Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars

Kris and I met Dave and Karen on Sunday to see the new Indiana Jones movie, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This was a fun nostalgic throwback for me because I saw the first two Indiana Jones movies in the theater with Dave when we were much younger. (Much younger.)

Though I had hopes for the new film, they weren’t very high. I had seen the trailers, which promised new-style George Lucas instead of old-style George Lucas. (Translation: plenty of improbably CGI effects in place of story and characterization.) I’d also read how Lucas’ original idea for a new installment in the franchise was called Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars.

Let me state up front that I did not hate Crystal Skull. After my criticism of Peter Jackson’s Helm’s Deep, many people thought I hated that film. I didn’t. I just wish it had been better. And that there’d been one-tenth the CGI. (I did, however, hate Attack of the Clones.) I liked the new Indiana Jones movie, but only mildly. I don’t ever need to see it again.

Now I know many of you will tell me, “When you watch a movie like this, you should just enjoy it. You should turn off your brain and have fun.” But my brain doesn’t work like that. I can’t just shut it off. Besides, there are plenty of smart action flicks out there — why should I compromise just so filmmakers can have a license to be sloppy?

The acting in Crystal Skull was mostly okay. Karen Allen, who returns as Marion Ravenwood, is rather clumsy, but everyone else does a good job. Cate Blanchett makes a delicious Russian villain, though I get the impression that several scenes with her were left on the cutting room floor. Shia LaBeouf also does a fine job, taking the baton from Harrison Ford and opening the door for twenty more years of Indiana Jones films.

But my real problem, as usual, is with the script. I don’t like the script, neither on a macro-level nor a micro-level.

On a macro level, the story is sloppy. It feels like a patchwork, as if it were made up of several different ideas grafted together. Certain scenes go on far, far too long. The climax is lame in a George Lucas sort of way. The film just lacks an overall sense of cohesion that I would have liked to see.

But most of the problems occur at the micro level. This is yet another movie in which the filmmakers have become so obsessed with the neat stuff they can do (with CGI, of course) that they forget to be sure things make sense. Some examples:

  • At the beginning, the story focuses on the hunt for a relic lost inside a vast warehouse. “It’s a powerful magnet,” Indiana Jones declares, and to prove his point, he tosses metal stuff into the air. Look! Magic! The metal stuff is pulled toward wherever the lost relic is! And once the relic is discovered, we see that its magnetic force is so strong that it tugs at the dangling light fixtures and at guns and at other objects. Fine. But why isn’t it exerting this magnetic force all the time? Why is it only magnetic when the plot needs it to be magnetic?
  • Here’s a small spoiler. At the end of the extended introduction, Indiana finds his way to a strange small town in the middle of the dessert. He’s stumbled upon a nuclear experiment. When he hears a countdown broadcast over loudspeakers (why? to whom is it being broadcast?), he quickly tucks himself into a lead-lined refrigerator. Why? How does he know to do this? Worse, when the nuclear explosion occurs, the town is incinerated. Everything is vaporized. Except for the refrigerator containing Indiana Jones. That is thrown into the air for miles before it lands outside a prairie dog mound (without startling the prairie dog that lives there). Indiana tumbles out unharmed. Sorry. I can suspend disbelief with the best of them, but I can’t take it to the level of stupid.
  • Later in the film, a caravan of trucks is making its way through the Amazon jungle. (Well, it might not actually be the Amazon jungle, but it’s close.) There’s a big tree-cutter machine in front slicing down the overgrowth so that the other vehicles can pass. This makes no sense. When it cuts trees, the trees fall, right? Don’t they just fall into the path of the oncoming vehicles? And what about the stumps. Later, the vehicle caravan devolves into a race through the forest. I could buy this in Return of the Jedi because everyone was riding speeder bikes which had no contact with the ground. I can’t buy it here. And I can’t buy it when the race moves to the edge of a CGI-cliff, a cliff miraculously free of rocks and boulders.
  • Did you know that it’s possible to swing from vines like Tarzan at speeds much faster than those obtainable by jeeps?
  • The titular crystal skull apparently has the mass of a plastic resin skull. Shocking.

That’s enough. I don’t have all day. This movie just feels like a Roland Emmerich-like production in which appearance matters more than substance. That’s a valid choice, but you know what? Movies made this way do not stand the test of time.

Again, I did not hate this movie. I had an okay time. I enjoyed the motorcycle chase. I liked Cate Blanchett’s villainess. I thought the story showed glimmers of promise. And I’m not saying that I expected the film to be a classic. I just wish it had more of the old George Lucas in it instead of the new.

Coming Attractions

“You know, I’m usually excited about the summer movie season,” I told Dave at lunch last week. “But this year, I have no idea what’s coming out.”

“There’s Iron Man,” he said.


Iron Man opens May 2nd

“Ugh,” I said. I may be a comic book fan, but there are limits to my enthusiasm. Iron Man seems targeted squarely at junior high boys. I have no desire to see it. “Doesn’t the new Batman movie come out soon?” I asked.


The Dark Knight opens July 18th

“Maybe,” he said. “I don’t know. And isn’t there a Star Trek movie in the works? And another X-Files movie?”


Star Trek opens Christmas 2008


The X-Files 2 opens July 25th
Love the fan reaction in this vid. Makes me want to re-watch the series.

We must be getting old. This morning I did some research. Turns out there are a few movies that look interesting this summer. First up is the Speed Racer film, which Paul J. is skeptical of, but I think looks just like a Mario Kart game. Since I love Mario Kart, I’m all over this…


Speed Racer opens May 9th

My brothers and I loved Speed Racer when we were kids. Loved it. We didn’t have a television, so we didn’t get to watch it very often, but when we did, it was a treat. We also loved Indiana Jones. Can an aging Harrison Ford really pull of a fourth film? We’ll have to wait and see.

That’s the best they have to show us? Looks a little tepid to me. The following week, there’s a movie for my Kris:


Sex and the City opens May 30th

Comic book movies are a dime a dozen today. Too bad so many of them suck. Many people didn’t like Ang Lee’s take on the incredible Hulk — I did. All the same, I’m interested to see the new, revised version of the myth:


The Incredible Hulk opens June 13th

Okay. It looks dumb. Another film for junior high school boys.

Is there any hope for a good summer movie? Why, yes there is. Instead of going to see the new Batman movie on July 18th, I’ll be on my way to see this:


Mamma Mia opens July 18th

Meryl Streep? Pierce Brosnan? Colin Firth? ABBA? Damn straight, I’m there! (Long-time readers know that ABBA is one of my favorite guilty pleasures.)

Finally, I’m really looking forward to the new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which is due in theaters November 7th. I thought the last film, Casino Royale was the best of the bunch so far, and I have high hopes for continued excellence from Daniel Craig.

Atonement

Kris and I watched Atonement tonight. It’s a movie about love and betrayal set in England between 1935 and 1940.

The film opens with a shot of an English manor. But panning back, we see that it’s not actually a manor, but only a dollhouse. Lined up in front of the house in meticulous order are a collection of various toy animals. Thirty seconds into the film, I paused the DVD.

“You see,” I said. “This is the kind of thing that could only happen in film. Look at that. Everything is too neat, too orderly. I hate stuff like this. The entire film’s going to be like this.”

I pressed PLAY.

Atonement unfolds slowly. But, paradoxically, things happen quickly. It’s difficult to explain unless you’ve seen the film. The cinematography is stylized, but not overtly so. Each frame is gorgeous. The composition of each shot is beautiful. So much can be revealed in short twenty-second scenes, and yet the story takes its time. The acting is nuanced. The script is perfect.

There were only three things that bugged me about this movie, and two of them would have gone completely unnoticed in any other film. (Example: In one scene, a police officer at the edge of the frame shifts in a strange way, distracting from the perfect composition. Very minor.) The third thing is a major flaw, but not a fatal one.

For twenty minutes in the middle of the film, there’s an extended scene during which one of the characters has an almost hallucinatory experience. (And maybe not “almost”.) This scene goes on far too long. Perhaps it needs to for the sake of the story, but somehow the film loses its tempo at this point.

That’s too bad, because despite my worries from the first twenty seconds, I thought Atonement was excellent. In parts, it was brilliant. The first 40 minutes (excepting that opening sequence) are almost perfect.

“I guess you can’t judge a movie by its first scene,” Kris said when the movie had ended.

“No,” I said. “I guess not.”

Postscript: I ♥ this review of the movie from Amazon: “Couldn’t understand what the British actors were saying and it jumped from one year to the next with no explanation. I had high hopes, but thought it was very mediocre.” Damn those British accents, and non-linear stories!

Star Wars as Told by a 3-Year-Old

As a follow-up to yesterday’s musical extravaganza, here’s a masterpiece of narration. George Lucas should take lessons:

I can picture it now: a blog devoted to the creative arts for the pre-school set. Song! Film! Naps!

(My favorite part of this clip? The “symbolic” calendar. (Which is the same cat calendar that Kris and I buy every year, by the way — we love that thing.))

Go, Speed Racer, Go!

When we were boys, which cartoon did we like better than any other? The one with race cars, of course. As lousy as I thought the last two Matrix movies were, the first one was brilliant. And based on that alone, I’ll go see this:

Coming in May!

Re-Reading The Golden Compass

During our Thanksgiving road trip to bend, we listened to the audio version of The Golden Compass. Kris and I have both read the book several times, but since the film is coming out soon, we decided to refresh our memories.

Tiffany enjoyed the book so much that she insisted on borrowing my iPod so she could finish it on Saturday. (Tiff, Kris has finished the second book now, if you’re interested.)

When we got home, I decided to search for information on the film, which opens on December 7th. What I found made me worried. I was initially excited for the film, but recent trailers have me wary. I’m afraid the girl who plays Lyra may not be a good actress, and I’m afraid that the film may be over-produced. This clip does nothing to allay my fears:

Can you say “wholly invented” and “made from whole cloth”? This scene has no relation to the book. I am baffled. The following episode is a little better, combining two scenes from the book:

I’ve continued to listen to the book during my commute. I always forget how slow it starts. It’s leisurely, and doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere. But by the half-way point, you come to realize that everything that has been mentioned before is important, that story elements have been accumulating like a snowball. It’s quite effective story-telling, actually.

In fact, there’s an extended section about two-thirds through the book (starting with “the lost boy”) that is one of my favorite passages in any book. (I’m speaking of Tony and his fish, of course.) I only wish the rest of this trilogy held up to that last half of The Golden Compass. There are moments of brilliance throughout — including the dirigible chase near the end of The Subtle Knife — but I think that things eventually go flat.

Apparently there’s an uproar about the movie in certain parts of the Catholic church. They don’t appreciate that the series ultimately takes a dim view of religion. I never understand why religious people get hacked off at this stuff, especially in the U.S. What about freedom of speech? And why feel so threatened? Christians make up a vast majority of this country’s population. Why is it okay to have thousands and thousands of books that depict atheists in a poor light, but a single series that questions organized religion (and Catholicism in particular) is taboo? Give me a break.

Best Picture

We watched Little Children tonight. It’s a film about love and loss, about the rich, textured lives hidden in plain view throughout American suburbia. It’s a quiet film, where more occurs in a single exchange of glances than occur in five minutes of a Peter Jackson film.

Little Children tells the story of four people:

  • Sarah – A young mother in her second marriage, living with a man she neither loves nor respects.
  • Brad – A stay-at-home dad searching for meaning.
  • Larry – A former cop.
  • Ronnie – A convicted sex offender recently released from prison.

These people live in the same neighborhood. Their lives twine and mingle. And always in the background are the little children. I’m reluctant to say more because I don’t want to spoil anything.

Little Children is a sad and melancholy film, but it’s also filled with hope. It’s about finding joy and happiness and meaning. Ultimately it’s about how we, as adults, are still little children.

That should have been Best Picture,” Kris said when the film was over. That is a stunning endorsement from a woman who refuses to pass judgement on a movie until days have passed. But I agree. The story is subtle, filled with finely drawn characters, layers of tension, and dialogue that rings true. There are no bad guys. There are no good guys. There’s just life.

Little Children was directed by Todd Field (a Portland native), and written by Field and Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel on which the film was based. Other similar movies from recent years include:

Films like this are divisive. They observe life, they explore the nooks and crannies of Everyday. Some people (like Jenn G. and Tiffany) find them depressing. Others (like Nick) find them boring. Some (like Jeff) find them pointless. These are all valid complaints.

I think they’re spectacular. They peel back the skin of daily life to reveal what lies beneath, all of the unspoken desires and emotions. They’re like modern literature put to the screen.

Harry Potter Trailers (including Order of the Phoenix!)

Book One: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Quidditch! Young Harry, Ron, and Hermione! The good Dumbledore! “I shouldn’t have said that.” A charming, wonderful book, but a woeful film adaptation from Chris Columbus.

Book Two: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Gilderoy Lockhart! The Mirror of Erised! The Whomping Willow! The book is quite good, but the film, directed again by Chris Columbus, suffers from excess.

Book Three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Puberty! Sirius Black! Dementors! The best scene from any Harry Potter book! And, most of all, a decent director! This is the best film — and book — of the series so far. (Caveat: I haven’t read book six yet.)

Book Four: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Cho Chang! “You’re the boy who lived…” This film had a lousy first half, but the last hour made up for it. It was the first book in the series where Rowling was set free from the fetters of her editors, and the story suffered because of it.

Book Five: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

From childhood to adulthood! Dolores Umbrage! Heavy-handed political allusion! An overlong book, but how will it transfer to film? (I actually think the trailer is quite good.)

Film released on 13 July 2007!

Book Six: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I have nothing to say about this book because I haven’t read it. (But thanks to obnoxious bumper stickers, I know what happens at the end.)

Film released on 21 November 2008!

Book Seven: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The last(?) book in the series will be released on 21 July 2007 — you can pre-order it here

Film released summer 2010!

The Golden Compass ‘Sizzle’ Reel

I have a couple of real entries in the works, but I couldn’t let my birthday pass without posting something. And what I’ve decided to share is awesome (assuming it’s not pulled from YouTube). Here’s the ‘sizzle’ reel for The Golden Compass:

Outstanding. I love the look. I first wrote about this movie in January, when I shared a set of film stills. I’m very excited about this film.

The best part? Peter Jackson is not involved with this production.

THX-1138: A Future Without Hope

I’ve always had a taste for dystopias.

  

I find tales of bleak alternate realities and possible futures fascinating. Some people find them depressing, but I find them inherently filled with hope. I like to believe that I would be that lonesome sole, able to shake off the shackles of the oppressors.

Here are just a few of my favorite dystopic stories: We, Anthem, The Dispossessed, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Planet of the Apes (the book is superior to either film adaptation), The Handmaid’s Tale, The Children of Men, On the Beach, The Wild Shore, The Quiet Earth, Mad Max, The Island. (Note: I realize I’m using the term dystopia broadly here to include post-apocalyptic scenarios. These two sub-genres share features I find appealing.)

  

It’s time to add a new title to this list: George Lucas’ first film, THX 1138, from 1971. It’s brilliant.

I’ll admit at the outset that this film is not for everyone. In fact, it’s probably not for many people. It’s strange. Much of it is observational rather than plot-driven. But wow is it intriguing.

THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) lives in a vast underground city. The residents of this city — who may or may not be clones — are bald, sedated, and dull. THX works in a cyborg factory, installing radioactive brains. When he returns to his apartment, he watches holographic pornvids and, covertly, falls in love with his roommate, LUH 3417. (As with many dystopias, sex is a crime in this world.)

When LUH becomes pregnant, the pair is imprisoned in a vast white emptiness with other deviants. (This section reminds me of a Star Trek episode, the name of which escapes me.) This part of the film feels very experimental, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. With bald people. LUH is killed. THX escapes with the help of two other prisoners.

  

The final part of the film is an extended chase sequence though the underground city. While not particularly exciting (The French Connection, released a few months later, featured a better chase), it’s visually striking. THX eventually escapes when the budget for his recapture is excited. He climbs from a hatchway to the world above. (A scene which, I now recognize, has been used many times in subsequent films.)

I liked THX 1138. The story is difficult to follow at first, but gradually becomes more clear. Because it’s an observational film (kind of like Altman’s stuff), most people would not enjoy it. But the cinematography is beautiful, and the movie is filled with ideas. I also like that much of the Star Wars aesthetic can be found here, six years earlier.

  

And now George Lucas brings us crap like Attack of the Clones.

(For a full review, check out Alexandra DuPont’s take. She likes it too.)