules, they both have characters that are boy scouts and self-loathing basket cases. I enjoyed Ang Lee's Hulk, a Marvel creation. It comes in a strong first for movies that have come the closest to capturing what it's like to read a comic book on the big screen. I mean, the big green guy should never be handled with anything but serious intentions. The only problem with Hulk was that he didn't get to smash heads with anything but his own daddy issues (and some tanks). Just because you treat a story from a superhero comic book with the same seriousness you would a Jane Austen story doesn't mean it's going to not be fun. On the contrary, please see example A -- Joel Schumacher. He was just trying to have some fun with some silly characters and nearly destroyed a million dollar franchise. Christopher Nolan gives the material the respect it deserves and the world once again respects the material. If you don't like self-seriousness then you probably don't like Batman. But that's ok because there's a lot of other characters out there.

Iron Man doesn't fall in to the same schizophrenic moodiness that plagues Batman. Tony Stark didn't watch his parents get gunned down in an alley-way. But Tony Stark, the alcoholic, womanizing war monger that becomes Iron Man does have a few issues. Unfortunately for him it takes getting held hostage in a cave and being forced at gun point to build your newest weapon of mass destruction for the enemy to get him to open his eyes. Fortunately for us Iron Man does a near perfect job of establishing the characters and the back-story in a brisk way that doesn't take up much more than a half hour of the movie. This has always been the crutch of the first movie -- they usually tend to take up 3/4 of the movie with the "origin story" and pick up speed in the final act. Iron Man successfully reverses that equation and still leaves you wanting more at the end.

All this success is due in large part to the casting. We always reward good casting here at RFC. I've written ad nauseum about the important role casting plays in an action movie and Paddy wrote about the importance of casting to create that instant back-story that Wes Anderson does so well. Here we have Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gweneth Paltrow ("Pepper" Potts, his faithful assistant), Jeff Bridges (spoiler alert, bad guy) and Terrence Howard (his only friend Jim Rhodes) -- all people who if they haven't already won an Oscar they will soon enough. Paltrow and Downey have that instant chemistry and bring an unexpected poignancy to their semi-romance. Bridges brings the respectable hamminess to the villainy and they all bring out actual laughs and oohs and ahhs when you absolutely know lesser talent would let those lines and moments fall flat. And because of this I suppose a good deal of respect should be given to Favreau -- who shows up here and there as Tony's driver (get it?).

I'm not exactly sure what the perfect superhero comic book movie would be. I put the second X-Men and the second Spider-Man movies up there as touching greatness, and I always hold a spot in my heart for the first two Superman movies. Basically, what I look for is what I said up in the second sentence. But of course in a movie like this you're expecting some razzle dazzle; a stunning action sequence or two, a successful piece of storytelling that makes you believe, for an hour or two, the impossible -- that a man can fly, shoot webs out of his wrists or adimantium claws out of his hands. In these regards, Iron Man is a complete success. It's downright amazing the work that went into making the complex Iron Man suit look like it really is something that was created in Stark's lab.

Favreau has stated from the beginning of his directing career that he'll always favor a practical effect over a CGI effect when it's possible. And the scenes when Iron Man is out doing his thing, whether it be the prototype he creates to knock his way out of the cave in Afghanistan or the real deal dogfighting with F-11s, it all looks surprisingly real even when you know it isn't. There were a couple shots with those jets where I was simply impressed with the aerial photography on display. A lot of movies simply recreate those shots with miniatures or CGI and it was great to see the effort being put forth and the money being spent wisely. Hell, like I said, I might be getting fooled here -- and even so I'll be happy to admit to it. This movie simply does a fantastic job at making you believe it. I'll be in line for the sequel.

Oh, and stick around 'till after the credits.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

IFFBoston Extra - Harmony Korine Q&A

That's me at the far end of the first row (beard and glasses). (Sean Burns is the guy one seat closer with the Chuck Taylors.)