Friday, May 30, 2008

Surprise Party

I just did something I haven't done in forever. I went to the movies and bought a ticket for a movie about which I had nearly no knowledge. The film was The Strangers,and I only knew (vaguely at that) that it was a horror film.

I seriously think it's been since seeing The Usual Suspects that I've gone into a movie with so little foreknowledge.

The movie was all right. Read about it on Sunday. Or Monday as it happens.

I am ignoring the Sex and the City movie because I completely missed the boat on the show. I'm happy, though, to see that there's a culturally significant, no-doubt shitty movie out there that plays primarily to women rather than men for once. The theater was crawling with women, all in the same demographic, all buying tickets for this film. You go girls. I'M NOT A MISOGYNIST!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

New rule: no more movie-going nostalgia. It's not that I hated Indy 4... I didn't. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. Walking out of the theater, I remarked, "Well, that was actually not too bad." The lesson of the Star Wars prequels burned into me, I had gone expecting disaster, expecting the entire beloved series to be tarnished by this curiously late-game entry into the series. But, hey, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn't commit any serious infractions to the character or the legacy of films that precede it... certainly none more injurious than those found in Last Crusade. And it's pleasant enough, though it's plotting is weak (even for an Indiana Jones film) and Spielberg makes some bracingly stupid choices at times (usually marked by some really embarrassing CGI). But while it's pleasant and nice to see Harrison Ford reprise the role (and it really, really is... Ford is as charming as ever here and what affection I have for the film I lay almost entirely at his feet), the experience of the film is maddening and empty, and the thing really that kills me is how irrelevant it all feels. At this point, the Indiana Jones films have acted as a template for countless imitations and the patterns and rhythms of the formula have been played and re-played, so without any particular reason to revisit the character, the movie exists for arbitrary reasons. Like Spielberg et. al, called us up and said, "Hey guys, we decided to make another Indiana Jones movie, because we thought it would be fun. You wanna see?" At this point, Indiana Jones is too large, too mythic, to return to the series twenty years later with nothing more to say but the same ol' song and dance.

And so, the new rule. I gave this movie too much credit while watching it due to the power of the ever-rousing music and the familiar, appealing aesthetic of the film. Writing about it, I feel like it's necessary to include countless navel-gazing reflections of how Indiana Jones shaped my world view from a young age, how I'm not qualified to assess the film due to this. But it's just an irrelevant film, kind-of fun, kind-of cute, kind-of dumb. The magic just isn't there; the villains are weak, the set-pieces range from inexplicably stupid to mildly enthralling, and Indiana Jones spends nearly the last third of the film watching things happen around him. Pairing him up with Karen Allen again does nothing, particularly as Allen is shockingly bad in the movie, grinning instead of acting. In talking about the movie with friends, I kept almost saying "Nazis" instead of "Russians" or "Soviets," which tells me that the time period wasn't used to any good effect. Even the score uses too many cues from previous films (why is the Ark's theme from Raiders used here?). I give Spielberg credit for eliciting warmth and some degree of excitement from such a sloppy script. But there's no sweat, no dirt under the fingernails of this movie, and as it turns out, that was an essential part of the previous films' charm all along.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Things that happened to me last week

1. I became terrifyingly ill.
2. While sick, I watched The Golden Compass, intending to write about it. After seeing it, I felt the less said about this horribly mediocre movie, the better. No need to further beat this sorry thing down.
3. I completed re-watching the previous three Indiana Jones films in preparation for the release of the fourth movie this Thursday. My girlfriend and I have been watching 1 of these per week for the past three weeks. It goes without saying that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best of the lot, and I still find that I like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the least of all three, despite age making Temple of Doom's horrifying flaws much more apparent than before. It's just that Temple, for all of its problems, is a bit more pure, more of a stand-alone piece (it wouldn't have been as good an introduction to the character as Raiders, but could stand alone outside of Raiders) whereas Crusade has the lazy air of franchise around it. And let's be clear: I love all three films like favored members of a family.
4. I turned 30.
5. My ever dreamy girlfriend somehow gave me an Xbox 360 Elite and Grand Theft Auto 4 on my birthday (my "gamertag" is Docpotato if anyone cares).
6. I forgot about everything else for several days in a row.

See you after Indiana Jones and the Skull of Crystal Meth (or WHATEVER) comes out.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Iron Man

It's clear that things are going to be far too insular or self-congratulatory or poorly thought out in Iron Man when Robert Downey Jr, as Tony Stark, shows the plans for a robotic exoskeleton to his cellmate in a terrorist-run prison. The terrorists have captured Stark, an ingenious weapons manufacturer and engineer, so that they can force him to build his latest weapon of mass destruction for their use, not the US government's. Rather than capitulate to their demands, Stark decides to use the resources they provide him to craft the super-suit that will allow him to defeat his captors and gain his freedom. The cellmate, a man of not inconsiderable intelligence, looks at Stark's blueprints and, rather than ask, "What is that? A robot?" or any of the myriad rational responses to Stark's farfetched, ludicrous idea, intones with great reverence, "Impressive." It's not that it's not impressive. Stark's suit, even when cobbled together under these less-than-ideal conditions, is, indeed, the stuff dreams are made of. But at this moment the cellmate, the stand-in for the audience who acts as Watson to Stark's Holmes, has already bought the bill of goods. And, thus, in this early moment, the film assumes that the audience has too.

One scene or moment like this wouldn't be a particularly notable problem, but Iron Man's script keeps making the same problem over and over again. After Stark escapes from this prison, destroying the first incarnation of his supersuit in the process, he returns to the United States with a newfound political outlook. He announces, to the chagrin of his business partner, played by Jeff Bridges, that his company will abandon weapons manufacturing (where it has found great success) and focus on more altruistic pursuits. This creates considerable hubbub and Bridges, protecting his stock, I guess, chafes at such idealism. The film is poised to be a philosophical battle (Altruism vs. Capitalism, do we need advanced weapons to protect peace? and other such conundrums) between the two characters, but then Downey, for reasons that seem murky at best, begins building another one of his suits and all loftier ideas dissipate under the too-familiar story arc of an emerging superman. It's disappointing for a lot of reasons, mostly because the script never follows through on any of its more interesting concepts, but also because the actions of the characters feel so rote and perfunctory. At the end of the film, a newspaper article's headline reads something like, "Who is Iron Man?" but because the film focuses more on the construction of the suit than its utilization for vigilante justice in the public sphere, it doesn't seem as if Iron Man has really done enough to earn such a moniker. Again, it's like the movie assumes everyone is so completely on board with what it's going about, it doesn't have to work as hard to bring you into the world.

The film, as you've probably heard, is almost a success based on Robert Downey Jr.'s performance alone. Miraculously teasing the line between irony and earnestness, Downey brings off both Stark's hostility to the lesser mortals who don't possess his wealth of knowledge and his yearning for meaningful human contact with considerable charm. But, more than this, Downey, somehow manages to exemplify the American mood of the moment, giving us a hero who's drunk on American excess but plagued with non-specific liberal guilt over the global cost of his toys. In the current political climate, it is an endearing fantasy to see a successful corporate fellow renounce the means by which he gained his wealth and speak the truth about his own complicity in the horrors he's helped bring about. Anchoring the film with this utterly enjoyable performance was a smart move; Downey's playing at a higher level than the script and his work is a rising tide that lifts the entire operation from middling to highly enjoyable.

Even still, the whole thing feels pointless and milquetoast. It ends with a drab showdown between Downey and Bridges who battle it out in respective exoskeletons, but there's not a whiff of invention in this sequence. Bridges has a clunky, oversized suit that moves slowly, so the fight is often like watching a turtle battle a balloon (without the hilarious novelty of actually watching a real turtle literally battling a balloon). It's especially frustrating as Bridges plays a fun, charming corporate slimeball and his declared motivations are a perfect mirror of Tony Stark's. His climbing into a similar suit immediately puts him in a weaker position than the hero, since it's clear that he doesn't have the intimate understanding of the technology that Tony Stark possesses. His only advantage, then, is one of firepower, and if there's anything audiences weaned on the lessons of Star Wars (which are, of course, many of the same lessons the U.S. learned from the failure of the Vietnam War) understand it's that there's always a two-meter exhaust port on the hulking technology that the lesser folk can exploit. The stakes in this fight feel so small, so insignificant that all excitement is drained from the procedings. I left wishing that the scriptwriters had taken a page from Robocop, a film whose characters were smart enough to understand that technology is not nearly as threatening as people. (I also wished that the film began at the very moment it ends, since that was the moment in Iron Man that felt new, exciting, and actually interesting.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Thursdays are not working out.

So, this is no good on Thursdays anymore. We're switching to Sundays. Starting today.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

I Am Legend

In its pre-title sequence, I Am Legend articulates the dread in all post-apocalyptic fiction with such grace and subtlety that it could almost be a stand-alone short, the Tiffany piece in a science-fiction film festival. Will Smith, the last man alive in New York City, speeds along in a fast car, his dog next to him, chasing a herd of deer through the crumbling, abandoned streets. He separates and corners a straggler and is about to bring the animal down with a high-powered rifle, when a lion family emerges from the urban wilderness and takes his kill for their own. Smith, recognizing that, in spite of his technology, the lions have the upper hand, backs off. Man is monkey again, a weak animal in a vicious, natural world. This, in itself, is a fitting tribute to the book the film is based on. Richard Matheson's I Am Legend is, inevitably, a completely different animal than this film adaptation (to my astonishment, while watching this I realized that I have yet to see the two prior adaptations: The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man), but the ultimate message of the novel is that man's place at the top of the food chain is precarious. And, while the film, surprisingly, maintains this quietly competent and faithful (in spirit, at least) rendition of events from this very influential novel for much of its running time, it also fearlessly unleashes an atrocious third act, disappointing in its incongruity with the rest of the film and sloppy in its execution.

Though, even before this dissatisfying conclusion, the film has already been burdened by some unconscionably unconvincing monsters. The problem lies, not so much in the quality of the effects--though they are indeed distractingly artificial, one doesn't exactly love Ray Harryhausen's monsters for their realism, after all--as in the conceptual confusion surrounding them. The monsters are just never well-defined. They're basically zombies with the appetites (blood) and allergies (sunlight) of vampires. The film labors to give the creatures some pseudo-scientific validity ("they're allergic to UV rays" or whatever) but, in the meantime, negates to give them a whit of personality. Halfway through the film, these mindless drones set a trap for Smith and unleash their zombie dogs upon him, and the abstract thought required for both setting the trap and successfully domesticating zombie animals is at odds with everything the movie has taught the viewer about these zompires. The movie drops a few hints that there is more to know about these creatures (perhaps they're smarter than Smith assumes!) but, then, at its conclusion, turns them back into mindless, personality-free zombies. They may as well be lions.

The fact that most everything else in the film is so well-rendered makes these creations stick out all the more. The city is spooky, deserted, and hostile. Smith, himself, turns in a convincing, winning performance as the half-sane Robert Neville, sole surviving human in New York. As an actor, Smith has always been charming, and even here in grief-stricken insanity he oozes movie-star charisma. He's tasked with performing in many, many one-sided dialogue scenes--with the dog, with the mannequins that Neville has stationed around the city in order to trick himself into believing the city is still populated--and the conviction he brings to them is winning and disturbing at once (Smith seems able to project his charm onto everything in his vicinity). It's not surprising that Smith excels in the role, though, when one considers the life of his character. For his daily routine, Neville exercises to keep his body in shape, dons a lab coat and stands in front of a camera while spouting some pseudo-scientific gibberish, has one-sided dialogue scenes with expressionless stand-ins, and watches movies, all the while isolated from any significant human contact. He lives like a movie star.

Watching Neville interact with this corroded, weeded wasteland is as compelling as any post apocalypse film I can think of, and the film produces a very real, very acute sense of dread from his isolation within this giant metropolis. After about an hour, though, the film introduces two new human characters and the movie falls apart. The reasons given for the arrival of this woman and little boy destroys any of the viewer's leftover suspension of disbelief that wasn't already eradicated by the CGI beasties, and, worse, the movie itself doesn't know what to do with them. They sort-of wander about, cooking eggs, hanging out in the periphery of shots while Smith continues seeking a cure for the disease. Somewhere around this time, the movie makes an embarrassing attempt to grapple with science versus religion and everything starts to feel rushed, poorly conceived. One can almost hear the reactions of test audiences dictating the plot; it's hard to imagine how else this film, previously taut and efficient, nearly elegant, in its storytelling, would start to feel bandied about by an arbitrary, brainless master (not to get into my own thoughts about religion... hey-o!) and why the ending would feel as gratuitously tacked-on as it does. I guess it's unpopular to make a movie that says we humans are not as wonderful as we think we are, but I would rather hear that from Will Smith than just about anyone else.