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Archive for May, 2008

Grow Young or Die Trying.

As seen in front of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (twice), Brad Pitt goes back in time in the trailer for David Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button, from the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and also featuring Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Julia Ormond. (Until it officially is released, this is the Spanish-language version.) Looks intriguing…and is it just me, or is it exceedingly strange to see Swinton and Blanchett in the same film?

Also in today’s trailer bin: Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino look for two full hours of that Heat magic in the second preview for Jon Avnet’s Righteous Kill, also starring Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, 50 Cent, Brian Dennehy, and Donnie Wahlberg. (I’m not sold yet, even if Inside Man‘s Russell Gewirtz is the scribe.) And, over in former Soviet Union, the new international, R-rated trailer for Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted pops up on the grid, with James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Common, Terrence Stamp, and Thomas Kretschmann. Definitely maybe…although Night Watch had a good preview too.

Update: I neglected to post this one the other day: Uptown girl Nicole Kidman and cowboy Hugh Jackman find love during World War II in the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s historical epic Australia. Not really my cup of tea, but you never know.

Into the Mytht.

Robert Asprin, author of the Myth Adventures and Phule’s Company series and a staple of my early fantasy reading, 1946-2008. (By way of Return of the Reluctant.)

Sloppy Jones.

Loath am I to be the bearer of bad tidings on this front, but it must be said: Upon walking out of the midnight show of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull last night, I found myself grappling with a condition that can only be described as “Prequelitis.” To wit, I felt almost exactly as I did after emerging from The Phantom Menace in 1999, struggling to rectify the mental disconnect between my strong desire to like the movie I just witnessed and the undeniable sense that said film had been lousily written, if not thoroughly mediocre. As such, I wrote up a pretty negative review of Crystal Skull here this morning, before deciding that, even though I’d calibrated my expectations to the floor going in, perhaps I’d still carried too much baggage into the film with me. (After all, while Raiders of the Lost Ark is an enduring masterpiece, its strength tends to make me forget how campy Last Crusade turned out to be, and how borderline-unwatchable Temple of Doom seems today.) And so, in between packing up the apartment this afternoon, I decided to give the film one more shot, unburdened by any expectation whatsoever. I figured, after all these years, I owed Dr. Jones that much.

Well, I enjoyed the film slightly more the second time, particularly its first forty-five minutes. And in both viewings, I found the movie a decently diverting thrill ride, with a few very brief glimpses of real Indy grandeur. Let me be clear: the film isn’t Attack of the Clones atrocious — It’s more on the order of a cable-grade Indy knockoff like National Treasure (and, in fact, it’s probably better than Temple of Doom, although I guess that jury’s still out.) But, given its two decades of gestation, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull still seems a remarkably shoddy enterprise, despite yeoman’s work by Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia La Boeuf, and the rest of the cast. The main problem is neither the years nor the mileage: It’s the sloppy, patchwork script. (The screenplay is attributed to David Koepp, but it went through the hands of a slew of writers first, and definitely bears the fingerprints of George Lucas.) Overstuffed with midichlorian-style exposition, random acts of slapstick, and useless, one-note characters, Crystal Skull makes very little sense, even if you manage to make allowances for the arbitrary, Looney Tunes physics that now seem to hold sway over the Indyverse. As it is, Crystal Skull seems so haphazardly scripted at times that one wonders why they greenlighted this version of the film at all…unless, of course, Spielberg and Lucas just figured we’d all go see the movie regardless. (Alas, they’re probably right. I mean, I’m mostly hating on it and I saw it twice.)

At any rate, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull begins in Nevada, 1957, with a clever fade-in to a US Army convoy, an impromptu American Graffiti-style drag race (Old Lucas), and the first of three reaction shots by CGI prairie dogs (Sigh…New Lucas). Said convoy approaches a checkpoint, guns down everyone in sight (They’re Russkies!), and stops outside a top-secret military hangar, a.k.a. Area 51. These Soviet ne’er-do-wells then pop out of a trunk two captives they grabbed in Mexico: The one and only Henry Jones, Jr., Ph.D. (Ford, with a long-missing gleam in his eye) and his current sidekick, Mac (Ray Winstone, woefully underused). After the requisite introductions are made, Jones and Mac meet the Lady in Charge, the black-bobbed, blue-suited psychic scientist Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, playing it broad…but, really, how else does one play a Ukrainian dominatrix?), who demands that they help her find a hypermagnetic treasure somewhere in the hangar. This box is found, shenanigans ensue, Indy pulls off easily his most death-defying stunt yet (I have to admit, I kinda dug it)…and we’re at Marshall College, where Professor Jones has now found himself on the wrong end of the blacklist. (In 1957?) Just as he’s looking to go adjunct in Leipzig, Indy meets a young greaser-adventurer, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBoeuf, fine), who says that both his father-figure (and Indy’s old friend) Prof. Oxley (John Hurt) and his mother Mary (guess) have gone missing in Peru. What’s more, it all seems to have something to do with a mysterious Crystal Skull…

So far, so good. Not only do Ford and LaBoeuf have a nice, easy rapport, but Ford seems like he’s shown up to play for the first time since, I dunno, Air Force One? One reason why Indy 4 is — and will likely remain — more satisfying than the Star Wars prequels is that this is in fact the “real” Indiana Jones here (and he even gets to channel Han Solo at one point.) Watching Ford reawaken his long-dormant scoundrel edge is a kick in and of itself, and he has a few fun, iconic moments here. (See, for example, Atomic Age Indy in the early going. The second-act quicksand scene is a poorly-scripted non-sequitur, but Ford almost sells it, and I love the way he lights up so goofily when you-know-who emerges.) But, while Blanchett is both good pulpy fun and very easy on the eyes as Agent Spalko, the rest of the cast suffers mightily with too little to do. Jim Broadbent does passable, if unnecessary work as the Ghost of Marcus Brody, I suppose. But Ray Winstone (a.k.a. Sallah meets Elsa) and John Hurt (the voice of the Maguffin) in particular are given thankless, underwritten parts, and both are too good at what they do to be wasted as plot devices, as they are here.

Underwritten characters are only part of the problem. Another aggravating fault of Crystal Skull is that it compels the audience to forsake the reasonable suspension of disbelief that has usually undergirded the series and instead treat the movie like a full-fledged cartoon. Now, obviously, there are elements in the earlier films, even in the estimable Raiders, that fly in the face of established reality. (One of the quintessential fanboy conundrums, akin to “Why didn’t Frodo just fly an eagle to Mordor?,” is “How the heck did Indy survive that ride on the Nazi sub?” And Temple of Doom in particular is rife with goofiness.) Still, Crystal Skull strains credulity time and time again. I can forgive the end of the opening scene, even if it’s arguably the (second-)dumbest moment in the movie, just because it is particularly fun (and, as I said, it’s capped with a great money shot.) I’ll even give the two-car jungle swordfight a pass, as I suppose it’s in the tradition of Errol Flynn and the old-school serials. But that rubber-banding tree? “Three times, it goes down“? And, don’t even get me started on the ghastly trainwreck of the senses that is Tarzan Mutt.

Even if you’re willing to roll with the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner rules Crystal Skull lives by (as I tried to the second time), the script is chock-full of continuity errors and moments that irritatingly don’t make any sense. [Spoilers] Why doesn’t Indy know Spalko’s name or identity when being debriefed, when he just called her out in the previous scene? If KGB are stalking Indy at work, wouldn’t they also stake out his home? Who or what are the native folk protecting the crypt and temple? (If they’re living, why do they all pop out of the walls at once? If they’re dead, why are they affected by poisons and machine guns?) What kind of “help” would Indy expect “the Ox” to get? Doesn’t Indy carry a whip for situations exactly like quicksand? What causes this film’s creepy-crawlies to go their collective separate way? How can Indy or anyone else not notice the transponders? How would the baddies be able to follow Indy et al past the disappearing staircase-and-spike trap? Nobody’s ever noticed this gimongous Amazonian basin of temples from the air? One or two minor quibbles are simply grounds for fanboy nitpicks, sure. But the lazy scriptwriting here is off-putting and distracting in its sloppiness, particularly when you factor in all the Basil Expositioning we have to sit through in the middle going.

One reason Crystal Skull seems so disappointing, I think, is that most of its best moments occur in the first hour, while all of these streams of lousiness I’ve just listed converge with a vengeance in the last twenty-five minutes or so. Everything after the nod to The Naked Jungle (and the beside-the-prop-plane fight in Raiders) is silly to the point of being near unwatchable, as Indy and his four sidekicks (think Team Indy Power Rangers) wander around the temple talking about watching stuff happen. I don’t begrudge Lucas and Spielberg’s turn toward 50’s pulp sci-fi here — in fact, I think that was a very clever way of rejuvenating the series — and I think the final reveal might’ve worked really well. (Granted, it’s not much of a reveal — They’ve been toting around that damn skull for 90 minutes.) But the incoherence of Crystal Skull‘s last act only underscores how much more work needed to be done before this pic ever got filmed. Even by the laxest of standards I accorded this movie the second time around, the final act is an unsatisfying mess, right down to its last few moments.

So, did I hate this fourth installment? No, I wouldn’t say that. Even the first time ’round, I usually had a smile on my face throughout. Crystal Skull has its moments here and there and, like I said, it’s no worse than one of the Mummy sequels. If anything, I’d say it’s Mostly Harmless. But, even after the humbling experience of the prequels, and even after lowering my expectations to suit both my and the franchise’s advanced age, I still find I expected more from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull than what we have here: namely, a dopey-but-diverting, nostalgia-heavy advertisement for a forthcoming thrill park ride. Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford haven’t embarrassed their franchise here, I guess. But — thanks mostly to the poorly-conceived script, they sadly haven’t contributed much of import either.

Carcharodon carcharias. A Great White.

Oliver Stone’s W finally gets its Cheney: Richard Dreyfuss. He joins Josh Brolin (Dubya), Elizabeth Banks (Laura), James Cromwell (41), Ellen Burstyn (Barbara), Jeffrey Wright (Powell), Thandie Newton (Rice), Ioan Gruffudd (Blair), and Scott Glenn (Rummy).

Update: I missed this last week: The role of Karl Rove goes to Toby Jones, a.k.a. the other Capote.

The Way the Bull Bounces.

“After this season, we needed a break and I think we just got one tonight.” Take that, D’Antoni: With only a 1.7 percent chance to procure the #1 pick, the Chicago Bulls beat the odds last night in the NBA lottery, thus knocking the Knicks down to No. 6. Well, bleah.

Meanwhile, as far as the NBA Finals go, I got three of the Final Four correct (So much for the Suns.) That being said, Lakers-Spurs in the West is sort of a worst-case scenario for me. And while I can’t believe it’s come to this, I may actually be rooting for Kobe and the Lakers in this series. Ugh, I feel dirty.

No New Tale to Tell.

As I noted of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe back in 2005, I could take or leave the Narnia books as a child, even despite my inordinate fondness for Tolkien. I liked LWW well enough, but as the “Famous Five“-style adventure of that book yielded more to high fantasy, and particularly as the lion became more overtly arch-Christian in the later tomes, I pretty much tuned out of the series, and if I read the last few books, I don’t remember them at all. So it was that I ventured into Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian yesterday evening out a sense of fanboy dutifulness more than anything else. (Also, I’m not sure what it says of summer movie culture that this is the third review in three weeks that I’ve had to preface with an explanation of my relationship to the kid-oriented source material.)

In any event, dutiful is a good way to sum up Prince Caspian. It’s a competently-made fantasy-war film, and it hits all the beats I remember — In fact, unlike PJ’s LotR, the best parts of the film may be the deviations from the book. But I found the overall experience somewhat lackluster and prosaic, and I had the vague sense throughout of being forced to watch a high-end BBC production of an acclaimed children’s fantasy novel in school somewhere. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if that’s due to Adamson’s film or Lewis’ tome. Either way, unless you’re considerably more fond of the Narnia books than I (or are looking to prosletize to children) I’d probably skip it. Caspian isn’t a bad film per se — it just feels like a hollow one.

Prince Caspian begins with an eclipse, a birthing, a midnight assassination attempt, and a Ford of Bruinen-style horse race, all of which suggest that we’ve moved pretty far afield from the twee satyrs and beavers of the last Narnia outing into more Elizabethan fare. The target of said attempt is one Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), the rightful heir to the Telmarine throne, who’s now been forced out of the picture by his uncle, Lord Miraz (Sergio Castellitto)…but not before being given a magical horn from the ancient days of yore. After being accosted by dwarves (Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis), Caspian toots his own horn and, lo, we’re back with the Pevensie children — Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy — in wartime London, one year after the events of LWW. The horn’s spell soon shuttles the four back to Narnia (a good thing, since they seem to be having trouble adjusting to the real world)…but now it’s 1300 years after their last visit, the land has grown more savage, and the Narnians are all but extinct, thanks to the depredations of the Spaniards, uh, Telmarines. And so it falls upon the Pevensies to come to the aid of Caspian, and to try to make things right in their former kingdom. But where is Aslan? Only Lucy (Georgie Henley), the youngest, believes He still might around to help, here in this darkest hour of Narnia. But, who’s everyone else gonna believe? Lucy or their lion eyes?

What ensues, give or take some alpha-male grandstanding between Peter (William Moseley) and Caspian — and goo-goo-eyes made between Caspian and Susan (Anna Popplewell) — is basically a two-hour fantasy-war film: In other words, this is the Two Towers of the bunch, with sieges, cavalry, trebuchets, the whole nine. And, while it’s interesting to see how much Tolkien shared with and/or borrowed from his fellow Inkling — we have the dispossessed king of Men, a variation on the Ents, and the aforementioned Ford here — it’s hard not to get the impression that medieval fantasy-wars are a bit played out in cinema at the moment. Aside from a stealthy incursion upon the Telmarine fortress, one that ends rather horribly (and includes a minotaur pulling a Gan), there’s a lot of been-there, done-that to the proceedings here. And, despite the valiant efforts of Peter Dinklage (making a solid case that del Toro’s Hobbit might do well to take a page from Time Bandits when to comes to Thorin Oakenshield’s band), the cast from the rather-bland Caspian on down is mostly unmemorable, particularly compared to James McAvoy, Ray Winstone, et al from LWW. (And Eddie Izzard’s turn as a mouseketeer, basically Shrek‘s Puss-in-Boots spliced with the Ratatouille gang, reinforces the unfortunate sense that Caspian has mostly been beaten to the punch, film-wise.)

One of the best sequences in the film is a surprise appearance by Tilda Swinton’s White Witch (one apparently added by Adamson), which not only helps round out Edmund (Skandar Keynes)’s story arc from the first film but, for a few minutes, brings both personality and a real sense of menace to the tale. Otherwise, alas, Prince Caspian is mostly a lot of medieval grunting, centaurs and satyrs cheering, and we the audience waiting around for the inevitable leonis-ex-machina. O Lion, why has thou forsaken us?

Full Circle. | The “VSC.”

“Tonight, Iowa, in the fullness of spring, with the help of those who stood up from Portland to Louisville, we have returned to Iowa with a majority of delegates elected by the American people, and you have put us within reach of the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.” After winning Oregon 59-41 (with 94% reporting) and, uh, doing less well in Kentucky (although I was heartened to see he took Louisville), Sen. Obama returns to Iowa with a majority of the pledged delegates, thus effectively sealing up the nomination.

It looks like Sen. Clinton has decided to hang around a few more weeks nonetheless (in part, it seems, to expose the “vast sexist conspiracy” which caused her not to contest caucus states or come up with a plan past Super Tuesday), but the focus for Team Obama is now clearly on John McCain and the GOP. “‘I will leave it up to Senator McCain to explain to the American people whether his policies and positions represent long-held convictions or Washington calculations,’ Obama’s remarks continued, ‘but the one thing they don’t represent is change.’

Update: By way of The Late Adopter and sententiae et clamores, The Village Voice‘s Allison Benedikt puts the lie to Sen. Clinton’s grappling with sexism of late: “Currently pregnant with the next generation, let me just say this: There is no greater wish that a mother can have for her daughter than that she will exploit poor people, obliterate Iran, and win rigged class president elections, Putin-style. (Mom, I won 100 percent of the vote!)…This War on Women is just like the War on Christmas: imaginary.”

The Last Kennedy.

“‘I just felt sorrow, but I’m praying, wishing that he has at least a good chance,’ said Angelo
Vespa, 43, of Newton. ‘All that he’s gone through, it’s really sad.’
” Following his weekend seizure, Lion of the Senate Ted Kennedy is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. “Many of his Senate colleagues were visibly shaken, some tearing up, and they quickly expressed their hope for the best possible outcome.” As with them, here’s hoping for the best.

Who’s on Fifth.

“My entire career has been a Secret Plan to get this job. I applied before but I got knocked back cos the BBC wanted someone else. Also I was seven.” Arguably the reincarnated show’s best writer, Steven Moffat will take over as head of Doctor Who for Season 5 (or Season 31, depending on how you’re counting), replacing Russell Davies. That’s a perfect choice…so long as it doesn’t screw up Spielberg and PJ’s Tintin trilogy.

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