Archive for May, 2009

Thoughts on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

A tangential introduction concerning credit size

I’ve been reviewing a lot of movies from the 80s that I liked then, to see if I still like them. One thing I’ve observed that I hadn’t realized before is that credits were enormous in screen size in 1980s. If the current style of title typography for acting and production credits is something like a 24 point font, in the 80s they were using a beefy 60 or 72 point font. The name of the movie maxes out in width, and the starring actors get similar status.

The style now, of course, is also to have no credits until the movie is over, something that used to be disallowed by Guild rules. George Lucas had to pay an enormous fine for the Star Wars credits to be at the end of the movie, and it led to his dropping out of the Directors Guild. This prevented Steven Spielberg from directing Return of the Jedi or any other Star Wars film, because as a DGA member he is barred from working on a non-union movie.

I actually wanted to bring up the subject of Lucas and Spielberg, whom I hate apologizing for, even though I end up doing so a lot of the time. These strange two cursed talents, found in the perplexing situation of making movies that millions upon millions go to see, but that apparently “everybody hates.”

I recently heard a friend of mine describe them both as “hacks,” which is a dreadfully ignorant caricature. Knowing their careers and lives in some detail, I suppose I regard their output firstly from a position of respect instead of with contempt.

These two guys have utter creative freedom like no one else in the movie business, and a century or more of filmmaking experience between them. Then they made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

This movie has got a number of inherent flaws.

Okay, first of all, this is an even-numbered Indy film. That means, primarily, it’s about paganism instead of Judeo-Christian mythos. Not going to be as resonant or captivating right off the bat. And now it’s set in the 1950s. Indiana Jones is a pulp hero, and some of those original pulp figures started having their published adventures in the 1930s, and continued through the 1950s, requiring the plotlines to adapt to current fantasies. Okay, so we can talk about the atomic bomb and, maybe, UFO relics. And yet, somehow, the ending of the movie which [spoiler] reveals aliens is a stupid letdown, as well as being corny and done-to-death.

It was instructive to watch the DVD documentaries about how this movie came to be. Lucas proposed Indy-meets-aliens way back in the 80s, and Spielberg said, “No! No more aliens! I’m sick of aliens! We’ve both done aliens!” This was rather sensible of him. However, the tale goes, Lucas simply refused to let go of this idea. He kept bringing it up every time. Finally, he said, “They’re not extraterrestrials, they’re extra-dimensionals.” And somehow, Spielberg (as well as everyone else, like Harrison Ford, who also objected for years), possibly tired of fighting the idea so that they could get a script and make the movie, relented and said, “Okay, that’s more interesting.” Except functionally this makes no difference, and the aliens are still aliens. The thought goes through the audience’s collective mind: “Indiana Jones is not supposed to have aliens. There are no aliens in Indiana Jones’s reality. They do not fit.” And the audience is right.

It makes me wonder what was driving Lucas’s obsession with the idea. He wanted to do it so much that he didn’t see that it didn’t fit.

There are myths about crystal skulls that involve great mystery and magic and seem like they would have been a promising place to take Indiana Jones. When I heard the title, that’s what I thought of. Unfortunately, they thought of the title long after they’d already put the movie into the works.

The other problem with the aliens is that revealing them adds nothing and explains nothing. It just kind of dumbs things up right when we want a smart resolution.

So, conceding the point that the movie starts with this flawed notion as the starting inspiration, there are ways I can appreciate what happens in the movie — and, as per the Ebert formula — how it goes about doing it.

The upstream struggle to like anything about it

One of the problems I have with this movie is that everything I like is a qualified like.

I like Indy being in the predicament of being caught in an atomic test. There can be mushroom clouds in Indiana Jones’s world. But I don’t like the solution to the predicament, mostly because he’s shown to be thrown in a lead-lined refrigerator (which would have enormous mass) a distance and velocity that would shatter every one of his bones on impact, killing him instantly. The protection from radiation doesn’t enter into it. The man is nimble and can survive scrapes, but he’s never supposed to be superhuman. The appeal of his adventures in Raiders of the Lost Ark was that he was all too inexpertly human at times. He can’t survive things that would kill a normal person. That’s why he scrambles so hard for his life when he’s clambering around on that Nazi-driven truck, because falling off would kill him. The refrigerator solution to the atomic bomb makes him into a cartoon character that can just go “Boing!” after an incredible fall.

It’s like you can see them planning out the previsualization on the visual effects for the fridge gag and setting that in motion instead of having the conversation where they say, “That’s not realistic enough for Indy.” You know what would have been more plausible? He finds an atomic bunker in the backyard just in time. Just as suspenseful as climbing into the refrigerator. Do the same bit where he has trouble shutting the door because crap is in the way. Somethin’.

I like them going into the big government warehouse where the ark is stored. I like recognizing that this is that warehouse because John Williams reuses his musical cue from that scene at the end of the first movie. I don’t like the fact that this is “Area 51.” I hate to break this to you guys, but Area 51’s been done to death. Every single show with the slightest toe in sci-fi waters going back 25 years has done an Area 51 episode. Another thing about Indiana Jones is that he has his own mythology and his own stories. Area 51 comes with its own mythology by now. You had an original idea for a big government warehouse of secret stuff, that was great. That was mythic. Oh, but now it’s just Area 51? Weak. I mean, it’s so they can have Roswell aliens in there, even though that doesn’t make sense with the aliens at the end, which have been in suspended animation for millennia.

I also don’t like that Indy’s plan for how to find the right crate defies physics; or, having established these different physical properties, they make no attempt to apply this consistently. If you’re going to say the skull is so magnetic that it can attract gunpowder from dozens of yards away and pull the hanging lamps in its direction, then nobody in the building would be able to hold onto their machine guns, especially not when they’re standing around it, or not without fighting against the attraction every moment. The magnetism returns and fades and wanes later in the story, only for some individual whim of an effect as suits the mood of the director. I guess all these guys studied was movies, so all they know is movie-physics, but I find it puts me in a bad mood. It also probably has the effect of making me inured to any sense of peril, because apparently no rules apply and we are watching a cartoon.

As someone who has an artistic inclination, it disturbs me how one can remain completely ignorant as to the whole point of what it was that people liked about something you created.

The movie is ending now, with a giant whirl of wind carrying away the ruins of a pyramid. I was just thinking this isn’t so bad, and then you see a flying saucer. They do a spectacular thing with giant rocks floating in a dust-hazed sky with light streaming through the debris, but one fails to completely enjoy it because of the flying saucer in between the two nice looking bits.

Yes, I kind of get the idea behind it. 1950s pulp instead of 1930s pulp. There was some other way to do this that they didn’t do, and that’s what lingers for people, I think. It’s a tough job, competing against the imaginations of everyone in a very large audience, but supposedly that’s what we’re paying for, right? Better ideas than people can think of themselves? One feels like there are a range of Indiana Jones stories to tell that would be better than this one. I’ve got one, that I thought of about five years ago when I was in L.A.: Indiana Jones and the Garden of Eden. He finds it! I thought that was a cool idea. The big flaming sword guardian would have been cool. I remember I had just read at the time that George Lucas “had a really neat idea” that he wanted to use as the basis for another Indiana Jones film. I liked my idea; even though it was only a title, it was a title that promised an interesting archaelogical adventure into Judeo-Christian mythology, which sounded like a good start. I liked my idea so much I allowed myself the vanity of thinking, gee, I wonder if George Lucas is thinking of the same neat idea when he says he has a neat idea.

And on that note, the movie is over (technically, I was liveblogging it just now), and I’m out of here.

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Movie review

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston,, Lynn Collins, Dominic Monaghan, and Ryan Reynolds.

The first thing I noted was that they must have been in a little bit of a rush to get the movie finished in time for its first-of-summer-season release (which will creep back to late April or possibly the start of Daylight Savings Time in a few years, at the rate it’s going), because there were no fewer than 14 credited visual effects companies, the last 9 of which were just listed in a bunch, kind of like the “…And the rest” verse from Gilligan’s Island. That’s a lot of parallel processing, but the movie does have quite a lot of explosions and people flying around and sprouting sharp things from their bodies that have to be match-moved and whatever.

Oh yeah, is the movie entertaining? Sure, it was. I certainly have enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s embodiment of the character in the movies so far, and he’s still good at it, although there’s funny ways in which you feel like the first X-Men movie gave you more of the character’s background and psychology through fleeting glimpses and hints than this whole new movie does, even though it’s a full origin story, covering over 100 years (most of them as an opening credits montage).

I never collected X-Men comics. What I knew about Wolverine came mainly from owning his first appearance (in The Incredible Hulk #181, which was the main comic I collected from 1976 to about 1996) and having my brother summarize for me what he knew about it. That the adamantium claws aren’t his mutant power, it’s that crazy healing factor that he has; furthermore, this is the reason that scary people were able to graft adamantium metal onto his entire skeleton and give him indestructable claws. My impression from this second hand retelling, as well as the hints in the first two X-Men movies, as well as a significant amount of build-up in this new outing, was that Logan basically had to be flayed alive so they could do the surgery, with his healing factor keeping him alive and re-growing all of his tissue and muscle as they worked. So, unbelievably torturous procedure.

When they finally get to the scene where they do this, they kind of take a movie cheat with it. They talk it up like it’s going to be something along the lines of the live flaying, and then it’s just a bunch of needles that poke him and a computer readout showing that his heart rate goes to 300, then 0. I won’t spoil the surprise of whether the electrocardiogram line goes from flatline to BIP! BIP! BIP! he’s alive! again. You’ll just have to see it to find out.

Okay, the other thing about not reading the actual comics whence all of this mythology derives is that I don’t know whether any of the side mutant characters are from the comics too or just made up or what. The main one that’s puzzling to me is this guy Gambit. I’ve heard that character’s name before, okay, but that’s it. Having watched this movie and seen him in action, WTF? I have no idea what the dude’s mutant powers are supposed to be, which is kind of stupid. He’s really good at winning card games, then he’s good at throwing cards, and maybe making them look electric-glowy, then he seems to be able to jump and flip around pretty well, and then he has this stupid cane that goes WHOMPH to things, making it seem like that’s a source of power or something, except it gets snapped in two and that doesn’t slow the guy down. Later he has another cane anyway.

I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t figure out who he was, I didn’t care who he was. Maybe he’s a great character in the comics, but he was completely opaque and random to me. I have no idea whether he’s faithful to whatever he is in the comics or not, but I kind of hope not. The guy was also kind of a dick. Wolverine was just about to finally put the claws into a bad dude who pretty much deserved it, and then Gambit came in and whomphed the ground with his cane and the bad guy got away, and as far as I can tell it was none of his goddamn business to do that.

When the opening credits came up, I was cheered by seeing that it was a Donner production, meaning Richard and Lauren Shuler Donner, because those guys know how to make entertaining action movies, like the first two Superman movies and the Lethal Weapon series and all that. Not real deep movies, but they have the power to entertain. Also listed as producers of various types were Ralph Winter (once of Star Treks III, IV, and V) and Hugh Jackman himself. (“If you want me to go through all that again and pump iron for eight months to be beefcakey then I want a huge cut of the take and a producer credit” one imagines him demanding, and receiving.)

Just because I mentioned Gilligan’s Island once already, I’ll do so again by randomly mentioning that Richard Donner’s early directing career includes episodes of Gilligan’s Island.

So, as this light entertainment unspooled, I was for the most part thinking it was a pretty good comic book. Like, some sort of Giant Size X-Men Annual or something, like if I’d read it when I was a kid I would have enjoyed it okay. Thinking more critically about it, there’s very little here that’s original in plotting or detail. Kinda seen this, kinda seen that, kind of saw that coming.

Oh, wait, that’s not exactly true. At regular intervals I was chuckling out loud, or making kind of a “Ha!” reaction to a detail or a line that was unexpectedly clever or cute. If I tell you what they are it spoils them a bit, but, as an example, Wolverine at one point jumps into the ocean from a single-engine aircraft. I’ve seen that before. But instead of going Sploosh!, he skips along the water like a pebble (in a series of painful smaller splats) because of his forward velocity.

The movie ends with a pretty good fight where Wolverine and Qui-Gon fight Darth Maul at the top of a big shaft. Actually given the story I guess it’s more like Obi-Wan and Anakin fighting Darth Maul, but whatever. It didn’t occur to me until this morning, when another reviewer helpfully noted that it was actually Three Mile Island that they were on, that the movie was winkingly suggesting (because of the timeline) that the meltdown crisis that history records was actually because of this superhero fight on top of the cooling towers.

Anyway. Yeah, not exactly new and original, but the movie is directed with snap and a light sense of humor by some guy I don’t remember hearing about before, though he’s probably a young dude. I did have a good time as long as I watched it uncritically, if you know what I mean. It would be easy to chop it to pieces, but a little more fun to go ahead and take the popcorn ride, eh? What the hell, it’s just superheroes.

There were a couple of mountainy locations that I kept thinking reminded me of locales from The Lord of the Rings movies, and the end credits thanked the New Zealand film commission (but also claimed to have filmed entirely in New South Wales, and didn’t list any New Zealand locations).

The main guy apart from Hugh Jackman in this thing is Liev Schreiber, a good actor whom I’ve taken a long time to warm up to. This is probably due to a certain syndrome — namely, a guy who’s a good enough actor to be believable as a scummy guy, and the first role I ever see him in, he’s so scummy I develop a dislike at a subconscious and conscious level for the actor, without exactly knowing why. My brother does this, too. You just kind of associate them with unpleasant feelings. Having realized I do this, I try to give the actors a break and take another look at what they do, and also try to look for movies where they’re just as convincingly playing good guys who give you a good feeling.

This isn’t the first time Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber have worked together, of course. They were also both in the time travel romantic comedy Kate and Leopold, whose modest charms I discovered by being bored one weekend and finding it on cable. In this pairing, Schreiber plays Wolverine’s brother, another mutant with a similar set of powers (nasty claws, bit of a gift for healing quickly) but a much more feral mindset. He’s also got a pair of sharp little pointy canines, which must have made the guy think, “Hey, with fangs like these, I’d better start chewing the scenery pronto!” It does mean that you enjoy the movie slightly more every time Schreiber is there, just because he brings this energetic mania into the scene. The movie does a really lousy job of explaining his actual loyalties and where he fits into a confusing tangle of half truths and misdirections. Near the end he’s yelling at Stryker that he was promised — uh, I’m not sure what. “You promised me it!” is kind of all I remember hearing, and nobody ever quite says what it is. Unless it’s just that he wants an adamantium skeleton, too.

Ultimately, it is completely unclear why they gave Wolverine a metal skeleton in the first place. They give a couple of reasons, then turn around and say those are lies, and by the end the last remaining reason that I heard didn’t make any sense if you went back and thought about events. How could that be the motivation if the other story was also a lie because Sabretooth was really working for Stryker and so — whah? Huh?

Oh well. It doesn’t matter. There are lots of explosions and things getting clawed to pieces, and then explosions. Summer movies 2009 have started, for better or worse.

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