Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (5/22/2008)

The teaming of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford was like a match made in heaven back in 1981 when Raiders of the Lost Ark hit theaters. Sure enough that team delivered a genuine classic, the blockbuster against which all popcorn movies should probably be judged. The three managed to follow this up with the often-misunderstood Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the formulaic but still very fun Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The final movie was always envisioned as a grand finale and it ended the trilogy on a high note. The story could have easily ended there, but all three parties found themselves interested in revisiting the franchise, and after twenty years of rumors it was finally revealed that a fourth Indiana Jones film was on the way.

After all those years of waiting the fourth film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is finally out. Of course now the terrific trio of Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford are at much different stages of their careers. Spielberg seems to be at a creative peak after making such stellar projects as Minority Report and Munich. Lucas on the other hand finds himself richer than ever but hated by his former fans because of the problematic Star Wars prequel trilogy. Of the three Harrison Ford has perhaps fallen the furthest as he has gone from being the worlds biggest movie star to giving wooden performances in forgettable thrillers like Firewall.

These are three very different people than the Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford of 1989 which is what lead many people to question if they could recapture the spirit of the original trilogy. While I’d love to tell you that the three had indeed made follow-up film that felt just like those classics, the fact is that they haven’t and it may have been unrealistic for them to have tried.

This installment opens up in the Nevada desert circa 1957 where our hero, Indian Jones (Harrison Ford), has been captured by communist spies and brought to a government warehouse filled with crates (yes, that warehouse), which has been evacuated because of a nuclear weapons test. Theses communists, lead by the sword wielding Cornel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), force Jones to identify a crate containing mysterious remains. Jones is able to escape from this predicament, but the communists escape with the remains. Jones returns to his teaching position, where a young man named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) contacts him. Williams informs him that a former colleague of Jones’ named Harold Oxley (William Hurt) had disappeared while looking for a Mayan artifact (a crystal skull) that he thought could lead him to the famed city of El Dorado. Jones and Williams then go to Peru in hopes of rescuing Oxley and finding the crystal skull.

It’s no secret that Harrison Ford is not the young man he once was, and he hasn’t really aged gracefully. At sixty six years old he really isn’t set to do a lot of the acrobatics of the previous films. More importantly, a lot of the coolness and quick witted charisma of the Indiana Jones character just don’t come off as well here as they did in previous films, nor do some of the seedier elements of the character. This is a serious problem, and a big part of why the Indiana Jones feel isn’t quite here.

Presumably because of Ford’s age, Jones is surrounded by more supporting characters than he was in the previous films. The most obvious of these characters is the Shia LaBeouf character who comes to Indy and tells him about the skull. Unfortunately, as sidekicks go Mutt Williams is uninspired. He’s a one-dimensional character without much personality. The best they could come up with to spice him up was to make him a 50s biker along the lines of John Travolta in Grease, a decision that felt tacked on at the last minute and mostly made the character more annoying rather than less bland. Furthermore, the reason this young greaser’s connection to the overall plot is rather confused and feels like a half-assed excuse to put a 20-somthing star onto the film’s poster. What’s worse the LaBeouf character actually takes Indiana’s place I a number of key action scenes like a sword fight on a pair of moving jeeps. This is a poor decision as Mutt Williams no Indiana Jones, in fact he’s not even up to the standards of Short Round as far as sidekicks go.

The film’s villains aren’t thought out much better either, Cate Blanchet clearly seems to be having fun playing Colonel Irina Spalko, but her talents are ultimately wasted on a character that feels like little more than a second-rate henchman straight out of a James Bond film. There’s also a Russian soldier played by Igor Jijikine who is little more than a large intimidating thug. Jones also has to face a traitorous character played by Ray Winstone, who changes sides numerous times in the movie but continues to be given a second chance by Jones. This is a henchman who should have just been shot early in the movie, and then killed again every time he pretends to be on Jones’ side, yet Jones still falls for it. This would be fine if the audience was actually fooled, but that’s just not the case, it’s obvious that he’s just a straight up villain and it’s annoying whenever Jones gives him a second chance.

The audience being ahead of things is a general problem the film has, there are a number of moments that seem like they’re supposed to be genuine surprises but which are fairly obvious to the audience. The movie takes a very strange science fiction related twist midway through that would have been a decent surprise if it hadn’t been so heavily foreshadowed in the film’s rather awkward opening sequence. Similarly there is a surprise appearance of a character from a previous installment that isn’t much of a surprise if you saw the trailer or read the opening credits, and consequently the way that Shia LeBeouf ties in with that character isn’t too hard to figure out either.

The action sequences and special effects in here are not bad at all, but they’re not great or exceptional either. The film opens with a nice fight and chase, although this opening does end with a wildly misguided stunt involving a refrigerator. Later there is a nice jeep chase, a fight involving a bunch of pests and an interesting close encounter in a Mayan temple. These are all good sequences but they aren’t much better than what you’ll see in any other summer action movie, which is unfortunate because people like Steven Spielberg are supposed to be leading the way with this sort of thing, not merely keeping pace with the pack.

Really this is a very silly and shallow film, of course the other films in the franchise are just as silly and shallow but they succeeded simply because there was a certain perfection to them, the characters all worked, the scenes were top notch. Silly movies like this are only as good as the sum of their parts and the sum here just doesn’t add up. The film is certainly not incompetent, the technical elements are all fine, the story flows well enough and none of the actors are bad, but this is not the event everyone was waiting for.

I can’t help but wonder why this film was made, it sure as hell wasn’t because Lucas and Spielberg were just dying to tell the story of the quest for a crystal skull, and it certainly wasn’t because they had dreamed up a lot of kick-ass action scenes that just needed to be filmed. The truth is that the team was probably hoping that if they tried real hard they could make lightning strike a fourth time, which in retrospect was probably a fools errand. This is the same star, the same director, the same producer, the same composer, but the same creative spark just isn’t there twenty years later.

I really just wish Lucas and Spielberg had just left well enough alone. The truth is that three film was more than enough running time to explore the ideas Lucas and Spielberg had with the series. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade finished With Jones and his posse riding off into the sunset, a perfect ending for the series. The fact that this film ruins that great ending is probably what annoys me most about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was a sequel that everyone thought they wanted but which really never needed to be made, I hope the people trying to dig up every other franchise from the 80s would take a lesson from this and reconsider.

** out of Four

Redbelt(5/9/2008)

            Mixed Martial arts, a recent combat oriented sport, has gained popularity as a hyped up form of kickboxing.  The sport combines elements of jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing, and Brazilian kickboxing.  The extreme nature of the sport has elicited multiple; some see it as a highly tactical form of athleticism while others like Senator John McCain have dismissed it as “human cockfighting.”  Personally I think MMA as a spectator sport is a rather tedious fad that will soon go the way of televised Texas Hold ‘em.  Unlike that fad however, Hollywood is putting out their cinematic tie-ins in a timely manner.  Two months ago the critically panned Never Back Down came out, a good indication of the wave of films to come cashing in on the fad.   But, then it was announced that another MMA related film was coming from none other then the great David Mamet.  Despite my general disinterest in MMA, I’m always up for some Mamet, so I went in to Redbelt with fairly high expectations.

            The film centers on Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jiu-jitsu instructor in Las Angeles who believes sincerely in a certain code of honor in his martial art.  Terry does not view combat as a sport and he looks down on competitive MMA.  Terry is married to a Brazilian tailor named Sondra (Alice Braga) and is currently training a police officer named Joe Ryan (Max Martini).  Early in the film a mentally unbalanced lawyer (Emily Mortimer) comes into Terry’s dojo and over-reacts when Ryan tries to help her, she grabs his gun and accidentally shoots out a window.  Since Terry is in debt, he needs to take out a loan in order to pay for a new window so he goes to meet a loan shark friend of his, and at this bar he runs into a movie star named Chet Frank (Tim Allen) just as he’s about to get beaten up in a bar fight.  Terry saves Frank and he offers a helping hand to him, unfortunately this leads to even greater layers of cons, twists, and betrayal.

            David Mamet is a playwright turned filmmaker that I’m a huge fan of.  He won a Pulitzer for his play “Glengarry Glen Ross”, which was eventually tuned into a great film by Dan Foley.  Mamet eventually tuned to adapting his own plays and then started writing directly for the screen.  I’m a big fan of Mamet’s last film, Spartan, which I believe to be one of the most tragically overlooked films of recent years.  In many ways I think Redbelt is something of a companion piece to Spartan, perhaps not deliberately so but both films feel like parts of a stage in the auteur’s body of work.

            Mamet has moved on from the type of super fast paced dialogue that made him famous, but the dialogue is still clearly Mamet’s.  Here, and especially in Spartan, Mamet has found unique ways of handling exposition, mainly by ignoring it; Mamet instead trusts the audience to figure out what’s going on without the characters explaining it to them.  This is less noticeable here than it was in Spartan, but it still works.  For example, Terry’s lawyer friend is seen early on trying to get into a pharmacy then goes into Terry’s dojo looking noticeably disturbed.  A lesser director would have followed this with a character explaining exactly what mental disorder she suffers from and a detailed explanation of her relationship with Terry.  Mamet, however, realizes why this is unnecessary and decides to simply allow the audience figure this out for themselves.

            There’s a trick I’ve noticed Mamet using a lot recently where he compares the action onscreen to historical traditions.  This was used in The Spanish Prisoner where the con onscreen is compared to a similar con from the 15th century.  His screenplay to Ronin compared cold war spies turned mercenaries to ronin samurai who wandered Japan looking for work after their masters die.  The quintessential example of this trick could be found in the central speech in Spartan where the film’s entire plot is described but in the terms of a medieval setting.  Redbelt uses this trick more than any of Mamet’s previous films, as it is no longer a single scene metaphor; here ancient traditions are of essential importance to the story and especially the principles of the Mike Terry character.

            These Principles are a big part of what makes Mike Terry such an interesting character.  Terry follows a certain code of honor in the way he conducts himself; but what he calls honor others may simply call not selling out.  A running theme in Mamet’s films, especially his recent ones, is that of a principled character trying to do good within the cutthroat environments of the rich and/or powerful.  This was the main point of Spartan, and it was even present in a comedic way in State and Main.  Mike Terry is the perfect character to put at the center of such a plot, he has a code of honor that seems positively quaint to the moguls and movie stars he runs into, but at the same time he never comes off as an anachronistic lunatic like the title character of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.  Terry is well aware of his place in the modern world and the consequences of his priorities.

            This fascinating character is brought to life in a big way by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s really good performance.  Ejiofor is one of the best emerging character actors of recent memory and he’s been on a role recently with roles in films like Talk to Me and American Gangster.  Ejiofor brings an invaluable sense of dignity to Mike Terry without which he would not have worked on screen.  In a lesser actor’s hands Terry’s speeches about honor would have come off like cheesy relics of bad kung Fu movies and would have undermined the whole film, but Ejiofor makes them work.

            The rest of cast feels like a course in Mamet casting 101, and that is not a bad thing.  Firstly, Mamet’s three regulars are in play: Ricky Jay is the film’s corporate villain, Rebecca Pidgeon has a small role, as does Joe Mantegna.  Also present is Tim Allen of all people, trying to pull the same trick as Steve Martin pulled in The Spanish Prisoner by playing against type in a David Mamet film.  Other less famous actors also do a great job; Emily Mortimer and Alice Braga both adapt to Mamet dialogue very well, and Max Martini is good as well. 

            I’ve said a lot of good things about this movie because there are a lot of good things in it; unfortunately they’re never quite assembled right.  In many ways the film suffers greatly from a poor macguffin, I don’t really want to give this away (even if the spoilerific trailer already did), but it has the problem of being something that just isn’t worth this much trouble to get.  The people seeking this Macguffin go to great (and often illegal) lengths to get it when they could have just as easily just bought it, they’re rich they can afford it.  This could have in fact been part of the film’s message about the lengths greedy people will go to get what they want, but it’s hard for me to believe that even Mamet can be cynical enough to believe even the greediest millionaire will do all this to save two hundred thousand dollars.

            Really, in many ways I wish Mamet had just stuck to making a movie about honor rather than getting stuck in the middle of what is in many ways a second rate con artist plot.  The twists don’t really amount to as much as they should and the character story is more interesting the whole time.  What’s more this con is somewhat muddled and by the end is never fully realized or explained.  In many ways this fits with his pattern of avoiding exposition, but I think a clearer explanation or one more twist to fully explain the situation was probably necessary.  However, though this major flaw is there to be found, it never feels like as big a problem as it should be because Mamet replaces it with things that are even more interesting, like a final ending which could be interpreted as either a triumph of the human spirit or as a cynical stunt that will ultimately help the villains more then it hurts them, if only it had also provided closure to the story it would have been perfect.

            This one is a really close call, as a Mamet-head I found more than enough here to make it worth my time simply to watch the evolution of this important auteur even though the film didn’t really quite work on an objective level.  But for non-Mamet freaks this is a much more iffy proposition.  The performances are good, the dialogue and general filmmaking are also good, as are the themes and messages, but unfortunately the story never really works.  But even if the story doesn’t work there was more than enough fun to be had along the way that I had my money’s worth, unfortunately I’m not sure that non-Mamet-heads will be a lot less interested or forgiving.

**1/2 out of Four

Iron Man(5/3/2008)

 

           In terms of mainstream blockbusters, the 2000s have clearly been the decade of the comic book movie.  Since X-Men came out in 2000, there has been a plethora of comic book superhero movies.  Some of these movies like the X-Men series, the Spider-Man series, and Batman Begins have been absolutely solid.  Other comic book titles like Daredevil, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider haven’t worked nearly as well.  The latest Marvel franchise to come to screen, Iron Man, seemed like a bit of a wild card.  As a comic Iron Man was an all right title, but he’s always been a second rate character, also it’s director Jon Favreau was not a proven effects director.  However, things began to look better when Robert Downy Jr. was announced, which seemed like brilliant casting, the trailer was funny, and the effects seemed solid.

            The film centers on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a brilliant scientist who runs a major weapons business.  On a business trip to Afghanistan Stark’s convoy is attacked and Stark finds himself held hostage by terrorists.  Stark is forced by these terrorists to build a missile, instead he uses the materials provided to build an armor suit to escape.  Upon returning home Stark begins to question his role as a weapons manufacturer, eventually he decides to use his powers for good and builds an improved version of his escape armor in order to fight evil.

            As I previously established, there have been quite a lot of superhero movies lately, and any filmmaker trying to make another has the challenge of bringing something new to the table.  Favreau, the writer of Made and Swingers, didn’t seem like the type to make a superhero epic. It turns out that what Favreau was good at in his previous films was exactly what Iron Man needed to set itself apart, namely dry witty dialogue and attitude.  Before his epiphany Stark is a snaky millionaire cynic, a sarcastic narcissist prone to funny one-liners.  He’s not unlike the characters in Swingers, flawed witty people.  Robert Downy Jr. is absolutely perfect for this role, coming off similarly articulate and funny performances in A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac. 

            Stark’s position as a millionaire arms manufacturer also allows the film a certain degree of unpretentious, satirical social commentary.  The film examines the nature of capitalism and the effects it can have in war zones.  Stark choosing to sacrifice profits for what he sees as his company’s ethical responsibility is an interesting moral, and there is also a statement tin the fact that his stockholders see this attitude as a sign of mental illness.  Of course, this isn’t Syriana, it’s a comic book blockbuster and this social commentary will probably just go over the heads of those not interested in looking for it.  It is however there and it is an interesting look at a similar statement about the military industrial conflict made by the original Marvel comic book that took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam War as opposed to the war in Afghanistan.

            This satiric nature along with the witty dialogue do give the film some teeth and set it apart to a good degree which makes both elements important as this could easily have felt identical to other similar films.  In fact the film’s tone is quite clearly borrowed almost entirely from the Spider-Man series.  This style is closer to a silver age comic book world that the darker, weightier world’s of Batman Begins or X-Men.  It is stylistically truer to the spirit of it’s original comic book source material than either the Batman or X-Men franchises, which is neither a good or bad thing, but is a major stylistic decision.

            Iron Man is a character that translates to film surprisingly well, one would have thought such an artificial character would have lead to a poor CGI fest.  However, it actually works pretty well because, as last year’s Transformers showed, metallic technology looks better as CGI than organic flesh.  This can be seen in one scene where Iron Man, who looked photorealistic when covered in his suit, took his glove off to reveal a CGI hand which looked much more fake than his metal armor.  That odd bit of fake looking effects was most definitely an exception in a film whose effects are otherwise completely solid. 

            The supporting cast is solid, but Downey Jr overshadows it in many ways.  Jeff Bridges is clearly having a lot of fun playing Obadiah Stane, Stark’s mentor and buisness partner.  Bridges goes with a shaved head and beard, and has some interesting line delivery.   Gwyneth Paltrow plays Stark’s long suffering assistant reminicant of John Gielgud’s butler character in the 1981 Dudley Moore vehicle Arthur.  There is a certain sexual tention between Stark and the Paltrow charcter, but it never blooms into a full on romance which is probably being saved for a sequel.  Paltrow is good but is wasted to a certain degree her character never feels tacked on, but isn’t a role large enough to be in the league of a major actress like Paltrow.  Terrence Howard is also featued as a military Colonel named James Rhodes who comicbook fans know will eventually become a sidekick of sorts called War Machine.  Like Paltrow, Howard feels wasted in this instalment, where he has little role other then to be established for future sequels. 

            Saving things for future sequels is really the biggest problem Iron Man has as a film unto itself.  In many ways the film simply feels like a setup for a future franchise so that Hollywood can make yet another trilogy to carry them through the next six years.  Like many first instalments in franchises like this, the film gets really bogged down in origin story and ends up without much of a superhero story to make an action film out of once the character is established and gets his powers.  Consequently the film suffers in its third act in a big way where we are treated with a half-assed plot twist that isn’t that surprising and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.  We also see the result of some clunky foreshadowing.  

            Iron Man, like the comic it’s based on, will probably be doomed to be the middle child of the Marvel Universe.  It never reaches the heights of the Spider-Man or X-Men franchises, nor does it stoop to the depths of Fantastic Four or Ghost Rider.  Hopefully the inevitible sequel will be able to hit the ground running and kick ass, as is often the case with superhero franchises.  It’s a solid, fun film even if it’s ultimately lightwheight and not wildly original.  It’s worth seeing for Robert Downy Jr. alone as this is one of the few superhero films where the secret identity is significantly more interesting than the superhero, and that’s not really a bad thing.

*** out of four