Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In the summer of 1985, as I was trying to escape the heat on my vacation, I ducked into a movie theatre in Avignon, France. The movie was entitled Indiana Jones und der Temple des Todes. Yes, in German with no subtitles. I figured that, since I'd already seen the movie in English, I would still enjoy it in German. I did, although Indy's bass voice was a tad disconcerting.

You don't need to understand the plot in an Indiana Jones picture, although dialogue is important if just to get the wry witticisms cast off by Jones and his buddies. So, what are the iconic pieces to this Raiders of the Lost Ark puzzle, what are we looking for in an Indiana Jones film?

The hat
The whip
The stirring music
The beautiful girlfriend and/or femme fatale
Lots of chases
Old civilizations and their artifacts, most of which will fall on Indy at some point.

Check them all. They're all here. The movie seems a bit too long because of a rather long and unnecessary introduction which tells us which time we're in. I enjoyed seeing an entire world of fifties' teenagers, but I didn't need to see it over and over in the first half hour. And the fact that we're on two expeditions makes the movie drag a bit as we get lost in the plotlines.

But the larger-than-life characters make up for all that. We love it when Professor Henry Jones puts on the hat and "becomes" his own character, Indiana Jones. When he tosses off a line like, "I've got a bad feeling about this," we heave a sigh of relief, for Harrison Ford is perfect as the adventurer-slash-professor who doesn't trust people easily for good reason. The story doesn't ignore the fact that a few years have gone by, and characters mention it from time to time. While Ford is looking a bit old in the part, his body is certainly in shape for this latest of adventures. Indeed, I heard that Ford fit into his old outfit without any needed alterations after 19 years.

And new villain Irina Spalko (played by Cate Blanchett) is larger-than-life if that term means rather cartoonish. She's no Rosa Klebb (from James Bond's "From Russia with Love"), and the only frightening thing about her is that black wig. And maybe the Russian accent. All the action stops when she appears onscreen, and everything slows down, but I think that's a good thing: it allows us to catch our breath, wonder what is really going on here, and gives us a black-wigged target at which to throw our venom.

Will new fans accept this older Indy? Yes, I think so, especially with the addition of Shia LaBoeuf as Marion Ravenwood's son. And how cool that Spielberg and Lucas brought back Karen Allen, a no-plastic-surgery-for-me almost-retired actress in her 50's as Marion! I was floored by that addition, obviously not the normal practice in movies.

I stayed for the lengthy credits in this one just so that I could see the name "Megan Rible" listed under the "Digital Artists" category for ILM (George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic special effects company). Megan is the daughter of Francean and Chuck Rible. And Francean was my former boss; the proud mother made sure she let me know about Megan's new achievement.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a great summer movie, mixing comedy, adventure, and good-time feelings for all of us to enjoy.

Thumbs up!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Mad Money

Ick. That was my response to Mad Money, a movie I cannot recommend on any level. What a waste of Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Ted Danson! What a tawdry little script! And what was Katie Holmes thinking, she who is supposedly being choosy about her films?

Caper films can be a lot of fun. I imagine that the original idea was that this was to be a feminist version of The Bank Job or something similar, but if that was the plan, it went sadly astray. Keaton portrays the same character she often does, the college-educated, upper crust pampered housewife. Her husband (Danson) loses his job and it threatens her lifestyle, and after a stint doing working-class labor, she simply goes berserk. She takes a janitorial job at a Federal Reserve Bank where the security is run by idiots, and comes up with a scheme for stealing the bills slated for shredding.

For this plot, she needs accomplices, and she badgers the Queen Latifah character into joining her, along with a dimwit played by Katie Holmes. The only character who comes off with much integrity at all is the Queen Latifah character. Once they taste success, Diane Keaton's character is consumed by greed unlimited by good sense or a self-preservation.

The characters are cardboard cutouts, impossible to care for. The plot is silly: there are holes in the logic large enough to accomodate an armored car. Callie Khouri, who is capable of better things (Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood, Thelma & Louise) should have known better.

Shame on all of you. Thumb's down.

Iron Man -- Ruth's take

I agree with Catattack -- yes, yes, thumb's up!

A couple of thoughts about this film, though.

One of the artful things here is that the film manages to include a fair amount of sex and violence that never makes it onto the screen, making it suitable for more kids while keeping an edge for the grownups. We see Tony Stark captured, then we see him in an Islamist hostage video. The video itself isn't that violent, but it hints at a whole vocabulary of threat and violence that adults will decode instantly. The film is rated PG-13, which is absolutely appropriate -- even with the clever writing, this is not a film for sensitive children or little ones!

The same is true for the Tony Stark backstory: clever use of casting allows them to show almost nothing of Stark's past, but by casting Robert Downey, Jr., all we have to see is a glass of Scotch, a disheveled tuxedo, and a few blondes to fill in the rest. Any adult viewer will instantly interleaf Downey's personal story into the film, so that what actually appears on screen is shorthand.

How well all of this will hold up over time is questionable, but it makes for a remarkable viewing experience in the present.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mr. Brooks

In case you’ve ever wondered what happened to former A-list actors Kevin Costner and Demi Moore, take a look at “Mr. Brooks,” which came out in 2007.

The film was recommended to me by a 20-year-old friend, who really liked it. I can see why someone that age would like it, someone who most likely was subjected to slasher films in her young movie-going career as the de rigeur teen flick. This movie, however, is – dare I say it? – better than that.

When we first meet Earl Brooks, we get the picture right away. He’s being honored as Man of the Year in his town. He’s very wealthy with a trophy wife (Marg Helgenberger). He wears bowties. He drinks milk.

However, he has a horrible secret: he likes to kill. He hasn’t killed for two years, but we follow him that night on another murderous spree because, as he tells his AA group, he’s addicted. There are several funny, more like quirky moments in the film, like when he tells his fellow compulsories, “My name is Earl, and I’m addicted,” and they clap. They never find out what he’s addicted to.

There are several more “quirks” to this movie, however. Should I give away spoilers? Oh, hell, you’re never going to see this film. So, Brooks seems to have a whole Batcave thing going, with a whole new residence for hiding false I.D., clothing, and a clunker that’s not traceable. He’s very careful. But along comes Dane Cook’s character, who has seen Brooks kill one night in the one time he made a mistake. He finds Brooks in his office, and tells him he doesn’t want to go to the police. Instead, he wants to feel what Mr. Brooks feels. He wants the thrill.

There are so many characters in this movie, so many major characters, that you might need a scorecard. There’s also a detective who’s breathing down Brooks’ neck, played by Demi Moore. However, Ms. Detective has problems of her own at home, like a trophy husband who wants more and more money in the divorce settlement. And there’s a daughter who seems to have left a real mess back in college. Oh, and lest I forget, William Hurt rides in the back of Brooks’ car. Hurt represents Brooks’ bad boy, the one urging him on. Hell, I’d love to have Bill Hurt in the back of my car, tossing out witty and sarcastic bon mots, but then I’d have to admit I was certifiable. And, as crazy as the idea is in the film, I loved the effect.

What do you get if you cast Kevin Costner in a film? Usually you get a guy the audience likes, someone the audience doesn't want to see hurt or, in this case, caught. Surprisingly, this movie is not scary at all. The camera is judicious in the killing scenes, showing you just enough blood to get the real specific idea.

Costner holds his own, and Moore is better than that. I won’t promise you that you’ll feel completely satisfied at the end with all of those loose storylines --- not to mention loose characters – but it’s certainly a different take on the serial killer story.

Thumb’s up.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Iron Man

I read a few Iron Man comic books back in my college days. In truth, I didn’t care for them too much. I much preferred the teenage angst that Spider-Man offered. Truth be told, it was probably too adult for me. Tony Stark, after all, was a middle-aged man with medical problems. He was also not very nice.

Forty years later, they make a movie out of it. Tony Stark is a billionaire. He’s still not very nice. But with one major difference: he’s played by Robert Downey, Jr. That made all the difference in the world.

Instead of a one-dimensional stick figure, we get a man with a past set by his father, a formidable figure. And along with the ghost of his father, who set up his very successful arms corporation, he also gets his father’s best friend and business partner, Stane, played by Jeff Bridges. And we also get a raconteur, a man who doesn’t treat himself seriously, except in the laboratory, and has trouble remembering the names of the women he beds.

All of this is set up in minutes. Downey’s Stark, however, is taken captive in Afghanistan and fights his way out by using his genius. He learns a lot about where his company’s arms are going. But he still has a lot to learn about betrayal, not to mention how the stock market will react to a change in business philosophy.

I really enjoyed this movie from beginning to end (and don’t leave before the credits play out). I heard one criticism that the movie doesn’t offer a lot of action until the end, and I find that ludicrous. The whole movie is fraught with action, except for the parts where we’re finding out more and more about Stark’s character. These are important moments, funny moments, and each one plays a role in setting up the impact of the film.

One character that didn’t really play an important part was the one played by Terrence Howard, as Stark’s best friend, Rhodes, a military weapons expert who apparently has a less-than-ethical (in my opinion) relationship with Stark. He supposedly evaluates Stark’s company’s weapons for the military, but he’s his best friend? Better played was Stark’s secretary, Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Potts and Stark go through a wonderful little sexual-tension dance, played mostly for laughs. Still, the dance explains more about Stark.

Downey’s past missteps make it hard to distinguish the character he’s set up from the real actor. But therein lies his genius: it’s seamless characterization. Take away the science and you have the quirky, funny, brilliant man we’ve come to believe is Robert Downey, Jr.

Judging by the last scene, the one after the credits, we’re headed for Iron Man II. Bring it on.

Thumb’s up.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Little Mermaid

I avoided seeing The Little Mermaid for almost 20 years. But I keep hearing that song, Part of Your World.

I heard it in Disney World, over and over, over the past few years. I kept dragging everybody to hear the song in Philharmagic. That and the Aladdin song. They're both magical.

So when I went to Disneyland last week, I heard it again. All over, but especially in the animation building. There’s a marvelous montage, sort of a 3D effect, all over the walls. Just while you’re waiting to visit one of the exhibits.

My reasons for not seeing it lay in not wanting to see another little girl fall for the guy, not develop her personality, willing to give up everything to be rescued by ... Him.

I finally made the plunge. And I found…

Marvelous animation. Mostly obviously two-dimensional, but with terrific colors which surround the animation.

A great voice in Jodi Benson – gosh, she must be 50 by now – who acts in the songs as well as sings in bell-worthy quality.

Some really good songs. None as good as the main song, but good and hummable. Under the Sea. And that funny song actor Rene Auberjonois sings as the chef Louis tries to chop up Sebastian the crab.

And we also have – drumroll, please – a fantastic, stupendous female villain in Ursula, the Sea Witch! I have never been so repulsed by an animated octopus. She was just wonderful, voiced by the now-passed Pat Carroll. It’s so great to see her legacy live on in some visceral way. (So many from this cast have passed away, including Howard Ashman, who wrote the movie and co-wrote the songs.)

But, aside from that, we have…. A delightful young woman – 16, as she tells her smothering father – who gives up everything for the young man.


But at least we still have that song.

“Look at this stuff
isn’t it neat
wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete
Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl, the girl who has everything.

Look at this trove ,treasures untold
How many wonders can one cavern hold?
Looking around here, you’d think – Sure. She’s got everything.

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty
I’ve got whosits and whatsits galore.
You want thingamabobs? I got twenty.
But who cares. No big deal. I want more.

I wanna be where the people are. I wanna see, wanna see ‘em dancing.
Walking around on those…what do you call ‘em? Oh, Feet.

Flipping your fins, you don’t get too far. Legs are required for strollin’, dancin’.
Strolling around on the…. What’s that word again? Street.
Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun.
Wandrin’ free, wish I could be, part of that world.

What would I give if I could live out of these waters.
What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand

Betcha on land they understand
That they don’t reprimand their daughters
Bright young women, sick of swimmin’
Ready to stand.

And ready to know what the people know
Ask ‘em my questions and get some answers.

What’s a fire and why does it …what’s the word… Burn.
When’s it my turn, wouldn’t I love
To explore that shore up above.

Out of the sea
Wish I could be
Part of that world”

Well, maybe 19 years later they’ve invented an animated feature that models for little girls. Little Mermaid gives us another interesting villainness, one to join The Wicked Queen, Cruella Deville, and so many other Disney creations. Since I haven’t watched many Disney features, except for Pixar, I couldn’t tell you. However, wouldn't it be nice if a kid had a positive role model fleshed out for her, instead of a negative one. Yes, yes - I know the movie is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable but, hey world! time for a new ending.

Thumb’s up for the music and the animation, and the delightful Ariel. Thumb’s down, still, for the lessons that fail young girls.