Thursday, October 30, 2008

REVIEW: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Let's see you make a slick marketing acronym out of THAT title, promotions department!

You can’t accuse me of not wanting to like this one. Yes, when I heard that they had finally gotten started on Indiana Jones 4, I wondered if they could still find any ancient artifacts that actually predated Harrison Ford. But cranky old Gramps Jones actually sounded like fun the more I thought of it, and it’s not like Indy was ever not grumpy to begin with. Yes, I wondered why the heck they could have let George Lucas reject a script by Frank Darabont; it was like hearing that Dennis Kucinich had given Bill Clinton some political pointers. But then I saw The Mist, and all of a sudden, I was willing to give George the benefit of the doubt that they were going to cobble together a better script. By the time I sat down in the theater, I was aware that the movie had scored fairly well with the critics and public, and I was thrilled to be sitting down to watch the first new Indiana Jones adventure since Last Crusade, released when I was just a kid. And I was also pulling for this movie to be a smashing success that would finally prove that as good as Star Wars had once been, Indiana Jones was, and always had been, the great adventure series of the last half of the 20th century.

These days, this is Harrison Ford's "good angle."

And that fact is still true. Although Spielberg and company did not help my case. Spielberg’s an odd director to me. He’s been building up his resume as a great “serious movie” director ever since Schindler’s List. But he sometimes either just miscalculates a movie as badly as someone miscalculates the $100 question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? or he directs an entire movie he clearly didn’t care about for one second. His popcorn movies, once the only thing he was known for, have been very erratic in particular. The Lost World: Jurassic Park couldn’t have been less original if it had actually been a George Lucas-esque re-release of Jurassic Park with some scientists riding on Hadrosaur backs digitally inserted into the background. AI: Artificial Intelligence was the result of someone deciding that fusing Pinocchio with Blade Runner with Eyes Wide Shut was a good idea. And now, we have Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And the movie starts up on an ominous note from the very first shot: that of a CGI prairie dog (no kidding) that’s only slightly less realistic-looking than the groundhog from Caddyshack. And you’ll get to see the prairie dogs several more times for goofy little reaction shots, as if George Lucas had decided that fake-looking desert vermin are the new Ewoks. Damn you, Lucas!

Way to suck in that gut, Indy.

Let’s get it out of the way: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, if you’re an ignoramus who needs to be told) is old, and the movie acknowledges it, although boy, does Spielberg avoid close-ups. The 1940s have completely passed by since Last Crusade, which means that rock and roll’s in fashion, Eisenhower’s in office, and the Nazis are now in Argentina (and not in this movie, disappointingly, despite the fact that the movie mostly takes place in South America). Instead, the Russians are the new bad guys, and to its credit, the movie doesn’t bother empathizing with them or giving them moral equivalence with the Americans, aside from some mandatory bashing of the McCarthy-era FBI. But after the movie gets that out of its system, it’s the ‘50s and they’re Commie bastards, so let’s get to business. A group of Soviet soldiers starts out the movie by taking control of Area 51 in the middle of the Nevada desert. I’m not sure why Area 51 is a lone warehouse populated by five guards and no scientists, but okay. They’re led by Col. Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett, who is making her third appearance on Satan’s Jockstrap. I sometimes wonder why human beings are so cruel to each other because of petty politics, even to the point of vandalism and murder; I often wonder why Cate Blanchett is on three movies on my site. Although she’s going to be wearing the Golden Sombrero if she picks up too many more roles like this one. Playing a devious Russian scientist/military leader, Cate has the voice of Natascha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, the haircut of a Bulgarian gymnast, and the subway station-blue jumpsuit of a Satellite of Love inhabitant. To be fair, she’s not a bad villain for a non-serious film like this, and it’s not like the traitorous Frenchmen and power-hungry Nazis in past films have been subtle or original creations. I guess I just wouldn’t have expected that they’d need an actress like Cate Blanchett to deliver lines like, “Dohnt toy vith meee, Doktohr Johnez!”

Steven Spielberg once brought dinosaurs to life. Now he's going to do the same for prairie dogs. In theaters, this summer.

The Russians pull Indy out of a trunk, along with his pudgy, British cockney-accented sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone, not looking so much like Beowulf anymore). Spalko takes Indy and Mac (Indy Mac? Oh God.) to the warehouse full of boxes--Look a bit familiar?--and demands that Indy help them find whatever landed in Roswell in 1947. Hmmm, the movies have gone from Judaism (Raiders) to Hinduism (Temple of Doom) to Christianity (Last Crusade), and now… Scientology?!?! Yes, aliens are going to be behind all the wacky ancient stuff in this movie. Indy finds the alien pod thingy by tossing gunpowder into the air and following it as it gravitates toward a powerful magnetic force--so powerful that you kind of wonder who manufactures all the plastic nails they must have used to fasten all the other boxes in the warehouse. Inside the Roswell box is a well-preserved dead alien, because apparently the Army’s completely done with experimenting on it, and just decided on the Army equivalent of stuffing it in the crawlspace behind a stack of National Geographics. The Ruskies are about to steal the alien, but Indy of course manages to overpower one of them during the five-second timeframe between when a bad guy recognizes a threat and when his reflexes kick in and he fires the gun he has held at the ready. He threatens Spalko with a machine gun, but it turns out that Mac is a double-agent. Gee, a traitor in an Indiana Jones movie? At least they gave us a whole four minutes with which to get to know him before the devastating betrayal. Apparently, having one more machine gun-wielding villain directly in front of him suddenly makes Indy’s Mexican stand-off futile, so he flees instead, racing past bullets that somehow miss the slow-moving old guy who barely avoids throwing his back out. He climbs up boxes and swings across rafters with his whip, which the Russians apparently didn’t consider a weapon they should confiscate when they took him prisoner. In the chaos, they smash open the box containing the Ark of the Covenant from the first movie, one of several references to past entries in the series.

"Damn you, Short Round!"

After escaping, Indy wanders through the desert to a lone town. Upon arriving, he discovers that all its inhabitants are mannequins. Either he’s in one of about eighty Twilight Zone episodes, or he’s stumbled upon a fake town built to be destroyed in an A-bomb test. Which is of course going to happen exactly one minute from now. So how does Indy survive? By hiding in a refrigerator. Ah, but it’s a refrigerator with lead lining, as the movie makes sure to give us time to notice, so that makes sense. He then takes extra precaution by activating his Go-Go Gadget Nuclear Fallout Repellant and dousing himself in unicorn pee. And that lead not only shields Indy from the force of a nuclear blast, but it cushions him so that he doesn’t break every bone in his body while bouncing around in a refrigerator that’s flung several miles away. Or suffer radiation sickness. Or melt from the heat. And that door sure managed to stay shut nicely, even without any kind of locking mechanism. Although I’ll give this much to the movie: IJATKOTCS’s man-inside-fridge-survives-nuclear-explosion is more realistic than even the dialogue scenes of the average Heroes episode.

Mooning: you're doing it wrong.

Having escaped, Indy is accused by the FBI of being a Communist agent since, after all, he was good friends with Mac, who was a traitor. And the FBI is very evil for accusing a man as trusted as Indiana Jones of possibly being a Communist agent. For what possible reason? Because the man Indiana Jones most trusted turned out to be a Communist agent? Puh-shaw. Indy promptly gets canned from his teaching position (You’d think that his frequent unannounced mid-semester excursions to fight Nazis would have done that a long time ago.) just in time to start a new adventure. He’s approached by Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), who’s a leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding, fancy prep school-dropping-out-of rebel with street smarts and a free spirit. I’m not sure if he was written as a movie character or a Pepsi mascot, but either way, he couldn’t have been more out of place in an Indiana Jones movie if he had brought Alf along as a wacky sidekick. He tells Indy that he needs his help finding his mother and his surrogate uncle, Harold Oxley, who was a friend of Indy’s and a fellow mad archaeologist. Oxley disappeared while searching for Akator, a lost city along the Amazon. According to myth, which means according to absolute irrefutable fact, whoever finds an artifact called the Crystal Skull and returns it to Akator will gain ungodly amounts of wealth and power. Which means that this movie has the exact same premise as Raiders and Last Crusade, except with Russians and aliens instead of Nazis and God. Cool! I can make Indiana Jones movies too! If they keep advancing the chronology a decade each time, the movies will just write themselves!

"Is it an ancient artifact containing power we cannot even comprehend, Indy?" "No, kid. I think it's the $150 Special Limited Edition Blu-Ray disc packaging they're going to sell this movie in within a couple of months."

Villains: Vietcong
Source of Mystic Power: The Beatles

Villains: Richard Nixon’s thugs
Source of Mystic Power: Reggie Jackson

Villains: The Golden Girls
Source of Mystic Power: Apple stock

Villains: Teenagers who turn murderous after playing Mortal Kombat
Source of Mystic Power: Lycos

Villains: Oh, I think you know who
Source of Mystic Power: Fuel-efficient cars and public transportation

Anyway, they escape both the FBI and Russian agents and head to Peru. After the mandatory mission through a dark and cobweb-ridden tomb (Let’s see, we’ve done tarantulas, snakes, cockroaches, and rats, so…. scorpions are next on the agenda!), Indy and Mutt wind up with the Crystal Skull, but are immediately taken prisoner again by the Russians. Spalko reveals that they have Oxley (John Hurt; gee, do you think this character might have been Sean Connery again if they could have signed him?) prisoner, and that he knows where Akator is, but he’s a babbling loon after spending too much time with the Crystal Skull earlier on, and they need Indy to help translate his cryptic mutterings. They believe that the Crystal Skull and whatever lies at Akator will give them great psychic powers, which will allow them to control the world. Well, at least they have a more concrete idea of what their magical artifact would give them than the Nazis did with the Ark of the Covenant; you have to give them credit for having a goal.

"I've got to know one thing, Mom. And I need you to tell me the truth. Are my eyes really going to look like that when I'm your age?"

Indy initially refuses to help, even when the Russians threaten to kill Mutt. But he has to rethink it when the aliens bring out… a green-skinned, bug-eyed alien! Holy crap! Wait a minute… is that… oh dear Lord. I’m sorry, it’s Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s love interest from Raiders. I really don’t mean to make juvenile insults about people’s looks on this website; I’m far more into insults that really strike at the inner lack of qualities people have, insults that can’t be easily forgiven. But when I look at Karen Allen, dredged up from semi-retirement for this movie, I can kind of realize why she hasn’t been in many movies lately. There haven’t been too many movies about fortune teller ladies who live in Louisiana bayous. So I guess the sex appeal for this movie has to be carried by Cate Blanchett made up like a matryoshka doll and Karen Allen made up to look like that Nazi after he chose the wrong Holy Grail. With Ford and Allen as the leads and source of the film’s only romance, I can imagine Spielberg screaming at his director of photography, “More Vaseline on the camera lens, dammit! And zoom out! Out, out, out! Hey, is there any way we can add rain to this scene? Or a massive solar flare? If this image looks any sharper than the Zapruder film, we’re doomed! IMAX will be my undoing! Any chance we can just slap a wig on LaBeouf and make him the love interest instead?"

Children of the Cranberries

Oh, and by the way, Mutt is actually Indy’s son. Just in case you hadn’t figured that out halfway into scanning the movie poster.

My Mother, the Car

As the Russians haul them down the Amazon in search of Akator, in trucks rather than boats for some reason, Indy and Marion bicker about their failed relationship constantly. When they get tired of bickering, they get back to the perfunctory task of escaping. They take control of a truck, and despite the fact that the bazooka round Indy fires near the start of the scene appears to be the only weapon they have, the machine gun-armed Russians appear to be deathly afraid of Indy/Marion/Oxley/Mutt killing them all. Thus begins a chase through the jungle in which Spielberg appears to have measured the audience’s excitement by the sheer number of times that people jump from one car to another while they’re still in motion, and how many times the damn Crystal Skull gets tossed back and forth between the two sides. Apparently realizing that the scene goes from tongue-in-cheek to drooling-down-the-chin stupid very early on, Spielberg hams it up. He has Mutt sword-fight Spalko while straddling the good guys’ and bad guys’ cars, plants smacking him in the crotch along the way--couldn’t the Russian driver have killed him by just slightly slowing down or veering to the right for a moment? But that’s not enough, so Spielberg has Mutt swing through the vines like Tarzan, befriend an army of monkeys, and swing onto Spalko’s car to recapture the Crystal Skull--if that sounds like a joke, you weren’t one of the 5 trillion people who saw this movie in the theater. But the action scene isn’t long enough yet, so let’s just throw in a swarm of killer flesh-eating ants. I don’t know if I want to live in a world in which an Indiana Jones movie rips off The Mummy, in this case the swarms of killer flesh-eating scarabs. And to top it off, let’s have Marion confidently drive her car off a 100-foot cliff, knowing that she’ll be caught gently by a tree and eased down so that she can drive off to ford the river below. It’s a feat of timing and coordination that people in The Matrix would find it audacious, but it’s a breeze to Granny Marion! And to top off the topping off, Indy and his happy family manage to easily survive driving off a massive waterfall three consecutive times. I’m sure that the scene cost about 1,000 times as much to make as the truck chase scene from Raiders, so you should all be appreciative to all the hard-working graphics designers who created the cartoon world that Indiana Jones now lives in.

"Hey, Hurt. LaBeouf's getting on my case for looking so old. Tell me, what's your secret?"

Having escaped the Russians, Indy and his gang (which now once again includes Mac, who’s assured them that he’s actually a double agent working for the CIA) continues on into Akator, solving various Myst-like puzzles and solving every other problem by having Oxley wave the Crystal Skull at it to make it go away. Of course, Mac is actually still working for the Russians, and Indy fell for it yet again. Remember, if you’re a traitor in an action movie, yelling, “I’m a double agent!” in the middle of an action scene doesn’t give the good guy enough time to ponder the likelihood of this statement, and after the action scene ends, it would be awkward for him to now kill you, so you pretty much win by default. Mac leads Russians into the pyramid of Akator, and despite Indy and company no longer being of use, the Russians are sporting enough to not kill them yet.

Archaeologists have long sought out the great ancient Aztec Applebees of Central America.

Remember the end of Raiders where the bad guys got exactly what they wanted, completing the ceremony and tapping the awesome power of the artifact they had strived for, but it turned out that the ceremony unleashed power beyond their reckoning and it annihilated them in a special effects-filled sequence while Indy and Marion survived simply by not participating in that ceremony? And the similar ending to Last Crusade? Yeah, it’s exactly like that. The pyramid explodes after Spalko reaffixes the Crystal Skull to an alien’s Crystal Skeleton, resurrecting the alien (So how did the damn thing die in the first place?), and the good guys run away while Mac, Spalko, and the Russians get sucked into another dimension, along with the flying saucer buried underneath the pyramid. The whole scene looks very expensive, although none of it really involves Indy or Marion or their friends, who basically just jog away while things explode all around them. I guess that the great stuntwork Harrison Ford and Karen Allen were originally asked to do would have violated the terms of their AARP life insurance.

This is what you get when you don't change your oil every 3,000 miles.

The final scene has Indy and Marion getting married in a whiter-than-white church, with Mutt and a newly-sane Oxley in attendance. I wonder how Shia LaBeouf, rising young force in Hollywood, felt about getting completely ignored in the second half of this movie in favor of that chick from Raiders and Animal House and no other movies that human beings have ever seen. But just to remind the public that we haven’t forgotten about Mutt, the lone human being under the age of 45 in this whole movie, an unearthly gust of wind rushes into the church and blows Indy’s famous fedora to him. As he picks up the hat, we’re wondering if this is Spielberg’s promise that Mutt will be replacing Indy in future adventures, like Mutt Jones and the Samurai Sword of Great Justice and Mutt Jones and the Voodoo That You Do. I think I'd rather see Margaret Mead and the Mystery of Adolescence. Fortunately, Indy swipes the hat back on his way out of the church, barely resisting the urge to punch the skinny kid square in the nose and tell him that even by the time the next movie rolls around, Harrison Ford at age 126 will be the only Indiana Jones worth having in a movie.

IJATKOTCS is about what you’d expect when you take a mythic and beloved movie character and suddenly revitalize him a decade and a half after his previous movie. The movie exists purely to make money, not tie up any loose ends (Rocky Balboa), explore new angles for the character (Rambo 4), or even give some new director a chance to mess with the existing conventions (Live Free or Die Hard). Indiana Jones 4 just rehashes the same formula from the first several movies, with the Russians/aliens/South America storyline masquerading as originality. Whereas each Indiana Jones movie prior to this had a bit of a different tone to it, this time around the formula and spirit is exactly identical to Last Crusade. I’ll grant that the movie’s not all that terrible until the Tarzan sequence begins its death spiral; I even thought that the nuclear bomb sequence was amusing in a Roger Moore-as-James Bond sort of way. But even a series built on credibility-straining stunts needs some vague connection to reality, or else we’re not going to laugh or be impressed when Indy actually does pull off some outrageous stunt. At a time when the James Bond movies are going back to semi-plausibility, Indiana Jones is going Octopussy on us.

Worried that Heather Ledger was going to upstage his famous role, Jack Nicholson made an uncredited cameo as the Joker in a competing summer film.

But this is supposed to be Indiana Jones. And there’s a whole generation of kids who think The Mummy's Rick O’Connell’s the greatest action movie archaeologist of all time. And if this is the only Indiana Jones movie those kids have seen, I might not be able to blame them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

COMING SOON: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones stars in a movie that steals ideas from The Mummy and Alien vs. Predator. Pardon me while I get drunk enough to kill the part of my brain that allowed me to write that sentence.

Friday, October 17, 2008

REVIEW: Diary of the Dead

***** (5 stars)! Better than The Shining! There, now you can put my idiotic quote on the front cover.

Diary of the Dead is George Romero’s latest zombie movie in the series that started with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, and has spanned the decades with Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead (Which pre-emptively killed the inevitable contest to figure out what you could have followed Twilight of the Dead with). When Romero started with Night, he was a young Pittsburgh-area filmmaker with little money, an inexperienced cast and crew, and no reputation, although he also had a pretty original vision for a horror movie. Whether you ultimately like his films or not, he infused small group conflict and a wry sense of social satire into a gory shocker movie, and that’s a combination I’m not aware of any earlier films that even attempted, which is now fairly common. Dawn, Day, and Land showed that while Romero was slow to upgrade the acting talent and production values of his films, he could continue to make entertainingly cheesy horror movies. Dawn is actually one of my favorite movies, one of the few films I completely agree with Roger Ebert in his appraisal of (I‘m sure he‘ll now take the time to cite me in his future articles on the film). It has both a dark sense of humor and a genuine feeling of panic and claustrophobia. Romero’s not only the founder of the modern Zombie Survival horror sub-genre, but the creator of most of its best films. Actually, there’s a lot of zombie movies that are as good or better than Romero’s films, but Night and Dawn are genuinely fantastic horror movies, and the fact that everyone still thinks of Romero’s clichés as the basis for zombie horror is telling.
"Yes, for only $9 a month, the price of a ticket to Diary of the Dead, you could support an orphaned child in war-torn East Peoria."

So imagine my dismay when I rented his latest movie, which returns to the series’ ultra-low budget roots, and found that in his elder years, Romero has lost his damn mind. Having acknowledged that his zombie movies have always been somewhat amateurish, Diary resembles a final-semester film school project. Considering that its main characters open the film making their own film school horror movie, maybe this is some kind of 17th-level irony. Maybe it’s actually the ultimate satire of film school and direct-to-video horror movies. If so, Mr. Romero, I salute you and kiss your virtual feet. Now give me my $4.99 back.

"Oh, thank God it's you. For a moment, I thought you were one of... one of... (shudder)... one of those Extreme Makeover: Home Edition people."

Usually, in these reviews, I go through the movie’s entire plot. This time around, I don’t think anyone would care, so I’ll keep the actual chain of events brief. The movie starts with some film school students making their own crummy mummy movie in the woods near Pittsburgh, when they hear on the radio that the dead are suddenly coming back to life, like they do in every Romero movie (as usual, there is no continuity with the earlier films in terms of time, so the zombie plague is definitely beginning in 2007). Now, in past Romero movies, the kids’ approach would be to fortify themselves in some secure location and fight to keep the zombies out. But this is (was) 2007, and it’s more trendy in disaster sci-fi movies to make a road trip out of this situation, so that you can have a wider variety of set pieces. The kids go RV-ing to take their various members back to their families, initially taking the female lead to her home in Scranton (sorry, but Zombie Dwight Schrute is never glimpsed). Suffice to say that things aren’t going well, and the gang has some nasty little adventures in a hospital (bad place to go in these types of movies), a militia/survivalist outpost (very, very bad in a Romero movie, but only if the militia are white males, so they‘re okay here), the lead girl’s home where her family’s supposed to be (gee, what do you think’s going to happen?), and so on. They ultimately decide to go to a rich friend’s mansion and hole themselves up there for a while. Things don’t go well there either.


The characters… are actually okay. We don’t get much backstory on them for the most part, and they’re not particularly interesting or sympathetic, but the actors infuse a decent amount of personality into their roles. That’s really all I want from these types of films, not that this one has the kind of gloriously memorable rogue’s gallery that Predator, Aliens, or Dawn of the Dead had. There’s Tracy, the sassy Texan and aspiring chest-baring actress; Mary, the sensitive Catholic girl; Tony, the level-headed friend; Ridley, the idiot in the mansion who wears his mummy costume for about a week for the sole purpose of a few jokes at the end when he gets zombified; Jason, the de-facto lead male who is obsessed with filming everything; and Andrew, the aging, bourbon-swilling English professor (professor who is English, not Professor of English) who supplies most of the film’s dry pseudo-wit. I don’t have a real problem with these characters, but unfortunately, I do with the female lead, Deb, who’s Jason’s girlfriend. Every fifteen minutes, she lectures Jason about lugging around his camera and filming everything, repeatedly making the criticism that in his mind, nothing happens if it’s not on video. Seriously, she spells out that same point about three or four times. I definitely sympathize with her for calling Jason an egotistical idiot, if not for failing to realize that he really does have no redeeming qualities as a person, but I could have done with several fewer lectures delivered in a flat, condescending tone. And that’s not the worst part: she’s also the narrator, popping in to deliver dull ruminations about the human condition in the middle of scenes, as if Romero had lost part of the original soundtrack or something.

Ever visit a Hardees near closing hour? Yeah, I don't anymore either.

Now that you’ve gotten the basic story out of the way, I’ll finally get around to the major “innovation” of this movie. Kind of like The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, this is a horror movie that’s shown to us entirely from the perspective of cameras, and pretends that it’s a filmed account of actual events rather than a slick movie with a third-person perspective. I actually generally like movies with this gimmick, as they usually aim for genuine suspense and mystery, and feel more frightening for their realism. Plus, people who usually get sick or dizzy at these movies will be glad to know that the camera is mostly very steady. However, I have two major problems with the technique in this particular film. First of all, unlike Blair Witch or Cloverfield, this movie’s presented as if it’s been edited by film school students after the fact, to the point where the action switches back and forth from other cameras (including those that the kids probably wouldn’t have had any access to) without any jarring cuts. Plus, the whole movie has narration, the footage is extremely clear, there are obvious stylistic cuts, and there are even slow-motion segments. In a sense, it’s fine that Romero wanted to do something different. But it also seems like he didn’t have the patience to use the limited perspective that earlier movies like this restricted themselves to. Except when the characters are directly referencing the camera, the movie tries to look like a regular horror film, which is difficult to make sense of when one of the lead characters is holding the camera. Camera-perspective horror movies always require a leap of faith on the part of the viewer, but there too many examples of when the cameraman’s friends are fighting with zombies or being eaten by zombies, and the man doesn’t react except to zoom in. In fact, the man doesn’t seem to get fazed by much of anything, never losing focus when zombie hordes are bearing down on him. Man, I think this guy has a job as a war correspondent in his future.

No, this isn't my first blog. No, I don't want to talk about the first one.

The other problem is that whereas Romero’s always had a rabidly Socialist (or perhaps more accurately, anti-Conservative) streak to his movies, which only got closer and closer to the surface in his later films, his social commentary here is 100% up front, fully spelled out, and completely distracting from the friggin’ zombies this movie’s supposed to be about. Every one of the Romero zombie movies, except perhaps for the original Night, has directly criticized some aspect of American life or human nature that people of Romero’s perspective associate with Republicans: consumerism, a strong military, and class distinctions.

Edward Scissoredarms

Here, his message seems to be that the traditional media and the government are working together to cover up the truth--in this case, the direness of the zombie plague and extent to which the world is falling apart, with clear allusions to Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. I’m not really sure Romero’s watched a TV news broadcast in the last twenty years, since it seems pretty obvious to me that there’s nothing the press likes better than mocking White House press releases or doing a good panic-on-American soil story. Romero’s point seems to be that independent watchdogs need to use YouTube and blogs to get the truth out. Okay, I generally respect that opinion, and actually agree with it, even if not for the same reasons Romero does. YouTube’s great for calling attention to stories that mainstream press generally ignores because of bias or queasiness at stirring controversy with the sensitive audiences.

"I'm Samuel Hello, Attorney at Law. I specialize in barn-raising accidents. I get money for YUNZ!"

But Romero must have never watched YouTube, because the kids release their movie in long, carefully-edited chunks. Something tells me that short, instantly shocking videos would be a heck of a lot more often-viewed than long stretches of these people bickering with each other, interspersed with the occasional zombie attack. In the movie’s logic, it takes about five minutes to edit a video and upload it, then three minutes for it to become the most popular thing on the internet. And why does everyone still have access to the internet, much less keep using it? I guess the world’s not thrown into such chaos that people don’t have time to plop down and browse YouTube, and Charter Communications isn’t so disrupted that their service is failing (more than the usual three-hour period per week, you cheap bastards). I don’t think Romero has any idea what’s going on in this movie. A hospital’s been overrun by zombies, but there’s hardly any blood or bodies anywhere. Outside, the zombies are everywhere, yet people need alternative media to know what’s going on. The roads are almost empty, tons of people are dead, and entire hospitals are nearly deserted within hours of the plague, yet people have electric power and are still browsing the ‘net for cool videos. OMFG! 5 STARS! TAT WUZ AWSUM. I LUVD WEN TEH ZOMBY ATE THE GUYZ ARM. BTW, GET FREE PR0N AT HOT-CATHOLIC-SCHOOL-GIRLS-CITYDOTCOM! AND CHECK MY MYSPACE! I LIKE RADIOHEAD! And through it all, we have to hear Deb bitch about the “truth” and watch crappy montages of Internet Explorer windows and stock helicopter footage of the LA riots and Katrina evacuations that is supposed to pass for zombie footage. Romero’s also really subtle in his criticism of George W. Bush, having the president declare from his ranch that Americans need to “remain vigilant.” Clever. I’m sure that in the re-release, depending on who wins the 2008 election, they’ll digitally change it to say that Americans need to “quit being a bunch of young whippersnappers,” or “become instruments of change and reach out to the Zombie-American community.”

Barack Obama flees a Western Pennsylvania campaign rally in his armored vehicle, having unwittingly enraged the bitter, gun-toting, religious types.

Besides the confused social criticism, and its complete disconnect from what’s actually happening in the movie, this is a completely by-the-numbers zombie movie. Completely interchangeable with a million other direct-to-video movies if it weren’t for Romero’s name and the conceit of it all appearing via real cameras. Let’s run down the checklist:

  • Character having the terrible task of shooting a zombified friend. Check.

  • Character trying to find loved ones that we all know are DEAD, DEAD, DEADDER. Check.

  • Military guys who we think are going to be helpful, but wind up being thugs. Check.

  • Rednecks having fun taking target practice at zombies. Check.

  • Rich guy who doesn’t take the zombie threat seriously, and thinks this is all a big excuse to party. Check.

  • Scene with a bunch of well-armed soldiers who still manage to take casualties to mindless, eminently vulnerable zombies that move like they have hemorrhoids. Check.

  • Observation that there aren’t enough bullets in the world to kill all the zombies. Which I’m absolutely certain is not true. Check.

  • Ironic, post-Scream idea of a horror movie within a horror movie, and the inevitable talk of horror movie clichés that wind up coming true in the outer movie. Check.

  • Lead character’s final question of, “Are we really worth saving?” Check.

He made just one mistake. He didn't floss.

So we’ve got a bad zombie film made worse by the incoherent narrative hook of using footage spliced entirely from in-movie video cameras. I’m sorry, George, but it’s time to pull the plug. You were the Cal Ripken of zombie movies: steadily producing solid, sometimes excellent work, over a frikkin’ long time. But now you’re hitting .230 and you can’t move a lick at third base. Forget about World of the Dead, Romance of the Dead, Return of the Dead-i, The Hunt for Dead October, and The Dead’s Greatest Bloopers. Just focus on preserving your legacy and enjoying your retirement before you become, yourself, dead.

Monday, October 13, 2008

COMING SOON: Diary of the Dead

After reviewing a movie so bad, it made my cheap computer go dead, it's time to review a cheap movie about computers and people going dead.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

REVIEW: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Thank God Matt Damon isn't smiling with them. I've seen enough of his eight feet of teeth for one lifetime.

I'm not happy about this review. If one doesn't count the fact that I've reviewed two Matrix movies, since they're essentially one big combined mess, I can't find any actor who has appeared in more than one of the movies on this site. I hope that I'm missing someone, because otherwise, the dubious honor of First Repeat Performer on Satan's Jockstrap goes to none other than Cate Blanchett. It's really a title she doesn't deserve. She's a fine actress, and as far as I can tell, an unpretentious one, putting in great performances for both arthouse films and those with broader appeal. She's been in both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Hot Fuzz, which qualifies her for sainthood as far as I'm concerned. Furthermore, I didn't have to review Ripley right now; there are other movies I have ready to go. But here we are; you can't fight destiny. And after a certain recent movie I've been Jonesing to review for a few months now, she might even become the first three-peater.

"I'm sailing up the Amazon river to find the lost Incan Diamond of Destiny, and I think a software engineer like you, Mr. Gates, is just the man I need!"

The Talented Mr. Ripley is set in the 1950's, starting in New York City, where the titular Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a brilliant, but lonely and unrecognized fill-in pianist working at events for insanely wealthy people. I guess Damon's cornered the market on brilliant, anonymous loners (this, Good Will Hunting, Rounders), though having seen him interviewed, I'm more inclined to believe that Team America was his most deeply personal performance. Ripley's performance impresses shipping mogul Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), and after Greenleaf notices that he's wearing a Princeton jacket, which is actually borrowed, Ripley lies and affirms that he went to school with the man's son, Dickie. In actuality, he's working a variety of servile jobs for the rich and famous, frustrated with the fact that he's not rich and famous himself. When Mr. Greenleaf hires him to sail to Europe and convince the freewheeling, do-nothing playboy Dickie to come home and start making an honest living, Ripley starts preparing to impersonate a forgotten acquaintance of Dickie's by learning all about jazz, which Dickie loves. Tom's very talented at impersonation, manipulation, and forgery, qualities that just might come in handy later on.

"Is your wife, er, is she a goer? Know what I mean? Know what I mean?"

So it might sound like things are going well for Tom. He might not have been happy with his social standing before, but he's been entrusted with an incredibly important and personal task by a mogul, a genuinely affable man who speaks respectfully about Ripley both to his face and in private. You might think that Tom would take his task of convincing Dickie to come home pretty seriously, both because he agreed to take Mr. Greenleaf's money for travel expenses, and because Greenleaf would almost certainly help him get a job much more to his liking. Maybe collecting idle rich punks for their fathers sounds like a bit of a condescending job for a man of Ripley's talents, but if he wants to get wealth and respect instantly without benefit of entrepreneurship, public service, or artistic achievement, this sounds like it's not a bad deal.

"Looking for group! Deadmines on Hard mode! Anyone?"

The problem is that for all of Tom's talents, Tom is saddled with the fatal flaw of being a total bonehead. Arriving at the port in Italy, Tom strikes up a friendly conversation with bubbly heiress Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) and introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf. I've watched this scene several times, and I can't for the life of me figure out why he does this, other than that he's somehow already unhinged with the idea of being a playboy millionaire himself and is shortsightedly assuming that he'll never see Meredith again. Now that we have a guy trying to pass himself off as two different people to two different audiences, we know that this movie will be one of two things: 1) a farce, or 2) a farcical suspense thriller. Think of it like a Frasier episode where Frasier's tiny little lie about his identity forces him to go to comical lengths to hide the truth, except that Frasier is going to eventually have to murder Niles, Daphne, and Roz in doing so.

Why don't you just hold it closer to your face, Matt?

On a gorgeous Italian beach, Tom just "happens" to run into Dickie (Jude Law) and his fiancee, Marge Sheridan (Gwyneth Paltrow), and successfully convinces Dickie that he was a classmate at Princeton, doing so without mentioning a single other classmate, professor, building, or event. Wow, espionage is easy! I know that a doofus like Dickie can't be the hardest person in the world to pull one off on, but considering the wonderful resource called Google that was invented sometime between 1955 and now, I'm sure I could convince Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that I'm his long-lost son, if the CIA's interested. Dickie's about what you'd expect for this type of character: cocky, rude, aggressive, a friend of everyone else who can afford to live life as one nonstop party, and completely unmotivated to do anything of value. He mocks Tom for being fairly pale, completely ignoring that he's pretty ripped for an American in the 1950's; I guess Mr. Ripley is so talented that he invented Power Bars. Marge is supposed to be Dickie's wiser, more generous better half, but I don't exactly see her operating a non-profit organization benefiting orphans of the French Indochina War from their yacht.

"So what do you think? How many timeshares can we put you down for today?"

Immediately, Dickie doesn't give a rat's ass about Tom, but Tom manages to wrangle a lunch with Dickie and Marge, at which he scares the hell out of Dickie and reveals his true purpose by doing a spot-on impression of Mr. Greenleaf, which isn't as hard as it sounds considering that he's impersonating James Rebhorn, Mr. Generic Gray-Suited White Guy. Dickie wants him gone, but Tom manages to "accidentally" reveal that he's a huge jazz fan: apparently he's such a huge fan that he'll carry around records in his satchel wherever he goes, just on the off chance he gets access to a record player eventually. This convinces Dickie to let him stay, so long as he keeps pretending he's working for Mr. Greenleaf, and that he keep on taking Mr. Greenleaf's money to pay for his part of their very expensive lifestyle. Dickie and Tom become inseparable best friends, in the sense that Dickie gets to be a mix of Jay Gatsby and Paris Hilton, and Tom gets to be a grinning goofball with a Mr. Ed smile. They go to jazz clubs, sail, drink the world's first ever espresso (oh, how much better the world could have been if there had been another Italian coup right there, and everyone had taken that secret to their graves), and make plans to go skiing in Cortina later that winter. Organizing the skiing trip is Freddie Miles (Phillip Seymour-Hoffman), who in the pre-Facebook age served as a social networker of sorts. In most other settings, I would have thought that this guy was Dickie's drug dealer, but I guess that all the idle rich back then were just naturally intertwined by a droll, crass chubby guy.


Predictably enough, however, Dickie and Tom's friendship starts to sour. The first main reason is that Tom knows that Dickie cheated on Marge with an Italian girl and knocked her up, and that she committed suicide as a result. The second is that Tom is gay and attracted to Dickie, something that Dickie's realizing and not entirely happy about. Now, I'm not entirely up with gay-straight relationship etiquette, but I think it's understandable that Dickie would be a bit uncomfortable about his best friend leering at him, getting caught dancing around in his clothes, and just plain coming on to him later on in the movie. I'd be sympathetic if a popular lesbian decided she didn't want to take a dorky straight guy sexually obsessed with her on a skiing trip. And although Dickie and Tom's friendship is based on a mutual interest in liking to have fun, certainly a bond that engenders emotional maturity and lasting loyalty, Dickie starts to realize he doesn't want to be stringing along Tom the rest of his life.

Eminem's routine wasn't always quite so edgy.

Dickie, always thinking three steps ahead of everyone, chooses to end his relationship with Tom on a tiny motorboat far from shore. His original plan was to break up while they were free climbing the side of a steep mountain, just as he was slipping and reaching up to Tom for a hand, but the tiny boat was good enough. Tom goes into Fatal Attraction mode, Dickie goes into Biff Tannen mode, and the scene ends with Tom bashing Dickie's head in with an oar. Whoops. Didn't see that one coming.

Gas rationing during the later Carter years was difficult for some Americans.

Returning to the hotel they're staying at, ready to get the hell out of Europe, Tom is mistaken for Dickie by the guy at the front desk, setting off a lightbulb in Tom's head. And so it begins. Tom, using his powers of forgery, imitation, and improvisation, starts to travel Europe masquerading as Dickie, living off Dickie's allowance, and mailing Marge letters to make her think Dickie's left her and is sleeping with French prostitutes instead of with the fishes. And Europe is a pretty big place, so you'd think this ruse might work for a little while. Granted, Tom won't be able to meet any of his or Dickie's friends without being discovered, so you'd think maybe he would just continue to travel Europe as himself while pretending to be Dickie only when he's collecting money at the bank. But Tom goes all in, with the fake passport and everything.

"Oh, I just got it! He said, 'MAAAATT DAMON!' just like he did all the time in Team America! I get it! HAHAHAHAHAHA!"

And conveniently enough, he runs into Meredith in Rome, who still thinks he's Dickie, which is what he's pretending now anyways. So everything works out! Granted, he's presumably not romantically interested in her, given how uninterested he was in Gwyneth Paltrow (maybe he saw Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), so you might think he'd just brush her off. And you might think that if Dickie's so incredibly well-known, a socialite like Meredith would have at least seen his photo at some point... And you might think that a brilliant man, even an emotionally unstable one, might consider that starting an affair with Meredith might eventually lead him to deal with people who know what Dickie Greenleaf looks like...

Mark McGwire: The Declining Years

Fortunately, this ruse continues successfully until... immediately! While at the opera with Meredith, running to the bathroom or something, Tom bumps into Marge, who's there with her friend Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport). Hang on, I just have to say something. Did they get the Simpsons writers to come up with all their character names?

  • Peter Smith-Kingsley = gay British guy

  • Dickie Greenleaf = rich, carefree shipping heir

  • Freddie Miles = sleazy, rich bully and sycophantic friend

  • Tom Ripley = working class American with "Believe It or Not!"-type skills

"No, Matt, you've got to choke up more! Keep your swing level, and keep your weight back or you won't be able to hit the curve...WAAAAHHH!"

Now forced to deal with the fact that his girlfriend knows him as Dickie Greenleaf and his murdered friend's ex-fiancee knows he's really Tom Ripley, Tom has to find a way to keep up the act for both parties. He solves the immediate crisis by breaking up with Meredith and arranging for her and Marge to run into each other. You'd think that those two getting together would be just about the most dangerous thing in the world from his perspective, but fortunately for Tom, Meredith flees at seeing Dickie's ex-fiancee (someone whom she recognizes, apparently, despite the fact that she'd never seen the real Dickie in her life), and Marge gets affirmation that Dickie is actually running around with other women, just as his letter said he would. Crisis averted!

"The name's Bourne. Jason Bourne. And Jason Bourne is the opposite of that jingoistic old dinosaur, James Bond. So I'm saying goodbye to you, darling, and I'm going back to my room with Marge Schott instead."

Tom's free, once again, to continue living in expensive hotels, cashing checks, and even collecting Christmas presents under Dickie's name, confident that no one will ever attempt to actually find Dickie using the massive paper trail he's leaving in his wake. I mean, it's not like Dickie's father is a massively rich man who hired Tom because he wanted to get his son home in the first place. He gets away with it until... right away! Freddie Miles has found him, confronting Tom in his hotel room. Although Tom briefly pretends that he's just traveling with Dickie, and that Dickie's just stepped out for a while, Freddie's not quite THAT dumb. So it's bonk-bonk on the head for him too.

"Signore, there have been complaints from your neighbors of someone shouting, 'MAAAATT DAMON!' repeatedly throughout the day."

Freddie's disappearance draws the attention of the Italian police, so now Tom has to pretend to be Dickie for them too. A famous aristocrat caught up in a murder investigation? No, I don't suppose that any one of the Italian police would have run across a genuine photo of Dickie Greenleaf, a simple act that would have instantly doomed Ripley. After all, I've seen the Godfather movies, and I know that things are a little lax legally over there. The chief detective does look and sound more than a bit like an Italian Clouseau, now that I think of it. The detective's spectacular failure to do any of the most obvious things you'd think he'd do over the course of a high-profile investigation (read a newspaper that would undoubtedly print a stock photo of the real Dickie, collect statements from Meredith and Marge that would show conflicts, make a serious effort to find and interview Tom Ripley), allow Tom to escape from the hotel, leaving behind a suicide note from Dickie. And that's that! Italian law apparently allows a suicide note to pass as absolute proof that the writer is dead, and for the investigation into Freddie Miles' death to end immediately, since Dickie probably did it anyway.

This allows Tom to head to Venice, now living permanently as Tom, and after a few more near-misses where he almost blows his cover, he's able to relax. He starts up a relationship with Peter, entirely confident that there are no loose ends, and that he'll never run into anyone again who knew him as Dickie. In addition, Tom's getting a portion of Dickie's inheritance, courtesy of Mr. Greenleaf, so now the man's rich for real. Marge knows that Tom killed Dickie, but she hasn't figured out the identity theft part, which would be the big Columbo moment at the end, so Tom's in the clear.

The one scary moment in this whole thriller.

That is, until he and Peter go on a cruise, and who else happens to be on the cruise except Meredith! DAMMMIT! DAMMIT! DAMMIT! DAMMIT! Europe is a whole god-damned continent, you potato-faced bitch! How the hell do you "bump" into him on three separate occasions?!?! Since Peter knows Meredith, and they're all stuck on the same boat together, it's gut check time for Tom. He's got two choices here to cover his tracks. 1) He could kill Meredith, the one who somehow, some way, has not yet heard from her presumably many well-connected friends that Dickie is dead, and who will inevitably find out very, very soon, which will jumpstart a new investigation. Too bad she's traveling with people who would miss her if she suddenly disappeared from the boat. 2) He could kill Peter, who wouldn't be missed as much while the boat's at sea, but whose snuffing out wouldn't have any long-term benefits to Tom as far as tying up loose ends. Plus, Tom supposedly loves him. Tom opts to kill Peter, favoring the easier solution in the short-term. You'd think that if Ripley's so talented, he could have gotten Meredith to swallow blowfish poison or something. Or chased her around the boat with a knife for fifteen minutes like killers are usually obliged to do at the end of these kinds of movies. While Tom's apparently getting away, for now, he's more than a little depressed, so I guess it's a pyrrhic victory for the audience members who hate Matt Damon's... I'm sorry, hate Tom Ripley's guts.

I don't really know how faithful this movie is to the old Patricia Highsmith novel upon with it's based, although my brief internet research makes it sound like Tom's just plain evil in the source material, and not merely a lonely working-class kid who just wants to live the dream of being insanely rich and utterly useless to society. But I do know that this movie is dumber than Dickie with a crushed skull. In a film that's one big caper in its latter half, most of the film's quality is dependent upon how clever the hunted man's schemes for avoiding capture are, although good old-fashioned luck can certainly factor in. Here, the movie gets a grade of Epic Fail, as the kids say these days. Tom's tricks to stay ahead of suspicion are pretty weak, and only succeed because everyone around him conveniently acts as rock-stupid and ill-informed as the situation demands at any given moment.


That, and there are only two sympathetic characters with any significant screen time, in my opinion: Mr. Greenleaf, the eternally patient and gracious father, and Peter, the one friend of Dickie's who appears to be a responsible human being and willing to support his friends. Meredith is merely inoffensive, as is Marge, although it's sad that she has to deal with having her fiancee murdered, even if the guy was a creep. Ripley? He's the protagonist, since we're supposed to feel tension that he might get caught, not gleeful anticipation of him finally getting his just desserts. To be fair, the movie never really claims that he's supposed to be a hero, but we're at least supposed to feel sympathy for him not being allowed to live a lifelong spring break, even though he keeps at it by continually committing murder and constantly risking capture. And since his ruse depended on him only meeting people who never knew Dickie, he didn't even keep it up for the sake of having friends: he just liked staying at fancy hotels and wearing expensive clothes. Dude, you could just do that the safe and honest way by robbing banks.

"Matt, could you get me the binoculars? I can barely read a word in this bloody thing!"

In any event, I've gone through this entire review without making one "Dickie" joke, so please leave before I tell this movie something none of us want to hear.