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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (***1/2)


"It's not the years, it's the milage."


God loves Indiana Jones. I came to that jolly conclusion early in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when Indy sealed himself in a lead-lined refrigerator and improbably survived a nuclear explosion. Radiation-poisoning-free, mind you. The hazmat team even scrubbed his sankara stones to be sure. God must love Indiana Jones. I suppose when Indy did the Almighty a solid and saved the Ark of the Covenant from falling into Nazi hands all those years ago, God has kept a special lookout for him ever since.

Don't call Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a comeback, he's been here for years. 19 years have passed for us and for Indy since he and his father rode off into the sunset at the conclusion of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Sadly, Professor Henry Jones and Marcus Brody have passed on. Indy himself is older but more bemused. He's literally seen it all, done it all. Some of the most fascinating stuff for me at the beginning of the film was the revelation that in the interim since we saw him last, Indy never stopped having crazy adventures. In the 1940's he joined the OSS and, as Colonel Indiana Jones, continued to crusade against the Nazis, performing secret missions all over the globe. Man, I'd love to hear those stories, but Indy never has the time to tell any. He's too busy running off on another crazy adventure. 

For some reason, I was approaching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull like it was Indy's last hurrah. Which it may well be, but Indy himself never gave the slightest indication that he's done with his adventures. He never stopped while we weren't watching and doesn't plan to even now that he has an instant family. He'll just bring 'em along.

The best thing about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the 1957 setting. It was the era of beatniks, greasers, the Red Scare, the atom bomb, flying saucers, and men from Mars... rumors of them, anyway. Silly rumors. No such thing. Planting old man Indiana Jones, a pulp magazine relic of the 1930's, right in the middle of it all was more fun than the latter half of the film when they whisked off to South America and wandered onto the sets of Apocalypto. I liked the fight between the jocks and the greasers in the diner that lead to Indy and Mutt Williams fleeing from the KGB on a motorcycle across the campus of Yale, sorry, Marshall College. And I enjoyed the opening sequence where a captured Indy is brought by the KGB to the US Government's secret warehouse in Area 51(!) and how during the entire melee of Indy's escape, they were completely unaware that the Ark of the Covenant was right there the whole time. 

As for the South America portion of the adventure, meh. Indy and company survived quicksand, spooky graves, giant man-eating ants, swordfights between two parallel jeeps driving at breakneck speeds, three waterfalls, Mayan extras on loan from Mel Gibson, and yes, a flying saucer, and a council of 13 aliens with crystal skeletons, which by the way looked suspiciously like the Kamino aliens that cloned Jango Fett and the Clone Army in Attack of the Clones. (I'm sure that was just a coincidence, Mr. Lucas. ) None of it made a lick of sense whatsoever. (I'm sure that was just a coincidence, Mr. Lucas.)

This is the first Indiana Jones movie where they found the artifact in question halfway through and someone had to lug that goddamn crystal skull around half of South America. That seems to be the only reason John Hurt was in the movie. Sometimes the crystal skull was magnetic, sometimes it wasn't. As much as I missed Sean Connery, he probably read the script and saw it was originally gonna be his job to haul around that stupid skull and decided he'd rather play golf and stay retired.

What can you say about Harrison Ford besides he's still got it. He has more of it than he should. I remember after all the fights he had in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a sore Indy needed time to sleep off the beatings he took from the Nazis. Now over two decades older, Indy has the ability to take even more brutal beatings, shake it off, and keep going and going across deserts and jungles without food or rest. Maybe drinking from the Holy Grail had some aftereffects where Indy... oh, who cares. 

No one seemed happier - a little too happy - to be in the movie than Karen Allen, who was the first and best of Indy's lovers and the mother of their son, Henry III, aka Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Mutt named himself after a dog the same way Indiana did. What a climactic instant-applause tease where Mutt picked up the famed fedora and Indy snatched it away from him and took it back. That's exactly right. That kid has a long way to go before he can ever fill his father's fedora. 

I liked Cate Blanchett's rapier-wielding Russian villainness and how bold the KGB is in the movie where they just roll around the United States attacking Indiana Jones in the middle of town and somehow don't get captured by the FBI. Then there was Indy's treacherous sidekick played by Ray Winstone. He kept betraying Indy, changing his mind, and betraying him again. It didn't seem to bother Indy all that much though.

Was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ever going to be the best Indiana Jones movie? No. That just wouldn't have been possible. Was the story involving Mayans, crystal skulls, Spanish conquistadors, El Dorado, and -- *gasp!* How dare they -- aliens! In an Indiana Jones movie! -- ever going to be as easily digestable to most people as the searches for the Ark of the Covenant and especially the Holy Grail? No. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull occasionally mines territory plundered by the under-appreciated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where Indy explores the less popular aspects of world mythology and folklore. His adventures can't always be about Judea-Christian artifacts. (Why couldn't Short Round and Willie Scott shown up in a cameo during the wedding scene at the end? As usual, Temple of Doom gets no love.) 

Though it's the least necessary of the saga, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is absolutely 100% an Indiana Jones movie. They're older, maybe a little crazier now, and (unfortunately) a lot more into CGI than they used to be, but overall, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a return to form for Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford. A return to what they invented and still do better than anyone (though not as well as their younger selves) - the old fashioned, globe-trotting, pseudo-history, I'll-be-damned, kind of adventures where anything goes.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Iron Man (***1/2)


I Am Iron Man

Think about all the superheroes of the last decade who made it onto the big screen. Would you want to be buddies with any of them? Peter Parker? He's no fun unless he's wearing red and blue leotards and hanging upside down from the ceiling. Clark Kent? He's too busy moping around and stalking his ex-girlfriend. Wolverine? Maybe, except he'd probably stab you thrice in the chest if you looked at him cock-eyed. Bruce Banner? Yeah, that'll turn out well. The Fantastic Four? Daredevil? Ghost Rider? Fuck all those freaks. Losers, the lot of them. Bruce Wayne? Hell no. He seems cool on the outset, but that guy clearly has issues. Iron Man finally introduced me to a movie superhero I wanna hang out with: Tony Stark.

Tony Stark is the coolest cat in superhero movieland. More money than Bruce Wayne, smarter than Bruce Wayne, way more fun to be around than Bruce Wayne. Parties in Vegas, a private plane complete with stripper pole and stripper stewardesses, a cooler, more high tech house and underground lair than Wayne Manor and that dank cave underneath it. A way, way cooler superhero suit than Wayne. Stark's parents are dead too, but unlike Wayne, Stark got over it. Just about in every way, Tony Stark trumps Mr. Wayne. (No disrespect to Alfred and what he brings to the table, but turning Stark's faithful butler Jarvis in the comics into the AI of Stark's home network, voiced by Paul Bettany, was a stroke of genius.) The only negative for Stark is that freaky hole in his chest but he still manages to turn it into a fashion statement.

In Tony Stark, Robert Downey, Jr. created the most likeable rogue ever to leap from the pages of a comic book onto the big screen. The very first scene where Stark is introduced in the humvee (funvee, not the humdrumvee), we instantly like him. His transformation into Iron Man; more importantly, from a rich, brilliant, uncaring ne'er-do-well into a rich, brilliant guy who does care, is a terrific spin on the hoary old "with great power comes great responsibility" chestnut Spider-Man flogged to death in three movies. I'm not sure if the script was just very well written or if director Jon Favreau encouraged Downey to improvise his dialogue, but Stark had the sharpest, cleverst snappy patter of any movie superhero since... well, ever.

The rest of the cast was also top to bottom stellar, from Jeff Bridges as Obediah Stane, Terrence Howard as James "Rhodey" Rhodes, to Leslie Bibb as the ballbusting reporter Stark slept with. Even Gwyneth Paltrow as the unfortunately name Pepper Potts didn't rake on my nerves, that is until the third act when she want from supercompetent Girl Friday to fretting damsel in distress: "Oh Tony! Oh no! You could die!" Lady, just shut up and turn on the reactor!

Still, some of best interaction Downey had was with himself, endlessly jabbering with, instructing, or scolding his cadre of robot helpers. While probably the best scene in the movie was when Stark had Pepper remove his robot heart, the most oddly touching moment in the movie was when his little robot brought Stark that same robot heart when he was dying.

The sequence with Iron Man versus the jet fighters was amazing to watch. Iron Man's battle with the Iron Monger wasn't just an excuse for special effects action, but there was logic and strategy behind the characters' behavior. (Stark was running on 48% power on his older robot heart. The callback to icing up in the ionosphere was clever, and it failed to kill Stane as it did Stark. When Iron Man jumped on the Iron Monger's back and yanked out wires, they were specific and bought him necessary time.) But it's a testament to how good the acting and storytelling were that the CGI never overwhelmed the human story of Tony Stark.

Seeing Iron Man in action blowing up tanks was great but there is no "Iron Man" without Tony Stark, and Stark was always the most interesting person in the picture. But for a guy with no superpowers and a fatal hole in his chest, Tony Stark sure could absorb repeated blunt force trauma. Considering how many times he crashed into walls, cars, buildings, etc. at high velocity, his bones should be powder. He should be paralyzed. Or you know, dead.

I loved the ending: Tony Stark ignoring the (comic's silly) cover story that Iron Man is his bodyguard and declaring: "I am Iron Man." Brilliant. Brilliant because given the universe the movie set up, it was impossible for Stark to maintain a secret identity. Also, I've always felt secret identities are generally stupid. Tony Stark wears an armored suit and flies around fighting evil. He doesn't care who knows it.

The fanboy in me was thrilled with how deftly Iron Man laid down the groundwork for not just its sequels but the scope of the larger Marvel Comics universe of movies on the way. I liked the running gag of the acronym for SHIELD no one could remember. I liked how the terrorist cell that kidnapped Stark was called the Ten Rings, a setup perhaps for the Mandarin, Iron Man's Chinese arch foe in the comics who wields ten alien rings of power. Who in the know didn't snicker at Rhodey's "Next time, baby" when he saw the grey armor for War Machine?

If you stayed through the credits, you saw the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Col. Nick Fury, who wants to tell Tony Stark about the "Avengers Initiative." Never has a comic book universe's translation into a cohesive movie universe been attempted like this, and it seems very exciting. (If the quality of the rest of the movies holds up.) And even if the other Marvel movies blow, Iron Man is still a state-of-art movie marvel all its own.