Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indy IV: Too Little, Too Late


This past weekend I, like many of you I’m sure, went to see Harrison Ford revisit his signature whip and fedora in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As someone who grew up watching the original Jones trilogy and all its glory, it’s safe to say expectations going in were high.

As a child the adventures of Indy and friends were exciting to watch and re-watch over and over again. Sure the films dealt with magic, mythology and a real-life super hero who always seemed impenetrable from bullets and lots of blows to the jaw (nobody takes a punch to the mouth like Harrison Ford). The action and stunt work was always top-notch, the films featured a welcomed sense of humor, and Spielberg and team always managed to tie in a bit of historical relevance to the storylines. While Crystal Skull had the majority of these aspects going for it, the film ultimately fell short of being anything more than just enjoyable due in large part to a laughable script, pointless and uninspiring side characters and silly CGI special effects. 

It could be said that the fourth Indy film was done too late in the game for star Harrison Ford and perhaps Spielberg himself. The last shot of Indy and friends riding off into the sunset on horseback in 1989s The Last Crusade left the Indy saga open for more adventures but also gave viewers a nice bookend to a solid trilogy of films. Flash-forward almost 20 years and we now see a weathered and more moody Jones taking on the Soviets in a race for some mysterious skulls. 

To be fair Crystal Skull is a fun summer blockbuster, possibly one of the better ones this year. It has all the popcorn thrills one could ask for and manages to provide fans with some inside jokes and pays homage (the Ark of the Covenant makes a cameo in the film’s opening warehouse scene) to the film’s predecessors. Still whereas the past Indy films garnered the luxury of being enjoyed on multiple viewings, Crystal Skull seems destined to end up as a fluffy, forgotten film in Spielberg’s repertoire joining the ranks of The Lost World and War of the Worlds. Doubtful that it will receive the same longevity as his other summer blockbusters like Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark

ImageSo what happened? Crystal Skull had the potential to be something great. It manages to answer the question about what Indy has been up to all these years. Indy seems wiser and more comfortable with the sticky situations that arise (although he still maintains his, “I don’t believe in fairy tales” mentality when it comes to key plot points). Even the plot, which seemed questionable at first, references real beliefs and historical mysteries. 

Where Crystal Skull lacks is in the basic essentials of filmmaking, which is surprising for someone as accomplished as Spielberg. For starters the dialogue is weak and lacking any substance. Gone are the memorable lines of the past films (“snakes, why it have to be snakes”); instead we are spoon fed corny jokes and one liners. Then there are the supporting players. The exciting prospect of this film was the return of Marion, Indy’s love interest/partner fromRaiders who unfortunately seems to just be along for ride and lacks any sole purpose in the plot. The same goes for the great John Hurt who appears as a rambling professor whose sole duty is to lead Indy and gang into another action sequence. 

Indy’s new sidekick Mac, played by the wonderful British character actor Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast and The Departed) who is usually a scene-stealer, does little that is memorable and seems like just an afterthought of a character thrown in to the pot for the hell of it. Even Cate Blanchett who is at the top of her game currently, does little with the maniacal, sword wielding Soviet operative she embodies. What happened to the great creepy villains like the sleazy Nazi who melts in Raiders or the crazy dude from Temple of Doom who pulls people’s hearts out with his bare hands? Okay, the latter was a bit silly. 

Then there is Shia LaBeouf’s turn as Mutt Williams, the fearless little punk who also does very little for the plot and seems to be featured merely as a way to remind viewers just how old and slow Indy is. Many people despise LaBeouf and while the actor is not great he’s also not horrible. 

Harrison Ford does a good job reclaiming the Indy role and it shows that despite his current career slump he’s in the guy knows how to do action movies. Characters aside, the biggest let down of Crystal Skull is over-reliance on CGI effects, the likes of which are often too unbelievable, even for Indy world. 

Watching Crystal Skull it’s hard to not draw comparisons to George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, which were highly anticipated, like Indy IV, but suffered from a focus on special effects wizardry instead of a quality story. 

The technological advancements in the special effects department have given filmmakers the ability to take audiences to places they never thought they could see on a big screen, and Spielberg is no slouch when it comes to CGIJurassic Park for example took the new radical technology and created a suspenseful and credible science fiction film. With Crystal Skull, however, very few computer-altered scenes truly stand out as amazing and only hinder the already unbelievable plot. CGItechnological is a filmmaking tool like anything else that must be used with restraint and care. Too many CGI heavy films, particularly super hero flicks, are ultimately forgotten because they merely provide more of the same mediocre effects. 

The past Indy films benefited from eye opening, old-fashioned stunt work (done by real stunt doubles, remember that!) and over the top action scenes that still managed to remain somewhat believable (I don’t know about you but I could probably out run a large boulder). With Crystal Skull the special effects seem to have been used as nothing more than an easy way to get the job done and ultimately take away from the thrills that the previous films provided viewers. 

Take for example the large fire ant nest that some unlucky Soviet soldiers stumble upon. Instead of utilizing real life nasties like the snake-infested tomb in Raiders or the unsettling insect nest in Temple of Doom Spielberg manages to lose the squirming effect that made the past films so much fun with a fairly ridiculous CGI ant farm disaster. 

Perhaps over analyzing a film that is clearly intended to be nothing more than a fun time at the movies is pointless. Spielberg even said this film is, “the sweet dessert I give those who had to chow down on the bitter herbs I used in Munich.” It could be that for generations just now getting into Indiana Jones this new adventure is candy for the eyes. May be it’s unrealistic to expect anything as good as Raiders or better since that film set the bar high for the whole summer blockbuster genre. Still the inner kid in me who grew up watching the Indy films with eyes wide open left the theater Friday night feeling disappointed–and I don’t think I was alone. Hopefully Spielberg has enough finesse and creativity left to take the upcoming film adaptation of Tintin, another piece of childhood nostalgia, to someplace magical.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Stone v. Bush


Oliver Stone is one of those directors people either love or hate. His forte has always been the delivery of controversy – sometimes executed with brilliance, other times with insanity. All in all he’s been blessed with a career as varied as any other.

The director is currently hard at work on an upcoming, potentially fiery biopic of our current leader, George W. Bush, the ironically simple, W. (pronounced dubya). Unlike past large scale Stone projects–the poorly delivered, strangely erotic Alexander the Great biopic perhaps–W. is set to be a low-budget, small romp of a film that appears to have more of political agenda than the director lets on.

W. is hardly Stone’s first exploration of powerful political figures. The director’s 1991 film JFK was an interesting, if not a bit paranoid, look at the conspiracy theories regarding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. His underappreciated biopic Nixon was an intense character study of quite possibly America’s most complicated, hated, and generally misunderstood Presidents. Even his rarely discussed 2003 documentary Comandante, which explored the life of revolutionary Cuban leader Fidel Castro, set out to show that there was more to the controversial figure than the nation’s current negative attitude. 

From what is known about W. it’s hard to say whether Stone’s aim is to fairly examine America’s current comandante or merely dish out a film that treads the waters of simple character assassination. 

ImageEntertainment Weekly Magazine’s current issue features a cover story about the new film with the two stars–the rising middle-age actor Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Banks as President and first lady Bush–on the cover in full makeup. The film has an impressive cast of greats, most of which are not only respectable in their trade but visually are spot on matches to the characters they’re embodying. Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condi, the great James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as Ma and Pa Bush, and the intriguing casting of Rob Corddry as Ari Fleischer all make up the company.

At the moment this promising lineup appears to be the best thing going for the film. Stone has said in interviews that he has every intention of delivering a fair and balanced look at Bush’s life and actions leading up to his current position. The problem with this supposed stance on the film is that he often follows these comments up with references to particular Bush blunders over the years. He also contends that this man is not as complicated as we might suspect but rather just funny and to quote the director, “awkward and goofy.”

Here lies the potential problem with W. Most people would have a difficult time denying that George W. Bush will carry the legacy of one of America’s worst Presidents. While he has slipped through two terms and a barrage of dissent it’s safe to say history will not be so forgiving. Still why make a film glorifying everything that’s wrong with the man?

A couple months ago an early draft of the film was leaked on the internet, mainly to popular political blogs and media hound dogs. In it were certain scenes dating back to Bush’s wild youth. During one such moment, which is discussed in the EW feature, a 26-year-old inebriated Dubya crashes his car onto the lawn of his parent’s house and then verbally assaults his father with barrage of angst about standing in the shadow of a great man. Later on Bush nearly crashes a small plane, again also under the influence of alcohol. There’s even an account of Bush playfully locking Colin Powell out of the oval office during a cabinet meeting. 

These little snippets of Bush’s life may be amusing and are most likely factually accurate (Stone supposedly referenced 20 or so Bush biographies and consulted with experts during the writing of the script) but do they really give us a glimpse into who this man truly is? For starters the mainstream media has already had a field day with Bush’s shortcomings over the years and rather than simply follow suit Stone could use this film as a way to reveal the real George W. Bush. What led him to where he is today? Why the choices he made? How about his strong religious beliefs? What role did his father play in his life?

The greatest and most unexpected part of Stone’s film Nixon was that it took on one of America’s most despised political figures and gave us a sympathetic and complex look at who this man was and what made him choose the path that led him to so much trouble and humiliation. 2006s The Queen gave audiences a glimpse at the Queen of England’s struggles to shed the negative press about her response to Princess Diana’s untimely death and more importantly presented an intimate look at who this misunderstood woman is. While it’s clearly too early to judge W. which hasn’t even finished production, it seems like Stone’s agenda is rooted more in humiliation than examination. 

In interviews Stone has commented that the project came together rather quickly from a loose script he and his Wall Streetco-writer Stanley Weiser had been toying with between larger projects (he’s also working on another Vietnam era film about the bloody My Lai Massacre). The W. cast was assembled right away (all but the role of Dick Cheney, which supposedly was offered to Robert Duvall and most recently Paul Giamatti) and Stone has said that he could potentially have the film ready for an October release, amidst the heart of election season and while Bush is still behind the wheel. 

Sure releasing a highly potent piece of political controversy during an election and departure of a two term President is a way to make a splash but is it really the most mature and intelligent move? Due to the uncertainty of the future status of this country and the world a Bush biopic would make more sense five or ten years from now when people truly know the severity of his footprint in history. 

Stone’s previous film was 2006s World Trade Center, a decent but fairly uninspiring retelling of the morning of September 11th. While Stone’s honoring of the courageous port authority cops and fire fighters was moving it held no real substance and was perhaps a little too much too soon (the more refined United 93 portrayed the chaos and horrors of that morning with greater depth and emotion). With W. it could be that Stone is again rushing to make a statement that is already apparent in most people’s minds and is trading his artistic merit for the prospect of a controversial splash in the pond.

It’s still very premature to tell what Stone has in store for the world with W. but unlike his past projects, which took bold positions on tough issues (the media in National Born Killers, conspiracy theorists in JFK, the Vietnam war protest in Born on the Fourth of July, and the world perception of Castro’s Cuba in Comandante), Stone’s W. comes off as nothing more than a way to stick it to our current commander in chief. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was without a doubt a left-leaning, scathing look at Bush and his cabinet but also helped to unveil a lot of need-to-know information regarding our President’s business prospects and relations in the Middle East. Whether or not Bush is worthy of a beating for some of his childish wrongdoings is entirely up to the viewer but you could argue that finger pointing and petty character assassination from a seasoned director such as Mr. Stone is just as juvenile.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The European Canon is Here


During 1975 David Bowie’s body weight lingered between a frightening 80 and 90 pounds, rivaling that of even the lightest of jockeys. It is said that his diet consisted of milk, the occasional indulgence of plain vanilla ice cream, and the finest cocaine a decadent life in Los Angeles could bestow. His life had become a haze of paranoia fueled by a heavy dependency on drugs (he also dabbled in amphetamines) and an unhealthy fascination with the occult. 

While The Thin White Duke (his self-appointed title/persona at the time) was on the brink of a serious physical and mental breakdown he was also about to embark on arguably his most innovative and bizarre creative periods in not only his career but in rock and roll history. 

Much has been written about Bowie’s many reptilian musical transformations over the years but few rock historians have meticulously examined the musician’s late 1970s flight to Western Europe.

As far as rock and roll books go Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town is about as good as it gets. It is a comprehensive look at Bowie’s experimental escapades in and around the once divided city that strays away from the clich├ęs of the modern rock biography. The book is the newest edition to a budding series of tomes from Jaw Bone Press chronicling notable musical periods–the first documented Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes period with The Band. Author Thomas Jerome Seabrook is hardly the first author to tackle Bowie but rather than put out a biographical retelling of the artist’s various incarnations over the years the author takes on his most curious and often misunderstood era. 

Prior to Bowie’s mid-70s stint of drugs and debauchery the artist had already changed the face of rock and roll on more than one occasion. He brought androgyny to the forefront of popular music, helped jumpstart glam rock, and coined the term plastic soul by blending his former sounds with the likes of Philly R&B and Soul, first with Diamond Dogs and more successfully with Young Americans. He even made his first foray into acting via the possibly biographical role as an alien in the cult sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He managed to do all this before the age of 30.

At a time when Bowie seemed to have the world at his fingertips–international stardom, high selling pop records, critical acclaim–the artist moved in a completely unexpected direction both musically and personally.

Seeing a need for a major life change Bowie headed for Western Europe, first to Switzerland and eventually Berlin to clean up his act. In one of Bowie’s many career acts of kindness he also coaxed ex-Stooges frontman Iggy Pop into joining him. Pop himself had established a far more severe drug dependency than Bowie and was also in dire need of a career jumpstart (prior to Berlin Bowie had already pushed Lou Reed to start his solo career when he produced Reed’s Transformer).

Most music fans (or at least Bowie fans) are familiar with Bowie’s unofficial “Berlin Trilogy” of albums–1977s Low, and “Heroes”, and 1979s Lodger–recorded with Brian Eno during the late 70s. Few may be realize that besides recording three radically different art rock albums Bowie co-wrote and produced two Iggy Pop solo albums (the grim proto punk of The Idiot and a return to Stooges form in Lust for Life), starred in a film, organized a couple European tours and even managed to narrate an audio version of HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Prokofiev"Sergei Prokofiev's HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_and_the_Wolf"Peter and the Wolf, you know, for the kids. A busy two years and an extraordinary close to a career high decade. In many ways both Pop records, primarily The Idiot, served as testing grounds for Bowie’s vision of where his own music was headed and are as much, if not more, Bowie’s records than they are Pop’s (for the research of the book Seabrook discovered that most of the music for The Idiot was written by Bowie with Pop merely stepping in for his signature impromptu lyrical flowing).

ImageThere are those who dismiss Bowie for his glamorous showmanship and over the top publicity stunts (to be fair the stage elements of the glam rock movement aren’t for everyone). What’s most fascinating about Bowie’s late 70s projects is that he traded the glamour for artistic acclaim and a chance to give listeners a glimpse of the future of music.

Gone were the elaborate costumes and fluorescent hairdos. The disco sounds were replaced by slow building instrumental symphonies and rhythmically complex fragments of songs drenched in production experimentation. Even Bowie’s lyrics, which once wove tales of cosmonauts and paid homage to musical idols, now took on a starker realism with references to new age art and social politics–mainly the division in Eastern Europe brought on in the shadow of the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain.

In his book Seabrook draws a number of comparison to contemporary musicians holding Bowie’s Berlin period in the highest of regards. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor often cites Bowie’s Low and later Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) as inspirations for his electronic noise compositions. It’s also hard to deny the comparison made by Seabrook between Bowie’s experiments and that of Radiohead. 

Both changed the face of rock with pinnacle albums and decided to follow the newfound success with radically polarizing ventures into experimental art rock. The fact that Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded and released back to back in a short period of time only furthers this argument when looking at Bowie’s ’77 release of both Low and “Heroes”. One could go even farther to argue that Bowie’s less adorned/misunderstood trilogy conclusion, Lodger in 1979, was received with the same “so-so” feelings as Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief

It’s easy to overlook how influential and fascinating Bowie’s 70s decade must have seemed to music fans at the time. Very few musicians or bands can accomplish as much as Bowie did in a single decade, let alone continue to shed his musical skin along the way. Seabrook’s retelling of Bowie’s European period also serves as a reminder to what has become of Bowie since Berlin.

As the years went on the space between album releases grew and the quality of music diminished, especially in the 80s. Many say the artist’s last true masterpiece was 1980s Scary Monsters, which at the time must have sounded like a promising start to a new decade (it as shortly followed by another, more profound wave of mega stardom with the ultra poppy Let’s Dance).

In the 90s Bowie reunited with Brian Eno for the fan favorite 1.Outside, the first of what was proposed to be another Bowie/Eno trilogy of concept albums. Instead he followed with a string of decent but not spectacular modern sign of the time records. It should be noted that Bowie is currently in his longest stretch without a major record release with 2003s Reality being his last contribution. While rumors continue to fly about a new record or the leak of formally unreleased material, Bowie future remains a mystery.

It could be that Bowie has officially jumped the shark in terms of releasing monumental records but it’s important to remember how much of driving force Bowie once was. Ten albums plus countless side projects in ten years is a feat few musicians even dream about now and days but Bowie managed to pull it of during the 70s with a number of the records being christened masterpieces. And who knows, perhaps the Thin White Duke still has a couple more musical visions left in him. 

Monday, May 5, 2008

Off The Radar Summer Entertainment


ImageAs the summer months approach there are undoubtedly a lot of exciting things in the entertainment world to look forward to. At the movies there’s the return of Indiana Jones and a handful of big budget popcorn superhero movies (the most exciting of course being The Dark Knight). In the music realm there are countless outdoor concert festivals across the country featuring a range of different artists and groups. Add this to new albums by Coldplay (Ole!), Weezer, Death Cab For Cutie, My Morning Jacket (already making a splash in the indie music blogosphere), and a number of interesting solo albums from the likes of actress Scarlett Johansson, Jakob Dylan, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, and one Gavin Rossdale. Even 80s pin-up Rick Springfield is apparently making a comeback. How ‘bout that?


Then there’s the democratic primary battle, which is entertaining, if not totally nerve-racking, and will most likely carry on through the summer. If we’re lucky the commonwealth of Puerto Rico with its 63 delegates may become a major player in the drawn out race. Supporting players like the outspoken and misunderstood Rev. Wright only add to this fascinating political turn of events.


Then there are the less obvious highlights to look forward–the pieces of the entertainment industry that are still hiding off the radar. The following is a short-list of some the more intriguing but under-hyped upcoming events this summer. 

MUSIC

Chicago seems to have become a haven for some of the best summer music festivals around. Lollapalooza enters its fourth year at Grant Park, Pitchfork Music Fest returns for another indie music filled gala, not to mention staple favorites like Jazz and Blues fest. Some of the more surprising concert events this summer come at Chi Town’s lesser-known festivities. 

Stevie Wonder is on board to perform a free show at The Taste of Chicago and nothing compliments brats and deep dish better than a collection from the master of soul’s songs in the key of life.


Since its construction Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion has long been a haven for classical and niche musical events but ever since artists like Mavis Staples and Wilco took the stage the sheik amphitheater is slowly becoming one of the hotter outdoor venues in the city. This summer Death Cab for Cutie and Chicago’s own Andrew Bird will play to a crowd of fans under the hum of the lights of the city skyline, the latter being a free show.
Other traveling acts to look out for: Erykah Badu on tour for her tour de force new album New Amerykah Vol. 1 with The Roots, hip-hop’s truly talented band backing her up. Sly Stone originally planned a mini U.S. tour after years of reclusion but he recently cancelled a handful of shows including an upcoming appearance at Chicago’s Vic Theater due to health issues. Finally, Tom Waits, the minister of the bizarre, is set for a rare tour of Europe and the U.S. 

AT THE MOVIES
ImageForget the upcoming explosion of big blockbusters and superhero outings. The most intriguing film of the summer that has yet to make a splash is political satirist Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous, which is set for a mid-July release date. Very little is known about the comedian and longtime non-believer or secular rationalist’s new documentary except for what he’s plugged on his show, Real Time With Bill Maher and his appearances on Larry King. The film, which was directed by Larry Charles of Seinfeld and Borat fame, is supposedly a broad overview of the absurdities of organized religion and is in the running to be this summer’s most controversial film (after all it seems every summer post Fahrenheit 9/11 must feature at least one controversial film).


Some Bill Maher haters (mainly far right-wingers and various religious groups) have already started a shitstorm of protest for the film with no doubt more to come closer to its release date. Many people may be unaware of the film but it’s safe to say it will stir things up (it was originally set for an Easter release date if that tells you anything about his intent). Bottom line, if Mel Gibson can make an ultra successful two hour film chronicling the painful torture of J.C, Bill Maher has every right to make a film explaining why he believes Gibson and other’s favorite Bible stories are ridiculous. The big question is will the film garner the same following. Will he be able to connect to the large minority of so-called “rationalists” that he believes is out there without a voice.


Other smaller films to look out for: acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris’ new film about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and more importantly about the issue of military torture. Not exactly a feel good summer romp but arguably one of the more socially important films to see.


The Academy Award Nominated film Mongol, Kazakhstan’s official foreign language film submission for 2007 finally gets a (limited) U.S. release. Very few films have been made about Genghis Khan, quite possibly one of the most fascinating and underappreciated conquerors in world history (if you remember the man almost moved in on Europe), and none have been done at an epic scale. While a film entirely in the Mongolian language with zero movie star pull may not lure the masses, film buffs and historians alike will no doubt find some intrigue in this release.


Most people are more than ready to stand amongst thousands of Radiohead fans at one of the band’s various American appearances this summer and it’s safe to say many of us are dying in anticipation to see what Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger did with The Joker character. There is more than enough hype for major events like these–and rightfully so. Still the many other smaller, understated happenings and releases this summer are equally intriguing and deserve to be recognized so as not to be overlooked.