Archive for May, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Monday, May 26th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Considering the monumental success of the trio of movies that preceded it, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” needs little in the way of traditional movie reviewing: isn’t everyone going to see this thing? As one of the enduring adventure heroes of American movie culture, Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr. can be tough to beat. Perfectly inhabited by Harrison Ford in what is arguably his signature role, Jones is the Yankee antidote to the eternally smooth and competent James Bond. As constructed by Ford, director Steven Spielberg and creator George Lucas, Jones makes plenty of mistakes, takes a slapstick pratfall like Buster Keaton, and rarely knows what to say to an attractive woman. Luckily, he’s terrific with a bullwhip.

Just shy of two decades since the last appearance of the superhero archeologist, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” ages the story to 1957, throwing over Nazis for Cold War Soviet Reds. The movie jump-starts with a gleeful, high-speed, Rock and Roll drag race, the first of many signifiers of Lucas’ affinity for 50s pop culture. A squad of commies led by the striking Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) infiltrates Nevada’s ultra-secret Area 51 (identified onscreen as Hangar 51) to locate a crated extra-terrestrial that might hold the key to world domination. Can Indiana Jones put a stop to them?

“Crystal Skull” crams in near non-stop action to the detriment of detailed character, and everyone outside of Indy remains largely two-dimensional. Despite her memorable hairstyle and skill with a blade, Blanchett’s Spalko pales in comparison to Rene Belloq, even though both are adept at taking objects away from Jones. John Hurt’s loony, expendable Professor Oxley adds little, and Ray Winstone’s George “Mac” McHale switches allegiances so many times the audience loses track. Whippersnapper Shia LeBeouf, who first appears astride a motorcycle channeling Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” makes a few too many age jokes at Ford’s expense. LeBeouf’s Mutt Williams certainly would have been a more interesting character had the script arranged for him to experience some sensual tension with KGB goddess Spalko.

The little romance that does creep in sees Indy reunite with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Both Ford and Allen look terrific more than a quarter of a century later, but the script insists they start bickering immediately. This all feels a little forced, and a silly scene in which they nearly submerge into a murky, quicksand-like pit should have been trimmed entirely.

While “Crystal Skull” was winding through years of script revisions under a revolving army of writers, hopes were high that if it did get made, Spielberg and Lucas would – presumably for the sake of nostalgia – keep the CG to a minimum. No such luck. From the early appearance of a digital prairie dog to a climactic set piece that will delight some fans as surely as it will rile others, computerized fingerprints stain the movie to the point of overwhelming it. It is hard enough for some of us to accept Indiana Jones in the Atomic Age without the added distraction of busy special effects that cannot match the elegant, gravity-bound thrills that dominate the first, and best, movie in the series.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/26/08.

Paranoid Park

Monday, May 19th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Director Gus Van Sant continues his impressive run as one of the foremost cinematic explorers of Portland, Oregon in “Paranoid Park,” a very subjective character study based on a novel by Blake Nelson about a teenage skateboarder involved in the death of a railroad security guard. The movie is a feast for admirers of Van Sant’s signature voice. Beautiful cinematography, originated on 35mm and Super 8mm by Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li, blends seamlessly with the director’s inspired music choices and Leslie Shatz’s elegant sound design to place the viewer inside the point of view of the story’s troubled protagonist.

The movie’s events are recounted elliptically, as scenes and images recycle and repeat in a parallel to the confusion cluttering the mental state of Alex (Gabe Nevins), the quiet skater who finds himself in dire straits following an evening in which a few bad choices lead to a horrific event. Van Sant’s staging of the gruesome accident is a moment of shocking, terrible beauty that works on many levels, including one as a severe memento mori. The filmmaker sympathizes with the naïve Alex without excusing him, taking a position that some viewers will no doubt find disturbing. It would be unfair to say that “Paranoid Park” suggests that young people are without a moral compass; Van Sant is interested in the ways that kids struggle mightily to figure out parts of the adult world.

In terms of style and sensibility, “Paranoid Park” is closer to “Elephant,” “Last Days,” and the classic “Drugstore Cowboy” than it is to “Good Will Hunting” or “Finding Forrester.” Van Sant cultists typically prefer the former set of movies to the latter, and “Paranoid Park” is filled with excellent music cues (including Menomena, Cast King, Elliott Smith’s nearly heartbreaking “Angeles,” which Van Sant used previously in “Good Will Hunting,” and several Nino Rota cuts from “Juliet of the Spirits”) that contribute to uncanny juxtapositions. Alex’s denial and avoidance find visual expression in the shallow focus images, which haunt many scenes.

Van Sant’s eclectic directing career has been engrossing to watch for more than two decades, encompassing studio-financed Hollywood fare as well as intimate, experimental pieces featuring untested amateurs in key onscreen roles. Something like a big deal has been made of the MySpace casting process used to select many of the performers for “Paranoid Park,” but Van Sant has often included non-professionals in his movies to great effect – several of the street kids in “My Own Private Idaho” come to mind.

The use of non-actors as a stylistic choice is nothing new, but Van Sant does it as well as any filmmaker since Robert Bresson. While many viewers might find lead actor Gabe Nevins’ lack of emotional expressiveness and technical polish off-putting, his presence works as an alienation effect that refocuses viewer attention on the manner in which the story is being told as opposed to the mechanics of the plot. Nevins’ Alex doesn’t need to be shown wrestling with his ethical quandary because Van Sant asks the audience to do it.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/19/08.

My Blueberry Nights

Monday, May 12th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Cult director Wong Kar-wai disappoints his Yankee constituency with “My Blueberry Nights,” his first English language feature. Molded in the same sumptuous, neon-drenched style of Wong’s finest films, “My Blueberry Nights” relies too heavily on greeting card philosophy and a slightly shaky central performance from recording artist Norah Jones, making her big screen debut. Purportedly, Wong designed the role for Jones alone, acting chops be damned. Certainly the singer is a lovely creature, and it is easy to see why Wong wanted to build a movie around her. Regrettably, little of the chanteuse’s seductive and beautiful phrasing comes across on film; one longs for a musical number so that she might be photographed in her element.

The movie’s first section loiters in the NYC café run by the worldly Jeremy (Jude Law). Jones plays Elizabeth, who has recently broken up with her boyfriend. Nursing her wounds with the help of Jeremy’s late night culinary skills, Elizabeth grows fond of, among other things, her new friend’s delectable desserts. Wong often shows the movie’s titular pie in near pornographic close-up, rivulets of melting ice cream cascading through the violet-hued filling. Before she can rush into something with Jeremy, however, Elizabeth hits the road, and “My Blueberry Nights” relocates from the Big Apple to Memphis and then Nevada.

Wong has never hesitated to stitch together storylines that might exist as their own shorter (and possibly better) movies, and “My Blueberry Nights” switches gears rather abruptly once Elizabeth stops in Tennessee. Serving up hash by day and whiskey by night, Elizabeth meets alcoholic cop Arnie (David Strathairn), a broken man at the end of his rope. Arnie has separated from his sultry, unfaithful wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz), though anyone can see that he aches to turn back the hands of time. As one might expect, both Strathairn and Weisz breathe plenty of life into their characters, despite the melodrama with which they are burdened.

Natalie Portman, showing up late as a tough-talking card sharp who can spin lies as effortlessly as the truth, stands in such contrast to Jones that they almost seem to be in different movies. While Portman plows through the emotionally charged territory that has been carved out for her, Jones merely has to watch and listen. Perhaps Wong and co-scripter Lawrence Block were too cautious with the main character. When Chan Marshall shows up as Jeremy’s old flame, her single scene contains more intrigue than the complete running time afforded Jones, whose Elizabeth is given so little to do.

Thematically, “My Blueberry Nights” revisits some of the director’s familiar lovelorn turf, and Jeremy’s Klyuch eatery will remind Wong admirers of the Midnight Express lunch counter that figured so prominently in the masterful “Chungking Express.” Both restaurants attract broken-hearted souls who turn over keys to the proprietors for safekeeping and/or delivery to ex-lovers. Always a sucker for a clever or cute conceit, Wong trades in a pushpin-pierced envelope for a fishbowl, but the core idea remains the same. Needless to say, Wong’s earlier movies were more exciting, more romantic, and more urgent than “My Blueberry Nights.” If America was a nice place for a visit, here’s hoping that Hong Kong will always be home.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/12/08.

Iron Man

Monday, May 5th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

More than 45 years have passed since Iron Man’s initial appearance in the 39th issue of “Tales of Suspense,” and even though the “Golden Avenger” was never as popular as Spider-Man, he receives lavish treatment in the feature film directed by Jon Favreau. Better than the average comic book to film adaptation, “Iron Man” fulfills all the criteria of the genre. From a slightly retooled origin story to a budding romance to a climactic showdown with an enemy who might once have been a friend, “Iron Man” connects all the dots. After the dust settles, a post-credit roll surprise virtually guarantees sequels and spin-offs.

Casting Robert Downey Jr. as cocky billionaire Tony Stark was easily the smartest move made by the producers of the film. Downey, who plays the title character with the biting wit and playful insouciance that has been the actor’s stock in trade for a pair of decades, takes a page from Johnny Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” playbook; essentially isolating himself from everything happening around him on the screen, he shares a wink and a smile with the audience and can scarcely be bothered to relate to the movie’s other characters. It cannot be an accident that the film’s biggest laughs erupt from Stark’s relationship with his fire extinguisher-wielding workshop robot.

The movie’s supporting cast members aren’t given quite enough to do. Jeff Bridges plays the wonderfully-named villain Obadiah Stane, but his storyline occasionally feels clipped and rushed, especially by the time Iron Man faces off against Stane’s Iron Monger. Gwyneth Paltrow is smart and convincing as secretary Pepper Potts, even though she does not seem to mind Stark’s libidinous carousing with other women. Terrence Howard, as pal James Rhodes, fares the worst. With the exception of a nod to future Iron Man/War Machine possibilities, Rhodes is a second banana all the way, and Howard never finds a way to enhance the underwritten role.

Transposing the Marvel Comics genesis from the Vietnam era to present day Afghanistan, “Iron Man” trades in Communist enemies for a group of Taliban-like guerillas known as the Ten Rings. The most salient elements of Iron Man’s birth, including the symbolic shrapnel lodged near his heart, are presented intact. Other details are modified and streamlined. Favreau allows Stark, held captive by the Ten Rings in a mountainous hideout, plenty of time to forge the prototype Iron Man armor. Oddly, even though the bad guys monitor the American’s every move via closed circuit television, they fail to notice that he is not crafting the missile system they have demanded.

Favreau understands that action movies require breathing room in between the razzle dazzle of the CGI-fueled smash-ups. When Stark perfects his ultimate weapon, viewers – especially ones of the teenage male variety – will thrill to images of Iron Man dispatching insurgents with ridiculous accuracy. An extended dogfight between Iron Man and a pair of F-22s offers the special effects wizards an even better opportunity to demonstrate the latest step in the evolution of movie magic. The animators do a fine job, but “Iron Man” is arguably at its best when Stark isn’t hidden behind the helmet of his nearly invincible steel suit.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/5/08.