#69 - No One Will Hire You

Dedicated To
Sydney Pollack
1934 - 2008

Added 6/04/08

Welcome to summer, Electric Theatre-ites! Sure, the solstice itself is a couple weeks away but if H-Wood says it’s summertime, then it must be so. (By the way, I’d really like for “H-Wood” to become an annoying, overused shorthand for Hollywood, so please start dropping it into your day-to-day conversations as much as possible.) Anyhoo, let’s take a gander at the season so far with reviews of two bona fide blockbusters and one movie that has undeservedly crashed and burned at the U.S. box office.

Iron Man

Marvel Comics’ relatively brief history as a source for filmed entertainment has been what can only be charitably described as scattershot. Unlike their Distinguished Competition, Marvel seems to want to bring every single character from the Marvel Universe to the silver screen (although Marvel may be changing the way DC plays the game as well…I don’t think a Justice League movie would have been taken seriously for a second even a few years ago). Iron Man isn’t exactly an obscure character but unless you’re a big-time comics fanboy, he doesn’t usually show up at the top of anybody’s list of favorite superheroes. That might change thanks to director Jon Favreau’s highly entertaining adaptation. Robert Downey Jr. owns the screen as Tony Stark, the drinking, womanizing billionaire weapons merchant who undergoes an official Life-Changing Experience when he’s taken prisoner by a group of terrorists. They want Stark to build his latest super-missile for them. Instead, he covertly creates a high-tech suit of armor that not only blasts him to freedom but also powers the magnetic doo-hickey in his chest that prevents some shrapnel from burrowing into his heart. Back in the U S and A, Stark ceases production of weapons, much to the consternation of business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, another terrific actor you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in a movie like this) and sets about revamping his armor for the betterment of all mankind.

It would be a stretch to say that Iron Man reinvents the superhero genre. At best, it reinvigorates it by hitting the old familiar notes in a pleasing way. Downey is at the top of his game and he’s given tremendous support by Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow (only slightly wasted in a fairly typical gal Friday role), and Terrence Howard, whom I hope and assume we will be seeing a lot more of in the next movie. The movie is slightly too long and the superhero template is followed so faithfully that you can coordinate the beats of the movie with Greenwich Mean Time. There aren’t any real surprises here, just familiar tropes performed with energy and enthusiasm. The standard “look-what-I-can-do” sequence, wherein our hero discovers his powers, is given a kick by virtue of the fact that Stark is actually inventing his powers rather than just stumbling on to them. It’s refreshing to see a superhero movie with a main character that’s an intelligent adult instead of an awkward teenager for a change. The visual effects are surprisingly seamless, even in this day and age, but the real reason to see Iron Man remains Downey, relaxed, committed and giving his all in service of the type of character that actually does need an actor of his caliber but rarely gets one. Is Iron Man the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen? Nah, probably not. But it’s a whole lot of fun and I’ll be more than happy to queue up for Iron Man II. (* * *)

Speed Racer

Perhaps the best summation of the Wachowski Brothers’ live-action anime I’ve heard came from the beautiful but dangerous Dr. Girlfriend. As she and I left the theatre, she said, “I feel like I just got off a ride.” Indeed, the experience of watching Speed Racer is one of pure sensory overload. Theatres should probably be selling Polaroids of the audience in the lobby. Still, it’s not for everyone and I can understand why most of America hasn’t embraced the Wachowskis’ vision. Unlike other live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, this makes no attempt to raise the level of sophistication other than visually. This is a cartoon, for better or worse. The dialogue, the plot, the performances, everything is pitched at the level of a Saturday morning cartoon. That can be great fun when you’re nine years old with a big box of Crunch Berries in front of you and incredibly irritating twenty years later on the big screen. Surprisingly, I actually got into that mindset and found the movie to be highly enjoyable. The cast, including Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, is entirely willing to play along with the two-dimensional conceit. Nobody’s going to win any Oscars for this but they do what they need to do quite well. Besides, everyone involved seems to realize that this movie’s raison d’etre is its look. And on that score, the movie is a complete success. Speed Racer is like having a zillion bags of Lik-M-Aid Fun Dip injected straight into your eyeballs. I have never seen a movie that looks quite like this before. It’s an animated film that just so happens to have real people in it. It’s dazzlingly colorful, insanely hyperkinetic and even at over two hours, rarely lets up. Oh, and kudos to the Wachowskis for casting an actual primate as Chim Chim. Most movies these days would go the CGI route (more on this phenomenon in a second), so I was extremely happy to see an animal actor get work. Speed Racer isn’t a movie I can unreservedly recommend to just anybody. If you hate it, I totally understand why you did. But I think Andy and Larry Wachowski completely achieved what they set out to do and on that level, the movie is a complete success. If you can get into it, you’re in for quite a ride. (* * *)

Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Before we get into this thing (I can’t quite bring myself to call it a movie), I probably need to explain my feelings about the entire Indiana Jones series. For the sake of analogy, let’s pretend that Raiders of the Lost Ark is your favorite toy you had when you were a child. You played with it over and over and loved it to death. Temple of Doom, then, is rediscovering that toy a few years later. It’s still kind of cool but basically it’s disappointing and not nearly as much fun as it used to be. A few years after that, we have The Last Crusade, which is finding the toy even later and discovering that it’s starting to fall apart, the batteries are all corroded and disgusting, and realizing that the toy really kind of sucks. Now we have The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wherein Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford break into your house, find that old toy and attempt to beat the shit out of you with it.

WARNING: I am going to assume that everyone who wanted to see this has already done so. Therefore, I plan on spoiling the bejeezus out of this thing.

Things seem promising for about five seconds with the appearance of the old, retro Paramount logo. These hopes are dashed immediately as the movie starts and the Paramount mountain turns into a dirt mound and a goofy-looking CGI prairie dog burrows its way out of it (the first of many poorly-executed cartoon prairie dogs, for some inexplicable reason). Turns out, we’re in Nevada near Area 51 and Indy’s been captured by a bunch of pesky Russkies led by Cate Blanchett, boasting a bad wig and a worse accent. They’re looking for the remains of the Roswell alien. Evidently, Dr. Jones had something to do with acquiring that although lord only knows what or how. They make off with it and Indy escapes by getting cancer…I mean, by surviving an atomic test inside a lead-lined refrigerator. Somehow his being kidnapped by Soviets gets him fired from his teaching post but what really lures him back into the plot is the sudden appearance of Shia LaBeouf as greaser Mutt Williams. He’s looking for his mom, Marion (Karen Allen, finally back in this series about 20 years too late), although Indy is shocked…SHOCKED…to discover that Mutt’s mom, Marion is the same Marion from Raiders. I guess that’s understandable, though. Indiana Jones seems to have taken a whole bunch of stupid pills since last we saw him. How else to explain how he keeps getting duped by friend-then-foe-then-friend-then-foe Mac (Ray Winstone)? Or Harrison Ford’s a-few-seconds-behind line readings, for that matter?

So yeah, the plot of this thing makes absolutely no sense and for that I blame George Lucas. He’s been proving that he can’t write his way out of a fifth grade festival of stories since he had a bunch of teddy bears save the galaxy back in ’83. But he isn’t the only one at fault here. The somnambulant Dr. Jones is courtesy of Harrison Ford, once one of my favorite movie stars, now a cranky old coot who desperately needs to either retire or work with a confident young director who can reignite his interest in his profession. There are infrequent sparks of what made Ford so memorable here, most apparent during his first meeting with Marion, but for the most part, he acts exactly like what he is: a retiree returning to a job he used to do well and stubbornly refusing to accept that maybe he needs to brush up on a few things. As for Spielberg, he’s suffering from a terminal case of the cutes throughout. The cartoon critters are pretty bad. Shia’s swing through the trees with the monkeys is even worse. The final scenes, in which Indy and Marion are all smiles and Indy decides to overcompensate for his own daddy issues with his bastard lovechild, made me want to slam my head against the theatre floor repeatedly.

Gee whiz, and I haven’t even touched on the shockingly bad visual effects. Or the ridiculous moment when Mutt decides the handiest thing in the jungle to rescue Indy is the world’s largest and stupidest-looking snake. Or the fundamental idiocy of basing an Indiana Jones movie around aliens or interdimensional beings or whatever you want to call them in the first place. I half suspect this thing was partially funded by the Church of Scientology. The simple fact is that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an appallingly bad movie. As an Indiana Jones movie, it’s disappointing. If you see a scene in an Indiana Jones movie and think, “Hey, didn’t they do that in The Mummy Returns?” you know there’s a major problem. But even as its own entity and ignoring the existence of all the other movies, it’s atrocious. This is one of the laziest, most condescending and smug big-budget movies I’ve ever seen. By the end of the movie, I was hoping that one of the aliens would turn out to be Jar Jar Binks. At least that would have suggested that everybody had some kind of sense of humor. (* ½)

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