24 May 2008

Indiana Jones the 4th (Spolier Alert)

** This review will contain information that you may want to preserve for the film.**

It is great to see Indy again. It is so strange to realize that at one time there was no Indy. What dark days they must have been. And so it was with relish that I looked forward to seeing the rumpled old fedora and leather coat.  Sadly, even Spielberg couldn't save this one. It opens with long crane shots of 50s drag racers in the Nevada desert, leading us to (where else?) Area 51. It is here that our government has been warehousing s
ecret treasures (we even get a glimpse of the Ark in its crate). It is also where we meet the villianess, Cate Blanchett, who could not look any more dowdy if she were in one of those mumu dresses all the girls are wearing these days.
So ensues the first action sequence as Indy escapes from the evil Commies who want American technology. It was in this fight scene that the first hint of anything like our old Indy is seen. There are those little moments of humor that sneak into the almighty battle between good and evil -- that I recognized.
Still there was FAR too much that they asked us to believe. There has always been a small element of the supernatural that Indy has to contend with, which is fine. This time it was the power of a crystal
 skull that supposedly was able to grant those who could connect to it psychically, great knowledge. This is plausible enough since it's true that both Soviet and American intelligence bureaus researched and tested the possibilities of psychic ability. They thought if they could perfect such a skill, spies would no longer need to travel abroad to gain secrets -- it could all be done at the office. But not only did we have to believe in this skull's power, we also had to believe it was alien and that the Peruvians who built the Maskelines were descended from aliens. And also, that a giant spaceship was buried in Peru.
I am sure you have guessed by now, but yes, Shia LeBeouf is Indy's son. 
His entrance into the film is enough to make you hurl. He is a talented enough kid but I am already tired of him being stuffed down my throat. I didn't like him before and I'm not going to. Stop forcing the issue. Since it's 1957, he has a lovely pompadour styling that he is always fixing with his backpocket comb (a move that is played for laughs far too many times). But when he enters, it is on his pride and joy Harley, wearing a black leather jacket and a captain's hat.  It's as if Spielberg were telling us all that he has found the next Brando and we should all be grateful.  It was arrogant, patronizing and had no place in an Indy movie.  Furthermore, we are to believe that because he can wield a switchblade and took 
a class that was barely alluded to, that he can hold his own against an army-trained Ukrainian fencer.  Then, the worst scene this summer 
(yes, worse than Susan kissing Caspian), Shia goes Tarzan in the Amazonian rainforest.  During a MUCH too long action sequence (which has more holes than the ozone), Shia is caught and tangled in some hanging vines.  While up there he sees some monkeys.  Awwww.  But then, he watches them use the vines as a means of transportation!  Eureka!  And off Shia flies and swings and floats through the jungle, just like a monkey.  I still haven't figured that one out.
It was good to see Marian again, as well (yep, she is Shia's mom).  She still had the spunk and their chemistry still came through.  It was one of those few moments when it felt like Indy again.  Which they promptly ruined by asking us to believe that the crew could tumble over a waterfall not one, not two, but three times (the last being twice as big as Niagara) and literally just walk out of the water.  Oh, and then there is the time Indy hides in a lead-lined refrigerator to survive a nuclear testing - at the epicenter.  It blew him a half a mile a way but he was fine.  Also, when they caught their flight to Peru, the familiar image of a Pan-Am plane was superimposed over the map and we watch as they make refueling stops along the way.  Guess where you can't land in 1957 if you are an American?  Cuba.  Guess where Indy had a lay-over? Havana. 
There were too many mistakes and too many things out of place.  And the good Indy quest kind of things were glossed over.  The great part about 1 & 3 was that we knew what the clues were and we were looking too.  This time, Indy mentions them once, too quickly for us to learn, and then next thing, he's opening a secret cave.  We don't really get to play along.
Occasionally it would fall into a rhythm and I would start to feel like they have caught the Indy groove, but then something would jar it back into stilted dialogue world.  I wanted so much to like it.  In fact, Im sure if it had been anything but Indy, I would have hated it.  Instead, I'm sad.  And I can't decide whether I want them to make a 5th or not.  Will they learn like they did from Temple of Doom, and make another in the line of Last Crusade?  Or was it lightning in a bottle?  They had 20 years to write #4.  They could have done better in the 7300 days we were waiting.  We didn't want whiz-bang or aliens or a snotty teenager.  We wanted our backyard friend, Indiana Jones.

20 May 2008

Prince Caspian

I am a great lover of literature. I am also a great lover of these books, these tales. They are a modern "1001 Nights", born of a war-torn society with Blitzkrieg ringing in their ears, and Coventry freshly wounded. "The Chronicles of Narnia" reflect British pride yet give away a certain sense of doubt and skepticism. These stories encourage a fight against evil, despite the odds of winning. It is the fight that is worth it.
The first cinematic installment of these fantastic tales remained greatly faithful to CS Lewis's original book (with only one fabricated scene - on the icy river escaping from the wolves). It answered to some of the current trends in blockbuster film-making but it still managed to retain some soul.
"Prince Caspian" also remains fairly faithful to the book. Some elements are glossed over or "sped through" to get to the lavish battle scenes. I would have enjoyed seeing a young Caspian with his tutor on the parapets at night as so vividly described in the book. Instead, it was only alluded to in the film.
Crossing the Fords of Beruna was also severely truncated and the fact that the non-talking bear that was slain they actually butchered and carried with them for the couple of days they trekked through the woods.
However, plenty of attention was given to the two main battles - at Miraz's castle and at the ruins of the Stone Table. Both were well rendered, if a little too long.
It's as if the producers decided that the story is only there to lead up to the battle, and the battles are what sell the movies. I have 60 years of history that say otherwise, but I am not a profit-driven entity in the art business. The greatest atrocity was saved for the last three minutes. In a flagrant disregard altogether, some genius decided that it would be a great idea to have Susan (just as she is able to jump back into England forever, never to return to Narnia ever) turn back and kiss Caspian. And as if that wasn't painful enough, their lips touching cued a trashy, t-weeny, Hanna Montana song with even worse lyrics. It was so bad that everyone in the theatre either laughed or threw up their arms in disgust.
Disney/Walden Media/Adamson need to realize that these stories are already popular. We are going to the movies to see the books we read come to life, not some numbers-crunching producer who never read them (let alone under the covers with a flashlight because you couldn't sleep without knowing what happened next) version of what will sell adjunct merchandise.
They had better be careful. If they wish to make the entire series of 7, they better not break the trust of those who love Narnian lore.
(Pictured. Reepicheep, as voiced by Eddie Izzard)

10 May 2008

The Devil Wears Prada

I finally rented this movie a couple of nights ago. I suppose that makes me behind the wave, but I think perhaps it gave me more perspective than those who raved about its fantastic clothing and fast-paced lifestyle portrayal of the fashion industry.
I found very, very little redeeming in this poorly cobbled-together script. Anne Hathaway plays a young woman who lands a highly coveted internship with a fashion magazine (like Vogue or Elle). This is despite her bookish looks and dowdy clothes. She struggles with the incessant psychic perfectionism her vindictive boss (Meryl Streep) demands, then finally decides, with the help of Stanley Tucci, to give herself a makeover and succeed in her position. Her newfound enthusiasm gains her points at the office but upsets her boyfriend and comrades.
All predictable in its own way but it fails. The friends, in the same scene, are both excited when she brings them swag from work (a $1900 purse, etc) and then they mock her. She gets mad and leaves but she never truly stands up for herself. She doesn't remind them that the whole point of this internship to gain the experience she needs to land the job of her dreams.
The characters don't make sense. They have inconsistent moralities. They are upset and react to the wrong things, and skip what they ought to be worried about. Clearly, their lines and actions are only there to move the plot to a pre-determined ending. Tucci is the only one who manages to find a character buried in there and brings it out as best he can.
And all those clothes? There aren't that many. There is one short scene at a fashion show.
Streep wears nothing particularly stunning. Hathaway's office-mate looks like a tramp who has been made over by a gang of angry raccoons. As for Hathaway's "make-over", she looks ridiculous, like she has been playing in her mother's closet. One dress, that she wears for the benefit at the end, finally looks nice. But we are so abandoned by her character that it doesn't really matter. Her supposed change of heart, too, comes far too late and is half-hearted at best.
It doesn't achieve satire. It doesn't present any extremes, good or bad. It just kinda lays there, like a thrown-together ensemble splayed on the bed.

08 May 2008

No Country for Old Men

By far, the most over-rated film of the year, this offering from the Coens brings nothing to the world of cinema worth noting.
The best I can say is that it is consistent -- consistently empty. It is devoid of all the elements that make up narrative film.
To start with, Javier Bardem's character, a ruthless bounty hunter, is supposed to be terrifying. He is creepy, I suppose, but there is nothing for us to be scared of. Anthony Perkins used his innocence, his little boy face. Anthony Hopkins was refined and cultured. This guy is...well, nothing. Fear is grounded in the unknown, but we have to be aware of what it is that we don't know. Therefore, I found little to fear, and even less, a desire to understand him.
Josh Brolin plays the quarry of Bardem's hunt and I think we are supposed to identify with him and his plight. We're supposed to wonder what we would do if we found a suitcase full of money. But we don't. Although his performance is commendable, his character is a sleazy ne'er-do-well, whose childish gyrations belie his supposed intelligence and maturity. Anyone worth their salt would have fled the country (permanently), with or without sadistic killer on their tail. I mean, you just found a suitcase full of money! You can afford the firt plane out of there, long before he knows it's gone. And there is no sub-story where Brolin is attempting to find the rightful owner or wrestling with his own conscience. No, he fully intends to keep it, but is somehow going to wear out his pursuer by bouncing for roadside motel to hovel in generic bordertown, Texas.
Tommy Lee Jones is cast as the sheriff (what else?) as the third player in the string of pressboard-door busting-down scenes. He floats in and out of the loose narrative, just missing one or the other of them, until he ends the movie with a milquetoast soliloquy. Just when someone is finally revealing a bit of humanistic character, the splicer comes down and credits roll. I can only hope that does not signal any kind of sequel.
I truly question those who found this to be the best film of the entire year. Sometimes I like a movie, sometimes I appreciate it, but I had no affinity, personal or academic, for this piece. And I tried. I have pondered what it was that made the critics rave. I fear that they were duped by a project which, from the outset, tried to make a 'deep', 'important' and 'controversial' film. Effort in any line of work is appreciated but in art there is such a thing as trying to hard -- when it creates a fabricated intent.

02 May 2008


I admit to being wary of this film. I generally find the "toast of the Oscars" films to be less than satisfactory as a complete package. That buzz coupled with the two headline actors - Keira Knightley and James McAvoy - caused yet more trepidation. And as if that wasn't enough, I was also doubtful of helmer Joe Wright, whose Pride and Prejudice was too fast and held neither of the delightfulness or the gravity of the Austen story.
Wright returns to a period piece, very definitely English, but he chooses the 1930s this time. It evokes the fragile years between the wars as its own character. Those who are to the manor born may have escaped the immediate calamity of shell-shocked, damaged population and the downward spiral of economies across the world but the devil-may-care attitude they still engender does catch up with them. Old houses and sultry summer afternoons in a quiet countryside are not innocent, and neither are their upper crust residents. This slightly Gothic, Daphne du Maurier world is paired with the point of view of a little girl. The opening act seems to use some sort of slip time mechanism that allows the viewer to see these events from alternating angles, and these scenes carry with them the immensity of spirit of each character.
Its main plot point - a precocious but angry Briony at age 13, lies about something of grave magnitude - brings to mind how easily the balance is set off-kilter, how little it takes for the entire direction of life to change.
This fragility, underscored by the delicateness of 1930s England, is expertly conveyed in Atonement.
The performances of all the characters are superb. Knightley's spoiled, privileged character is underpinned with a sympathy not easy to accomplish. McAvoy, too is able to affect the audience with more than a little puppy-dog look so often found in romance movies. This film never stoops to that level. Its power is real. Watch for a lovely but short performance by Romola Garai as Briony age 18. Stunned almost silent by her own guilt she resorts to working as a nurse in bomb-raided London, in an attempt to do penance. The last and oldest iteration of Briony is played by the eternal Vanessa Redgrave. Maybe the finest casting of an aging character I've ever seen. All three displayed incredible depth - and each carried enormous continuity through. (In this final scene, Briony's interviewer is the late Anthony Mingella.)
Also of note is the 5:30 single shot on the shores of Dunkirk. Extraordinarily effective. Gorgeous cinematography and set/costume design all around.
130 minutes. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan. Won Academy Award for Best Score. Nominated for Best Picture, Cinematography, Art Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design and Supporting Actress.

01 May 2008

The Impetus

For as long as I can remember, I've loved movies. I love their power, vision, simplicity and their complications. I wanted to direct (don't we all) but was discouraged from such a profession by others who cited it to be too cutthroat. They were probably right but I still feel like a part me got left behind that day. I've been trying to catch up ever since.
I still love movies. I love discovering old flicks or terrible camp films; so much so that in my "spare time" I curate a film series and I'm earning a Masters (very slowly) in Cinema Studies.
The latest blight on real film criticism these days are the dying newspapers and periodicals. It used to be commonplace for a publication to have at least an arts reviewer who also took the time to see some movies. The few that are left are under the guillotine daily and to answer to the pressures of a populist demand write fewer and fewer real criticisms. Their reviews consist of summaries with a comment or two about a particular performance or a costuming choice. Yes, these things are important and all go to the mise en scene of the film.
But a more thorough reading, or look at least, of some films is deserved. I hope to be able to provide a little bit of this, but have no intention of single-handedly filling the ever-increasing gap. I just want to get my thoughts out there and hope a few like-minded individuals will enjoy it and engage the conversation.