>> Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (John’s Review, 6.5/10)

Indiana JonesThis movie looks like it was filmed on a green-screen sound stage. That’s the thing that sticks out in my mind the most about the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones saga. Why is such a technicality important? Because what we have here is the least cinematic film in a series of films so much larger than life that they are a part of Americana. The question after viewing Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is how did these two young filmmakers, George Lucas and Steven Speilberg, release Raiders of the Lost Ark almost thirty years ago with such a searing blaze of artistic confidence and now that they are older and arguably masters of their craft, collaborate to release something so lacking in artistic confidence?

I do like the story elements of Crystal Skull quite a bit, certainly more than those in Temple of Doom. Lucas mines the old Chariots of the Gods stuff, the Erich Von Daniken “non-fiction” book that links the Mayans to an alien civilization (amongst other claims), and mixes it with Cold War Russian psychological experimentation. Seems the Russians and their super secret psychic commando, Inna Spalko (Cate Blanchett), seek a super secret Mayan artifact–a crystal alien skull, that they can use as a mind control weapon. Dr. Jones’ help is enlisted by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a rebel with a cause, the cause being the disappearance of their mutual friend Professor Oxley (John Hurt), whose obsession with the crystal skull drove him insane. Several awkwardly staged action sequence later, and film climaxes in the deepest heart of a green-screen Peru, with an ending that is 100-percent science fiction and zero-percent historical adventure.

Imagine if Paramount owned Indiana Jones, instead of Lucasfilm, and they hired two other guys besides Lucas and Spielberg to make an Indiana Jones film, and you’d probably get something like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It feels hesitant and unsure, while still maintaining some elements that fans of the series might enjoy. Even John Williams’ signature score is strangely subdued, almost entirely without the usual rousing bombast. Sometimes there’s no music at all in scenes where it really stands out that we should be hearing some John Williams music right about now. It plays out like a film made by newcomers to a beloved franchise, like when Joe Johnston tackled Jurassic Park 3 or Jonathon Mostow took on the unwelcome task of helming T3: Rise of the Machines. Only, and this is the sad part, it isn’t made by newcomers.

This illogical, sometimes silly, adventure would be more forgivable if it wasn’t delivered to us by two of Hollywood’s most esteemed magic makers. The green-screen stuff ruins a ton of shots, limiting Spielberg’s camera placement, and, quite frankly, making most of the action scenes look terribly fake. An otherwise exciting swordfight between Mutt and Spalko is basically ruined with atrocious effects work. Indiana Jones, for the first time in any of these films, is an underwritten character. That’s especially problematic when the movie is titled Indiana Jones.

Regardless, I was entertained, albeit disappointed. The argument can be made that it is better than a lot of the junk out there in theatres, and while that’s certainly true, it doesn’t mean this should get some kind of free pass at being sort of lame. I actually hope this isn’t the last one, because I don’t want to see this series end on such a mute note, but maybe it’s time for Speilberg and Lucas to move on and let someone else take the reigns. They’ve already shown us what Indiana Jones would look like in lesser hands by making this film at a time in their careers when they simply don’t appear to care about this character.

6.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

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>> The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (John’s Review, 6.5/10)

Prince CaspianPrince Caspian is like watching all of the parts of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that I didn’t really enjoy, namely, the parts with clanging swords and allegorical politicking amongst fawns, centaurs, and the like.  I could appreciate the sense of wonder upon entering Narnia in the first film.  I mean, everybody likes funny animals and Santa Claus, right?  But as the film marched towards a strangely inevitable Diet LOTR climax, my interest waned.  There’s nothing particularly wondrous about this return visit to C.S. Lewis’s mythical land; neither in the story nor the execution.

Set a few hundred years after Wardrobe, Caspian (Ben Barnes) is a Telmarine prince who seems like an easy target for his uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), who wants to rule the Telmarines with an iron fist.  A botched assassination attempt on Prince Caspian opens the film, and, in a panic, he blows an enchanted horn which transports Lucy, Peter, Edmund, and Susan from their dreary lives in 20th Century England, back into Narnia.  These former kings and queens of Narnia form a quick alliance with Prince Caspian to prevent Miraz from taking the throne and destroying the few remaining Narnians that are left in this more natural, less magical world.

(Strangely the psychological ramifications of the Pevensie children being thousands of years old because of the fact that they’ve already led full adult lives ruling over Narnia, is never explored.  This is particularly weird in the case of young Lucy, who not only behaves like a little girl, but is basically treated as one by everyone she encounters.  My suspension of disbelief would be strong enough to ignore this particular bit of malarkey, if the Pevensies weren’t always making wisecracks about how old they really are.)

The Christian allegorical content of Prince Caspian is on the surface a little bit more than in the first film.  Lucy keeps spotting Aslan, and while the others don’t see him, it is important to their survival that they believe that he still exists, and that they consider what Aslan’s will is before they enter into any battle.  WWAD, indeed.  The one battle where they do rely on their own instincts goes poorly, and that’s no big surprise given that some of the characters practically scream “THIS IS NOT WHAT ASLAN WOULD DO” as they reluctantly enter battle.

The battles are a step up from Wardrobe.  No longer are war scenes filled with rubber-masked extras clanking swords together like first-timers at a ren fair, and while it doesn’t reach Peter Jacksonesque heights, it’s slightly better than Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood movie when it comes to mass castle invasion.

Sometimes I just have to realize that a particular movie is not really for me.  I’ve never been a big fantasy guy, and both Narnia films have failed to connect with me on any kind of level.  Really, this is lightweight stuff for kids that aren’t quite teens–an adventure movie created for people who haven’t watched a lot of adventure movies, nor had any particular personal adventures of their own.  Writer/director Andrew Adamson doesn’t think big enough for Narnia; neither from his imagination nor from his emotional heart.  These films squander their potential to emotionally connect with a wider audience by keeping things as thin as the paper that the original novels are printed on.

6.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Forgetting Sarah Marshall (John’s Review, 8/10)

forgetting sarah marshallWho would have ever guessed that the demise of the NBC TV show Freaks and Geeks would result in a small flood of fresh comedic talent ready for the big screen? Producer Judd Apatow continues to encourage his former Freaks and Geeks cast to explore their writing side. Seth Rogen wrote one of the funniest teen sex comedies ever, Superbad, and with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segal has written one of the funniest, freshest romantic comedies ever.

Segal stars as Peter Bretter, a TV composer for a popular cop show starring hot young actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). They’ve shared a committed relationship outside of the show for a while, until Sarah comes home one day and drops the news that she’s been seeing someone else, public spectacle and rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Peter is completely devastated. Somewhere between a handful of empty, rebounding one night stands and constant bouts of crying, he decides to relax in Hawaii to clear his head and escape his hurt. Upon arriving in Hawaii, however, Peter finds himself at the exact same hotel Sarah is staying at with her new love. He maintains some level of dignity, thanks to a plucky hotel desk clerk (Mila Kunis), but still has to deal with the complications of moping through a tropical paradise while someone parades around with his ex.

Jason Segal makes an interesting leading man, reminding me a little of 70’s comedic leading men that weren’t exactly comedians, like Alan Arkin or Elliot Gould or Richard Benjamin. He’s also a startlingly good writer. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is firstly, and most importantly, very, very funny, and willing to find humor whenever it can, be it character-driven punchlines, some raunchy sight gags, witty bits of dialogue, or physical pratfalls. The rare thing is that every single bit of it, every attempt to get a laugh, gets one. Aside from that, the story also deviates from romantic comedy conventions, steering the old boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl situation into new territory that feels fresh. The movie has unexpected and resonant bits of reality thrown into its comedy, and those truthful, painful moments really elevate this film into something special. I can’t wait for Segal’s next screenplay (reportedly a new Muppet movie!), and if he continues to grow as a writer, he’ll be a comedic powerhouse.

It would be criminal for me to review this film and not mention Mila Kunis, formerly of That 70’s Show, who is so vastly improved here from that show, that she seems like a totally different actress all together. She’s natural, relaxed, funny, and effortlessly beautiful, and I definitely had a movie cruch on her by the time the film was through. Her character, Rachel Jansen, affords a major act of kindness onto Peter when he touches down in Hawaii early in the film, and she’s just so completely attractive, that it doesn’t take long before Peter is thinking about Rachel as much as he’s thinking about Sarah Marshall. I think I need this Mila Kunis to be in every movie from now on.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a homerun movie for first-time director Nicholas Stoller and first-time writer/star Jason Segal. I enjoyed it a little more than producer Apatow’s recent hits, Superbad and Knocked Up, because Forgetting Sarah Marshall is more emotionally complex than those previous comedies. I rooted for Peter, because I know what it’s like to feel like Peter. Add that to the fact that it’s hilarious, and you may have the greatest break-up comedy of all time.

8 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Iron Man (John’s review, 8/10)

Iron ManThere’s something about the tone of Iron Man that sets it apart from other comic book origin movies, and I’m still struggling to figure out what exactly what that is. Iron Man is delicious fried chicken, and my palate can guess about eight of the eleven original herbs and spices that make it taste so good, but I’m still trying to figure out those other three. I do know that Iron Man is one heck of a junk food meal–hot, satisfying, and tasty.

It was a nice, bold touch to add political relevancy to Iron Man, by moving the action to the middle east and making war profiteering figure so heavily into the plot. Robert Downey Jr is billionaire industrialist playboy Tony Stark, a man who has never really considered the casualties of his weapons manufacturing until he’s incapacitated in Afghanistan by one of his own missles. Kept alive by his captors, a mysterious organization known as the Ten Rings, Stark is forced to recreate his latest weapon, but instead builds a high tech body armor that allows him to escape captivity with relative ease and return to the states a changed man.

Stark is no longer interested in the steady, huge stream of money from the military-industrial complex, frustrating his shareholders and right-hand man Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) to no end. What he is interested in is secretly tinkering with that new body armor, refining it, and possibly using it to do some good in the world. With great cash comes great responsibility.

This is a movie, much like Spider-Man before it, that is solely interested in being a really cool, really fun comic book film. Still, there’s something different about Iron Man, something in its execution, that feels quite fresh. It may be the casting of Robert Downey Jr as Stark, not the type of movie hero we are used to seeing. Stark here is a quick-witted man-child that is some crazy amalgamation of James Bond, Bugs Bunny, and Thomas Edison. Downey’s natural, confident performance may just be the thing that gives Iron Man that extra something special.

His supporting cast also feel comfortable with the heavy duty pop science fiction action at hand. Gwyneth Paltrow is Stark’s personal assistant, Pepper Potts, making an underdeveloped role memorable, and Terrence Howard is James Rhodes, Stark’s closest friend in the military. Everyone seems to be having fun under director Jon Favreau, and that fun is translated to the viewing audience.

Iron Man, in many ways, captures the energy of Marvel Comics itself during the 1960’s, the era in which Stark and his armor were created, better than any other Marvel film. It’s cocky, inspired, and imaginative, just like classic Marvel. In those days, Stan Lee marketed the Marvel comics as “Pop Art Productions” for a brief time. Iron Man is definitely a Marvel Pop Art Production–timely without being deep; disposable entertainment yet completely unforgettable. In other words, superhero comic books personified.

8 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> The Ruins (John’s Review, 7/10)

The RuinsThere is no reason why The Ruins, a movie about American college students fighting against killer plants in Mexico, should work, but it does. It not only works, but it works well.

I read the Scott Smith novel on which the film was based because of the critical praise for the novel and my love for A Simple Plan, the 1998 Sam Raimi-directed thriller that Smith wrote. Smith knows a thing or two about building tension. He places his characters into a bad situation then makes things progressively worse, in large part by bad decisions made by the characters themselves. I was curious how The Ruins would translate this to film without the characters looking like idiotic stock horror youths–20-something dumb-dumbs who make stupid choices and then pay the price.

Strangely enough, Smith’s screenplay pares the story down successfully for the screen by eliminating some of the worried decision making between the main characters that exists in the novel. The choices made in the film by the main characters are snap, yet logical, despite almost always ending up capital “B” Bad. Smith supplies a less bleak ending for the film, but the finality of the novel is barely missed–the proceedings are bleak enough as is.

Four friends (Jonathan Tucker, Jenna Malone, Laura Ramsey, and Shawn Ashmore) on vacation in Mexico follow a German traveler in search of his brother to a secluded Mayan ruin. Things do not go well. Plant life is not the most threatening monster in a horror flick, but it is a testament to director Carter Smith that he makes this work as well as it does.

The movie feels immediate and real, adding to the tension, and Carter Smith gets remarkable performances out of his two female stars. All four actors sell the terror extremely well. Most horror films can get their actors to scream and scramble, but in The Ruins the actors seem genuinely terrified, successfully selling a film that, at times, is a hard sell.

It wouldn’t be too bold of me to name The Ruins as the best horror film of 2008 so far. It’s a movie that wants to make the audience tense and uncomfortable, and it does. The real feat in the film, however, is taking a silly concept and making it into a memorable threat.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Leatherheads (John’s Review, 7/10)

Leatherheads“Cute” is not an adjective I throw around often, and “cute” is generally not the adjective you want to see applied towards a football movie. Leatherheads is cute. This story from the early days of professional football was a passion project from director and star George Clooney, but his passion doesn’t seem to be focused on the sport of football itself.

Clooney plays “Dodge” Connelly, an aging pro football player for the Duluth Bulldogs who attempts to elevate the popularity his unpopular sport by wooing college superstar Carter Rutherford (Jim Krasinski) onto the team. Rutherford is a wunderkind–not just an overnight boon to the Bulldogs, but a decorated war hero as well. It’s his background in WWI in particular that attracts the attention of the Chicago Tribune’s Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), assigned to find out the truth behind Rutherford’s WWI record.

The film is enjoyable, if unfocused. It’s a comedy that’s not really funny, a romance that’s not really romantic, and a sports drama that’s not really interested in sports or drama. Clooney shows his typical strengths in capturing a particular time, and I liked the vibe of Leatherheads probably more than I liked the actual film. There’s some playful dialogue, a brisk pace, but also some painfully forced zany moments, and a feather-light resolution.

This sort of light entertainment isn’t all together unwelcome, but I don’t think I ever expected to see a “cute” football movie.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale