Sunday, June 29, 2008

Epilogue: The Children of George and Steven and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

You can say what you will about the man who created Jar-Jar Binks, George Lucas sure knows his audience. Case in point, this quote from this February's Vanity Fair:

“The fans are all upset,” Lucas says. “They’re always going to be upset. ‘Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this?’ They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it. So you just have to stand by for the bricks and the custard pies, because they’re going to come flying your way.”

I quoted that a couple of months back, but I can't help but keep flashing back to it when I go over the numerous Internet slams of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, the eagerly anticipated fourth INDIANA JONES film that opened a little over a month ago. It didn't seem to go over so well. The film has made quite a bit of money, as predicted, but it seems as though the fans are not happy. Or at least those who are most unhappy have decided to shout their displeasure as far and loud as they possibly can for as many as possible to hear because, well, it's so god damn important. They've destroyed Indiana Jones! This precious, beloved character and film series has been sullied by a lackluster entry that has all but sunk the series! It had inter-dimensional aliens, characters surviving huge drops from waterfalls and Shai Labouf swinging from vines. The series has nuked the fridge! Damn you George and Steven for pissing on your youth once again! WE WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU!!!

So anyway...

George couldn't have called it better. Not matter what you do, if it's not good enough, then you're toast. Audiences demand quality, that's nothing new, but the quality that the Children of George and Steven, the generation that grew up with STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES, demand is that they must be taken back to the feelings that they experienced in their youths or you've let them down. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL basically had to live up to the previous films in some way or another, and to a lot of people it didn't. Hey, I'm sorry you didn't like the movie. You pay your money, you buy your Twizzlers, you sit down in your seat and you expect to be transported to another time or place via the magic of motion picture making. Expectations being what they are, how could this film ever live up? Hey, I'm sorry you're not 12 anymore.

Allow me to take a moment to focus on the movies that INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is, as opposed to what it isn't. It's pretty good. I've seen it more than once and it's improved with each viewing. I like it. I also liked the STAR WARS prequels, so I'm probably a drooling fanboy who likes everything and can't be trusted, but for what it is, it's pretty good. It's fun; the action scenes are all extremely well done and are that distinctly zippy style that I believe Spielberg does better than anybody. This is a Steven Spielberg film, no question, and those action scenes feel to me like action scenes in an INDIANA JONES movie. In fact, the whole movie feels like an Indiana Jones movie to me, albeit a new Indiana Jones movie, a 2008 INDIANA JONES movie, if you will. I see Harrison Ford in the fedora and leather jacket and it's unmistakably Indiana Jones. And Ford is doing some of his best work in a while here; like my friend Drew McWeeney said in his review on Ain't It Cool News, "Harrison Ford showed up" - he's on his game again, not just that he's fit and can do the action scenes like he used to, but it looks like he's enjoying himself. I also loved Cate Blanchett, who I've never found this sexy in a movie, and I love both of the major chase scenes. Are there problems? Are there flaws? Of course there are. The return of the character of Marion feels like a wasted opportunity, although Karen Allen does have some nice moments, and the film does fall apart once they hit the waterfalls. The aliens just don't feel right and there's nothing at stake other than getting that skull back to its rightful owners. Spielberg's been in need of going to ending school for the last decade or so, although the last scene does put a smile on my face, the perfect way to end it all and, one would think, wrap up the series. Sure there's a lot of silly stuff before for - the fridge and the monkeys quickly come to mind - but it's a sad day in moviedom when we start faulting an INDIANA JONES movie for its lack of realism. Isn't this the series that opened its second installment with our hero and his cohorts surviving an jump from an airplane with nothing more than a life raft? Besides, James Bond not only swung from vines but also gave a Tarzan yell in OCTOPUSSY and we forgave that.

What the reaction to INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL tells me is that the Children of George and Steven don't seem to enjoy movies like they sued to, if they really do at all. They've seen so many of them that a certain burnout settles in, especially where the blockbusters are concerned, especially more where George and Steven are concerned. Now, this sort of thing is true of most anything in life, movies especially, so the reaction shouldn't be too much of a surprise; nothing is a good as it used to be. I wasn't too thrilled with the film the first time I saw it, either. I liked the first third, and then started to lose interest, and left with a bit of a shrug. But I went to see it again because I felt like what was off wasn't the movie so much as it was me. - I couldn't see the movie for what it was, just what I thought it should be. When I saw it a second time it played much better and it was so much easier to just sit back and enjoy it. The groove got considerably easier to get into and I was much, much more entertained. It also helped that I saw it with a group of crazed Spaniards, led by filmmaker Eugenio Mira, who came to Austin just to experience the film at the Alamo Drafthouse, god bless 'em. We all pretty much agreed that it plays better the second time out, and later on Eugenio and I were going through the chase at the university and both remarking on how much we liked it. Doesn't mean that if you didn't like it then you need to the film again in order to appreciate it; I'm sure that others have seen it more than once and probably don't agree, but it's worth another shot. But that's all up to you.

It's easy for me to say that the fan reaction to the film is, in truth, a reaction to a life of failed dreams and grown-up disappointments ("The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity"), and the asshole part of me kind of wants to rub that in, even though I know it's not true (OK, maybe just a little true). Listen, if you don't like a movie then that's your reaction and I can't change that. But this overreaction I can't comprehend - so fucking what if the movie doesn't live up to expectations?!? People, there are earthquakes and floods and cyclones in this world and the disappointment you feel in the new INDIANA JONES movie, or any movie, is so very low on the list of things that are important that your vitriol is beyond insignificant. Jeez, imagine what would happen if you cared about something that was actually important! But then again, how else would you expect the Children of George and Steven to react to their disappointment? Children, even overgrown children, seem to enjoy crying as much as they do being happy.

I'll let George have the last word here (from an USA Today April interview):

"When you do a movie like this, a sequel that's very, very anticipated, people anticipate ultimately that it's going to be the Second Coming," Lucas says. "And it's not. It's just a movie. Just like the other movies. You probably have fond memories of the other movies. But if you went back and looked at them, they might not hold up the same way your memory holds up... When people approach the new (Indiana Jones), much like they did with Phantom Menace, they have a tendency to be a little harder on it," he says. "You're not going to get a lot of accolades doing a movie like this. All you can do is lose."

This guy's a lot smarter than his former fans are giving him credit for.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Final Girl Film Club: Tobe Hooper's LIFEFORCE

The long-standing rumor of whether or not Steven Spielberg took over direction of POLTERGEIST from Tobe Hooper is one that remains with us to this day, and if you read around or talk to people who were there, then things don't really sound too good for Mr. Hooper's reputation. Hooper's earlier work, fine as some of it was, didn't suggest the polished professionalism of POLTERGEIST and the finished product certainly reeks of Spielberg (those of you expecting a Spielberg dis job can look elsewhere, as POLTERGEIST remains one of my favorite horror films), but no matter what actually happened on that set, I can tell you that whoever directed POLTERGEIST sure as hell could have also directed LIFEFORCE. You could argue that Hooper learned to direct like Spielberg from watching him, but the fact of the matter is that he made a picture that like the best of those early Spielberg films, holds up as a hell of a great piece of entertainment and is also an insane and sometimes inspired work of genre filmmaking. In a lot of ways, Hooper has never made anything this fun before or since.

I'd like to get it out of the way now and admit that LIFEFORCE is as silly as hell. Space vampires arriving via Haley's Comet? The nude vampire chick? Steve Railsback? How many actors rejected them before they got to Steve Railsback? Never mind about that, because Railsback blends in perfectly with these insane surroundings, but you've got to admire any mainstream movie, especially one that cost a hell of a lot of money to make ($25 million in 1985), that so fearlessly throws conventional logic out the window, screams "Fuck it!", and goes forth on a sci-fi cinematic cocaine bender like this. We look back on the cheesy sci-fi/horror films of the 50s and 60s with a lot of fondness because they were so much of their time, a more innocent era where the films also reflected the socio-political essence of the times. LIFEFORCE is very much like that, just without the socio-political essence, the innocence or anything else except tossing everything into the mix, throwing a lot of money at it and hoping that audiences will take to it, which was very much the style of the time. It's the 1941 of sci-fi/horror films, and like that film, it works mainly because it's so over the place that even though it doesn't make a lick of sense it's so much of a trip to watch that you're pleased by just how nutty it is. What were they thinking? You know something, I don't really care.

All that said, I think there's some really great stuff in here. For starters, LIFEFORCE is a picture that moves, and moves fast and lean for much of its running time, so even though you may not know what the hell is going on, you're caught up enough to just go with it. Many of the action and horror set pieces are pretty effective and there's enough excitement to keep the tension palpable. There are also a few great individual scenes, like the one where Patrick Stewart's all drugged up, that earn your respect out of their legitimate quality but don't make you think, "Man, if only the rest of the movie wasn't so silly". And you can't discuss LIFEFORCE without talking about Henry Mancini's superb score, with a fantastic march that remains one of my favorites. Mancini did indeed come across as a strange choice to score the film (he had done thrillers, but never any outright sci-fi or horror), and yet he delivered one of his best scores, although I've got to wonder just what the hell it is he thought of the movie itself. When the film was cut by Tri-Star, its U.S. distributor, it was re-scored with some new music by Michael Kamen, but thankfully MGM's 1995 laserdisc release (and the subsequent DVD, still in print) retained the original director's cut and Mancini score . LIFEFORCE was pretty out there at 101 minutes, but now at 118 it's even crazier and even better, and thank goodness MGM also struck a new 35mm print of this version (which I saw at QT Fest in 2001), making it the only one they lend out for theatrical engagements. All is well with the world.

I think Hooper understood that he had something to prove with LIFEFORCE and he honestly did give it his all and delivered the best picture he could. Sure, the movie's batshit insane, but it's the best kind of batshit insane movie you can possibly have and I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for it. After THE APPLE, it's my favorite Cannon movie.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Totally, Totally Fine - The 2008 New York Asian Film Festival

Late June in NYC can only mean one thing - the start of the New York Asian Film Festival. This will actually be my first year missing the fest, but there's no reason why I can't sing its praises from all the way down here in Austin. As I happen to be neck deep in film festival stuff myself (along with lots of other crappy stuff), I have an idea about some of the films being screened and from looking at the list I think I can tell you without any reservation that the film you're going to want to see - and I mean don't miss at any cost - is Yosuke Fujita's FINE TOTALLY FINE, which will soon be one of the big hits of the festival circuit. This one's going to get around and will garner a lot of fans in its wake. That's all I can say.

Doing down the list, the few films I've seen already include such previously HQ 10-reviewed films as DAINIPPONJIN and Johnnie To's MAD DETECTIVE (To's brand new film, the sublime-looking SPARROW, is also showing at NYAFF, and I'm pissed I'm missing it). I've seen THE BUTCHER and don't agree with this review, but can understand why someone would feel that way, while I haven't seen anything else on the bill but wouldn't mind checking them out. I know that Grady, Marc, Brian, Goran, and that other guy have been busting their asses as usual on this year's fest and my hat's off to them for doing that voodoo that they do so well once again. If you're in NYC, by all means go!

Meanwhile, I have to admit that for the first time in a long time I'm psyched by a trailer (or show reel, in this case) for an upcoming Asian action film, this one being Tony Jaa's directorial debut, ONG BAK 2. These trailers have become a dime a dozen, showing two minutes of kicking and punching that usually keeps me away from the film in question, but I think I'm seeing something very unique here. The first film was fairly entertaining, but not the ground breaker that some thought it was (I much preferred BORN TO FIGHT, from the same stunt team) but I'm looking at this thing and I'm just, like, damn! I mean, they're fighting on top of elephants for Christ's sake! Elephants! Check it out here:

From what I understand the thing is nowhere near finished (Jaa has been filming it for a long time), but it's supposed to be out on Thailand some time in the fall, which means the imports and bootlegs will hit in January/February. Gotta admit, I can't wait.

Monday, June 16, 2008

On WALL-E...

Before I get into WALL-E, Pixar’s latest effort (which I saw last night at a special Ain’t It Cool News screening), I’d like to make it perfectly clear that I like the picture very much. Overall, it’s a little marvel of a film - funny and exciting and heartwarming and technologically astounding and is certainly one of the better pictures released thus far this year. Of all the Pixar features it probably looks the best, especially since it’s attempting to replicate a dying Earth in a manner that’s never quite looked this way on screen before. It’s also magnificently directed by Andrew Stanton (I’d love to see him get a Best Director nod for this), who tells this story with so much drive and so much creativity that it makes him possibly my favorite of all Pixar directors. The film also has some fine satirical zing about contemporary consumer society (although coming from tie-in happy Disney and Pixar, it's not that biting) and modern stupidity that also makes it worth appreciating, so it’s going to deserve much of the acclaim it’s going to get. I’ll say it here and now: Unless that new Miyazaki film isn’t so hot (or if it doesn’t open in 2008), the Best Animated Feature Oscar is WALL-E’s to lose.

But there’s always a "but", isn’t there? Like I said, I like the film a lot and I don’t begrudge it any success. Pixar is the best at what they do and they do what they do damn well, as we all know. The problem with WALL-E, however, is that for the first time in their history, Pixar is going for “cute” and I don’t like it. Wall-E, the lead, is cute. He falls in love with another robot – cute. He adores the film version of HELLO, DOLLY, at least the parts that only contain Michael Crawford (who, correct me if I’m wrong, receives no credit) – cute. He has a cockroach sidekick – intended to be cute, but if you live in Texas and, like me, hate cockroaches like the day is long (and the day is pretty damn long), not so cute. Never before have I sensed that Pixar was trying to butter me up by playing it cute, but they do here. Does it work? Ultimately, it does. I was touched by the robot romance and didn’t find myself disliking Wall-E itself, but like I said, I could feel the attempts at pulling the heartstrings as kinda forced and resented it for a bit. The HELLO, DOLLY thing really got to me, too. Why HELLO, DOLLY? Does Stanton have a thing for that particular picture? Something wrong with a legitimately great movie musical like OKLAHOMA! or something? They keep re-playing the same two songs (“It Only Takes a Moment” and "Put on Your Sunday Clothes") and it got to be a bit grating, I must say. And the cockroach? Listen guys, I understand they they’re probably going to survive longer than mankind, but some people just don’t like them, OK? The film’s second half is much-more plot oriented and expands the story into non-cute directions, so it’s much easier to take, but when WALL-E plays it cute, I wasn’t always having it.

All that said, I certainly have no problem recommending WALL-E and am sure that it will be as beloved as many of the other Pixar hits are. But like I said before, those pictures didn’t need to be cute to work and they weren’t. I hope that Pixar is able to get the cute out of their system with WALL-E and move on from here. But there’s nothing cute about cheap sentimentality.

(As per the usual course, WALL-E opens with a new Pixar short, a delightful piece called PRESTO about a rabbit and a magic hat, that is probably my favorite Pixar short yet.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Forgotten Movies: Arthur Dreifuss' RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP

God bless Lars Nilsen.

The host of the Alamo Drafthouse's Weird Wednesdays screening series, Lars is one of the smartest, wittiest, and most perceptive exploitation film experts in the world, and I always look forward to his weekly WW introductions sometimes more than the movies themselves. When Lars gets to talking about these films, he's more than just a mere cheerleader or supporter, he's someone who is telling you all this stuff for your own good; this isn't merely the information about that particular film that would be helpful to know, it's information that's imperative to know. Lars is not always able to make the films better, but his introductions makes the evening worth it and he's always able to get you excited about what you're going to see.

Case in point: His introduction to RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP, which screened this past Wednesday. He made a point of saying that RIOT was not an especially good film in a lot of ways; it was a 60s youth film that was made by old-time pros who had been working in movies as far back as the silent era, like producer Sam Katzman, who were looking to make a quickie teenage movie that would go in and out of theaters for a few months, make a small profit and that was it. RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP is pretty much that anyway, but when Lars introduced it, he told everyone, "No matter what, just wait for the scene where Mimsy Farmer takes her shoes off". The film would go downhill after that scene concluded, but man, was it worth it, Lars said and damn if he wasn't right as rain. RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP is really more a movie of moments - what's choice is very choice and what isn't isn't - but those moments when the film is on there's a little bit of a feeling of lightning in a bottle. It may not be the preeminent film of the late 60s youth movement, but it's not completely squaresville, either.

Something I though Lars would mention in his intro (something he should have mentioned) was that RIOT was produced back in 1966 (though released in '67), which for most people was the year that really defined what the 60s were all about. The revolution was just starting, the possibility of real change was in the air, and the youth of America was rioting on the Sunset Strip, so why the hell not make a movie about it? Hey, so what if it didn't last, no one knew that then. Even more so, '66 was quite possibly the finest year for music ever, from the likes of Revolver to Pet Sounds to Blonde on Blonde to Aftermath and such earth-shattering songs as The Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction"; The Sonics' "Psycho"; The Creation's "Makin' Time"; "Wild Thing" by The Troggs; James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's Man's World" and thousand other musical masterpieces still worth listening to. What little RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP gets right is those few moments when it's accurately recounting the era, namely in the musical performances of bands like The Standels and The Chocolate Watchband, and then there's a real electricity that reminds you of the great line Peter Fonda has in THE LIMEY about how the 60s really meant '66 and a little bit of '67. That's what RIOT ON THE SUNSET STRIP should be, but quite isn't.

The problem stems from the fact that the film took an exciting real-life event (the Sunset Strip curfew riots) and turned it into a cheap, quickie Sam Katzman production that was in theaters six weeks (six weeks?!?) after the riots occurred. It's a movie that wants to have it both ways; fair to the kids, who are most likely going to be the ones to see it, but it doesn't make the adults or the establishment into villains, casting Aldo Ray (a severely unappreciated actor) as a sympathetic police chief whose daughter (Farmer) gets mixed up with "the wrong crowd". It's this part of the picture that gives it an entertainment value that even the hippies of the day could appreciate, camp. Watching square adults trying to make the hippies of the day look like the juvenile delinquents of the 50s, but watching them not event truly understand "where it's at" still makes it a lot of fun. All you really need is for one character to turn to another and just say, "Freak out", and you've got some memorable movie entertainment, even if it is for the wrong reasons.

So RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP isn't especially great, but you can't deny that it has something that makes it worth seeing, even remembering a little bit. Lars sure nailed this one.

PS - Now that this piece is done, you can all go read Lars' new Weird Wednesdays blog, which I was going to mention at the beginning but then I realized you might get so caught up in reading it that you might not come back, so feel free to go there if you like now, because I'm done.

Go, shoo!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Scooter, You Fucking Quote Whore.

Dario Argento's THE MOTHER OF TEARS, the third film in a trilogy that began with SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, has finally opened here in the U.S. (although bootlegs and other region DVDs have been around for a bit) and it's getting all different types of opinions, mainly massive love to massive hate. No one is looking at it as a classic along the lines of SUSPIRIA - the kindest things that people have to say is that it's so stupid that it's very entertaining - while many long time Argento devotees I've spoken to just hate it to pieces and are writing the guy off for good. Bucking this trend, however, is none other than my little buddy Scooter McCrae, who is the first person I know who loves Argento and genuinely likes MOTHER OF TEARS at the same time. Fangoria was nice enough to allow Scooter the opportunity to express his love, and now the folks at Myriad Pictures, who are distributing the film theatrically, have returned the love by quoting Scooter by name in the ads for film. Don't they know who this guy is? Haven't they seen Mondo Modular? And what's with that new haircut, Scooter?

Now, I haven't seen the film myself (it doesn't open in Austin for another two weeks), though I'll certainly go and, who knows, maybe I'll enjoy myself. I'm not a die hard Argento fan like some people I know; while DEEP RED is one of my favorite films of all time and I adore the likes of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, SUSPIRIA, and THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, Argento hasn't been Argento for a long time, so to have him attempt to connect to past glories feels somewhat desperate. But hey, once I see the film I'll read Scooter's review and maybe, I can only hope, he and I will either see eye to eye, as we often have, or I'll find it so silly that I just won't care. I'm there either way, so what does it matter?

That said, THE MOTHER OF TEARS, a film by Dario Argento that's officially endorsed by Scooter McCrae, is now playing in NY and L.A., with more cities to follow. I hope I'll enjoy it.