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Shia LaBoeuf

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Prohibition…What Fresh Hell is This?


John Hillcoat’s Lawless — with Shia LaBoeuf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, and an eyebrow-less. potentially scenery-chewing Guy Pearce — gets a director-edited red band trailer. They had me with Hillcoat, although in all honesty I kinda hate the new name of this film — It sounds like a Seagal flick. (I preferred The Wettest County.)

Sympathy for the Devils.

Like W before it, Oliver Stone’s peppy, decently enjoyable, and ultimately far too convivial Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which I caught as the first leg of a three-film swing two weeks ago, suggests the director has moved out of the near-decade-long nadir that brought us Any Given Sunday and World Trade Center. (Rock bottom was, without a doubt, Alexander.)

Wall Street 2 turns out to be a brisk two hours, and its ability to explain some relatively complex financial goings-on in a crowd-pleasing format is admirable. Still, the movie also ends up feeling like a missed opportunity. Bringing 80’s corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) back to comment on the amoral rapacity of today’s financial sector could be a stroke of genius, and the movie is most entertaining when it shows how the greed and corruption of today’s Wall Street has outpaced anything Gekko could ever have imagined back in the American Psycho era. (“Someone reminded me I once said, ‘Greed is good.’ Now, it seems it’s legal.“)

But even more than W, a movie which treated the many foibles of our 43rd president with kid gloves, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a film that seems lacking in sufficient indignation. I mean, those venerable and self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe, the Titans of Wall Street, managed to plunge the entire American economy into a death spiral and pass the bill off to the increasingly jobless American taxpayer. And yet, they still managed to avoid any seriously damaging regulation as a consequence, and, at the end of the day, they give themselves record bonuses for two years running. And all Stone can muster up about it is this? Where’s the outrage?

To be fair, avarice and plunder are central to Stone’s story here, bubbles abound (Stone does love to beat a metaphor to death), and the film does dramatize the September 2008 collapse and subsequent bailout, with Wall Street tycoons Josh Brolin and Eli Wallach, among others, worriedly communing with Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner lookalikes in a darkly-lit Federal Reserve antechamber. The problem isn’t the content so much as the tone. Eventually, you get the sense that, despite all their bad behavior, Stone likes and looks up to these guys. (This may be because Stone’s father was a Wall Street banker, so this may be the film where a director who continually relies on characters with daddy issues is now trying to work out his own.)

As a result, Wall Street feels confused — It doesn’t really seem to know which tale it wants to tell. On one hand, we have the story I just mentioned — the obvious sickness and eventual collapse of the financial sector. But then we also have the story of our protagonist, Jake Moore (Shia LaBoeuf) — a savvier operator than Charlie Sheen ever was — who shuffles through various potential father figures (Gekko, Brolin, and, in the early going, Frank Langella) and woos the professional-blogger daughter of the fallen Gekko king (Carey Mulligan — By the way, Stone doesn’t seem to have a handle on what blogging’s about. We wear pajamas all day, and we don’t have sleek Facebook-looking offices.)

And then we have the Return of Gordon Gekko himself. Now on the CNBC book and lecture circuit, a seemingly chastened Gekko wants Jake’s help to reconnect with his prodigal daughter. In the meantime, he teaches Jake a thing or two about the way the Game is played at the top. And hewatches today’s unsustainable financial shenanigans with wry bemusement — he likes to discourse on tulips — and perhaps a little jealousy. Does Gekko want a seat at the table again? Well, he’s Gordon Gekko. What do you think? (For what it’s worth, Douglas is great fun here — let’s hope it’s not his last performance — but his character is getting a bit of the Ridley Scott’s Hannibal treatment. To my mind, Gekko makes for a better villain than he does an anti-hero.)

In any case, Stone has a lot of balls in the air throughout Money Never Sleeps and as the film goes on they become more and more clumsily handled. This flaw becomes glaringly obvious in the final reel, when the film suffers from more endings than Return of the King, including one — in front of Lady Gekko’s apartment — that comes out of nowhere and feels exceedingly cheap. (The movie even has three closing-credit sequences — one focused on time, one one family, and one on money — Four if you count all the bubbles floating around. Stone apparently couldn’t decide what his film was about.)

There’s a lot of upside to Money Never Sleeps — It’s a surprisingly fun movie at times, and the acting is solid across the board. (People like to hate on Shia LaBoeuf, but I actually think he’s a pretty good actor. Here, he even starts to seem a bit like his father from a more ill-conceived sequel, Harrison Ford — although with less finger and family issues.) Still, I wish the movie weren’t so confused about its purpose, and I definitely wish it took a more aggrieved stance towards its bankster subjects. I don’t want to watch these jokers having totally random Ducati races. I want to see them in jail. (Then again, be careful what you wish for: Gekko says several times here that it’s the next collapse we really need to worry about, and that could happen at any time…like, say, now.)

Until the Crystal Cracked.

You get to monkey-swinging and things like that and you can blame it on the writer and you can blame it on Steven [Spielberg, who directed]. But the actor’s job is to make it come alive and make it work, and I couldn’t do it. So that’s my fault. Simple.

While on press tour for Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, Shia LaBoeuf offers a public mea culpa for the misfire that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. “I feel like I dropped the ball on the legacy that people loved and cherished…We [Harrison Ford and LaBeouf] had major discussions. He wasn’t happy with it either.

The Biggest Loser(s).

Ok, so there definitely is a Plan B. In the trailer bin this week, the Comedian, Stringer Bell, Johnny Storm, and Neytiri, among others, give The A-Team a run for their money in the trailer for Sylvain White’s The Losers, based on the DC comic and starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, Chris Evans, Oscar Jaenada, Columbus Short, Zoe Saldana, Jason Patric, and Holt McCallany.

And, speaking of big losers, Gordon Gekko has done his time and wants back in the big game — maybe with a new cellphone — in the teaser for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, also with Shia LaBoeuf, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Vanessa Ferlito, Frank Langella, and — word has it — Charlie Sheen. Might have to give the first one another whirl beforehand.

Toys in the Attic.

In the wake of Wolverine comes a handful of explosion-heavy trailers for your pre-summery consumption: First up, Shia LeBoeuf and Megan Fox, as well as Tyrese, Turturro, et al, run with the robots again in the full trailer for Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Given how boring I found the first one, I’m pretty sure I’ll take a pass. But, hey, if “Bayformers” is your particular cup of awesome, have at it.

If your attic harbors a different set of deteriorating toys, however, Dennis Quaid is assembling a top-notch team — Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rachel Nichols, Ray Park — to avenge the Eiffel Tower in the new trailer for Stephen Sommers’ GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. (That’s Sommers of the woeful Van Helsing, by the way. Also, is it just me, or aren’t bad summer movies completely abusing the after-the-colon-subtitle this year? It reminds me of my teaching days.)

Anyway, imo this looks really terrible, and I barely know who any of these characters are — the ninja-fellow was called Snake Eyes, right? So the only point of interest I’m finding here, with the possible exception of the Ninth Doctor paying the bills, is Sienna Miller as the Baroness. Thing is, I already fell for that British-vixen-in-a-leather-catsuit trick once with Underworld, which was also terribad. So in the parlance of the ex-decider, “Fool me once, shame on you. Ya fool me, you can’t get fooled again.

Finally — and this one might actually be decent — South Africans complain about the new refugee camp in their midst in the teaser for Neil Blomkamp’s District 9. This has been done before with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin in Alien Nation, but I like the verite style, and it’ll be interesting to see where Blogkamp (and producer Peter Jackson) go with it. Count me in.

Pixels go Boom!

Can’t say I cared much for the first one. Nevertheless, the teaser for Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is now online, and it looks like it’s shaping up to be the Mother of All Michael Bay movies, and might possibly be fun with the appropriate lubrication.

2008 in Film.

Well, now that we’re in the second month of 2009, and since I’m *mostly* caught up on last year’s prestige crop, it seems arguably the last, best time to write up the belated Best of 2008 Movie list. (I did see one more indy film of 2008 Sunday morning, but as it was after my arbitrarily-chosen 1/31 cutoff, it’ll go in next year’s list.) Compiling the reviews this year, it seems my October hunch was correct: For a combination of reasons, I went to the movies a lot less than usual in 2008. (The review count usually clocks in around 45. Last year, I only saw 30 films on the big screen.) And, looking over the release schedule, I see lots of movies I had every intention of viewing — Appaloosa, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Choke, Leatherheads — and never got around to.

At any rate, given what I did see, here’re the best of ’em. And here’s hoping the 2009 list will be more comprehensive. As always, all of the reviews can be found here. (And if a movie title doesn’t link to a full review, it means I caught it on DVD.)

Top 20 Films of 2008

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007]


1. The Dark Knight: Yes, it’s the obvious fanboy pick. And, admittedly, TDK had pacing problems — it was herky-jerky at times and the third act felt rushed. Still, in a not-particularly-good year for cinema, Christopher Nolan’s operatic reimagining of the Caped Crusader and his arch-nemesis was far and away the most enjoyable experience i had at the movies in 2008. And if Candidate Obama was America’s own white knight (metaphorically speaking) this past year, Heath Ledger’s Joker was its mischievous, amoral, and misanthropic id. If and when the economic wheels continue to come off in 2009, will stoic selflessness or gleeful anarchy be the order of the day? The battle for Gotham continues, and everybody’s nervously eyeing those detonators. Let’s hope the clown doesn’t get the last laugh.


2. Milk: What with a former community organizer turned “hopemonger” being elected president — while evangelicals, conservatives and sundry Mormons inflicted Proposition 8 on the people of California — Gus Van Sant’s vibrant recounting of the tragedy of Harvey Milk was obviously the timeliest political movie of 2008. But, in a year that saw entirely too much inert Oscar-bait on-screen in its final months, Milk — romantic, passionate, and full of conviction — was also one of the most alive. While it extends some measure of compassion even to its erstwhile villain (Josh Brolin), Milk is a civil-rights saga that harbors no illusions about the forces of intolerance still amongst us, and how far we all still have to go.


3. The Wrestler: Have you ever seen a one-trick pony in the fields so happy and free? Me neither, to be honest, but Aronofsky’s naturalistic slice-of-life about the twilight days of Randy “the Ram” Ramzinski was likely the next best thing. I don’t know if Mickey Rourke will experience a career resurrection after this performance or not. But he won this match fair and square, and nobody can take it from him.


4. Let the Right One In: As if living in public housing in the dead of a Swedish winter wasn’t depressing enough, now there’s a nosferatu to contend with… My Bodyguard by way of Ingmar Bergman and Stephen King, this creepy and unsettling tale of a very unsparkly pre-teen vampyrer will leave bitemarks long after you step out into the light.


5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days: A 2007 release that made it stateside in 2008, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days is a movie that I probably wouldn’t ever want to watch again. Still, this grim, unrelenting journey through the seedy hotels and sordid back-alleys of Ceaucescu’s Romania is another hard one to shake off. And, tho’ I caught it early on, it remained one of the very best films of the year.


6. WALL-E: If you saw one movie last year about a boy(bot) from the slums meeting — and then improbably wooing — the girl(bot) of his dreams, I really hope it was WALL-E. Hearkening back to quality seventies sci-fi like Silent Running, Andrew Stanton’s robot love story and timely eco-parable is a definite winner, and certainly another jewel in the gem-studded Pixar crown. I just wish it’d stayed in the melancholy, bittersweet key of its first hour, rather than venturing off to the hijinx-filled, interstellar fat farm. Ah well, bring on Up.


7. Iron Man: Much better than I ever anticipated, Jon Favreau’s (and Robert Downey Jr.’s) Iron Man kicked a summer of superheroes off in grand fashion. In the end, I preferred the gloomy stylings of Gotham in 2008, but there’s definitely something to be said for this rousing, upbeat entrant in the comic movie canon. It delivered on its own terms, and it was a much better tech-fetishizing, boys-and-their-toys type-film than, say, 2007’s Transformers or (I suspect) 2009’s GI Joe. Bonus points for the Dude going all Big Jeff Lebowski on us here…now quit being cheap about the sequel.


8. Man on Wire: 4:40pm: Two foreign nationals and their American abettors successfully navigate past the guard checkpoint of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Their fanatical mission: To use the WTC as a symbol to transform the world…through an act of illegal, death-defying performance art. Although it never explicitly mentions 9/11 (of course, it doesn’t need to — the towers themselves do most of the work, and reconstructing its story as a heist does the rest), the stirring documentary Man on Wire, about Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope-walk between the towers, gains most of its resonance from the events of that dark day in 2001.

After seventy minutes or so, just as it seems this unspoken analogy is starting to wear thin, Petit finally steps out onto that ridiculous wire, and Man on Wire takes your breath away. Nothing is permanent, the movie suggests. Not youth, not life, not love, not even those majestic, formidable towers. But some moments — yes, the beautiful ones too — can never be forgotten. (Note: Man on Wire is currently available as a direct download on Netflix.)


9. U2 3D: One of two 2008 films (along with #16) which seemed to suggest the future of the movie-going experience, U2 3D was both a decently rousing concert performance by Dublin’s fab four, and — more importantly — an experimental film which played with an entirely new cinema syntax. Just as students look back on D.W. Griffith films of a century ago as the beginnings of 2D-movie expression, so too might future generations look at this lowly U2 concert and see, in its layering of unrelated images onto one field of vision, when the language of 3D really began to take off. At which point someone might also say, “Man, I wish they’d played ‘So Cruel’ instead of some of these tired old dogs.”


10. The Visitor: I wrote about Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (which I saw on DVD) some in my Gran Torino review, and my criticism there stands: As with Torino, the central thrust of this story is too Bagger Vance-ish by half. Still, it’s fun to see a likable character actor like Richard Jenkins get his due in a starring role, and he’s really great here. And, if the “magical immigrant” portions of this tale defy reality to some extent, McCarthy and Jenkins’ vision of a life desiccated by years of wallowing in academic purgatory — the humdrum lectures, the recycled syllabi, the mind-numbingly banal conferences, all divorced from any real-world interaction with the issues at hand — is frighteningly plausible.


11. Synecdoche, New York: Long on ambition and short on narrative coherence, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the There Will Be Blood of last year’s crop, in that it’s a film that I think will inspire a phalanx of ardent defenders among movie buffs, who will argue its virtues passionately against all comers. For my own part, I admired this often-bewildering movie more than I actually enjoyed it, and ultimately found it much less engaging than Kaufman’s real magnum opus, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Still, I’m glad I made the attempt, and it’s definitely worth seeing.


12. Frost/Nixon: Two man enter, one man leave! More a sports movie than a political one, Ron Howard and Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon is a decently entertaining depiction of two hungry down-and-outers locked in the debater’s version of mortal kombat. That being said, I kinda wish the stakes had seemed higher, or that the substance of the issues at hand — Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate — had been as foregrounded as the mano-a-mano mechanics of the interview. Plus, that scene where Tricky Dick sweeps the leg? That’s not kosher.


13. Snow Angels: David Gordon Green’s quiet, novelistic Snow Angels is an early-2008 film I caught on DVD only a few weeks ago, and it’s been slowly sneaking up the list ever since. Based on a 1994 book by Stewart O’Nan, the movie depicts the intertwined lives of a small New England community, and recounts the tragic circumstances that lead to two gunshots being fired therein one winter afternoon. (If it sounds like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, it’s very close in form, content, and melancholy impact.)

In a movie brimming over with quality performances — including (an ever-so-slightly-implausible) Kate Beckinsale, Nicky Katt, Amy Sedaris, and the long-forgotten Griffin Dunne — three actors stand out: Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby fall into one of the most honest, believable, and affectation-free high school romances I’ve seen in a movie in ages. And the always-watchable Sam Rockwell sneaks up on you as a perennial loser who tries to be a good guy and just keeps failing at life despite himself. At first not much more than an amiable buffoon as per his usual m.o., Rockwell’s gradual surrender to his demons — note his scenes with his daughter, or in the truck with his dog, or at the bar — gives Snow Angels a haunting resonance that sticks with you.


14. Burn After Reading: As I said in the original review, it’s not one of the all-time Coen classics or anything. But even medium-grade Coen tends to offer more delights than most films do in a given year, and the same holds true of their espionage-and-paranoia farce Burn After Reading in 2008. From John Malkovich’s foul-mouthed, (barely-)functioning alcoholic to George Clooney as a (thoroughly goofy) lactose-intolerant bondage enthusiast to, of course, Brad Pitt’s poor, dim-witted Chet, Burn introduced plenty of ridiculous new characters to the brothers’ already-stacked rogues’ gallery. This is one (unlike The Ladykillers) that I’m looking forward to seeing again.


15. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Another catch-up DVD rental, this was Woody Allen’s good movie last year (as opposed to the woeful Cassandra’s Dream), and a smarter-than-average relationship film (as one might expect from the man behind Husbands and Wives and Annie Hall.) There’re some definitive Allen tics here that take some getting used to in the new environment of Barcelona — a very Woody-ish omniscient voiceover, some Allenesque quips emanating from Scarlett Johannson and the striking Rebecca Hall (late of Frost/Nixon and The Prestige), and, as per Match Point and Scoop, some rather outdated depictions of the class system. (Hall’s fiance, played by Chris Messina of Six Feet Under, is basically a caricature of the boring, born-entitled Ivy League grad, circa 1965.)

Still, if you can get past all that, Vicky Cristina is quite worthwhile. (And, as far as the Oscar buzz goes, I’d say Javier Bardem makes more of an impression here than does Penelope Cruz.) Whether you’re as old as Woody or as young as Vicky and Cristina, the story remains the same: love is a weird, untameable thing, and the heart wants what it wants.


16. Speed Racer: Easily the most unfairly maligned movie of 2008 (and I’m not a Wachowski apologist — I thought Matrix: Revolutions was atrocious), Speed Racer is an amped-up, hypercolorful extravaganza of the senses, and, this side of the original Matrix, one of the more interesting attempts I’ve seen at bringing anime to life. Critics derided it pretty much across the board as loud, gaudy nonsense, but, then as now, I’m not sure what they went in expecting from the film adaptation of a lousy sixties cartoon involving race cars and silly monkeys. This is where some readers might ask: “Um, are you really saying Speed Racer is a better movie than Revolutionary Road?” And I’m saying, yes, it’s much more successful at what it aimed to accomplish, and probably more entertaining to boot. Sure, Racer is a kid’s movie, but so was WALL-E. And, given most of the drek put before the youths today, it’s a darned innovative one. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of filmed laments about quiet-desperation-in-the-suburbs in my day, but for better or worse, in my 34 years of existence, I had never seen anything quite like this.


17. Gran Torino: Alas, Speed Racer, it seems, grew old, got ornery, and began fetishizing his car in the garage instead. Good thing there’re some kindly Hmong next door to pry open that rusty heart with a crowbar! Like The Visitor, Torino suffers from an excess of sentiment when it comes to its depiction of 21st-century immigrants and their salutary impact on old white folks. But, as a cautionary coda to a lifelong career glorifying vigilantism, Eastwood’s Gran Torino has that rusty heart in the right place, at least. And while Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski may be a mean old cuss, Eastwood’s performance here suggests that the old man’s got some tricks in him yet.


18. A Christmas Tale: I wrote about this movie very recently, so my thoughts on it haven’t changed all that much. A bit pretentious at times, Arnaud Desplechin’s anti-sentimental holiday film has its virtues, most notably Chiara Mastroianni eerily (and probably inadvertently) channeling her father and the elfin Mathieu Amalric wreaking havoc on his long-suffering family whenever possible. It’s a Not-So-Wonderful Life, I guess, but — however aggravating your relatives ’round christmastime — it’s still probably better than the alternative.


19. Tropic Thunder: Its pleasures were fleeting — I can’t remember very many funny lines at this point — and even somewhat scattershot. (Tom Cruise as Harvey Weinstein by way of a gigantic member was funny for the first ten minutes. Less so after half an hour.) Still, give Tropic Thunder credit. Unlike all too many comedies in recent years, it didn’t try to make us better people — it just went for the laugh, and power to it. And when the most controversial aspect of your movie turns out not to be the white guy in blackface (or, as we all euphemistically tend to put it now, “the dude disguised as another dude“), but the obvious Forrest Gump/Rain Man spoof, I guess you’ve done something right.


20. W: Nowhere near as potent as Stone’s early political forays, JFK and Nixon, W still came close to accomplishing the impossible in 2008: making the out-going president seem a sympathetic figure. I suppose several other films could’ve sat with distinction in this 20-spot — In Bruges or Benjamin Button, perhaps — but none of them would’ve afforded me the opportunity to write these lovely words once more: So long, Dubya.

Honorable Mention: It wasn’t a movie, of course. But 2008 was also the year we bid farewell to The Wire. Be sure to raise a glass, or tip a 40, in respect. (And let’s pray that — this year, despite all that’s come before — a “New Day” really is dawning.)

Most Disappointing: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Worth a Rental: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, In Bruges, Revolutionary Road, Valkyrie

Don’t Bother: Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Doubt, Hellboy II: The Golden Age, The Incredible Hulk, Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire, Wanted

Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, Sean Penn, Milk, Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Best Actress: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In, Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight, Josh Brolin, Milk, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, Sam Rockwell, Snow Angels
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler, Tilda Swinton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Unseen: Appaloosa, Australia, The Bank Job, Be Kind, Rewind, Blindness, Body of Lies, Cadillac Records, Changeling, Choke, The Class, Defiance, Eagle Eye, The Fall, Funny Games, Hancock, Happy Go Lucky, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Leatherheads, I Loved You So Long, The Lucky Ones, Miracle at St. Anna, Pineapple Express, Rambo, The Reader, Redbelt, RockNRolla, The Spirit, Traitor, Waltz with Bashir

    A Good Year For:
  • Billionaire Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Iron Man)
  • Lonely Old White Guys (Gran Torino, The Visitor, The Wrestler)
  • Magical Immigrants (Gran Torino, The Visitor)
  • Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon)
  • Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Burn after Reading)
  • Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder)
  • Romance at the Junkyard (WALL-E, Slumdog Millionaire)
  • Sam Rockwell (Choke, Frost/Nixon, Snow Angels)
  • Teenage Vampirism (Let the Right One In, Twilight)
  • Tosca (Quantum of Solace, Milk)
    A Bad Year For:
  • GOP Ex-Presidents (Frost/Nixon, W)
  • Political Do-Gooders (The Dark Knight, Milk)
  • Pulp Heroes (The Spirit)
  • Vigilantism without Remorse (Gran Torino, The Dark Knight)
  • Would-Be Assassins (Valkyrie, Wanted)
2009: Avatar, The Box, Bruno, Coraline, Duplicity, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Knowing, The Lovely Bones, New York, I Love You, Observe and Report, Push, Sherlock Holmes, The Soloist, State of Play, Star Trek, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Terminator: Salvation, Up, Where the Wild Things Are, The Wolfman, Wolverine and, of course,

Hrm.

Fly like an Eagle | One Smoking Painting.

In the trailer bin, Shia LaBoeuf and Michelle Monaghan take orders from GLaDOS in the new trailer for D.J. Caruso’s Eagle Eye, also with Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, and Anthony Mackie. And Guy Ritchie tries to conjure up some of that old Lock Stock mojo in the trailer for the very Ritchie-esque Rocknrolla, starring Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Idris Elba, Jeremy Piven,and Ludacris. I’d say these are both on the Maybe list.

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.

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