Sunday, May 18, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Steven Spielberg)

After a nineteen year hiatus, everyone’s favorite whip-cracking archeologist is back in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. First things first- yes, Harrison Ford is just at home in the role as he ever was. The movie wisely moves the story into the 1950s, which allows Ford to play his age, making Indy older, wiser, and crankier than we’ve seen him before, but while he has lost a step or two he’s still a great action hero. Likewise, the new time setting for this adventure gives him a new group of villains to contend with- now, instead of Nazis they’re Soviets, headed by diabolical officer Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett, who’s clearly having a ball. Spalko isn’t an especially complicated character- she’s basically there to chase Indy and go after the titular skull, but she certainly makes an impression, and is on par with the best previous Indy villains. The other important character is Mutt, a motorcycle-riding kid played by Shia LaBeouf, who ropes Indy into the quest without knowing who exactly he is. The rest of the film’s supporting characters aren’t so well-drawn, although it is nice to see Karen Allen again, looking surprisingly like she did in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. However, John Hurt’s character is given exactly one note to play (Crazy Crystal Skull guy), and Jim Broadbent, as Dr. Jones’ new boss, pales in comparison to his predecessor Marcus Brody, played by the late Denholm Elliott. Worst of all is Ray Winstone, typically so magnetic, whose largely gratuitous role consists of him switching allegiances at the drop of a hat.

CRYSTAL SKULL also suffers from a little too much story- not merely that unfortunate recent Spielberg tendency to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, but also too much exposition about the legend of the skull. While RAIDERS and LAST CRUSADE both had easily recognizable MacGuffins, the Crystal Skull mythology is obscure and convoluted, leading to too many scenes in which characters have to stand around and explain what it’s all about- TEMPLE OF DOOM, to its credit, more or less forgot its artifacts altogether. There’s also about two too many endings- pretty good by recent Spielberg standards- and a somewhat hit-and-miss deployment of references to previous installments in the series (my girlfriend enjoyed the Ark shout-out somewhat more than I did). However, I did like the similar motivations of a few of the characters during the climactic sequence- not only a nod to the climax of RAIDERS, but also the way another character’s downfall was caused by his greed, like Elsa in CRUSADE. And of course, the action scenes more than deliver. Spielberg still has a gift for classically-styled action scenes, and there a couple of doozies here, in particular a car chase/fight scene through the jungle, that are refreshing in the way he shoots them primarily in nice long takes that allow the action to play out before our eyes. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL isn’t a classic like some of the previous Indy films, but it’s certainly worthy to stand beside them, and certainly worth the price of admission.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Speed Racer (2008, The Wachowski Brothers)

The seventies cartoon cult classic revs its way onto multiplex screens this weekend with Speed Racer, the latest film by the Wachowski Brothers, who created The Matrix. Whereas that film and its better-left-forgotten sequels were pitched mostly to teenagers and young adults, Speed Racer is more of a family movie. But don’t let that fool you- aside from some kid-friendly business with Speed’s little brother and his pet chimpanzee, this is anything but a cutesy kids’ movie. Instead, it’s a high-powered action adventure, featuring a charismatic lead performance in the title role by Emile Hirsch (last seen in last year’s Into the Wild) and some solid supporting performances, particularly from John Goodman as Speed’s car-builder dad and Matthew Fox (from TV’s Lost) as the mysterious Racer X. But the real stars of the movie are the visual effects. The Matrix pushed the envelope for effects technology nine years ago, and Speed Racer does it again, creating a candy-colored world of visual wonderment (word to the wise: sit up close and let the movie wash over you). Whereas most effects-heavy movies tie themselves in knots to make their worlds realistic, Speed Racer goes the opposite direction, sending its cars jumping, spinning, and flying in ways that defy every conceivable law of physics. In lesser hands, this would feel cheesy, but not here. Yes, the racing scenes in Speed Racer could never be possible in the real world, but it’s a testament to how entertaining the movie is that I wished they could.

But what really sells Speed Racer is how completely it embraces the absurdity of its premise. Like the Matrix trilogy, this is a story about a “chosen one”- I mean, duh, the kid’s named “Speed Racer,” like he could be anything else. But the Wachowskis never make the mistake of bogging the story down with any more significance than it can bear. Even the heavier stuff in the film- the race-fixing subplot, the backstory involving Speed’s dead brother- is played broadly, so as to fit into the live-action cartoon world that the brothers have created. And really, it’s the eye-candy that makes the movie soar, making it easier to forgive the occasional sop to the family audience. Speed Racer isn’t without its issues, but it’s also such a rush that they hardly matter. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the hell out of the movie, even if it was only the second-best thing that happened to me today.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau)

The summer movie season gets off to a roaring start with Iron Man, a big-screen adaptation of the Marvel comic book series. Iron Man isn't a household name like Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk, but this is no cut-rate superhero movie. The film, directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Jon Favreau, is both funny and exciting in the tradition of the best superhero adventures. But while the studio spared no expense bringing the film to life, its real ace in the hole is star Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role. Much like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Downey reveals himself as a bona fide movie star in Iron Man, showing real charisma without sacrificing any of the infectious unpredictability that's made him such a fascinating character actor. Downey is so good as Iron Man's alter ego Tony Stark that it's almost disappointing when he disappears behind the suit... almost.

But what makes Iron Man an irresistible character is that he's in almost every sense a self-made hero. Most obviously, there's his powers, which derive not from natural means or some strange twist of fate, but largely through his own ingenuity. He flies, stands up to heavy fire, and fights with superhuman strength because he invented the means to do so. But in a deeper sense, he's a hero because he chooses to be one. It's key that Tony Stark is quite a bit older than most comic book heroes. No babe in the woods, he's lived through a lot, and is floating through life aimlessly buoyed only by his money. His kidnapping jars him out of this inertia and leads him to build the original suit out of necessity. This, in turn, reinvigorates his sense of purpose, to quote another recent Downey character. Seeing the destruction and despair that his weapons have caused, he instead uses his formidable intellect and almost inexhaustible means for good, and once he's chosen that path there's no going back. I think it's interesting that once Stark has decided to devote his life to heroic endeavors, there's never any angst about it- he's seen the light, and isn't the least bit conflicted about it. It's also telling that there's never any real hand-wringing about his decision by his assistant-turned-love-interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)- once she finds out, she's concerned for his life, but she also respects the decision he's made. More than most comic book movies, Iron Man genuinely believes in the possibility of heroism, and for that reason alone it's well worth seeing. Well, that and it's a lot of fun.

Rating: 7 out of 10.