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

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" might as well be the mantra of the *Indiana Jones* movies. It might even serve as a title for the next sequel, should there be one. *Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull* offers more of the wasn't-broke-didn't-fix-it same, which is what makes Indy fun. The movies were originally inspired by 1930s serials, and the *Indy* movies have more or less become a series, even if it's been almost two decades since we last saw the intrepid archeologist swing his bullwhip and don his dusty fedora.

*Kingdom of the Crystal Skull* acknowledges the years passed -- instead of the pre-war 30s, it's set in the post-war, Cold War 1950s. What was Indy (Harrison Ford) doing in the ensuing years? Some spying, maybe, but it's a little vague. As this movie opens, however, he's in the trunk of a car being driven by Russians, who've captured the infamous Area 51 military base. What they're looking for should be obvious to anyone familiar with the lore of Area 51, and certain mysterious events that occurred in Roswell, NM.

The Russkies are led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a paranormal researcher whose personality is as severe and unforgiving as her precision-engineered black bob. Less precise than the haircut is Blanchett's Russian accent, which is -- how do you say? -- rather loose. Spalko seems to have learned to speak English in Blanchett's own native Australia, not that the actress was in danger of earning a bazillionth Oscar nom for this movie. Anyway, Spalko's interested in space aliens and mind control, which according to legend, were among Stalin's obsessions too.

There's a daring escape, involving the usual Rube Goldbergian stuff, and, just to give the movie some Cold War relevance, Indy survives an atomic bomb, too. After his own personal Red Scare, Indy gets a taste of red-baiting government paranoia, which is where *Crystal Skull* dips a toe into contemporary political issues, but --fear not! -- ever so briefly.

Indy meets a switchblade-wielding, Brando-wannabe, Harley-riding hooligan named Mutt (Shia LeBeouf) who enlists his help in finding his kidnapped mother and a fellow archeologist named Oxley (John Hurt). Turns out Ox and Indy have history -- they once shared a mutual obsession with finding a legendary Mayan crystal skull. Turns out Indy and Mutt's mom have history too -- she's Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who hasn't been seen since she was the spunky heroine of *Raiders of the Lost Ark*.

*Kingdom of the Crystal Skull*, like all the *Indy* movies, is a Steven Spielberg gestalt, so the various pieces -- space aliens, religious artifacts with history-altering powers, fascism, family drama, children searching for lost parents -- fit together and make sense about as well as can be expected. So what happens when those old warriors Spielberg and Ford become Cold Warriors? Pretty much the usual stuff. Creepy, cobwebby caves. Skeletons. Poison darts. Quicksand. Monkeys. The *Indy* movies are well-oiled machines at this point, and they need to be with all those moving parts. This one's got wall-to-wall action, lots of clever stunts, and a script by David Koepp that doesn't really innovate, but mixes up familiar elements (snakes again!) in a familiar but new enough and fun way. This Indy's a little more PC than he used to be too -- he's not shooting brown-skinned people anymore, and he's actually trying to *return* a priceless artifact rather than plunder it. Maybe he's getting soft in his old age.

But not too soft. Ford looks energized playing the whip-cracking, wisecracking hero again -- even when he's supposed to be a slightly creaky, cranky old coot, he's got a twinkle in his eye. And although Spielberg hasn't been directing any *fun* movies lately, he still knows how to engage the gears and create glorious, inconsequential mayhem.

26May2008

Prince Caspian (2008)

It's been a year since the Pevensie kids saved Narnia and discovered that they were kings and queens. England is still at war, but High King Peter (William Moseley), who is just another schoolboy in his unenchanted homeland, has only other schoolboys to fight. Until a portal opens up in the London Underground, that is, and the Pevensies find themselves back in dear old Narnia. Emphasis on the old -- they soon discover that a millennium has passed in Narnia since they've been gone.

Other things have changed too. Humans, known as Telmarines, rule the land, having exterminated all the talking critters, fauns, and centaurs, and stilled the once lively trees with their genocidal ethnic cleansing. The Telmarines are little better to each other. As *The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian* begins, young Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) must flee his homicidal uncle Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), a usurper who has stolen the crown and has plans to pass it on to his own infant son once his inconveniently alive nephew Caspian is out of the way.

Caspian soon has other kings and queens to deal with, when he meets up with Peter and his sibs, King Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Queen Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Queen Lucy (Georgie Henley). The legendary monarchs rouse the Narnian Underground to action with help from a grumpy Narnian named Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), and a swashbuckling mouse, Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard who, as he so often does, simultaneously steals and saves the movie). The Narnians are none too fond of Caspian, seeing as how his people tried to kill them all, and much of the plot of *Prince Caspian* concerns the factional fighting between Caspian, Peter, and the Narnians on one side, and, on the side of evil, King Miraz and his court of double-dealers, double-crossers and backstabbers. Loyalties shift on both sides in the march to war between the true Narnians and the Telmarine invaders, who, having discovered that the Narnians are not extinct, can think of nothing better to do than to exterminate them all over again.

There's a lot of conflict in *Prince Caspian*, between all the in-fighting and backstabbing, and all the swords and catapults and whizzing arrows. This sequel is considerably darker in mood and more violent than the first movie, *The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe* (2005), and far less enchanted and enchanting. The ol' magic is pretty much gone from Narnia, and doesn't reappear in the movie until pretty late in the game, when lion king Aslan (Liam Neeson) finally returns. At that point, the sword fights and slayings and massive battles have grown rather tedious, and the story is much in need of the deus ex machina that only Aslan (the Christ figure in the movie's loose theology) can provide.

The emphasis on action and battle scenes in *Prince Caspian* comes at the expense of characterization, although the screenplay by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and director Andrew Adamson occasionally sparkles with moments of wit. The diminutive mouseketeer Reepicheep, who finds people rather unimaginative (and easy to fight) is a source of much amusement, as is the diminutive, angry, put-upon Trumpkin, who objects to being patronized by the big people, and especially to being called "dear little friend" by the considerably taller Lucy. Prince Caspian himself is fairly dull, with Barnes doing not much more than perfect his "blue steel" look, and simmer, occasionally in the direction of Queen Susan. Susan has become, it appears, a reluctant hottie both in Narnia and back in dear old England. The Pevensie kids themselves have backseat roles in *Prince Caspian* -- this isn't really their story, and they serve primarily to inspire the Narnians, and to provide several of those four-across (plus one Caspian) walking-towards-the-camera scenes that in movies signify solidarity, readiness, and a host of other notions related to doing what must be done.

While the story this time around is more relentlessly violent, and on a far larger scale, it is oddly less moving than in the previous movie, in which the cruelty and violence, directed at characters and creatures one could actually care about, was far more disturbing. *Prince Caspian* is essentially a medieval war movie, a *Braveheart* for kids, with the brutality, ferocity, trauma, and gore of the battle scenes dialed down accordingly. Scaling back the savagery of the depiction of war is all well and good, and there's nothing wrong with doing that. The problem in *Prince Caspian* is that the sense of peril is also diluted. Not only does nothing bad happen to anyone noteworthy in the film, but there's never any real sense that anything bad *could* happen to them. There's a certain necessity and inevitability to everything that occurs in *Prince Caspian*, but no sense that necessity will lead inevitably to tragedy. With characters that are less than enthralling, faced with threats that are less than compelling, *Prince Caspian* is less than spellbinding.

19May2008

Speed Racer (2008)


You might think that a movie called *Speed Racer* would be, well, speedy. But you'd be wrong. Somehow, this careening, flipping, flying, neon-candy-colored zoom zoom movie about a boy who drives a fast, fast car just spins its wheels, and rather slowly at that.

*Speed Racer*, some of you will recall, was a proto-anime cartoon, exported from Japan, and dubbed for the amusement of American kids such as myself back in the 60s. Oh, how I loved *Speed Racer* and his supercool racing car, the Mach 5. Apparently Larry and Andy Wachowski (*The Matrix* trilogy) loved them too, but maybe not in the same way I did.

For the record, I am no longer giving the Wachowskis the benefit of the doubt. I still think *The Matrix* was brilliant. I still think everything they've done since has kinda sucked. But back to *Speed Racer*. As they have done before, the Wachowskis have blended live action and computer generated imagery to create a pretty cool looking movie. *Speed Racer* is more or less a computer animated movie with live actors in it. The colors are supersaturated and bright, but this is nothing you haven't seen before if you have ever had to spend any time watching Playhouse Disney and Nickelodeon, where the visual cortexes of young children are desensitized to a video world as colorful as a bag of fluorescent jellybeans. The movie's visuals have a kicky, Pop Art plus PlayStation kinda thing going on -- everything zips and zooms and twirls and blurs, and none of it really makes a lot of sense, but it keeps on moving fast anyway because if you don't stop, you don't have to stop and think. I do not recommend *Speed Racer* for people who are prone to migraines or seizures, as I'm pretty sure this movie could induce either after about three minutes. Remember the infamous *Pokemon* episode that supposedly sent hundreds of Japanese children to the hospital with seizures? Child's play compared to *Speed Racer*.

So, superbright colors: check. Fast cars: check. Plot? Boy howdy, *Speed Racer* has plot to burn (and I *would* recommend burning, in this case). At two and a quarter hours, this movie is an endurance test comparable to the Paris to Dakar Rally -- you get the sore butt, but no prize for finishing it. How can a movie with so much visual pizzazz be so boring?

Speed (Emile Hirsch) races cars for his family business, Racer Motors. He idolizes his older brother Rex, who died -- although is body was never recovered -- during an offroad race following some family drama involving Pops Racer (John Goodman). This we learn in a series of flashbacks. Mom (Susan Sarandon) is endlessly supportive of young Speed and all her boys. Little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) idolizes big brother Speed, and gets into mischief with his chimpanzee chum Chim Chim. And then there's Speed's galpal Trixie (Christina Ricci), who bats her eyes and tries to get Speed to move to first base -- but he's too busy zooming around the racetrack. The movie's best character is the Mach 5, a pretty darn cool car that can hop and spin and drive sideways and go real fast. The car races in the movie are like a crazy hyperspeed combination of Formula One racing and demolition derby. Crashing and burning is pretty commonplace. Maybe that's because the cars in *Speed Racer* mostly drive sideways, kinda like all those cars in commercials that are always skidding sideways to make you think they're really cool cars instead of terrifyingly unsafe deathtraps. Personally, I like my car to go fast, but primarily forwards and backwards. I've had little need for sideways driving in my life, and I'll stick to my guns that the shortest distance (and therefore the fastest route) between two points is a straight line. But sticklers for physics and the laws of nature will need to check their kooky preconceptions about gravity and centrifugal force at the cineplex door if they're gonna make it through *Speed Racer* without suffering a cerebral blowout. Apparently driving frontwise is for chumps. Skidding sideways is how the true racers do it.

Anyhoo, Speed wins a race, attracts the attention of a lot of corporate dirtbag types who want him to sign up and sell out. Most persuasive is Royalton (Roger Allum), who makes him an offer he can't refuse. He refuses it anyway, which gets Racer Motors into hot water. So Speed is recruited by the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Inspector Detector (Benno F├╝rmann), who want to crack open the shady world of corporate sponsorship and crime rings and fixed races and whatnot. Speed and Racer X and fellow racer Taejo Togokahn (South Korean star Rain) enter the Casa Christo offroad race. The very same race in which big brother Rex Racer mysteriously died. Cue ominous music.

After the climactic finish of the grueling, action-packed, extremely fatal Casa Christo race, the oversaturated and enervated viewer would be right to think it was time to kick back and watch the credits roll by. Not so fast there, chump! There's *another* big race to be won. And then another... no, that's really it, but it feels like the movie will never end.

The actors are pretty much adrift in *Speed Racer*. It's probably really hard to act in a movie where most of the sets and all of the action are happening in a computer somewhere, and you're just standing in front of a green screen. This is likely the kind of thing that gives Method actors wake-up-screaming nightmares. So I hesitate to blame the actors for the shallowness of the characterizations in *Speed Racer*. The lousy, beyond cartoonish dialogue must also be blamed, and if the movie's script and dialogue and wooden acting are intentionally crummy in order to imitate the original cartoon, well, that's an artistic gamble that doesn't pay off. Emile Hirsch (*Into the Wild*) is a good actor, but he looks completely lost in *Speed Racer*, even when he's not driving a pretend car, and is actually interacting with other actors. His Speed is a natural born driver, a boy who is One with his vehicle, but he's otherwise hollow inside, like a race car with no driver behind the wheel. By contrast, Allum, in a scenery-chewing performance, manages to chew the virtual scenery just fine.

*Speed Racer* is supposed to be a family movie. It's all about the family love and loyalty and father-son bonding and death by piranha and all that. Plus, the entire Racer family cheers like mad every time a car crashes and explodes into a massive fireball -- as long as it's not one of *their* cars. Good, clean, brightly-colored fun.

12May2008

Iron Man (2008)


In the universe of the superhero, there are the ones with the superpowers -- the mutants, the aliens, the radioactively altered -- and then there are the gadget guys (where are the gadget girls?), the ones with the cool tools and techie toys. Marvel Comics' *Iron Man* falls into the latter category. Tony Stark is no Everyman -- a technical wunderkind, a billionaire, a hard-drinking, wiseass libertine, he hops the globe in his private jet, his lavish playboy lifestyle financed by a profitable business in high-tech weaponry. He's a showman too, personally demonstrating his latest wares in desolate Afghanistan.

Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is enjoying a scotch on the rocks in the back of a Humvee when his convoy is attacked by, ironically, the very weapons he manufactures. He's kidnapped by an Afghan warload (Faran Tahir) bent on the domination of something or other. Anyway, the warlord and his militant group are bad guys who shoot a lot of innocent villagers. And they want Stark to build them their very own high tech missile. Stark's got a handy-dandy assistant and translator in Yinsen (Shaun Toub), a fellow captive and surgeon, who saved Stark's life by implanting some sort of magnetic contraption into his chest to keep the shrapnel out of his heart. Or something like that. The important thing to note is that Stark has a heart after all, even if it's full of steel and wires and scraps culled from weapons of mass destruction. As long as he's part machine anyway, Stark goes ahead and builds himself an armored suit... witness the clanky, clunky, rusty, birth of Iron Man, whose mother was, it turns out, the necessity of invention.

The invention of necessity is the job of the storytellers, and in this story, tin man Stark grows a conscience to go along with that heart, to the surprise of all and the dismay of many, most of all Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Stane runs Stark Industries and keeps the board of directors happy while the hepcat's away. Certain plot twists involving the chrome-domed Stane will be evident to anyone familiar with the hairstyles of the rich and villainous. The flaw to *Iron Man*, although it's certainly not a fatal flaw, is that the plot hews to a fairly standard superhero origins storyline (with companion supervillain origins subplot), which means there are not too many surprises in that department.

On the other hand, screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby favor genuine dialogue and substantive and sometimes uneasy laughs over macho-posturing catchphrases, and there are plenty of unexpectedly complex pratfalls and hearty yuks in *Iron Man*. Director Jon Favreau (*Elf*), emphasizes character over action, which is, in the superhero action movie genre, a rare thing. (Don't worry -- there's plenty of rapid-fire action in *Iron Man* too.) There are several terrific scenes in *Iron Man* that capture Stark and his companeros in moments laden with personal history, with past disappointments, and with unspoken feelings, and Favreau exhibits a light and lighthearted touch that gives the movie plenty of zing for the buck, to go along with all the bang. I've always said that big movies need small stories, and the best parts of *Iron Man* are the little touches, the small details. It's what makes *Iron Man* a great fit for Downey, an actor at least as well known for his checkered past and misspent youth as for his wunderkind talent. Downey gives genuine resonance to Stark's uneasy and complicated conflict between nascent morality and a natural gift for mayhem. The cast, which includes Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's loyal and supercompetent personal assistant Pepper Potts, and Terrence Howard as Air Force pilot/loyal friend/skeptic Rhodey, is particularly good, which means *Iron Man*, like that custom-fitted suit of armor and armory, can be built around the characters instead of the other way around.

The gadgety hardware stuff in *Iron Man* is pretty darn cool, of course -- Stark is a man who likes style *and* substance in his machines -- and there's a lot of fun to be had in Stark's experimental phase and the frequency with which he falls to Earth (the movie certainly plays around with the Daedalus and Icarus mythology, although it's ice, not heat, that is Stark's downfall). But there aren't really any surprises in the movie's fight scenes (well, maybe a few) -- the best stuff is in the details, in all the little servos and gears and character alloys that keep this big picture moving as smoothly as that shiny metal suit.

5May2008