PICKS OF THE WEEK
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (A)
U.S.; Steven Spielberg, 2008, Paramount
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull whirls us off once again to that delicious, zingy, over-the-top world of recycled Saturday Afternoon serials and pop culture George Lucas and Steven Spielberg opened up back in 1981 with Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a high-stakes blockbuster movie reunion that really works -- though not necessarily in the ways we'd expect.
In the movie, director Spielberg, story-writer/executive producer Lucas and star Harrison Ford bring back their brawny brainchild Indiana Jones after 19 years -- bomber jacket, fedora, bullwhip and wisecracks in place -- for a sequel that puts Indy, in his 50s (and Ford at 65), in 1957, the era of blacklists, black leather jackets, bomb shelters and black-and-white TV. Then they send him off on a fantastic quest that seems to derive from the old movie serials, '50s sci-fi and Carl Barks' great '50s Uncle Scrooge comic novels about Duck family expeditions to Atlantis, El Dorado or the Seven Cities of Cibola.
El Dorado and the city of gold are the legends mined this time by Lucas and Spielberg -- and by writer David Koepp, who has provided the series' top script since Lawrence Kasdan's nifty Raiders blueprint. The result is a smashing movie sequel blockbuster that begins with a bang; reproduces most of the wonder, excitement and sass of the original; idles for a while and then becomes something truly weird and wonderful. More important, it's a damned good movie, one capable of pleasing both the masses and the cognoscenti -- or at least that part of the cognoscenti that hasn't decided to go terminally smart-ass.
I wouldn't claim massive originality for Koepp's script then or later, but, truth to tell, none of the Jones series has been very original, except stylistically. That's the whole point of the series, which is a conscious throwback -- intended to let Spielberg and Lucas' own generation feel the pleasures and frissons of youth recaptured, while seducing later (or earlier) generations as well. Crystal Skull follows that James Bondian sizzler start with the usual format: the introduction of the quest, the action set-pieces, the comic or expository interludes and the final explosive grand finale. In this case, though, what's new is old, and very pleasantly so.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may have an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style jawbreaker of a title, but it's no boring parade of clichés, as some have suggested; clichés of a kind have been the series' lifeblood from the start, but the four Jones movies, whatever flaws they may have, are never boring. Crystal Skull is different from the first three movies in the series -- but how could it possibly not be? The other three were sharp, hard-edged, lean, fast and spectacular. This one is understandably dreamier, softer and more vulnerable.
Ford is 19 years older and so is everybody else: Spielberg, Lucas, love interest Karen Allen, and the rest of the veterans. It's an older man's movie, in fact, a bit like Rio Bravo crossed with The Ten Commandments -- and the presence of Shia LaBeouf, who plays a kind of cocky Ricky Nelson type to Harry Ford's John Wayne, only enhances the sense of mortality.
Spielberg is a better director here than when he made Raiders, Lucas a better producer and Ford a better actor -- and the holdover crew, including ace editor Michael Kahn, and ace composer John Williams, are more expert as well. By a heavy margin, Skull has the most talented cast ever to grace an Indiana Jones movie -- and they all seem to having a grand old time, especially Blanchett, Winstone and Hurt.
Most of all I liked the continuous, near-symphonic flow of the action and cliffhangers (and I mean cliffhangers) that make up this movie's incredible last act, the wild mix of horror movie shockeroos and epic tongue-in-cheek adventure: the ant's eye shots of inexorable insect invasions, the three successive and amazing waterfall drops, the endearingly ridiculous swordfight on the racing side-by-side truck and jeep, and the A.I.-like science fiction poetics of the saucer scene. And, after all that, I liked the deliberately Norman Rockwell-ish last scene and the final old-man-wins hat gag.
Is it the last Indy? I hope not. This one deserves another. Meanwhile, let's hear it for movie whip-snappers and whipper-snappers alike -- but especially for the old guys. Not to get too schmaltzy, but "over the hill" can also be the place where the next adventure is waiting. Long may they rove and ramble, dig those dreams, dodge those snakes, go over those waterfalls and drive those flabbergasting trucks.
Russia; Sergei Bodrov, 2008, New Line
Based on the early life of Genghis Khan, this is a fascinating and exciting historical saga: a movie that deftly combines epic sweep and adventure with psychological depth and dramatic intensity. Shot on location on the Mongolian plains -- a stark wilderness where vast stretches of empty-looking land are traversed occasionally by riders and horses, and where forests and rivers lie under a seemingly limitless sky -- Bodrov's movie has the gusty appeal of one of the visually majestic "adult" Westerns, like Red River, The Searchers or Little Big Man or a great Japanese historical epic like Seven Samurai.
A large part of what grips you is the way the movie upsets our expectations, taking a real-life figure almost universally regarded in the West as a villain -- the Mongolian general-conqueror Genghis Khan -- and presenting him instead as a genuine hero and also a mystery: a man of nearly unfathomable density and extraordinary achievements. Some, though not all, of what he shows, comes from the record (such as it is) and from the myths it inspired. So what we get here is a mixture of a Beowulf-like saga with something like the Life of Napoleon -- told from Beowulf's or Napoleon's point of view.
Bodrov is immeasurably aided by his star, Tadanobu Asano, the Japanese actor whom he's chosen to play Khan, or "Temudgin," the name by which he's known in youth. Asana (also in Takesho Kitano's Zatoichi) is an actor of remarkable gravity and quietude, but Bodrov shows us Temudgin not in a string of glorious victories, but during a period when he knew mostly defeat and subjugation himself: from 1172, when he was 9, through the years of his exile and separation from his promised wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun) to his first great solo victory against the combined forces of his virulent enemy Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov) and his onetime blood brother, Jamukha (Sun Hong Lei).
A powerful triangle emerges. Jamukha loves Temudgin, whom he wants to be his second-in-command. And Temudgin loves Borte, whom he first chose as his bride when he was 9 and she 10, shortly before his father Esugei's murder -- and who has remained faithful to him, as best she could, even when the two are hundreds of miles apart. All three actors play it to the hilt -- especially the Chinese star Sun (a magnetic, smiling Jean Reno type). Yet it's crucial that Temudgin, until the last heart-stirring battle scene, never has the upper hand. It's as if we were watching our Napoleon-Beowulf also as the Count of Monte Cristo, with much of the biography taking place in the awful prison, the Chateau d'If.
Bodrov tells his epic wonderfully well. This is Mongolia as it was or might have been in the 12th century, but it's also the classic fantasy-world of the epic, the Western, the historical adventure. It's a strange land in which we are both witnesses and "strangers here ourselves," and in which we watch, enrapt, another people, lives drenched with emotion, and a hero whose shadow looms large on the turbulent battlegrounds and dangerous plains. (In Mongolian, with English subtitles.)
Short Cuts (A)
U.S.; Robert Altman, 1993, Criterion
Robert Altman's masterpiece: a masterly interweaving of a number of Raymond Carver stories, reset in Southern California, with a all-star cast that includes Tim Robbins, Robert Downey Jr., Julianne Moore, Frances McDormand, Madeleine Stowe, Annie Ross and Jack Lemmon. I won't say more, because I wrote the essay for Criterion's package. But this is the ensemble king at his best, and one of his own personal favorites.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection (A) U.K.-U.S.; Alfred Hitchcock, MGM
The great Hitch not only never dies -- he never lets the audience off the hook. This is another superb DVD suspense collection, with excellent extras and commentaries. Includes: The Lodger (U.K., 1927, A); Sabotage (U.K., 1936, B+); Young and Innocent (U.K., 1937, B+); Rebecca (U.S., 1940, A); Lifeboat (U.S., 1944, B+); Spellbound (U.S., 1945, A); Notorious (U.S., 1946, A); The Paradine Case (U.S., 1947, B+).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Standard Operating Procedure (B)
U.S.; Erroll Morris, 2008, Sony Pictures
Errol Morris' documentary about Abu Ghraib -- the Iraqi prison where some young American M.P.s, part of the American 372nd military police company, ran amok and were stupid enough to record it all with photographs -- replays and analyzes one of the most publicly damaging episodes of the Iraq war. Remember those shots of a human pyramid of stripped Iraqis, with a grinning young lady on top? This movie shows us the photos, and explains how they were made -- and also what they don't show.
And it speaks with authority. Morris has on-camera testimony from five of the seven soldiers prosecuted for Abu Ghraib offenses (Lynndie England, Javal Davis, Jeremy Sivitz, Megan Ambuhl and Sabrina Harman); one of the criminal investigation special agents who examined the evidence and prepared the case (Brent Pack); and the silver-haired general, Janice Karpinski, who was disgraced by it. (Two other soldiers, Charles Graner and Ivan Frederick, are still in prison -- and Graner, according to the testimony of others, was the worst of the lot.)
Like a lot of Morris' previous work -- including the bizarre pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven and the true crime murder investigation The Thin Blue Line -- it's a deadpan look at wacko behavior, a story that quietly reveals something strange and disturbing about American society and culture.
It's also told, once again, in an unusual style that blends "talking head" testimonyl Morris' probing interviews, and staged re-creations of the acts. It deploys scintillating photography, by Robert Richardson, and evocative music -- this time by Tim Burton's usual collaborator, Danny Elfman (of Oingo Boingo), rather than Morris' frequent composer, Philip Glass. The standard operating procedure, in this case, is what Pack says was violated at Abu Ghraib: the proper method for extracting information from supposedly dangerous POWs (and others) without toppling over the line into torture and scandal. Or, in this case, torture, scandal and outrageous stupidity.
One of the more curious things here is Morris' sympathy for his subjects. It's clear that he sees his five soldier-witnesses mostly as lower-level victims and scapegoats who took the fall, while the people primarily responsible for the war itself and ultimately for any transgressions in Iraq -- let's say, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld -- got off smiling (or, in Cheney's case, smirking). But Morris doesn't indict any of the higher-ups explicitly, and that may bother S.O.P.'s detractors too.
Both Morris and Dick Cheney were at the riot-torn University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in the Vietnam years. (So was I.) And one thing Cheney should have learned there is that you shouldn't have riots, turmoil and bad behavior by authority figures on camera. His underlings don't seem to know this; they're like paparazzi cheerfully and recklessly creating their own tabloid scandal.
I don't think S.O.P. is a great documentary, or that it's as good as Morris' epic Vietnam interview with Bob McNamara, The Fog of War. But it's good: a crucial document of the Iraq conflict, and a provocative analysis of the meaning and power of images.
War, Inc. (C)
U.S.; Joshua Seftel, 2008, First Look
It would have been nice if John Cusack's new movie War, Inc. had worked. But it doesn't quite -- even if it catches your sympathy. A would-be savage satire of the mostly botched war in Iraq, pitched in the dark comic mode of Dr. Strangelove or Catch-22, it's a movie that makes points well worth making -- about "privatized" government and warfare, venal geopolitics, modern supercharged political corruption and media whoredom and superficiality -- with a terrific cast that includes John and Joan Cusack, Marisa Tomei, Ben Kingsley and Dan Aykroyd.
The subject matter is a violently satiric slant on war-torn Iraq, redubbed "Turaqistan," and viewed thought the wary, cynical eyes of a pro hit man named Hauser (writer-producer-star Cusack) who travels to the war zone, and a press cloister called "Emerald City." There, Hauser finds himself caught up in a series of misadventures, bloody fiascos and unholy messes that include street warfare, romancing with Tomei and babe-sitting for a flirty Turaqistani pop star named Monica Babyyeah (played, in a brave move, by teen pop goddess Hilary Duff) -- all masterminded by a sinister Wizard of Oz-ish CIA heavy named Walken (played not by Chris, but by Kingsley).
But the movie has a crippling flaw for a dark comedy. Dark it may be; funny it's not.
Scene after scene thuds away, no matter how outrageous the material -- whether dancing amputees, hints of incest or a hot sauce called "Napalm Girl." You might tend to blame the script, except that one cast member actually delivers a sensational comic performance. As Hauser's shrewish Tamerlane contact Marsha Dillon, UW alum Joan Cusack racks up laughs seemingly at will.
Joan's easy steal tends to confirm that the main problem here lies less with cast or script, and more with the film's direction, which isn't establishing the same comic style, and tone with everybody else. First-time fiction feature director and documentarian Joshua Seftel may simply be out of his depth. Anyway, Cusack, who is at his best here in his more serious scenes, is lucky he had sister Joan around for some laughs. Unfortunately, this is one case where his War, Inc. may have been upstaged by the dark, deadly comedy of real life itself.
U.S.; Richard Attenborough, 1992, Lionsgate
An incredible lead performance as Charlie Chaplin by Robert Downey, Jr. -- who gets not just his look and his actions but seemingly his soul as well -- keys this affectionate bio-tribute to the great comedian-auteur and to Hollywood in its golden, silent days. With Anthony Hopkins, Diane Lane, James Woods, Dan Aykroyd (as jolly Mack Sennett) and Charlie's daughter Geraldine Chaplin (as Charlie's sad mother).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films (C+)
U.K.; various directors, 1960-64, Sony Pictures
Four lesser known movies from the archetypal British horror studio: Hammer Films, home of Christopher Lee's saturnine Count Dracula and Peter Cushing's fussy Dr. Frankenstein -- and many other movie monsters borrowed from Universal and others. Cushing appears here once (in The Gorgon), Lee three times and two of the movies are by Hammer's wheel horse director, Terence Fisher, a garish but reliable stylist who sometimes resembles a snootier Corman or a spooked Minnelli.
The two Fishers aren't bad; The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll has an interestingly sexed-up Wolf Mankowitz take on Stevenson's double-edged classic. But there's only one real gem, here -- even though it's almost worth getting the set for. Director Seth Holt and producer-writer Jimmy Sangster's Riviera-set sub-Diabolique grand guignol thriller Scream of Fear stars Susan Strasberg (Lee Strasberg's daughter), Ann Todd (once Mrs. David Lean), the ubiquitous and iniquitous C. Lee, plus ambivalent chauffeur Ronald Lewis -- and features stunning black-and-white photography by the great film noir cinematographer Douglas (Dougie) Slocombe. You probably know Dougie as the deep-focus genius who shot the first three Indiana Jones movies, but what he does with monochrome (as in Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Servant) is on a Gregg Toland-James Wong Howe level.
Includes: The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (Terence Fisher, 1960, C+), based on Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and with Paul Massie, Dawn Addams and Lee; Scream of Fear (Seth Holt, 1961, B), with Susan Strasberg, Ann Todd and Christopher Lee; The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (Michael Carreras, 1964, D+), with Terence Morgan and Ronald Howard; and, The Gorgon (Terence Fisher, 1964, C+), with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley.