Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Some Early "Hobbit" Movie News

Back when it was news, I was disappointed to learn Peter Jackson would forego the chance to direct both "The Hobbbit" (and a second, as-of-yet untitled film that will connect "The Hobbit" and LOTR), and opt instead to produce a Guillermo Del Toro-directed version of Tolkein's children's story. Sigh.

Now Guillermo's not bad. He directed the more-than-decent "Hellboy," as well as the critically-lauded (but way overrated) "Pan's Labyrinth," so odds are he's not going to mess this thing up. But as a film geek and "LOTR" fanboy, you can't help but wish Jackson would return to the director's chair to give all five movies a kind of directorial consistency. If it ain't broke and all that. Anyway. It is what it is, and though Jackson's sitting this one out, I'm definitely interested to see the Guillermo and WETA come up with.

To that end, Guillermo and Peter Jackson recently did a webchat where they answered 20 questions from readers about the upcoming production. Some of the questions are from fans who aren't well-versed in the ins and outs of filmmaking (like the fan who asked Guillermo and Jackson, before a word of script has been written, if there would be an extended version of the movies a la LOTR), but there are some interesting tidbits about who's returning, how the creative team's going to work, and when we might expect these movies to hit theaters. But in light of the high phony-quotient in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," I thought this exchange was interesting:

WetaHost 20 - Will you be doing less location shooting this time because your set builders, digital effects teams etc have become so proficient?
Peter Jackson Middle-earth is location, with very few structures really. It's a natural countryside and that's where a lot of shooting will take place.
Guillermo del Toro Location will be favored and real set construction.
Guillermo del Toro I love REAL set construction and think that sets are very important part of the storytelling and scope of a film...

Real people doing actual things in real places. How novel. So that's heartening. But this is not a near-term thing by any stretch. Here's what they said about their schedule for production:
Dear Jesslyn - at this point in time the plan is to write for the rest of this year and start early conceptual designs. 2009 will be dedicated to pre-production on both movies and 2010 will be the year we shoot both films back to back. Post productin follows one film at a time with The Hobbit being released Dec 2011, and F2 release Dec 2012. That is the schedule in about as much detail as we have ourselves at the moment.
So about 3 years before we can buy a ticket to the first one, and 4 before the second. Jackson and New Line took their time with LOTR, so the fact they're taking it slow with these two new movies is encouraging.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sad News

Sydney Pollack died Monday at the age of 73.

Besides being an excellent director, he was, to my mind, a better actor. Every line he delivered, every gesture he made on-screen was interesting, considered and natural. His scene in the billiard room with Tom Cruise in Kubrick's last movie "Eyes Wide Shut," for instance, was one of the best things about that movie; he felt so grounded and real in that scene that Tom Cruise came off insubstantial, lost and actorly. Pollack had been busy of late, or so it has seemed watching him turn up on TV (as the disgraced surgeon in the last season of "The Sopranos"), and in the movies. Just last year he showed up as the tough, workaholic corporate lawyer in "Michael Clayton," delivering fantastic lines while making them seem as though he'd just thought of them. And there wasn't one second in that movie where he came off like a guy in his 70's (or his 60's for that matter), so news of his death (and his age!) comes as something of a shock.

Update: Here's a short and sweet look back at Pollack's career by the excellent A.O. Scott.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bush Movie Casting is Now Complete

A big casting decision was announced recently by the producers of Oliver Stone's upcoming Bush biopic probably, but I don't think definitely, entitled "Bush." Shotgun-wielding Dick "Darth Vader" Cheney (seen below)

will be played by 70's-era throwback Richard Dreyfuss (seen below)

And in case you missed Entertainment Weekly's exclusive first look at Josh Brolin in his George W. get up (which includes W's distinctive lost/pissy expression and makeup), take a look:

Not too bad. Looks a tad on the skeletal side though. Having seen and been unimpressed by Oliver Stone's recent efforts (didn't see "World Trade Center" though. How was that? Didn't look too good.), I'm not sure there's cause to be hopeful about this movie, particularly since it's being crashed through production so people can see the movie before the election, but I feel like if any formerly-great film director's due for a comeback (even of the one-movie variety), it's Stone.

Friday, May 23, 2008

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" Reviewed

Here's a sign of how diminished my former film-school era enthusiasm for movies has become: I didn't even know the new Indiana Jones movie came out this week. All along I'd been thinking it comes out next week. Sure, I'd fully planned to see it when it came out on the 28th, but knowing stuff like that is a big part of being a true-blue movie nerd. When I received an IM from the wife yesterday saying it was already out, and then another IM listing the day's show times at our local AMC, I found myself wondering when precisely had I become the middle-aged guy who doesn't know about the movies playing at the multiplex. If that doesn't quite describe me yet, give me another year or so and it'll describe me to a goddamn T.

Anyway, I was unexpectedly but happily able to see "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" tonight at my usual place for filmed entertainment exhibition, and I have some thoughts I'd like to get down while they're still fresh in my head.

And yeah, this is going to be one of those reviews that's going to deal in spoilers (and be long and annoying), so to those who have not yet been exposed to the wonders of "The Crystal Skull", please read no further until you've seen the movie. The come back so you, too, can be bored and annoyed by my review.


Ok. It's just us.

Right now I'm struggling to decide if "Crystal Skull" is the third or fourth best Indiana Jones movie. (Fourth best would, of course, make it the worst.) Right when I think I'm about to make a decision on that score (like just now, when I was thinking it was definitely the worst), some other piece of evidence comes to mind that makes me reconsider (like Short Round and the Prince's voodoo fight in the caves beneath the palace). So for now the jury's out, but I know "Crystal Skull" doesn't lay a glove on "Last Crusade", and I know it's not in the same ballpark as "Raiders."

I think "Crystal Skull"'s biggest problem was that it was trying too hard. Perhaps with the expectations this movie was carrying, it was impossible for two ambitious, reputation-minded guys like Spielberg and, ahem, Lucas, to chill out and make an Indiana Jones movie. Instead they attempted to outdo everything they'd done before with these movies and, in so doing, created something that feels forced and obligatory. There are definitely great things about this movie, but I think some of its excesses really brought it down to where I'm not sure I'd recommend this movie.

Worst thing about the movie: Shia LaBeouf as Tarzan. Ouch. When I saw this awfulness happening right in front of my eyes, one word came to mind: "Lucas." I'll move right past the whole everything-Lucas-touches-turns-to-shit argument which I think, at this point, we could all take a pretty good hack at, and get right to why I think it is that everything Lucas touches turns to shit. It's because he misremembers his own films, and why they work. To him, the first three Star Wars films were intended for little kids who liked the space-age whiz-bang and the funny costumes; the only reason those cute little Ewoks weren't running around eating Happy Meals and singing Barney songs through all three movies wasn't because that would have been stupid, but because it just didn't occur to him. Of course the "Star Wars" films were appealing on levels beyond the comprehension of a 3-year old, but Lucas won't have any of it. He's said as much. So when he makes "Phantom Menace," he puts Jar Jar in there because he figures since these Star Wars movies are really just bedtime stories for sleepy toddlers, and those fussy tykes will probably demand an awful character with a funny voice who does "funny" things to keep them happy, he better accommodate them. And so it was with Indiana Jones. He remembers "Raiders" as a laff-a-minute parody of the goofy serials he grew up with, broad comedy in other words, and so a basket chase through the streets of Cairo, and a tossed-off murder of a scimitar-wielding Arab, and an improbable truck hijacking were all just part of this goofy rogue archaeologist gag he'd come up with. Of course, no one else saw it like that, but this is Lucas we're talking about, and it's his opinions that matter, not yours, you stupid moviegoing public you. Which brings us to Shia LaBeouf swinging through the jungle on vines in the most recent Indiana Jones movie. This moment doesn't fit in at all with any of the three preceding movies, but it sure fits in with Lucas's deeply flawed memory of those movies. If the Indiana Jones movies are broad comedy designed to be palatable to kids, then Shia swinging from vine to vine accompanied by a bunch of monkeys who've inexplicably become his allies COMPLETELY fits the preceding trilogy. I can imagine Lucas during preproduction, arguing over the script with Koepp and Spielberg, and whenever the Tarzan sequence came up for possible excision, it was Lucas standing ready to defend it, probably threatening to pull the plug on the whole thing if they took it out. He'd done it before (ask Frank Darabont). Of course, all of this is supposition, but it fits with what Lucas has said and how he operates. And after "Phantom Menace," why wouldn't you lay the worst thing in a Lucas-co-produced movie at his doorstep? Now, if I wanted to be charitable (which I'm on no mood to be), I'd say that there was always a childlike sense of adventure permeating all of the Indiana Jones movies, and that often Spielberg and Co. skirted the line between escapist action and goofy parody, and with this movie they simply crossed it for the first time. But again: not feeling charitable. Lucas did it.

Another failing of this movie is how fake a lot of it felt. Though it's probably not true, I'd guess about %50-%60 of this film was done on a sound stage. The entire Amazon multi-car, multi-truck sequence was done on a stage (or looked that way thanks to Kaminski's spotty, over-lit cinematography), the campfire sequence was done on a stage (the one that ends with the quicksand), and well, what wasn't done on a soundstage again? Some of the motorcycle stuff I guess? Even the stuff where it looks like they're outside, around and on top of the Mayan temple, was clearly just some elaborate CGI work. I'm sure the stunts were real enough, but when you stage elaborate stunts performed on a green-screen stage, and then add in the CGI cartoon around the stuntmen later, you've drained their movements of authenticity because the context of those actions and movements (their physical surroundings) are clearly phony. For instance, when Shia was balancing between two vehicles going down a bumpy jungle road getting his crotch smacked with jungle fauna, was there any tension or fear for that character's well-being? Contrast that with the stuntman who used a rope to inch himself along the bottom of a truck while being dragged in "Raiders". Sure, the stuntguy was in a shallow trench and the truck was going 10 miles an hour or so, but that movie illusion was all done in-camera and on-location. As was most of that damn thing, and that's part of why it's so great and holds up so well. Why can't our filmmakers be inventive in that way again, instead of just throwing scripts at CGI companies and saying, "Make!"?

I was also underwhelmed by the dialogue. This is more of a minor quibble compared to some of the other stuff, but I thought that in a lot of instances Koepp had set himself up to give Indiana a great line and opted instead for a merely serviceable one. Compare the wit and comedy of "Last Crusade" with this movie, and you'll see my point. In "Last Crusade" Ilsa asks Indy while they're in the catacombs, "Are you sure that's the Ark of the Covenant?" Indy answers, the picture of modesty, "Pretty sure." It played like gangbusters in the theater. Big laughs. And that was just one of many ("No ticket!"). Aside from the snake bit (which I'll get to in a second) nothing really sticks out as being terribly funny in "Crystal Skull" for me. With all the money they spent on CGI, you think they could have thrown $40K to a comedy writer to punch up some of those lines.

But before I go too far down this gloomy track, let me say what I did like. I liked the opening (though I did not understand or particularly like the prairie dog thing. What was that about? Lucas again?). I liked the sequence in the warehouse (a great idea to bring the story back there -- it's one of those places that kind of exists in the popular culture outside of the Indiana Jones movies now). I liked the rocket-car ride. I loved the nuclear test sequence. When the countdown suddenly begins with just 1 minute until detonation, it was the only time I was actually in suspense about how the character was possibly going to get himself out of the situation. His escape was implausible sure, but it was still pretty damn awesome, and the truth is I would have swallowed whatever implausibility necessary just so they could get that incredible shot of the still-firey mushroom cloud churning upward with Indiana Jones in the mid-ground looking on. My favorite single image in a movie in a long long time.

I also laughed very very hard at the quicksand sequence when Shia comes to the rescue with his ... implement. It was a perfect moment, and threw back to the earlier films in an honest, almost touching way. At that point the filmmakers finally allowed the audience to acknowledge that we all really kind of know this guy -- and if we know any one thing about him, it's that he hates snakes. The movie could have used more moments like that.

As for the aliens, I didn't mind them that much. They don't really fit into the Indiana Jones universe (or at least I didn't think they did), but now that they're there, I suppose visitors from outer space are no less supernatural than face-melting spirits in a religiously-significant gold box or evil shamans with the power to extract beating hearts without killing. But by the end of it, the 13 bethroned aliens, the inter-dimensional portal, the swirling boulders, it all seemed a bit much. I mean, I kind of liked all of its over-the-topness. The execution was a bit off is all.

Shia LaBeouf. He didn't bother me as much as I thought he would, but he didn't do anything for me either. After his giggle-inducing entrance, it's a wonder he seemed credible in any of his scenes, which he does. I get that his character is a vulnerable guy putting on a show of toughness but who's really actually tough like his dad, but I never really bought that. He just seems like a wiry actor kid to me. Underlying everything I just thought that if Shia LeBeouf is this generation's answer to Harrison Ford, we're in for some years of not-so-great movies. Man, do I sound old.

Also: why did Indy keep his double-crossing British sidekick around all the time? Even after he'd proved himself truly disloyal, Indy still risks his skin to save him. It was like all the British sidekick had to do was punch a Russian on the jeep and Indy was reappraising him and deciding he's loyal to him after all. It just seemed kind of lazy.

Bottomline: the directors and producers in charge of $100 million+ budget films need to take Industrial Light & Magic off of speed dial, and start taking moving pictures of real people doing actual things in real places. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" would have been a nice place to start, but what's past is past. No more of this "Speed Racer" photo-realistic cartoon stuff. For the $100K Steve spent on the 5-second shot of whatever-the-hell in CGI, he could have gotten 3 10-second shots of real people doing actual things in real places. Say what you want about Michael Bay (and I can say plenty), he understands that the real deal carries a lot of weight on film, and the audience can feel that. Which is why he goes out of his way to stage real people doing real things in real places. Dare Is say Spielberg could learn something from ... Michael Bay? No, I guess I don't dare.

Anyway, that's all I've got for now. I'm interested to hear your comments. That is if anyone still reads this thing, bad as I've been with updates of late.

I hope everyone enjoys their Memorial Day weekends.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Could It Finally Be... Over?

Barack Obama won North Carolina by about 15 points last night, and lost Indiana by 2. Tim Russert said last night that Obama was now "the nominee." Stephanopolous said to expect superdelegates to start coming over to Obama "5 and 6 at a time." Hillary supporter George McGovern has already called on her to drop out, and according to HuffingtonPost, Clinton campaign officials expect more supporters to do the same soon.

Could it be the end? Could Hillary be seeing, finally, the writing on the wall?

I sure hope so. Bad campaign managers and an overall desperation has turned Hillary from a polished and decent-seeming general election candidate into a say-anything-to-win panderer trying to make less cagey Democratic voters think she's one of them. It hasn't been pretty or dignified. And now in the face of defeat in the wake of NC and IN, her people are out there on conference calls with reporters saying "We are a nation of 50 states." Meaning a.) she's going to take her fight to be president as far as she can on the basis that, somehow, the people of Florida and Michigan were "disenfranchised," and b.) reclaiming her good name isn't her priority quite yet. Trying to steal delegates from Florida and Michigan, states who broke the rules fair and square, is a weak justification to continue this fight for the nomination, but, then again, she's never actually said why she's running for president. She ought to be president, well ... well just because.

Anyway, Hillary can still, of course, redeem herself. The loser of this contest will, I believe, have much more to do with a Democratic victory than the winner because the loser will be the one most responsible for uniting the party once this process is over. If she can manage true graciousness in defeat, she'll go a long way in repairing the damage she's done to her once formidable reputation. and because I think she still cares about the Clinton "brand," once she steps aside, I expect her to get behind Barack as hard as she's been trying to beat him.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Spoiler Free, Opinion-Free Post-Screening "Iron Man" Comment

Stay through all of the credits.

Fred Simmons Clip

More Fred Simmons action. Very funny stuff.

This from Aintitcool's Moriarty regarding"Foot Fist Way":

"I can’t believe this one’s about to hit theaters finally. I’ve been singing its praises for a while now, and I think after you see it, you’ll understand why. I’m not alone in loving it, of course. It seems like every professionally funny person I know loves this. I haven’t seen this kind of genuine word-of-mouth buzz about something in the comedy world since maybe the British OFFICE."

A lot to live up to, but definitely funny enough to live up to the hype.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

New York Times Gives "Iron Man" Some Love

The New York Times calls "Iron Man" "an unusually good superhero picture" that's "good in unusual ways."

Things are looking up and up. I've already got tickets for the 7:45 show tomorrow night --- I don't expect to be disappointed.