Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: David Koepp
Rated: PG-13
Rating: **** (four stars out of five)

Indy’s back. And in full flavor. I completely enjoyed myself, but I cannot say the same for everyone else in the theater.

We begin with the standard Paramount mountain fade into something else — this time it’s a prairie dog mound. Elvis begins playing and we meet the Army, driving in the Nevada desert, just outside “Hangar 51” (you make the connection). After a small skirmish, it’s revealed the men aren’t US Army, but Soviets, lead by the icy villianess Irina Spalko (Blanchett). Out of the trunk of one of the cars comes Indy and his pal Mac (Winstone).

Spalko is a psychic, or wants to be, but since she can’t coax Indy into doing her bidding with mental powers alone, the guns alongside her help. They then search for a box, about the size of a coffin, in a warehouse of boxes that will be familiar to fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Fortunately for everyone involved, the box is highly magnetized and therefore pretty easy to find.

This sparks the main adventure, details of which I will not expose here. It’s easy enough to find the spoilers on the internet. I will say that most of the rumors you have undoubtedly heard are true — all but a meager few of the ones I had read early on were false. I will say this: Had George Lucas’ originally proposed title of “Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars” stayed the title, I’m not sure I’d have seen it.

Indiana Jones is definitely back, but in a different way. Age doesn’t matter much in this film, except for comedic effect. The age is played up, almost too much at times, but never once did I look at Indiana Jones and think to myself that he’s too old for this shit. To me, Indy has always been a bit of an anti-hero — gruff, tough, and not too much of a gentleman. His work seemed to go under the radar, unacknowledged beyond academia. To Crystal Skull‘s detriment, he’s hyped as an incredible hero. If anyone uttered the phrase “war hero” again, I was going to be upset.

Why try to make an icon iconic? He’s already an icon! All three of the previous films were also cheesy — they didn’t take themselves all that seriously, and that’s a significant reason that they are great films. There are moments throughout Crystal Skull where you get the impression that the filmmakers were too conscious about making it cheesy and tried too hard to not cross that line. Unfortunately, there were times that they did, most notably in the climax with Spalko.

Does any of that actually detract from the film? I don’t think so. I think it lives up to it’s lead character and more. The whole experience got me thinking (and my thoughts are likely to become another blog entry). Was I expecting too much? Or was I too sold on the originals? Definitely not to the latter — Raiders of the Lost Ark is, and always will be, as fantastic as the first time I saw it. Last Crusade will never be boring, and, while it’s not as good as the other two that bookend it, Temple of Doom is still an amazing adventure yarn. I think that because I know the previous three films so well that Crystal Skull was almost certainly set to disappoint. The fact that it wasn’t nearly as disappointing as I had feared says a lot.

My only true disappointment with the movie is that there is likely to never be another after it. The original plan in the 1980’s was to create five (yes, five) Indiana Jones films. Four are now complete, and new star/character has been tapped to possibly continue the series (Mutt Williams, played by LaBeouf). Sean Connery as Indy’s father was timeless. I want to see a fifth film with Indy playing that role to Mutt’s novice adventurer.

I don’t want to be done with Indiana Jones yet, and this film didn’t help that. That is why it’s worthy of the title and a great movie.

Review: Diary of the Dead (2007)

Diary Of The Dead (2007)
Starring: Joshua Close, Scott Wentworth, Michelle Morgan
Directed by: George Romero
Written by: George Romero
Rated: R
Rating: **** (four stars out of five)

Romero revolutionized horror films with his classic (I’d say timeless) Dead trilogy: Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Dawn Of The Dead (1978), and Day Of The Dead (1985). The trilogy chronicled mankind’s attempt to survive a never-ending onslaught of slow-moving, flesh-eating, brain-loving zombies. Needless to say, the movies are bloody and full of fantastic scenes of gore, but they also contain a significant amount of social commentary, but this review isn’t about that. In 2005, Romero brought us Land Of The Dead, which failed to meet the expectations of most fans, mine included. Thus, while I love Romero, when I heard a new Dead movie was to be coming out, I was extremely hesitant.

Fortunately, I loved it.

Taking a page from the modern filmmaking cliche of using handheld cameras for a first-person POV, Romero has crafted a fine zombie flick. While Cloverfield (2008) failed with it’s nauseating over-use of the handheld style, Diary avoids that same pitfall by mixing in static security camera footage and stable news shots in with the first-person perspective. It’s put together extremely well as far as that goes — my only complaint with the technique was that the editor use the “blip” effect way too often, streaking snowy lines across the screen for some effect that missed. Anyone who’s shot in HD knows that the digital cameras don’t “blip” like that.

The premise is all to simple: A group of college filmmakers at the University of Pittsburgh and their sophisticated, alcoholic professor, document the arrival of the undead as they attempt to travel to ones family home. Simple, but enough to throw in some zombies. Deb (Morgan) is concerned about her parent’s well-being and they begin driving towards Scranton, PA, in their friends RV. The characterizations are obvious, from the unbeliever to the softy-who-can-kill-when-needed.

The worst case of unoriginality is Jason Creed (Close), who is the man behind the camera for much of the 95 minute runtime. He inability to empathize and his refusal to set the camera down is painful to listen to at times. However, this is Romero throwing in his subtext again. This film is partially about our numbness to things and the way that numbness grows. While Creed is unoriginal and largely boring, his character does, admittedly, serve a purpose.

There have been few horror films recently to bring any new witticisms or frights to the screen. Most of the garbage put out today just recycles the well-known jumps, scares, and gross-out effects, and (subtext aside) we have become numb to them. Thank God for Romero and his touch of dark originality. There are some unique scenes in this movie, and one or two that I will remember for a long time. Everyone knows at this point that destroying a zombie’s brain is the only way to take it down (would it then the un-undead?). Most movies stick with bats, guns, and sharp things to achieve this. Romero had the audacity to ask “What about highly concentrated acid?” And most movies stay away from children zombies, let alone watching them get brutally re-killed. Again, thank you, George Romero, for saying “to hell with that tradition.” My favorite scene is with Samuel — I will not ruin it, but Samuel has a fine introduction and a glorious finish.

I recommend this film, whole-heartedly, to the horror lovers of the world. Is it perfect? Nah. Is it somewhat heavy-handed? Yep. Is it still worth watching? Yes! The unique scenes that Diary bring to the screen are worth it alone.

Oscar Predictions

After much thought and pointless delay, here are my official Oscar predictions. Posted a mere three days before big event, no less. These are, unfortuanately, not the same predictions I entered against Roger Ebert and his predictions. Without further ado, here they are.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
Prediction: No Country For Old Men.
Why? It’s the most perfectly made movie. It’s the strongest contender. It’s the definite winner. As with another category a little further down the page, my heart is screaming for a different film. I want Juno to win, oh do I want it to win. It’s my personal Best Picture, my favorite of the year, but when predicting who will win, I must choose No Country. This isn’t picking who I want to win.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year:
Prediction: Ratatouille.
Why? I don’t think there’s a chance it will lose. The animation is phenomonal. The writing is great. It’s a touching film, which is surprising to some considering it’s about rats. I truly don’t think there’s a chance anything else will win. I could not be more confident about this prediction, and I’m more confident about this category than any other. As a side note, the official listings has this category near the “bottom”, but I’m bumping it to top because I think it’s just as important as “Best Picture”. I’m also making a subtle statement. Though it wouldn’t have won, it should have been up in the larger “Best Picture” category.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood).
Why? Does anyone doubt it? I want Clooney to win it, but I don’t think there’s anyone whose performance was even close to the caliber of Day-Lewis’s. The ironic part here is that it is one of his weakest performances — it is so close to his nominated performance in Gangs of New York that it’s disappointing. The accent is even similar. Still, it’s a brilliantly constructed character and performance and is the one to beat.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Prediction: Julie Christie (Away From Her).
Why? Both for the quality of her work in Away From Her, and as a recognition of sorts for her career. My heart really is screaming “Ellen Page!” but I know her chances are slim. To spit the dialogue of Juno out and make it sound effortless and real is definitely not as easy as it looked.

Best Achievement by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
Prediction: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men).
Why? I am a horror and thriller fan, but no character I can think of is as creepy yet frighteningly realistic as Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. My heart goes out to Tom Wilkinson for his powerful performance, but I truly don’t think he’s the Academy’s pick.

Best Achievement by an Actress in a Supporting Role:
Prediction: Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There).
Why? I admit to not seeing all the films for which these actresses are nominated, specifically Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone. I always want to root for the youngest of the bunch, especially when they are truly young, but I think the honor for Saoirse Ronan is simply being nominated. Blanchett’s performance as Bob Dylan is so amazingly well done I can’t imagine this award going to anyone else.

Best Achievement in Directing:
Prediction: The Coen Brothers (No Country For Old Men).
Why? The direction of No Country was perfect, impeccable, flawless, and countless other synonyms for the same thing: masterful. I think Julian Schnabel and P.T. Anderson are very strong candidates here, but I think they are more than a few laps behind the Coens this time.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
Prediction: Juno.
Why? I love, love, love Ratatouille. It’s brilliant writing. But Juno is quick, smart, and, most importantly, impeccably structured. Forget the fact that Diablo Cody is now one of my few MySpace friends, I think she’s the one to beat.

Best Writing, Screenplay Best on Material Previously Produced or Published:
Prediction: No Country For Old Men.
Why? I have not read either novel, but Atonement is a strong contender here as well. Blood is only loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!”. We may see a surprise victory here by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which seemed impossibly hard to adapt.

Well, the big ones are out of the way and I’m very confident in my choices. There are few, and they are noted above, where I have some doubt, but I’m sticking to my guns with my picks. Now for the rest of the awards — those that aren’t as big, but just as important, in the film world.

Best Achievement in Editing:
Prediction: No Country For Old Men.
Why? The pacing is perfect. Perfect. The editing is absolutely flawless. If there is a runner up, it could only be Blood, but I don’t think it even comes close the Coen Brothers masterpiece.

Best Achievement in Art Direction:
Prediction: Atonement.
Why? There is a significant change I’m wrong, but I have to place my vote with Atonement. I think that There Will Be Blood and Sweeney Tood are incredibly strong contenders, and I think it’s very likely that Blood will take it, making it my runner up.

Best Achievement in Costume Design:
Prediction: Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
Why? Why would it be any of the other nominees? Atonement may have set a new trend with Kiera Knightley’sbeautiful green dress in the movies pivotal love scene, but what can stand up against sumptuous Elizabethan gowns?

Best Achievement in Makeup:
Prediction: La Môme (La Vie En Rose).
Why? Up against a bad Eddie Murphy comedy and Pirates? One is an Eddie Murphy comedy, the other is significantly CG. I’ve heard nothing but incredible things about the makeup in La Vie En Rose, and though I’ve not seen it yet, it’s my official pick.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score:
Prediction: Atonement.
Why? The music simply drove this film forward. The score was amazing in this film. Hands down, my pick.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song:
Prediction: “Falling Slowly” from Once.
Why? I have not seen this film but have only heard good things. I have heard negative things about the music in August Rush, however. The other three nominees are all from Enchanted. I loved Enchanted, but I didn’t find any of the songs Oscar worthy. Mathematical odds are definitely for the reimagined fairy tale, though.

Best Achievement in Sound:
Prediction: Ratatouille.
Why? No Country For Old Men as the runner up. There is a subtle difference between “Sound” and “Sound Editing”, but they are indeed two very different things. It’s the difference between how sound was used and how it was placed into the film. I think that this animated film takes the statue here.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing:
Prediction: There Will Be Blood.
Why? As dark as this film was, it would have been nothing without the sound. My runner up is Ratatouille, but I think Blood is the clear victor here, even over the brilliantly edited masterpiece No Country For Old Men.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects:
Prediction: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
Why? Though it was longer than it needed be, and not as entertaining as it’s two precessors, the effects were seemless and amazing. Davey Jones alone was a visual feast. Transformers had extremely complicated effects, but they weren’t noticeable and obviously CG. The bears in The Golden Compass were brilliantly executed, but I think my overall disappointment in that film is pushing me away from it.

Best Short Film, Live Action; Best Short Film, Animated; Best Documentary, Short Subject; Best Documentary, Features; Best Foreign Language Film:
Prediction: These are the only categories I will not be make any predictions in simply because I have not seen a single nominee. In previous years, I was actively participating in the East Lansing Film Festival and Film Society and was able to see most, if not all, of these. This year, however, I’m at a loss.

This Sunday, this will be one of thousands of sites with updated lists of winners as they are announced, only this site is only one of hundreds (as opposed to thousands) that will be comparing the announced winner with the predictions made here. I think I get an 85% right.

Review – Atonement (2007)

Atonement (2007)
Starring: Kiera Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, and Vanessa Redgrave
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan
Rated: R
Rating: **** (four stars out of five)

Atonement is a movie not easily forgot, for more than just a few reasons. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous (more on that later). The acting is nigh on perfect. The direction is flawless. But it’s the story, the writing, that is the real star of this film.

I will admit that I have not read McEwan’s novel even though it’s been recommended to me countless times. After seeing this film, I will also admit that it’s been added to my reading list. I can therefore not judge how well the novel translated onto the screen. I can only make assumptions based on how well the adaption is, and my assumption is that is ridiculously well done.

Aside from the colorful and sumptuous cinematography, the pacing of this film is perfect. With the stamping of each letter on a typewriter, the story gains momentum in a truly unforgettable way. The music moves to the tapping of the keys, the scenes cut and drive forward with each typed letter. The use of the typewriter works perfectly with the material presented in the film.

We open on a young Briony Tallis, typing away frantically on her typewriter, finishing her latest masterpiece. It’s a play to be performed for her older brother Leon when he arrives to the English manse in which she lives with her wealthy family. What follows afterwards carefully builds to Briony crying wolf. We meet Paul Marshall, Leon’s friend, whom we immediately discover has a dark secret. We meet Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Knightley). Knightley plays her with ease, showing a maturity she hasn’t had a chance to show in her career yet. We also meet Robbie Turner (McAvoy), the Tallis’ gardener who’s education has been paid for by Briony’s father.

Most importantly, we see Cecilia and Robbie together, and the sexual tension and mutual attraction is immediately apparent. They meet at the fountain in a scene full of sexuality. It is this scene that Briony witnesses from her bedroom window. It is this scene of attraction between two young lovers that Briony misunderstands — or rather, can’t understand because she is so young. This perfectly played and directed scene becomes the centerpiece for the rest of the film.

That night, she stumbles upon Robbie and Cecilia in the heat of passion. By the end, Robbie is in prison by Briony’s word, as incorrect as her word may be.

Several long years later, Robbie is trying to make his way through war-torn France back to the beach to be evacuated back to England. Cecilia has moved into a small apartment and is working as a nurse. Briony, who now understands exactly what she did, has begun working at a military hospital as a nurse as well, trying her best to pay penance for what she’s done.

The film’s ending monlogue, delivered by Vanessa Redgrave, reveals the true meaning of the title, and just how harmful a single lie can be.

The Oscar’s are, unfortunately, going to largely look over this film. I hate saying this about such an amazing and beautiful film, but it’s the weakest contender amongst the Best Picture nominees. The only award I think it will bring home at the end of the day is Best Cinematography. The scene at the beach of Dunkirk, a 5 1/2 minute miracle of a shot, is simply one of the most amazing shots I’ve ever seen. It deserves the award for that scene alone.

Review – Factotum (2005)

Factotum (2005)
Starring: Matt Dillon, Lily Taylor, Marisa Tomei
Directed by: Bent Hamer
Written by: Bent Hamer & Jim Stark, based on the writings of Charles Bukowski
Rated: R
Rating: ** (two stars out of five)

Factotum, n., an employee or assistant who serves in a wide range of capacities. This is what the dictionary and the movie credits tell us about the title. And it definitely fits the story.

The story revolves around Henry Chinaski (Dillon), a potrait of Charles Bukowski, which is to say a drunk, womanizing writer who aspires to … What does he aspire to? The story starts off brilliantly. The first scenes follow Chinaski through his job as an ice man out on a delivery to a bar. His boss follows him, discovers the ice melting in the back of the delivery van and Chinaski inside having a few drinks next to an old man who says he’s slept longer than Chinaski’s been alive. It’s a great sequence.

Chinaski then moves along to various jobs — working at a pickle factory, bicycle shop, and brake shoe manufacturer among others — and he ends up living with Jan (Taylor). Later he’s spending his time with Laura (Tomei) after a spat with Jan. Then he’s back with Jan again, for a few minutes at least. And then it ends.

Bukowski is reknowned for his drinking and womanizing, living in the gutter for a significant portion of his life. He was not the best man who ever lived. I love his poetry, and my favorite poem of his is featured in this movie. “A poem is a city filled with streets and sewers / filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen, / filled with banality and booze / filled with rain and thunder and periods of / drought, a poem is a city at war.”

That poem is a perfect example of Bukowski’s work and possibly his person too. It describes a significant portion of Factotum as well. But it doesn’t make the movie any better or more meaningful than it was. The movie lacks a purpose.

The filmmakers intended to make a film about a man, a writer, who drinks and has found a difficult path through life, but a path that he chooses to take nonetheless. What they ended up making was a film about a drunk on a difficult path through life, one that he’s too lazy to step away from, who happens to write.

The movie is extremely well directed, and the acting is very well done. It is very much a professionally made movie. But again, that doesn’t give it a larger purpose or meaning. The first act had me enveloped in the story: the awkward moments, the quirky statements Chinaski makes, they all wove together precisely. The last two thirds of the movie repeated the territory it had already traversed over and over again. By the end, I was left in the same place I started, with no better grasp of any single character, and feeling no different about anything.

The movie ends with another Bukowski piece: “If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like it. You will be alone with the Gods. And the nights will flam with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” I found myself in love with that quote. And yet, I felt it had no place being in that movie.

It was meant to be a movie about a man devoting himself to writing, everything else be damned; it turned out to be a movie about a man who refused to change and sometimes wrote something. Well made, but lacking in purpose and vision. Bukowski devotees may love this film, but not many others.