Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Umpteenth Jokey Title

Spoilers? Probably...

The glowing review that Keith Uhlich posted on Sunday at The House Next Door for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is still generating comments. As I type this, the latest are focused on the scene in which Marion drives herself, Indy, Mutt and Dr. Oxley off a high cliff and onto a sturdy tree branch, which bends far enough to allow the jeep/boat hybrid a safe landing into the river below.

Commenter Chris P, reacting to the assertion that this scene is equivalent to Indy’s leap of faith towards the end of Last Crusade, says:

“Before his leap of faith, Indy's scared. He's nervous and not sure it'll work. And when it does, he's even more amazed than the audience. He feels for us. We feel more a part of the adventure because of his emotional reaction to it.

By contrast, Marion has it all planned out, it works exactly as she expected -- nothing goes wrong, there's not even a moment where she thinks "uh oh, maybe this was a bad idea" -- and we don't get a woop of unmitigated joy, or even a sense that maybe her feigned bravura was just that, when something so amazing does work.

Simply: that short scene sums up everything that was wrong with the movie.”


Uhlich later responded:

“To which I say that we do get that sense of unmitigated joy in Karen Allen's smile after the stunt works, a visual cue that rhymes with her beatific reaction to Indy's "none of them [the other women in my life] were you" and with her mad "are we still alive?" laughter after they go over the three waterfalls.”


What this exchange boils down to is a round of “No it’s not!”/”Yes it is!”, and I suppose we can simplistically say that either the film worked for you or it didn’t. Though Uhlich is a good enough writer to make me wonder if I might be wrong, I do side with the camp that’s emphatically anti-Crystal Skull. And I think Chris P is on to something.

That particular scene makes use of the dreaded three letters: CGI. Though Karen Allen’s smile is winning, it’s not precisely enough to convince me of the adrenaline rush likely to accompany such a daredevil stunt. I wonder if Allen was ever shown the equivalent of the cliff in question, or the waterfalls she survived. Some highly-skilled digital artists created a nice-looking picture of a large tree whipping itself against the cliff, knocking several Russian digi-soldiers to their deaths. But Spielberg never provides a shot to convince, nor do the flesh-and-blood actors react in a way that suggests such a spectacle really happened. Mayhaps this wouldn’t be so jarring a letdown if Spielberg hadn’t already pulled off a virtuoso cliffside sequence in Temple of Doom, where none of the problems I mentioned exist. Because there was no CGI. That was a real, flimsy bridge over a really frigging high drop.

I get the supporters’ argument that it’s unfair to judge the movie based on what you expected, rather than what was presented -- though plenty that’s presented is worthy of derision, but this post isn’t about reaction shots of gophers and Shia LaBeouf’s injured testicles, so I’ll move on. Isn’t it fair for longtime fans who’ve invested in a franchise that employed innovative camerawork, on-site special effects and stuntmen (plus, as one commenter at HND put it, “a crisper, more ‘analog’ look”) in three previous installments to expect the same of the fourth? Rather than cartoonish, unconvincing CGI to cover up for most every daring feat? The excitement of the narrow escape doesn’t exist in this movie. The characters simply disappear behind the computer graphics, then appear again, safe and sound.

I appreciate Uhlich’s analysis of Spielberg’s imagery and the thematic content, but he expounds on it far more elegantly than the film ever does. After the movie, I told my friends, “I want to weep, it was so bad.” I grew up watching the Indy movies with my father, wondering at the movie magic on display. What do kids today have to wonder about? It’s all computers. I take my entertainment seriously, and Crystal Skull felt mostly like a bunch of clowning around.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cannes Results

This year's Cannes film festival is done: winners are up - Greencine has them all, competition and otherwise Un Certain Regard ; Critics Week; FIPRESCHI.

And now we wait for distribution. I've put up a poll - which of the award winners are you looking forward to seeing most? Or are you looking forward to films that didn't win awards - A Christmas Tale (Desplechins)? The Headless Woman (Lucretia Martel)? 24 Cty (Jia Jiang-ke)? Tokyo! (Michel Gondry, Leos Carax & Bong Joon-ho)? Kung Fu Panda?

Let me update with a link to Glenn Kenny's roundup of award winners.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sport

I've been thinking of putting up a baseball post lately - seeing Joseph's Rangers within a game of .500, that sort of thing. I have more concrete inspiration now - I come home from seeing J'Entends Plus la Guitare (a rare and precious Philippe Garrel screening at Harvard) - in time to watch Jon Lester finish off a no-hitter. The sentimental among us should be pleased. The cynics among us should become a bit sentimental. The Red Sox fans among us can think we have 2 starters with a combined 48 starts and 2 no-hitters.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: Godzilla (1998): The short version


Okay, I've gone and written up my defense of the much-disliked American GODZILLA movie, and posted it over on Club Parnassus. I was going to post it here, but it may be even larger than the SPEED RACER post and I don't want to monopolize the blog. (Note: This might be a good time to implement a script that'll let you put long material behind a cut.)

So, if you're interested in reading it, the review is here. You can comment on that post or this one, or just ignore it. I figured I should post it today because it's the ten-year anniversary or nearabouts.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sunday, May 11, 2008

In Theaters: Speed Racer


Ignore the cynical critics, who seem to object to SPEED RACER more on a conceptual level than on anything to do with the film that’s been made. Ignore the fact that this is yet another movie based on a vintage TV show. Ignore the poor box office reports. SPEED RACER is, and I never expected to say this, a truly great film. It does what it sets out to do almost perfectly- you may object to what it sets out to do, especially if you have epilepsy, but there is not only skill in this film’s execution, but genuine heart.

I went into SPEED RACER hoping to enjoy it, but seeing it mostly out of principle. Said principle was that movies are not colorful enough these days, and that anything which embraces the idea of having more than one shade onscreen at a time deserves support. I knew the reviews were not great, and at any moment I expected the film’s massive flaws to reveal themselves, and the divide in opinion (because I’ve heard enthusiastic responses to the film on various fora) would be explained, and I would decide what side I fell on. I actually kinda wish I’d seen what the problem was. Instead, I gotta say, this is a superb spectacle that delivers everything it promises, and the naysayers- I don’t get what their deal is.

If you’ve seen the show (I actually haven’t), you know the story. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the middle child of the Racer family, who as you might expect are big in the car racing game. Pops Racer (John effing Goodman) builds cars, and big brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter) drives them. But at some point Rex seems to go bad, aggressively pushing off other drivers and seemingly being killed in the middle of a massive cross country race. Years later, though, the Racer tradition lives on, as Speed continues his brother’s legacy in the Mach 5 (in an ingenious touch, the first race sequence slides between Rex and Speed running the same track, eventually racing against each other for the all time record.) After a big win, Speed is approached by Royalton (Roger Allam), head of Royalton Motors, who wants him to race under their banner. However, Speed decides to stick with the family, and this infuriates his would-be boss, who vows that from then on, Speed won’t win, won’t place, won’t even finish a race.

A lot of major companies make a lot of money off of racing, and they negotiate and plan the outcomes of major races. Sure enough, Speed is forced off the track at Fiji, and Pops comes under investigation for alleged IP infringement. But the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) has been investigating the link between the big companies and the underworld (represented by some downright Victorian British gangsters), and on finding out that racer Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop sensation and Stephen Colbert nemesis Rain) has been in their pay to protect his sister Minx (Nayo Wallace), he and the wonderfully named Inspector Detector (Benno F├╝rmann) try to get him to testify. In exchange, Taejo wants to protect his family’s company from a buyout, and to do that he plans to win the Crucible, the team cross country race that ended Rex’s career. Speed Racer is offered the third position on the team, and sneaks off, over his father’s objections.

All this and more takes place in a universe that is a giant live action and CGI cartoon, rendered in bright basic colors. The drivers race along impossibly twisted tracks, and are saved from crashes and explosions by being encased in spheres of foam. This encourages the racers to get a little violent, and even the good guys have to fight and inevitably force competitors off the road. The race sequences are insanely kinetic, but though the flood of color and motion is overwhelming at first, a rhythm soon emerges, and usually a shot will focus on a specific car or racer. In a way this mimics the look of the cartoon, in which, as in many anime shows, static characters would be surrounded by speed lines and signs of motion. The same balance of images is shown in the less actiony scenes- even though we’re seeing lots of things on screen at once, there are clever emphases and patterns that emerge. Royalton’s office is bedecked in royal purple, and when he tries to convince speed that the racing world is driven entirely by money, background colors fade and we’re surrounded by black and white.

This is a film full of whimsy and imagination, and tiny details and not-quite-necessary things are everywhere. The Crucible race is started when the Queen of Casa Christo looks out and sees the sun; various on-track “assassins” take the form of sexy pink-haired girls with phallic tire spikes a la BEN HUR (Speed combats them with tire shields, and right now Freud wishes he were still alive to analyze that), Viking marauders, and mercenary soldiers; Speed’s younger brother Spridle (Paulie Witt) and his monkey pal Chim Chim imagine themselves in the action of a superhero cartoon they watch; out-of-focus hearts appear in the background when Speed and his best girl Trixie (Christina Ricci, whose looks are made for anime) lay eyes on each other. There are vicious gangsters and ninja and caverns of ice, and the cars themselves have useful gadgets a-plenty, though some are less legal than others (the Mach-5’s jumping springs, which get it out of tight situations, are A-OK, but the spearhook, used to catch cars in a deadlock, is bad form indeed.)

All of this is handled with a good sense of humor; there’s an inevitable level of camp in the proceedings, obviously, though the movie tries not to let that undermine the story. We end up laughing with the film’s absurdities more than at them; we’re not asked to really accept anything as plausible, just as cool. This is a universe where logic and physics are subservient to aesthetics, and everything that happens, happens because it would be totally awesome if it did.

One doesn’t expect much from the acting in a movie like this, but some thought seems to have gone into this as well. To be sure, we’re dealing with cartoon characters, who must be strong and basic in their motivations and drives, but the cast works hard to make these personalities come across. Nobody breaks character, or goes through the motions; in particular Goodman, and Susan Sarandon as his wife,are very strong as Speed’s ever-supportive parents. One part of the film that works very well is its emphasis on family; a lot of kids movies will try to tell us that a given family is strong and supportive and so on, but this one makes us feel it; a bond between the characters is always apparent. Ricci is a treat as well, and there are a few fun cameos here and there. Hirsch carries the lead well, and though there’s not a lot to really distinguish his performance, it’s the kind of work that we would have noticed more had it gone horribly wrong.

Family is one of the main themes of the film, of course, as is the struggle of the athlete against corporate corruption of the sport. Some critics have made a point of calling out the film as insincere on this point, since it is, after all, a big budget summer movie replete with merchandising tie-ins; obviously SOMEONE involved cares about the money. But the point really seems to be that corporations are a bad thing when they try to reduce it to be ONLY about money, when they work against the passion that drives sports as well as filmmaking. The big message of the movie, I think, is a very idealistic one- that you CAN stand against the system. That nothing is so big that it cannot be brought down. And on this point the film is very strong.

I can, off the top of my head, name one flaw in the movie. Spridle and Chim Chim have a little too much screen time. They’re the film’s big comic relief, and though they’re not unfunny, they pop up a little too often. I’m also trying to remember the exact point at which Rex’s fortunes turned, but maybe in a film this overstuffed it’s inevitable that something will slip one’s mind. There is an interesting point where we get what seems like the climax, and an unusually long denouement, until we realize that the third act is in fact still around the corner. This is a long movie, to be sure, but despite that weird shift it’s never dull, and I do have to give the film credit for actually making me buy into the false crisis and false dawn.

And so here I am. I have to give this an A; the film almost never steps wrong, and there were many chances for it to do so. Not only is it fun, not only do we see John Goodman fight a ninja, but so help me God it is genuinely a compelling experience. You want Speed to win and to root out the corruption in his world, and there are moments of true suspense and elation. I cannot fault it. I honestly do not see the problem.

See this picture while you can. The box office apparently has not been good (nowadays we can predict these things before the opening weekend is even over, and if that’s not a grim bit of fatalism infecting the movie world I don’t know what is), and this blast of color and cheer does call for the big screen. SPEED RACER is a wonderland, a feast, a glorious over-the-top sports opera that looks wide-eyed at the drive we feel to be our best and what we have to do to stand up to a world which seeks to crush ambition. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s downright heartfelt. It’s honestly better than THE MATRIX, and I think the Wachowskis have genuinely redeemed themselves for the missteps made in the sequels. This film works when it really shouldn’t, and perhaps if you go in skeptical from the start it won’t appeal to you. Better to see it with an open mind and let it wash over you. Trust me, it’s an experience you should have.

Based on characters created by Tatsuo Yoshida
Written and Directed by the Wachowski Brothers

Grade: A

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Introducing...

This is the part where I shamelessly promote my new personal blog, Southland Cinephiles.

I know what y'all are thinking: this'll never last. He went and deleted his last blog without a word after a coupla lousy months. Sucks to him! Bah!

Well, shut up. I disagree. This time, I don't have to struggle to think of new content.

You'll notice it appears to be sort of a regional blog, aimed solely at Los Angelenos. Well, yes, that's its main purpose. I longed for a place on the web that, in one easily readable place, would list and discuss the overwhelming amount of daily screening opportunities in L.A. Since I've never found a satisfactory manifestation of that desire, I figured I'd make it myself.

But I'm hoping that folks outside of L.A. will participate as well. The variety of films screening from day to day is astonishing -- this Friday's choices include Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, Moustapha Akkad's The Message, Forbidden Planet, A Quiet Place in the Country, The Letter, and more. I know all the filmies out there have something to say about at least one of those.

So say something.

I plan to expand the content past just lists. Recommendations, reviews, articles and the like are forthcoming. But all shall be geared as much as possible toward cinema available to L.A. I'll maintain a regular presence here to post about everything else.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Three for the Dance

Solo

Not so long ago, I attended a screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art of Powell and Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffman. Overall, the experience was a disappointment. I failed to note beforehand that they'd being showing the film on video. The picture and sound quality left much to be desired, but that couldn't detract from the work of Moira Shearer, screen goddess. The woman is impossible to look away from, the very definition of poise and grace. At the end of her "Doll's Song" performance, the audience burst into applause:



Duet

I suppose I love an underdog, so all due respect to the very worthy Fred and Ginger, but my heart belongs to Fred and Kay.

Fred Astaire was pushing 60 and Kay Thompson was just under 50 when they co-starred in Funny Face. It's not every movie musical romance that lets its superstar ingenue (Audrey Hepburn) disappear for a bit while the two middle-aged pros hoof it in a showstopper. The Gap recently revived interest in Hepburn's easily lovable beatnik bar dance number, but I go for the admittedly not-so-innovative-but-a-helluva-lotta fun "Clap Yo' Hands":



Pas de trois

Fuck Baby Mama! The real female buddy comedy to watch and learn from came out in 1997, and it's called Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion. The women here are just as foul-mouthed as any Judd Apatow slacker ("Why don't you go fuck a sheep, or your sister, or yourself?!"), their situation is true to life, and they get away with some blessedly weird moments. Observe the climactic three-way dance scene:

Dancing Poll

I'm experimenting with the polls: I've never been too good at coming up with quizzes and polls and the like, but, hey... this time around - let's acknowledge another neat blogathon - this one, the Invitation to the Dance from Ferdy on Film. I shall go straight to the top: for all my rather well documented love of Busby Berkeley film, and less documented love of Gene Kelly films, there is no one like Fred Astaire - and no Astaire movies like the ones he made with Ginger Rogers. And so I ask you: which is your favorite? I believe I have answered that question somewhere online - notably, my favorite Fred and Ginger movie is NOT the one that contains the Greatest 5 minutes of Film Ever Made! Vote! comment! sing along!

Monday, May 5, 2008

In Theaters: Iron Man


It may be a good sign that the first summer blockbuster of the year is as intelligent as IRON MAN. (I just know that statement is going to backfire on me.) It’s a solid action film, but what’s memorable about it is how much thought has gone into it. A superhero film that technically follows the structure of such things but does so with an offbeat attitude, the big screen debut of Marvel’s armor-suited guardian doesn’t pander to its audience the way big movies are expected to. Which isn’t to say it’s a great movie, or without its flaws, but it’s well put together, and the acting alone is of a caliber you don’t expect to find in films like this.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, head of Stark Industries, which manufactures weapons, aircraft, communications systems, basically anything big and metallic that the government pays lots of money for. He’s a brilliant inventor and a millionaire playboy without Bruce Wayne’s angst, bedding beautiful girls and jetting around the globe, always with a drink in hand and a dry quip at the ready. He’s in Afghanistan making a sale to the Army when his convoy is ambushed by a mysterious terror group, who take him prisoner. In the scuffle he is injured by shrapnel from one of his own missiles, and a doctor who’s also being held prisoner comes up with a crude mechanical heart plug that stops the one unremovable shard from burrowing in further and killing him. The terrorists (known as the Ten Rings, and being more would-be conquerors than religious fanatics) want Stark to build missiles for them, but he takes advantage of their resources to instead build a giant suit of powered armor which he uses to escape. On getting back to civilization, Stark wonders how his weapons ended up in the hands of the enemy, and shuts down the weapons division of Stark Industries, rousing the ire of his partner Obadaiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who once ran the company. Stark develops his suit technology further, unaware that Stane and the Ten Rings are conspiring against him.

While most superhero movies seem to be driven by a particular script or director’s vision, it’s clear that IRON MAN is built around the casting of Downey. In the comics, Stark has struggled with alcoholism and bad-boy behavior (unfortunately current continuity has him in a rather dour authoritarian role), and though it’s hard to say how much the actor drew on the parallels to his own life, he’s obviously worked hard to create a fully realized character. Downey’s droll, deadpan attitude always works just right against his character’s excesses, both as playboy and superhero. It’s really fun to watch the performance, and the character created by it; it infuses a spirit of wild anarchy into a $186 million franchise picture. Movies like this aren’t allowed to take these chances, in theory, and though the film isn’t quite as radical with genre conventions as, say, Ang Lee’s underrated HULK, it shows what you can sneak in while still delivering what audiences come to see.

The writing is surprisingly strong as well; I have a feeling that Downey was allowed to take liberties with the script, but the dialogue is sharp overall, full of memorable quips. The story is literate, and though it actually takes a while for “Iron Man” himself to make his debut, the material leading up to it is good enough that it doesn’t matter. I would complain that the film doesn’t really have the time to deal with some of the things it gets into; the arms smuggling plot in particular doesn’t feel quite resolved. But then, delving too much into any one aspect of the film’s plot would probably slow things down, and though there are a couple of slow bits the filmmakers wisely keep up a steady pace, with no time for detours. The emphasis the film places on banter between its characters is also welcome; because studios depend on international grosses to cover overhead for almost every film they release, and because witty repartee isn’t guaranteed to translate at all, it’s often sacrificed in favor of physical humor. (Of course, as I write this, the film has made $96 million outside the US, so maybe the conventional wisdom can at last be put to bed.) There are some really funny lines in this film, and not just because Downey delivers them.

Actor/director Favreau demonstrates a solid grasp of pacing, and both the action and humor benefit from good timing. As much as Downey dominates, Favreau is sure to surround him with a strong supporting cast; Gwyneth Paltrow is decidedly strong as Pepper Potts, Tony’s long-suffering secretary, Bridges injects a very odd sense of humor into his villainous role, and there are strong turns by Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, and Faran Tahir (as well as an uncredited appearance that- well, just wait through the credits, is what I’m saying.)

Upon initial viewing, the film lacks whatever extra quality that would make me put it into the A range, but that may just be the first viewing. It’s solid enough that it’ll definitely hold up well over time, and I absolutely recommend it. It’s pleasing to see such a big movie being as smart and spry as this, and to see a film as smart as this to be an apparent hit. If IRON MAN falls short of epic, it’s still a damn good time.

Based on a character created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack
Kirby
Screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
Directed by Jon Favreau

Grade: B+

Thursday, May 1, 2008

L'avventura

Every once in a while, I'm asked "what is your favorite movie?", which in truth is an impossible answer for me, because it's so hard to choose just one. One moment I'll say Days of Heaven, then I'll say it's Blow-Up, or maybe it's The Sweet Hereafter, or Badlands, or La notte, or Mulholland Drive or Russian Ark. But for the purpose of the conversation, I tell them it's Antonioni's L'avventura (The Adventure), probably because of its epic scale, its daring break with convention, and its controversial history. And it's as good a choice as any of my pantheon of favorites.

For those who haven't seen it and don't want spoilers, stop here.

It's ostensibly about the search for a missing woman, but it becomes about something else. That's what sent its first audiences into a tizzy, that the first issue never gets resolved. I guess it's the law in movieland that all questions must be wrapped up before the film ends. Or at least, the "most important" ones. Maybe the dispute is over importance. Certainly the disappearance of the woman (Anna) seems to be central to the story, so it's unforgiveable then, that the filmmaker wouldn't lead us to the answer to that question.

His mistake might have been that of assuming his audience would recognize in the end that Anna's whereabouts wasn't the real point of the story. But for some of us who are headstrong enough to insist what must happen in a film, rather than let the director lead the way, it can easily become a disappointment.

If the film were shown in theaters today, I think it would have similar reactions as in 1960, because in general people don't know what's come before them, so the wheel is going to keep on being reinvented. And the average film of today is as conventional as they were fifty years ago, except with more f-words and sex and violence. But the structure of most films hasn't changed much.

In this film, as with many Antonioni films, he likes to make use of landscapes to reflect his characters' emotional states. And I found a little ditty of a scene here, which is one of my favorites, because it has this otherworldly effect on me by the way it was composed.


The camera slowly pans across as though a third entity is present, as they (Sandro and Claudia) are searching for any sign of Anna. They drive up into a deserted town in the hills, perhaps one of those "experimental" communities the government built, only to fail to attract any residents. Much of this is filmed in wide-angle shots, which further isolates these characters in their environment, or shows their 'true scale' in the landscape. They find nobody present, Sandro sees what he thinks is another settlement down the hillside and then turns around to look at Claudia, and she, being a wee tad more observant, tells him no, it's actually a cemetery. (Sorry no subtitles here, it's the only video I could find of this scene.)

You see, Anna was Sandro's girlfriend, but in the process of looking for her, Claudia is falling for her best friend's guy. She tries to fight it off, because she can really feel it not right, but also she is very weak. That's basically what the movie is about, is Claudia's constant struggle with her emotions. They still have to "look" for Anna, and Claudia really wants to find her, but at the same time she's at this point half-hoping they don't succeed. She's not a ditz at all. Unlike Sandro, she has a real sense of her place in the universe, which is all the more scary to her, and is why love is such a powerful elixor here.

Anna could be dead, or lost, or not knowing the answer alone is what is eating at Claudia's psyche, and she almost can't deal with the pain--but there is the power of Eros, ready to steal her away from her troubles--so it's little wonder why immediately after this scene here (which gets cut off at this point), she and Sandro "make out" by the railroad tracks.