Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Phantom Menace

It is with a heavy heart that I prepare to malign the summer movie I had most hoped to enjoy. I say "hoped" rather than "expected" because, as a "purist" fanboy, the manner in which George Lucas disappointed me with his revisiting of the Star Wars franchise is still fresh in my mind. I have been conditioned to expect that any contemporary film he has a hand in will likely sully one or more of the cinematic traditions that I hold dear. It is the genius of director Steven Spielberg that kindled my hope when I learned that the oft rumored fourth installment of Indiana Jones was to become a reality. In spite of Spielberg's recent hit-and-miss record, the craftsmanship of his first three Jones pictures is consistent and impeccable. I thought to myself, he can do this again.

So what happened? My sneaking suspicion is that he didn't really want to. In an insightful post regarding overblown pre-release speculation about the film's potential, critic Jim Emerson blogs about
Whiplash: Indiana Jones and the Lowered Expectations:
"Now, I think Spielberg is a movie genius (and "Close Encounters" and "E.T." are masterpieces about the language of film, written in light), but the idea of him making a fourth "Indiana Jones" movie does not excite me even a little bit. One of the masters of the medium has now devoted roughly one sixth of his feature-film output to Indiana Jones movies. Meanwhile he could have been exploring new territory, as he did with "A.I.," "Always," "Munich"..."

I find there to be a certain laziness permeating The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that makes me wonder if Spielberg himself wasn't thinking the same thing. The desire to venture forward may explain his decision to alter the look of the world of Indiana Jones so drastically from its precursors. I know from reading interviews that Mr. S. opted to "pay homage" to the 1950's B-Movie aesthetic rather than mimic the classical style that influenced the first three Indy films, but the tragic result of shooting primarily on sound-stages-- and what's with the awkward back-lighting? --is a film that feels as if it could have been shot in a small room with a green curtain. The epic scale that the other Jones pictures are known for is further diminished by an over abundance of close ups; most of the action takes place in such a limited geographical space and is so tightly framed that it is not easy to discern what's going on.

Wider shots reveal computer generated scenery that is no less confusing to the eye. Well, at least to the eye of an old-timer like me who wasn't raised on movies that take place in murky digital environments. The Phantom Menace/Lord of the Rings/Speed Racer generation will not recognize that the
texture that comes from shooting on location-- with practical scenery, real vehicles, and humans doing stunts-- is missing. These children are more capable of suspending disbelief when they see Shia LaBeouf's digital avatar straddling two animated jeeps than I will ever be. And I don't envy them.

As an admittedly stereotypical fanboy, I am likely to have more beefs with this movie than the average viewer. But I have to say that the youthful audience at the midnight screening I attended, many of whom were mere tots when The Last Crusade was released, seemed to be even less impressed than I. There are clever moments in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that should provoke laughter, maybe even a gasp or two; this demographic sat through the movie
silently from beginning to end. A number of people stayed until the credits finished rolling, hoping for an additional scene. There isn't one. When the lights went up, one fellow turned to his friend and, in an ambivalent tone, said "Huh. So it really did suck then." Yeah, it kinda did, and I don't think many folks over the age of twelve will be fooled otherwise.

I have some qualms with the silliness of the plot, but I would have forgiven them if the story had been better executed (after all, the Jones pictures are, to some extent, meant to be silly). Nods to the earlier films begin as one-liners and homages, but a fair amount of blatant copying is evident, too. The opening sequence is executed quite well-- let me digress for a moment to say that I would have preferred a cut of the film that does not include the prairie dogs-- but following this return to the secret warehouse that holds, amongst other treasures, the Ark of the Covenant and a magnetic alien corpse, the fluidity of the film is compromised because scenes and sequences are not tied together with enough human interaction. The exposition needed for this silly plot to make sense is glossed over. Some of it hides in dialogue that can scarcely be heard for all of the action taking place simultaneously. Often the film seems to assume that we will just "get it" because we have seen the same relationships and character trajectories in parts I, II, and III. The film's tagline could be: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

My final gripe, at least for now, is the shitty role proffered for Karen Allen. There are
no good roles for women in Hollywood, and this is one of them. I don't blame Allen for taking the paycheck, but Lucas and screenwriter David Koepp should be ashamed of their flippant reduction of the Marion Ravenwood character into a part that might just have well been played by a cardboard cutout. Marion doesn't need to be an icon for feminist representation in cinema, but it would be nice if she had some of the vim and vigour that personified her character in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Actually, it would have been nice if she had a scene or two that required Allen to act rather than simply be there.
Like the three Star Wars prequels that so alienated purist fans, Indiana Jones will find a new audience with the Crystal Skull, youngsters whose familiarity (or lack thereof) with the original product has not shaped their opinions of what a Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie should be. I can't help but feel that the core fanatics, those of us who waited a combined 49 years for new installments of these franchises, deserve a bit more than Lucas and Spielberg have delivered. At the very least, these directors could have remained true to the visual worlds they created for their characters. It may seem like a bold statement, but if they weren't going to make these films for
us then maybe they shouldn't have bothered making them at all.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

review: iron man

To be perfectly honest, I think I liked the trailer better (see the ONION's take on
Iron Man below). The summer's first blockbuster is certainly better than some of Marvel Studio's previous offerings, misfires like Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and The Fantastic Four. Iron Man even sails above other super hero movies that had budget enough to achieve more than they did: Ang Lee's Hulk and Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. But recent franchises such as Spiderman, the X-Men, and Batman have set the bar pretty high, particularly in terms of their screenplays, and everything that works in Iron Man is somewhat undermined by its lazy plot line.

Jon Favreau has assembled a superb cast, admirably led by Robert Downey Jr. as rebel billionaire Tony Stark. Downey's performance in the film's first act is worth the price of admission, but the highlights of his ballsy comic take on the character are all in the preview, so most of us have already seen this performance for free. After Stark escapes from captivity he becomes sullen and self-righteous and, to be honest, a little bit boring.

Jeff Bridges, one of my favorite actors, is capable as the villain, Obadiah Stane; his appearance, I would argue, lends more menace to the role than his lousy dialogue. And Gwyneth Paltrow rarely takes an acting gig these days, so it would have been nice if the script gave her something more to do.

Most deserving of kudos is the special effects team. Iron Man looks spectacular as he soars through the skies, and the CGI is more seamless than I have ever seen. Favreau is known for using as many practical elements as possible, and he seems to have paid a great deal of attention to making sure that details that
needed to be animated are visually authentic in comparison. There are, however, many scenes dedicated to the construction of the Iron Man suit that could have been forfeited in service of character development and/or action. Normally I prefer the former, but in this case, I think the movie is lacking an additional sequence featuring Iron Man in the field.

I know that there are limitations in telling what is essentially an
origin story, and Iron Man is slightly above average in the ways that it attempts to satisfy both fans and newcomers. Nevertheless, the right scribes have introduced us to other characters with more efficiency. At times, I simply felt that not enough was happening on screen to grasp my full attention. I suppose that Iron Man is satisfying enough to launch us into the summer season, but with heavyweights like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Dark Knight nipping at its heels, it is likely that the metal man will soon be forgotten... That is, until the inevitable sequel appears.

Monday, May 05, 2008

just a sample

I am told by a reliable source (my mom) that, not so very long ago, Harrison Ford visited a bar my hometown of Windsor, Ontario where a friend of our family was waitering. The story goes that this waiter chum approached the table and Harrison "Han Solo" Ford said, "You can ask me one question." I'd like to think that if I was the server, I would have been nonchalant enough to say, "OK. What would you like to drink?" But really... if Indiana fuckin' Jones said that to me? I'd be caught off guard and bumble around accordingly.

Hypothetically, my hypothetical reaction could be attributed to the fact that Ford is an icon of the silver screen, an indelible hero figure to guys like me who were cinematically weaned on the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I suspect, however, that such a statement could be uttered by any celebrity and throw a person off. "You can ask me one question." It's an unnerving thing to say.

Knowing that such an encounter could occur at any moment, though, I have prepared a list of questions for potential run-ins with famous people. Par example: "Samuel L. Jackson, do you ever sleep?" Maybe it's just my imagination, but it seems like Jackson is in every movie I've seen in the last decade. In 2006, he appeared in four films, two of which had the word "snake" in their titles. He is also credited as the narrator of a television special and Bob Saget's straight-to-video "Farce of the Penguins" that same year. Dude, I get tired after watching six movies, let alone making them.

Practice must indeed make perfect, because two of Jackson's strongest performances are in recent films: Resurrecting the Champ (2007), co-starring Josh Hartnett, and director Renny Harlin's Cleaner (also '07). These small scale productions likely slipped under most people's radars; I, myself, had not heard of either one until I stumbled upon them in a stack of DVDs I received from a pirate friend of mine. Diamonds in the rough.

Any time you see Sam Jackson's name attached to a Renny Harlin project, you're in for a treat. Now, Cleaner is certainly muted in tone when compared with previous Harlin/Jackson collaborations like Deep Blue Sea and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but what it lacks in over-the-top action, it makes up for in taut, suspenseful storytelling. Oh, and Luis Guzman is in it, too!!

Jackson plays Tom Carver, a former cop who now runs a business dedicated to cleaning the gory remnants of crime scenes. He finds himself embroiled in conspiracy when he discovers that his latest job was orchestrated to cover up a murder. Elements of this mystery begin to intersect with controversial events that led to the end of Carver's career as a police officer, and he wrestles with the moral repercussions of hiding evidence in order to ensure his daughter's safety and protect his own reputation.

The "King of Cool" delivers a subtle performance in this film, free of the "motherfucking" rants that typify so many of his roles. Jackson conveys as much about his character's emotional baggage through his physicality and weighted movement of his eyes as George Clooney does in Michael Clayton. Clayton is, by far, a better movie, one with much more substance, but Cleaner offers a plot that is easier to follow after a couple of beers, and an intriguing glimpse into a world not often depicted on screen.

what you might like: While the story is not one of ground breaking originality, it is extremely interesting to embark on a journey with a character who cleans crime scenes. The detailed depiction of this job is eye-opening and somewhat new to cinema (the only other film I can think of that deals with the subject is the comparatively "artsy" Curdled). Jackson is fantastic. Oh, and Luis Guzman is in it, too!!

what you might not like: The plot is formulaic enough that if you don't know who the baddie is early on, you are likely to have a sneaking suspicion that turns out to be correct.

what you might consider: Either way, at an economical running time of 88 minutes, this film is not a waste of an evening. Quality acting and a respectable mystery combine to make this movie worthwhile.

Resurrecting the Champ

This film resurrects the wig Jackson wore in 2001's The Caveman's Valentine; fortunately, it resists further comparison.
"Based on a true story, that was based on a lie," this film tells the story of a struggling reporter (Hartnett) who thinks he has struck story-telling gold when he discovers a homeless man who coulda been a contender. Jackson plays "Champ," a down and out hobo who may or may not have been a one-time boxing legend who almost made the big time. The reporter's career is dependent upon the success of his latest article, and issues surrounding the authenticity of the Champ's identity threaten to ruin the newspaperman's future.

Jackson's performance in this film is more flamboyant than in Cleaner, but it is no less realistic. If you have ever had a significant encounter with the homeless, you will not question the authenticity of Samuel L.'s portrayal of a man of the streets... let alone one who has taken a few blows to the head. The film's budget doesn't allow for seamless make-up effects, but I forget about the artificial scars as soon as Jackson starts to speak.

what you might like: You can watch this film with your girlfriend or boyfriend. It's not a sports movie, nor is it a chick flick. The honest emotions portrayed in Resurrecting the Champ are universal.

what you might not like: This is a movie that wears its themes on its sleeve. It is obviously about father/son relationships and is likely to make fathers and sons watching together feel uncomfortable.

what you might consider: Hartnett and Jackson both prove their acting abilities. This film may manipulate the heart strings, but it is not a sappy mess. It's type of movie that I like to celebrate: one that will appeal to a greater audience than it will ever receive. Resurrecting the Champ is well worth the price of a rental.

The success of The Incredibles (2004) enabled Jackson to surpass Harrison Ford as the actor whose movies have grossed the most money in the world - in excess of $3 billion. (January 2005).