May 21, 2008

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (05/21/08)

Lettergrade: C

I enjoyed the fourth Indiana Jones movie, but with the disclaimer that my expectations going in were fairly modest. I had hoped for some good action scenes, a little humor, and for the theme music to kick in whenever Indy beat someone senseless or used his whip to accomplish some menial task. The film certainly met all those expectations, and was, for the most part, what it was advertised to be. I will admit, however, that in spite of adequately scratching the Indiana Jones itch, the film isn't really all that interesting in and of itself. That's not to say that it's a bad movie, really, but it's also fair to say that it's not quite in the same league as the others.

A lot of the blame for this falls on the Crystal Skull itself, the origins of which I could give two shits about, and for which the consequences of it falling into the wrong hands are unclear at best and seemingly inconsequential at worst. Roger Ebert likes to write that a James Bond movie is only as good as its villain. The Indiana Jones metric seems to be more dependent on how engaging the supernatural object at the center of the plot is. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail both worked wonderfully because they had this creepy Judeo-Christian historical mystique to draw from. The second movie's Shankara Stones plot-device, based on Hindi myth, was a bit less successful, but perfectly acceptable when I saw the movie as a kid. Technically speaking, Indy 4's explanation about what the Crystal Skulls are and where they came from isn't much crazier than most of what happens in the Holy Bible, but somehow it doesn't feel as weighty or important as the early film's counterparts.

One thing I will say is that the movie has more of a "for old time's sake" feeling to it than the other sequels have. It's been about 19 years since the third movie, so maybe that's somewhat unavoidable. There are also, however, three or four extremely silly moments which contributed to the bits that most rubbed me the wrong way. Before I saw the movie, my sister sent me a text saying, "beware of the monkeys!" Man, she wasn't kidding.

Petty bitching aside, though, the pleasure of this new movie comes from seeing Harrison Ford back in his signature role. I must say that I was a little apprehensive about him doing so when the picture was first announced as I had no desire to see a geriatric Indiana Jones who's addicted to prescription muscle relaxants running around and trying to relive the glory days. Luckily, Ford managed to sober up just enough to deliver his lines with the same hearty sarcasm and crackling timing that made him a huge star in the 80s. He's the main event in the movie, and he's simply great. Anything else about Crystal Skull, however disappointing, is strangely not as relevant.

I'm not going to get into the plot here, largely because I'm not quite sure what the fuck happened in order to get Indy from point A to point B myself. New to the cast this time, however, is Shia LeBeouf as a young greaser who helps enlist Indy for the ensuing adventure. Cate Blanchett plays the main villain, a Ukrainian intelligence officer and leader of the Russians, the movie's substitute for the earlier films' Nazi heavies. Also along for the ride is John Hurt, wasted in the role of a brain-addled former colleague, and Ray Winstone as 'Mac,' another long-time Indy acquaintance and fellow treasure hunter. On the theatrical poster, Winstone wears a ridiculous beret, which falsely led me to believe that he would be doing a Dom Deluise emulation throughout the movie, but alas it was not to be.

The key bit of casting, though, is Karen Allen, who returns to the part she played in Raiders 27 years ago. While I like Allen, the presence of her character in the script and in the film is one of the main things that really chaps my ass about this whole deal. The reason is because the Indiana Jones of the earlier flicks existed as a dashing, philandering rogue who lived for adventure and drifted from one crazy chapter of his life to the next. Although we met his father in part 3, there was never a sense that a traditional domestic life was something he wanted or thought much about. With Allen's arrival, Crystal Skull somewhat becomes about Indy reclaiming lost love and putting together a family unit. While on some level it's nice to think about him finally hooking up with the girl he loved so long ago, at the same time it introduces an Indiana Jones who contemplates old age, retirement, and spending his remaining years alone. There's nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I prefer to think of him more as a guy who never thought much about tomorrow than as a character who could smoothly integrate into On Golden Pond.

Although the movie's not a disaster by any means, I've gotta say that I'm a little adverse to the idea of picking up popular characters from 20 years back or so and sending them on another adventure. James Bond can do it in part because they switch up actors every decade or so, giving them the perfect excuse to modernize and somewhat shuck the constraints of what came before. On the whole, though, I really cannot believe that the general public spends a lot of time wondering about the further activities of Rambo, or the Terminator, or 'Crocodile' Dundee, or Hannibal Lector, or The Godfather, or the Blues Brothers some 15 years or so after their film franchises have moved onto video. I didn't mind Rocky 6 or Die Hard 4 (and I loved 2003's Freddy Vs. Jason!), but will contend that many of those beloved movies were what they were in part because they existed in a particular time.

In the 80s, an era of post Star Wars style big-budget spectacle and special-effects laden excess, Indiana Jones was the Rolls Royce. On the set of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas must have been laughing their heads off every day with the old-time kitsch and adventure movie cliches the material permitted to revive. These days, however, both Spielberg and Lucas are different filmmakers than they were then. Not necessarily better or worse... simply with interests and priorities that are different from those one might expect from up-and-coming filmmakers in their 30s. For some reason, the Indiana Jones schtick doesn't quite work as well now... either because the actors are a little older, or the times are a little more cynical. Or perhaps it's because all that can apply to the filmmakers responsible and to me, the late 20s ticket-buyer, as well.

May 6, 2008

Iron Man (05/06/08)

Lettergrade: B

Hollywood, having launched successful franchises based on Marvel comic book signatures like Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, and X-Men, has recently turned its check-book toward lesser known characters that I frankly have never fucking heard of. In a way, however, not knowing anything about who Iron Man is and what his deal might be made the film a bit more enjoyable for me. In fact, very enjoyable.

It's not an over-the-top, balls-out, action-n'-set-piece extravaganza, but it has some good humor, a nifty story, and several satisfying action scenes. I tend to feel that popcorn movies these days really over-exert themselves and needlessly try to be a little bigger, lengthier, and more explosive than whatever picture was out last year. I remember watching Mission: Impossible 3 and feeling utterly exhausted: We were, like, 30 minutes into the movie and there had already been what felt like four huge action scenes. Iron Man doesn't do that: Refreshingly, it brings things down a notch and in doing so provides Joe Audience with more of a reason to give a shit about the stuff that's happening between fight scenes.

The key thing that makes Iron Man work is the cast. Drug-addicted alcoholic womanizing actor Robert Downey Jr. plays drug-addicted alcoholic womanizing billionaire Tony Stark. He's a defense contractor who inherited Stark Industries after his father's death. He also inherited his dad's old business partner: Jeff Bridges who plays "Obadiah Stane." In case that name doesn't sound explicitly evil enough for you, they made him bald with a big-ass Dr. Andrew Weil style beard. In fact, anyone who's bald in this movie turns out to be blatantly evil, but that's another issue altogether. Gweneth Paltrow rounds out the cast as Pepper Potts, Stark's personal assistant, who is mysteriously in love with him despite the fact that she's seen him blow through countless one-night stands and meaningless hookups over the years. I guess she either has really loose standards or the threat of herpes isn't part of the Marvel Universe. In either case, she's cute and good in the role, so what the hell.

In a way, the premise has similarities to Batman, a DC Comics property, in that a billionaire with no particular super ability decides to use his wealth and ingenuity to fight crime. Iron Man, however, is more geared toward kicking the asses of terrorists and world-villains... he doesn't seem to be interested in muggings and bank robberies the way the Dark Knight and Superman are.

Stark is in a Generic Middle Eastern Country demonstrating a new weapon, when his motorcade is ambushed, and he is taken prisoner. Long story short, he winds up building an Iron suit to help engineer his escape, and upon returning to the US, he realizes that he can no longer supply the world with ingenious weapons that kill people. Yadda, yadda, yadda... superhero, etc.

The fact that Iron Man is not as iconic, beloved, or even as known within the superhero community does nothing but benefit the picture. It led the studio to make an unusual choice in directors, Jon Favreau, and allowed the screenwriters to come up with a loose, breezy script. Movies like Superman Returns are so rife with fan-speculation, expectation, and internet-reaction that they almost buckle under the weight of it all. Since a new Batman movie can usually expect to do good business, the budgets get astronomical and the studio micro-management is often appalling. Of course, modest budgets and low expectations didn't help Ghost Rider, Dare Devil or The Fantastic Four end up any less shitty, but I will contend that they had more of a fighting chance than Batman & Robin did.