Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Movie: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Director(s): Steven Spielberg

Though I'm a fan of the original films, I went into this not expecting much. It's a sequel and the trailers I'd seen looked dorky and silly, and the title's lame. But you know what? This is a terrific film! From the opening scene where the Paramount mountain logo fades into a gopher hole where a funny gopher pops up and looks around, you know you're in the hands of a master film-maker. Spielberg still has it, folks. So many nice subtle touches, from interesting camera angles to the editing and superb special effects (which don't overwhelm the story) give the film life and humor and make this a movie a celebration of the classic action/adventure (which is almost a forgotten genre today). For example, our first view of Indy is classy: we see his hat on the floor and see his arm reaching for it and we're expecting to see him place it on his head in typical Indy style. But instead of just showing that, Spielberg shows us Indy's shadow on a car door: we see Indy's classic profile in silhouette and it's like we're home again, twenty years later.

The plot of the film is chaotic and wild and over-the-top, just like the other Indy films, but it works perfectly. It's set a decade or so after the last film, so Indy is older, and this time the bad guys are Russians who are seeking a crystal skull which is purported to hold psychic power. They kidnap an old archeologist friend of Indy's and it's up to Indy to rescue him. Along the voyage we meet a rebellious kid on a motorcycle who turns out (of course) to be the son Indy didn't know he had, and we meet the boy's mother, too. The action is wild to the point of being absurd -- in one scene the boy swings on vines through the jungle like Tarzan -- but the whole thing is done with fun and verve and sheer childish delight that you don't mind such silliness at all. In fact, you root for it and cheer the ridiculousness. Only Harrison Ford as Indy remains gritty and real, with a touch of grumpy old man, to balance out the fun and keep us sober, and the experience is just wonderful. I haven't had so much fun at a movie in a long time. So many movies that promise fun deliver tedium or a sitcom laugh track. This one takes us back to a simpler time when good and evil were more clearcut and shows us a good old fashioned adventure. Two thumbs way up!


Friday, May 16, 2008

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Movie: Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Writer(s): C.S. Lewis

First, I preamble my comments with an explanation that I tend to see movies adapted from classic novels in two ways: as an adaptation and as a stand-alone film. As such, this film is okay as a stand-alone, similar to the first one, but poor as an adaptation. The main flaw is that it has a totally different feel than the book. The book is a light-hearted fun fantasy, while this is a grimmer, darker, more serious "action-adventure" film. In the book, the battles are barely described and almost a minor part of the story; here they have been expanded to 50-60 percent of the film. That's not necessarily bad -- the action's decent and somewhat fun and exciting, though perhaps a touch violent for younger children -- but it's not the C.S. Lewis book we know and love.

I rather expected this. I reread the book the evening before and had decided it did not suit a big-budget film very well: not much really happens. In the book there are basically three events: the children are transported to Narnia, a backstory of what's been happening in Narnia the past few hundred years is explained, and then there's a climatic battle the children are involved with to help save Narnia. The problem with that structure is that in a movie, the main characters of the children would only be in a few scenes. The book's also quite brief. So the producers fleshed things out by mixing things around and putting the events in a different order. Sometimes this makes sense, but other times not: for instance, Susan's Horn (which magically pulls the children into Narnia) is blown not during the battle as in the book, but when Prince Caspian is running away from his uncle's soldier's. The dwarf is kidnapped at that time, not sent on a mission to find the children, and so later, when he does find the children, his reference to Susan's Horn makes no sense at all since he wasn't there when it was blown, didn't even know Prince Caspian had it, didn't even know Prince Caspian, for that matter! So the writers' changed things around and messed up some plot continuity.

I was most disappointed by the film's beginning, which dives right in with Prince Caspian's escape from his uncle. While I understand the desire to begin with action, this approach means all the exposition and setup of the situation is explained in a rush, and we don't get all the info we need to properly understand the story. I would have started with the Nurse telling the child Prince Caspian Narnian stories: the visuals would have a terrific montage to kick things off and it would have set up the current situation perfectly (talking animals are extinct, Prince Caspian's uncle's evil and hates true Narnians, etc.). As it was none of that is explained well and it's explained only in pieces throughout the film, which is much more awkward.

But despite these flaws, the film's not that bad. True fans of the book will be somewhat disappointed, but won't hate the film. I was impressed that many important scenes are actually in the movie, and a few are actually better than the book. For instance, the temptation to dark magic scene is fleshed out in the film with a visual of the White Witch from the first film and King Peter looking tempted; in the book we're only told that the hag's magic is like that of the White Witch and the temptation is not quite as clear.

Overall, this is a decent film. The special effects are occasionally over-the-top but generally well-done, the acting and casting is excellent, the scenery is stunning, the story faithful enough to the source, and whole thing a decent amusement park ride. It's definitely worth seeing just for the experience, though the book is still better.


Friday, May 9, 2008

Speed Racer

Movie: Speed Racer

I wanted to like this, but it is indubitably the worst film of the year. Its first problem is that it is an uneasy mix of cartoon and live action and it just doesn't work as the live action feels cheap and campy and the cartoony stuff feels to realistic for fun. The next problem is the script which is equally all over the map: the story is sophisticated and not cartoon-like at all (it involves match-fixing and stock market manipulation and touches on grown-up topics and ideas) but the characters are mere stereotype sketches and the dialog is cheesy camp. The one thing you'd think a film like this would get right would be the visuals and action, but sadly that's the third thing wrong with this film, and it's deeply wrong: the action is a blurry, indescribable mess, with the whole racing thing confusing and bewildering about what the heck is going on. The cars are supra-realistic and whatever future world this film is set in has its own set of physics that don't make sense as cars pretty much do whatever they want (driving upside down, flying, driving down a mountain cliff, etc.). When you should be intrigued by the plot or excited about the racing, instead you are just bored and eager for the film to end (which it doesn't, being well over two excruciating hours long).

The bottom line is that the film tries to be everything and ends up being nothing. It's got elements of campy cartoon, serious action, and futuristic coolness, but everything is so ineptly blended together nothing works. Just terrible. Not merely poor, as big budget films often are, but really bad.


Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Contender

Movie: The Contender (2000)

This is a movie about the nomination process of the first female vice-president in U.S. history after the current VP dies in office. Fortunately, it's realistically done, so we get an inside glimpse of all the dirty back-room dealings, subtle manipulations of public perception, and more. Like sausage, you don't want to know how politics gets done. Unfortunately, that realism is also the movie's flaw, for it can be quite tedious -- like watching an afternoon of C-SPAN. For the political afficianado, it's great. For those like me that abhor politics, it has its moments, but should have been at least thirty minutes shorter. Still, I loved the subtle way the politicians manipulated each other, and the ending was predictable but extremely well-done. I'd give it a B.


Friday, May 2, 2008


Movie: Ironman

Wow. I wasn't expecting much of this at all, considering the level of most superhero adaptations, but this is pretty good. Very good, in fact. The overall plot is limited, but that doesn't matter. What shines here is Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role. He plays a billionaire playboy-slash-wonderkid who has inherited his father's weapons company and believes he's protecting the world with his weapons. When he's kidnapped by rebels in Afghanistan he discovers they have all his weapons as his company sells them to both sides in the war. The rebels force him to build them a supermissle (improbable) but he builds a robot rocket-suit instead and uses it to escape. Back home, he announces the company is getting out of the weapons business and faces a battle with his own board of directors and company president. Meanwhile, he refines the suit idea and perfects it. Of course from scene one we knew that the bad guy was his friend and mentor, the real power at the company, and it is obvious to everyone but the main character that it was him selling the weapons to the enemy to prolong the war and escalate profits. The climax is ridiculous as the bad guy creates his own even bigger and better robot suit (lame) and of course there's the big fight scene at the end. But despite many stereotypes, the film works. It works mostly because of Downey, who is magnificent as the guy you hate/love/envy/cheer for all at the same time. He's both super and pathetic, weak and strong, genius and stupid, which is just like real life. His character allows us to ignore the plot's failings and occasionally silliness and just enjoy the entertainment. The bottom line: totally a popcorn movie but above average with perfect casting. Lots of fun.