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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Bob invades Film Threat

My article on the MTV Movie Awards is currently the headline on Film threat.com.  Here's the address:  http://filmthreat.com/index.php?section=features&Id=2210

1:55 pm edt          Comments

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull review

New Indiana Jones Fails, But Not Because Of Harrison Ford


By Bob Garver


            Indiana Jones.  The name conjures up memories of arguably the biggest franchise of the 80s.  Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and The Last Crusade were enormous successes in their day.  The adventures of the fedora-wearing archeologist with a knack for finding treasure and trouble made over $150 million each.  Now creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have decided to add another installment with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  It is sure to make a boatload of money, perhaps more than any other film in the franchise.  But I’m afraid to say that its quality does not justify its inevitable box office haul.  Why can’t this film live up to the standards set by a series whose last installment was over twenty years ago? 

Maybe the problem with the film lies with its star, Harrison Ford.  After all, most of the questions surrounding the film all seem to concern his advancing age.  Can he still be a convincing action hero?  Is his body too frail to cope with the physical demands of the role?  Has he retained his quick wit?  Can he still woo the ladies?  As he fights off a hoard of bad guys in the film’s first five minutes, we know the answers:  yes, no, yes, and I can’t speak to the last one but probably yes.  Harrison Ford is still tough, cool, and funny enough to play Indiana Jones. 

Ford isn’t the problem with the movie.  Maybe Shia LaBeouf is.   I didn’t much care for him in Transformers (I wanted to see more of the titular robots).  Now he’s showing up in a franchise with a rich history to protect.  Even riskier is putting him in a role that has ruined many a franchise:  the role of the sidekick.  Usually, once the filmmaker decides to add a sidekick, it means that the hero has grown stale and the franchise is finished. 

But actually, LaBeouf isn’t bad at all in the film.  He plays Mutt, a kid with a murky background, whose mother and father figure Professor “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt) have been kidnapped.  That’s father figure, not father.  His father was killed in a war.  Or not.  Mutt needs Indy to help get the man back.  A good portion of the film is devoted to this mission.  Mutt wants so badly to be tough guy, borrowing his image from James Dean and early Brando.  But he can’t quite pull it off, and his bravado often gets the best of him.  This is not to paint him as a whiny comic foil.  Mutt is, if anything, a student.  He learns a lot from Indy in the course of the movie, and not all of it has to do with archeology. 

Ford and LaBeouf are in the clear, maybe the problem with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is with its villain, Cate Blanchett.  She isn’t terribly threatening, physically.  And her acting is sometimes considered over the top.  Heck, sometimes it’s so over the top, she can’t even see the top from where her acting is. 

But neither of these are bad for Indiana Jones movies.  The villains are never physical threats, they’re usually pretty good at delegating the dirty work.  As for the acting, these aren’t the kind of movies that need to be realistic.  Spirits and curses are a part of this world.  Blanchett’s acting is not going to be the thing that overrides your suspension of disbelief.  Just don’t hold your breath waiting for her to utter “Moose and Squirrel” with her Ukrainian accent. 

Blanchett plays Irina Spalko, a prominent Communist scientist.  The first three Indiana Jones movies took place in the 30s and 40s and had Nazis as their villains.  This one takes place in the 50s, its villains are Commies.  Spalko has kidnapped Ox and Mutt’s mother.  She tricks Mutt and Indy into retrieving a mysterious crystal skull which gives its holder telekinetic powers.  She gets her hands on the skull, but soon finds that it isn’t terribly powerful by itself.  But it does lead to a temple where there are more crystal skulls and untold power and riches waiting to be claimed for whoever returns the missing skull.  The rest of the movie is Indy, Mutt, Ox, and Mutt’s mother trying to stop Spalko and the rest of the evil Commies from getting into the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Or at least getting there first. 

So far so good.  Ford is still killer as Indy.  LaBeouf doesn’t ruin things as the sidekick.  Blanchett is an ideal villain.  A familiar character from the Indiana Jones universe surprises the audience by showing up as Mutt’s mother (she’s also quick to clear up the identity of Mutt’s father).  There’s plenty of setup for adventure an excitement.  An early action sequence in a warehouse is a great promise of things to come.  The music is as stirring as ever.  How does this movie become such a failure on a creative level? 

I blame the aliens. 

There are aliens in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Phony-looking, CGI aliens. There is a place for supernatural elements in this world.  But aliens?  Especially the ones in this movie?  Come on.  Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is directed by Steven Spielberg, who has a mixed track record including aliens in his films.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. are classics.   But he’s been struggling lately with the lukewarm receptions for War of the Worlds and A.I.  It looks like he keeps trying to recapture the magic of his former blockbusters and growing increasingly frustrated with each failure.  Which is why we have disappointing efforts like this. 

         It’s not just the aliens that cause problems for this movie.  The special effects are just lousy in general.  The opening chase and early excavation sequences aren’t so bad.  But the seams start to show during a car chase through the jungle.  And continue through the climactic temple sequence.  There’s one scene at the end where the temple itself morphs into something else that is so inauthentic you wonder how it was allowed in the movie at all.

        The idea of an Indiana Jones movie in 2008 is not a bad one.  Harrison Ford is still up for the role, and there are a number of other talented actors who can contribute in supporting roles.  Technology is better than ever, and there’s no shortage of screenwriters who can make the film fit in well with its predecessors.  But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is still going to go down as a black mark on the Indiana Jones franchise.  It fails because of a reliance on bad special effects.  It fails because of an ill-conceived idea to include aliens.  It fails because of Steven Spielberg. 
12:20 pm edt          Comments

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Speed Racer – Candy-Colored Movie is Candy-Coated Bore


By Bob Garver


Of all the cartoons to turn into a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, Speed Racer would seem like an unlikely candidate.  The series from the 60s is practically the mascot for cheap Japanese animation.  The human characters didn’t look human, their expressions and movements did not change at the rate the should have, and the race sequences often included shots of the characters staying perfectly still while dots and lines zipped around behind them in the background. 

              Flash forward forty years.  The Wachowski brothers (of Matrix fame) like the idea of the cartoon.  They like the idea of a race car driver who competes in a wide variety of exciting races.  They also like the dynamic of the character’s quirky but supportive team and family.  They even like the idea of a monkey thrown in for comic relief.  So what if the original series looks laughably crude today?  They created The Matrix, they can fix that for their version. 

And to be fair, it does look very impressive.  Almost every piece of scenery is a wonderful, vibrant color.  The kind certain candy companies wish they could have in order to draw people to their sweets.  In fact, there is a yummy-looking assortment of sweets in the film.  But this is a movie where everything looks so delicious you’ll want to eat the furniture. 

The problem with the non-human-looking characters has also been taken care of.  It’s nothing hard, the Wachowskis just cast human actors in their live-action (but special effects-laden) movie.  Speed Racer is Emile Hirsch, he of last year’s critically-acclaimed Into the Wild.  Other well-known actors include Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Speed’s parents, Christina Ricci as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie, Roger Allam (the evil news anchor from V for Vendetta) as evil tycoon Royalton, and Lost’s Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X. 

              All are capable actors who give performances better than the poor dialogue deserves.  That is one area where both the cartoon and the movie fall flat on their face.  The dialogue in the cartoon failed because it was too stiff.  The dialogue in the movie fails because it’s too corny.  There are a few points when characters even point this out (“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that sickening schmaltz”).  Sorry Wachowskis, but acknowledging a problem with a laugh doesn’t excuse you from making the same mistake fifty more times. 

             Two live-action transfers don’t work well at all.  Speed’s younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) was clearly voiced by an adult in the cartoons, which made him a funny, immature little man.  Now he’s played by a kid and spouting off cutesy “mature” one-liners.  Maybe these gags were funny in the early 90s with movies like Home Alone, but their usefulness is long gone.  Also, Chim Chim the monkey isn’t as funny in live action.  All I could think about every time he was onscreen was how much training he had to go through to do the things he does.  And also what a messy pet he’d make. 

             Precocious kids and monkeys aside, the biggest problem with making a live-action Speed Racer is surprisingly in the special effects.  They are great-looking special effects, but they are obvious special effects.  You know that you are watching actors sit around and react while an effects team works around them.  The same thing can be said for the action sequences.  Cars don’t move and fly the way they do in Speed Racer, nor do they withstand the incredible amount of damage that they suffer.  A car will do a corkscrew in midair, do a flip on the ground, and all you say is “Well, it’s controlled by the Matrix guys.  I guess it can do that.”  By establishing early on that the rules of physics don’t apply to their cars, the Wachowskis save us from being surprised or exited by anything that happens later. 

           The plot is not important to the appeal of Speed Racer, so I’ll try to be brief in my explanation.  Speed Racer is the hottest prospect in racing.  He lives with his family, who run a mom-and-pop body shop.  Royalton wants his own drivers to win every race, in order to drive up his company’s stock.  Speed Racer won’t cooperate with Royalton trying to fix the races, so Royalton demands that Speed be taken out.  Not only does Speed now have to beat out other drivers who are in the race for themselves, he also has to fight off headhunters hired by Royalton for the sole purpose of eliminating him.  But at least Speed has help from the independent-minded Racer X, who may or may not be Speed’s supposedly dead brother. 

            It’s a flimsy lineup of characters and motives, but the non-racing scenes are not why people go to see Speed Racer.  They go to see the exciting races or the visually-stunning tracks and cars.  But people who do go to see Speed Racer are going to learn that they can only have fun looking at this movie for so long.  After a while, they’re going to want to watch it.  They will want to be drawn in to the story and its characters.  But they will find little of value there.  Yes, the movie is candy for the eyes.  But as Spritle and Chim Chim learn the hard way, you can get sick of candy very quickly. 


Robert Garver is a guest columnist who lives in Palmyra.  He is a senior in the Cinema Studies department at New York University.  He spends his weekends working at the Cinema Center of Palmyra so he can be closer to the movies.  He also is the owner and operator of www.bobatthemovies.com.  He can be e-mailed at rrg251@nyu.edu.
4:45 pm edt          Comments

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