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2008 At The Movies

January 7th, 2009 No comments

Another year, another movie wrap-up. Here’s the list of all 2008 releases I tramped down to the multimegaplex to watch. As always, films are listed in terms of domestic box-office because I’m lazy and therefore cribbing from the yearly summary at Box Office Mojo.

  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • WALL-E
  • Quantum of Solace
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Get Smart
  • Tropic Thunder
  • Cloverfield
  • Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall
  • Baby Mama
  • Burn After Reading
  • Speed Racer
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars

That’s fifteen, two down from last year. And only five of the top 10, also down two. Maybe I should’ve seen Hancock and Madagascar 2? Eh, maybe not.

Going into 2008, a lot of folks–including myself–were seeing the potential for another 1982, a banner year for filmic geekdom. Certainly, there were a great many prominent genre efforts, despite Star Trek and Harry Potter being pushed back into 2009 for reasons known only to movie marketers.

I suspect that for many geeks and geeks-in-training, it was every bit as big as ’82. Theater clean-up crews are still wiping up the spooge deposited at screenings of The Dark Knight, the bestest movie EVER. Similarly, Iron Man had folks falling over each other on the way to the microphone to proclaim its sublime charms.

For me, 2008 was a little bet “meh.”

First, let’s get The Dark Knight out of the way. It’s telling that I not only didn’t run out and buy the DVD on its day of release (which you can damn well bet I did for Speed Racer), but I didn’t even put it on my Christmas list. Ultimately, I did receive a copy as a holiday gift, and I do intend to give it another whirl.

My relative lack of enthusiasm for The Dark Knight is for much the same reason as my muted reaction to the regenerated James Bond series: it just didn’t give me what I wanted from the franchise. Like Quantum of Solace, I respect the level of talent involved, as well as the need to curb the excesses of the past, but at the end of the day I guess I’m just not ready for a complete reinvention. For me, Dark Knight was only a superhero movie in that someone wore a cape; it was closer in feel to a modern crime drama or even a Silence of the Lambs-style thriller. And I’m sorry, but Heath Ledger is my fourth favorite Joker.

Iron Man was another one that had both fanboys and regular critics touching themselves, but again I struggled to see what the fuss was about. I did actually ask for this one at Christmas, and watched it a second time over the holiday break. And don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable film. Robert Downey Jr. is having fun, and it shows. On a second viewing, I still found it to suffer from a relative paucity of Iron Man; there are long stretches in which not much happens, and even the final fight is fairly brief. I actually found The Incredible Hulk a bit more satisfying as a superhero film.

The “meh” continued with Indiana Jones and Hellboy II. I enjoyed them, but neither knocked my socks off. I do think that public reaction to Indiana Jones was a bit harsh in that everyone seemed to be anticipating another Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than another Last Crusade. And all the indignation about “nuking the fridge” seemed more about trying to invent a new “jump the shark” meme than a legitimate criticism of a series that has always reveled in unbelievable moments. Back in the day, my dad complained mightily about Indiana Jones getting pulled under that truck in Raiders, and I recall similar audience reactions to Indy using a rubber raft to escape a crashing plane in Temple of Doom. The real problem with Crystal Skull was that damned crystal skull.

Another Lucasfilm release was Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which amounted to little more than a cash-grab culled from the weekly animated series. One thing that has become clear is that for as much bitching as we old-school fans do about the prequels, for today’s kids this is Star Wars, and they love it.

The other entry in the computer-animated space robot sweepstakes was WALL-E, which was a sheer delight, start to finish. I don’t go to enough movies to confidently claim that any of them is the “best of” a given year, but WALL-E was the best that I saw.

Long-time readers will of course know that I absolutely loved Speed Racer. And hey, there are at least two of us: Richard Corliss over at Time magazine put it on his top 10 list. It reminded me of another film I adored, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, not only because of its entirely green-screened sets and hyper-unreality, but because in both cases audiences just didn’t seem to care. A lot of folks who were perfectly okay with the likes of Transformers suddenly demanded complex plots and realistic characters from their popcorn flicks. Whatever. I think that blogger Chris Sims summed it up best when he chalked up its poor reception to people who actively hated joy.

Cloverfield was another movie made expressly for me. Despite my ongoing hassle with Hasbro over my duplicate Cloverfield monster, I really liked this modern take on the venerable giant monster movie subgenre.

I saw a few good comedies this year. Forgetting Sarah Marshall had a lot of good moments–especially the climactic Dracula puppet musical–but I could’ve done without having to see Jason Segal’s junk. Tropic Thunder was ridiculous fun, with Robert Downey Jr. once again the big draw, though no moment was funnier than one featuring Ben Stiller and his would-be adopted “son”. Despite my well-documented love of Tina Fey, I felt that Baby Mama went a bit flat, and wasn’t nearly as good as Mean Girls. Get Smart managed not to tread upon my affection for the original TV series, and I felt that both Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway acquitted themselves in the roles created by Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Finally there was Burn After Reading, which alternated between hilarious and too weird for words.

Can’t say that there’s a lot I’m looking forward to in 2009, aside from the aforementioned Star Trek and Harry Potter (and it must be said that this is my least favorite story in the Potter series). Land of the Lost is on my radar, though the inclusion of Will Ferrell makes me wonder what they’re going for; at least it appears to include old-school Sleestak. Terminator: Salvation has my interest, if only because it’ll finally pay off the future war we’ve been promised since the original film. And the new Wolverine flick looks promising; while I don’t have the Wolverine love that most comics fans do, I’ll admit that Hugh Jackman was a lot of fun in the previous X-Men films. Oh, and Watchmen, assuming it actually comes out.

Don’t Be Too Proud Of This Technological Terror You’ve Constructed

September 23rd, 2008 No comments

“Doctor, I’m quite certain this isn’t my mum’s flat.”
“Welllll…perhaps she’s gotten herself a new boyfriend.”

Coming in 2011 from Lucasfilm: Indiana Jones and the Star of Death!

“Today Gotham City, tomorrow…Mos Eisley!”

“Smeagol, are you sure this is the path into Mordor?”

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Bricks

September 3rd, 2008 No comments

I spent much of Labor Day laboring on one of my birthday presents: an Indiana Jones-themed Lego set (#7263, “Temple Escape”) reproducing the Chachapoyan Temple from the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here’s a detailed look!

Guarding the temple’s mouth, Belloq chuckles evilly. Because he’s French, and that’s what they do. A former victim is impaled on the wall. Pay no attention to that boulder over the doorway. Bonus spikes swing out of the wall when a peg is removed.
Indy swings across a pit of bottomless shag carpeting. The traitorous Satipo treads lightly across the stones of the dart room. (The set only comes with four spears, but I added enough to plug all of the available holes. “Hmm…I can’t see what could possibly go wrong if I pick up that idol.”
The idol chamber collapses when the peg is removed! “Aagh! I wish this was Tom Selleck instead of me!” “You throw me the idol, I throw you the whip!”
Raising this lever dislodges the rolling boulder… …while dropping the sliding door. “Adios, Satipo!”
“Oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie!”

Categories: Toys Tags: ,

Forty-Four

July 27th, 2008 No comments

Today I turned forty-four, which is least fifteen too many. Despite that, it’s been a good day. We borrowed our niece and nephew for the weekend, and have spent much of the time down in the basement with the Wii.

Right now, Vic and Kelly (the niece) are in the other room playing Wii Sports Baseball. One of the things I love about the game is the way it randomly fills out the team rosters with whatever Miis happen to be stored on the system. So it is that the players include our friends Dave L., Rob, Chris and Christine, plus such luminaries as Mr. T, Weird Al, Mr. Spock, Einstein and Adolf Hitler. In my just-completed match against David (the nephew), Adolf knocked one of the park. That’s Hitler for you!

My birthday turned out to have an unintentional Lego Indiana Jones theme, in that Vic bought me both the Wii video game and one of the building sets: the temple from the first few minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Cool!

And there were brownies. Yay!

Indiana Jones And The Nineteen-Year Hiatus

May 28th, 2008 No comments

Vic and I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Monday afternoon. When it was over, Vic declared that while George Lucas had not repaid any of what she feels he owes her, neither did he owe her any more because of it. That’s high praise from her!

My own feelings are mixed. It’s certainly enjoyable, and no one involved embarrasses themselves. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s also not The Phantom Menace. I’d say that it’s roughly comparable to the other two Indy flicks. But it wasn’t worth the 19-year wait.

My belief–and I know that Vic will back me on this–is that the biggest obstacle Indiana Jones faces is a power-tripping George Lucas. While it was hard enough syncing up the work schedules of Lucas, Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg, it’s been widely reported that the main reason it took so long to make another Indy installment is George’s stubborn insistence that the film had to revolve around the eponymous crystal skull.

Indeed, one big problem with the film is that Lucas thinks we care about the damned skull. (He also thinks that Raiders worked so well because viewers were invested in the Ark of the Covenant. He’s wrong.) Whereas the entire backstory of the Ark was covered in a single scene, we get a ton of exposition about the history and properties of the Crystal Skulls. George, we got that it was about aliens the moment we arrived in Area 51. And it really doesn’t matter: the point of a “MacGuffin,” per Alfred Hitchcock, is that it really has no point beyond motivating a story’s characters.

Set in 1957, Skull wisely takes Harrison Ford’s advanced age into account. And I give them credit for not trying to make him or costar Karen Allen (reprising her Raiders role in a welcome development) appear unnaturally younger.

Lucas was said to believe that Skull should’ve been inspired more by ’50s sci-fi films than ’40s serials, as was the case with the earlier Indy chapters. If so, he blew it. While there are some obvious nods to the decade–the biggest being the striking image of Indiana standing on a rise with an atomic explosion looming in the background–it’s still more Republic Pictures than 20th Century Fox. That’s because it’s trying so hard to recapture the earlier Indy films, especially Raiders. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s just that the familiar tropes–truck chases, trap-laded tombs and creepy crawlies–have nothing to do with flying saucer flicks.

Familiarity is both a blessing and a curse here. It’s fun to catch the little winks to the audience, such as the inevitable appearance of the Lost Ark in the midst of the Area 51 warehouse, unseen by all except the audience. Still, a big part of what made Raiders work was surprise, and my familiarity with the previous films’ pacing meant that I could predict, down to the second, each occurance of a gun-wielding villain dropping “unexpectedly” into the frame. This predictable unpredictability continued, as in the scene in which Indy and company faced a series of three waterfalls; the little kid behind me in the theater (accurately) declared “the third one’s gonna be huge.” When the eight-year-olds can tell what’s gonna happen before it does, it’s time to change up your pitch.

Okay, enough negativity. Look, it’s a fun film. While there are some slow sections, there’s plenty of humor and action. The interplay between Ford and Allen is enjoyable, and I’m glad that the story devoted a fair amount of attention to their relationship.

Shia LaBeouf is fine as Indy’s sidekick/son (what, did I give it away?), but Lucas is smoking crack if he thinks I’m signing on for “The Adventures of Mutt Williams.” Nothing wrong with the actor or the character, it’s just that Mutt’s not a headliner. If there’s to be a further continuation of the series, I’d prefer to see the filmmakers take the James Bond approach and allow another actor to play Indiana Jones.

Honestly, I think that the best thing for Indy would be if Lucas, Spielberg and Ford gave up their stranglehold on the character. As I suggested earlier, there was no reason that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull couldn’t have been made in 1992, three years after The Last Crusade. Allowing other actors and directors to take a whip crack at Indy during the last 19 years would’ve invigorated the franchise and kept this perfectly-agreeable fourth chapter from seeming a relative disappointment.

Indy Speedway

February 14th, 2008 No comments

The trailer for the new Indiana Jones film has hit the web. Hmmm…that warehouse looks familiar.

Categories: Movies Tags: , ,