Sunday, December 28, 2008

Apparently, Klaatu Ne Barada Pas Nikto

I know that they claim it's in there. And yes, I heard a loud but indistinct moan that sounded something like it, just when Keanu calls off GORT's swarm of killer cicadas. But by director Scott Derrickson's admission in the above-linked article, it's just there for the fans, and is no longer a plot point. I'm talking about the phrase, "Klaatu barada nikto," from the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Ok, spoiler alert on both the original and the remake from here on out. "Klaatu barada nikto" is the fail-safe code phrase which our alien hero, Klaatu, directs our earthly heroine to utter to his interplanetery bodyguard/destroyer-of-worlds, Gort (as opposed to the upgraded GORT). By receiving this message from the tragically-fallen Klaatu, Gort cancels his Earth-melting agenda and the human race lives another day, given another chance by Klaatu to better themselves for the sake of life, the universe, and everything.

The beauty is, we are never told what it means. Obviously, it's some sort of "abort" order, but the subtleties are wrapped in mystery, and the simple three words, one of which we understand, leaves us deliciously guessing at what we don't know. Great stuff. This is geek poetry.

So I say it's a waste to make so little of this classic line. The utterance in the remake is hardly audible, let alone relevant, as it is presented. Heck, if Army of Darkness can make a plot point out of the line in loving homage, then why can't the remake? Without it, Stood Still is just another "alien warning" story. "Klaatu barada nikto" is the abracadabra that makes this particular cautionary tale so memorable. Whatever "barada nikto" means, we know that we have to be worthy of its being said, otherwise we're not fit to inhabit this planet. It is mumbo jumbo of the most profound significance. I mourn the wasted opportunity, on what is a decent movie otherwise (no small feat, given the high expectations associated with remaking such a classic).

I think my friend E summed up the flick best: there's nothing particularly wrong with it, but it's not memorable. Perhaps if they had, I dunno, come up with a mysterious catch phrase. Yeah. The movie is handled with some subtlety, and there's some neat stuff in it, for sure. I think, however, that the fable's metaphor is a little muddled. Made in the thick of the Cold War, the original film is plainly an anti-war film. Earth can't stop its violent ways, and so peaceful aliens decide to nip us humans in the bud before we can threaten the solar system. The remake is plainly a green film. Humans are laying waste to Earth, one of the only planets capable of sustaining complex life, and so the tree-hugging aliens decide to kill us to save the planet. But that logically leads to the notion that these aliens have some designs on the planet for the future. They wouldn't need to save the planet if they had no intention of living there, or at least using its resources, would they? Do they really want to become exterminators just for the sake of saving an ecosystem? I don't buy the logic. Something is missing. Klaatu supposedly represents benign entities, but in this version, his plans for Earth hint at something unspoken, and perhaps sinister. He seems to lay claim to the planet on behalf of others. That sounds like white Europeans sticking a flag in the New World and driving natives into oblivion.

And yes, I know that Klaatu must learn the beauty of the human race, but does it have to be while solving complex equations, listening to Bach, and discussing sociological philosophy with a posh English-accented John Cleese? Isn't that a bit obvious? Couldn't Klaatu find the Ramones just as beautiful? Or ride the Cyclone at Coney Island and say, "Neat?" It's as though he's ready to kill us all, but once he sips tea, tours the Louvre, and takes a class on poetry at Oxford, he thinks twice. Talk about white people.

I digress. I miss "Klaatu barada nikto." At least GORT was gigantic and had a sweet laser visor-eye.

Friday, December 12, 2008

R.I.P. Bettie

Bettie Page
April 22, 1923 – December 11, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dr. Potomac & Mr. Strange Case

With deep love for its namesake and some remorse, this blogger is dropping the handle of Potomac. I had based that name on my time as a clerk at the greatest video store on the eastern seaboard. But as the number of my online accounts grows, I'm trying to consolidate the number of things I have to memorize, and I find that "Potomac" is taken by a lot of people. And I'm nothing if not a cyber-screenname iconoclast, right gang? Right? Anyway, Strange Case is the name of my recently formed production company, part of the working title of my upcoming film, and is utterly perplexing when read out of context. Perfect recipe. So yeah, I'm Strange Case. Nice to meet you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

No Bailouts For Hellenic Monsters

Two non-substantive posts in one day. Am I the only one who thinks that CNBC's Charlie Gasparino, who recently went a little nuts on air, looks a lot like Calibos from Clash of the Titans? It would explain why he only gives editorials from behind a desk... he's hiding that tail. At least he threaded his eyebrows and filed down his horns.

The Suffering of Animals = Yum

Gang, get your bibs. Sharpen your knives. Ready your drool cups. PETA's Thanksgiving cooking video game is here. And man, is it making me hungry. Plus you get a super sweet bloody video bonus after every level. I haven't had this much fun butchering fowl in ages. Digital giblets aren't as nice as the real thing, but they'll have to suffice until tomorrow. Have a great holiday, everyone.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Executive Excelsior! 'Nuff Said!

Moments after basking in the promise of the first Geek President, I find out that Obama's comic-book-collectin,' MacBook-sportin,' Star-Trek-lovin' ass has been beaten to the punch by Dubya. The White House has announced the 2008 National Medal of Arts Recipients, and the Grand Doyen of all fanboys, Stan Lee, is among them. Sorry, Forrest Ackerman, take a number.

I think it fairly momentous that the creator of The Hulk, Spider-Man, X-Men, et al is going to receive the most prestigious arts award in the nation. But I have to guess that 'Bama is throwing kryptonite darts at a picture of W right about now. You just know the President-Elect was saving a spot for Stan right next to Stephen King, Spielberg, and J. K. Rowling. No? Ok, fine, that might be a bit much. Knock Steve off the list. No, the other Steve.

Anyway, it's a fine, validating day to be a geek.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Evasion ≠ Denial, Ashley

Wow, I'm really not keeping up with my updates. I apologize. I've been busy editing. I can only promise that when I unleash the zombie Adrienne Barbeau upon the world, she's going to look fantastic.

In the meantime, maybe this tidbit will make amends. This past All Saint's Day (that's the day between Halloween and the Day of the Dead, you squares), I dragged my unwitting better half and another friend to see a midnight show of Bruce Campbell's My Name is Bruce. And the man himself, the champion of chainsaws, the enemy of severed posessed extremities everywhere, Ash, Brisco County, Jr, and the pornstar-'stached dude from Xena: Warrior Princess was there introducing it. In fact, he introduced at least six New York screenings in one weekend as part of his promotional tour.

Now, I love the man. I honor his canon. I grew up wanting to be him. So in the interest of prolonging the mythic status Bruce may hold in the hearts and minds of many reading, I am going to avoid any further discussion of this directed-by-and-starring-BC vehicle. What I will tell you is this: being in such a small crowd (roughly twenty dweebs showed up for the late show), and spurred on by Cambell asking, "Do any of you have a question about a movie you haven't seen?" I opened my big mouth and shouted, "Spider-Man 4!"

Immediately, BC began to riff. I think he's gotten this one before. Apart from rehashing his cameo roles in Spideys 1-3 (noting that, as a pesky usher, he was the only person who's defeated Spider-Man), he went on to ask, "I've done enough in those movies. What else do you want me to do?"

Now, I'll make the claim that what I'm about to suggest, I concocted in my brain years ago. That said, I can not claim that the idea is original. The fanboy fantasy pipe dream I herein propose has been out there on the internets for a while, concocted by the otherwise unengaged minds of a thousand geektards writing a thousand fanblogs. It's a rumor started by a million dudes who thought it up themselves or read it somewhere like this. Nor was this the first time it was proposed to BC in a Q&A, from what I gather online. But I rambled, out loud, in that curious fashion that comes so naturally to the comic nerd:

"How about this, Bruce: all of those characters were the same struggling actor and FX artist named Quentin Beck. You should be Mysterio."

Bruce played dumb. He asked what the hell I was talking about, pressing me to go on in an effort to deflect the question and out me as the incurable dork I am. Success on both counts, Campbell. But I shut my mouth quickly enough, once it became apparent that although he wasn't going to answer the question, he wasn't going to deny it either. He pretended to try to get Raimi on the phone. He asked, "Why would I want to act with a fishbowl on my head?" Good point. But he let slip something like, "Everywhere I go, I hear about this Mysterio." So much for playing dumb, Bruce. The hopeful geek in me could only take this as a sign that it's been Raimi's plan from the first film, and that Bruce knows exactly who Mysterio is.

Take it from a former employee of the franchise (I was a PA on the NY leg of Spidey 3): everyone's under a gag order. There were rumors of crew members being fired for taking photos on set. So while the man couldn't confirm anything, I'm going to keep hope alive. And I, for one, think Bruce would look great under a fishbowl.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Out of Sight

IMDb reports that the U.S. National Federation of the Blind plans to protest the film Blindness because it "portrays blind people as monsters." But really, before being so judgmental, don't you think they should see the movie?


Thanks, I'll be here all week.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not Yet

Yes, it's incredibly impressive what they can do with protons these days. But "recreating conditions a split second after the big bang" sounds mighty, um, ridiculous to this uneducated guy. So be alert and keep checking (props to The Geniuses for pointing this out):

Has the Large Hadron Collider Destroyed the World Yet?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Mea Culpa

Been gone for over a month. For the extraordinarily few of you who actually may have noticed my absence (and fewer of you who cared), I apologize. To make amends I offer these stills from my short film, The Strange Case of Dr. & Mrs. Jacobs, starring John La Zar, Adrienne Barbeau, and Peter Cambor. Production has just wrapped in LA, and that's the reason for my being offline for so long. Now I just have to edit the sucker.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Geek Purgatory

So much nerdy crap to blog about, so little time or will to do so. Where does one begin? Should we talk about The Dark Knight, easily the best comic book movie since the last comic book movie? Should we talk about the ennui-riffic Watchmen or Terminator: Salvation teasers? How about the mysteriously out-of-nowhere trailer for a "vaguely inspired by" the work of H.P. Lovecraft film called Cthulhu? That one looks like more of a kitchen-sink drama about homosexual New England love than a tale of tentacled deities from outer space (but who says those are mutually exclusive?).

I blogged enough about Dark Knight before ever seeing it, so I don't have much juice left in me (especially since I saw the 12:30 show last night and am exhausted). So I'll just throw these words out: satisfying, flawed, long, good (maybe even very good).

I got nothing else today, gang. Sorry.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Show Me the Spandex

This past weekend, I finally went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. Summarily, the exhibit serves to illustrate how superhero aesthetics have leaped from comic books into the work of fashion and sportswear designers. Um, ok, sure. I mean, anything to get comics more celebrated by the established art world, right? If it takes Jean-Paul Gaultier and the Met's $20 "suggested donation" (read: "required ticket price") to get the Soho elite to take the work of Jack Kirby and Alex Ross seriously, I guess I'm for it. I was excited to go, and the exhibit's introductory copy certainly boded well:

... superheroes have often been dismissed as frivolous and superficial, but their apparent triviality is the very thing that gives them the ability to address serious issues... Through the years, the superhero has been used to embody—through metaphor—our social and political realities. At the same time, it has been used to represent concepts reflective of sexuality and corporeality through idealized, objectified, and hyperbolic visualizations of the human body. Constantly redefined and reworked according to popular canons of beauty, superheroes embody the superlative.
One reads this alongside one of Warhol's Superman prints. And it struck me for the first time that Andy's and Roy Lichtenstein's work, as much as I've always loved it, may have done more disservice to the quest for "high art" acceptance of comics than it did good. Pop Art, if I have it right, is a celebration and validation of the beauty and design in everyday commodities. Warhol selling a can of tomato soup for hundreds of thousands of dollars is (or at least once was) a twist on the preconceived notions of art historians, dealers, and other self-proclaimed experts of all that is graphically hip. That device -- that afficionado appraisal of the trivial -- when applied to Campbell's Soup, Penzoil, and Life Savers, can (for those who dig Pop Art) elevate the mundane and the everyday to the level of "high art," thereby calling into question the value of art itself, and likewise the significance placed on commercial goods -- all in all giving people something to argue about at galleries, all the while making Andy, Roy, et al rich mutha'uckas. So thanks for indulging that pretentious and utterly unqualified ramble on art. If you're still with me, let's move on, keeping in mind work like Lichtenstein's:
The epiphany I had is this: applying that same Pop Art, can-of-soup device to Superman seems to me to say, "This is not art. It becomes art when I silkscreen it onto a canvas and put it in a gallery." In other words, it disses the original work, as it might diss tomato soup by way of seemingly aggrandizing it. Or is it indeed an unironic homage to the original product? Regardless, it seems to do just that: to label the original a "commodity." So the comic book geek and purist in me wants to be insulted by Warhol's (and by extension, the Met's) implication: that comics are just commercial goods, now subject to the interpretations and conversion into art by the alchemic properties of the higgest bidder. Then again, Warhol also messed around with the Mona Lisa, so this entire debate gets muddled. The point is that whether it's art or not, celebration or ironic inversion, Warhol's Superman isn't Siegel and Shuster's, Alex Ross's, or even Jim Lee's Superman. It's a derivative of Superman. And this was my over-arching beef with the exhibit (which, granted, I enjoyed in some small measure). After reading the opening blurb in the shadow of Warhol, one turns to find a pretty neat alternating-light-source display which exhibits the costumes worn by Christopher Reeve as Superman and Clark Kent.
Ok, cool. Then there are contemporary fashion designers' take on "the graphic body," and then we see the link between the Flash's costume and full-body Speedo sportswear. Ok, I get it. Then we see Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman costume (aged from red, white, and blue to pink, beige, and violet), then we get full-contact sports gear and Christian Bale's latest Batman costume. This goes on and on, all the while punctuated by the work of contemporary designers who borrow the superhero themes for their work. But I could not help but wonder (and here's where the beef finally returns): where the hell are the comic books?

Every one of these superhero examples is a costume from a movie. Granted, they're pretty swell. Few disappoint, and some really take one back. As silly as I found the flick, seeing Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman costume from Batman Returns reminded me of a formative element in my adolescent sexuality. And Jim Acheson's lead costumes for Spider-Man 3 are impressive pieces of work, considering what a simple and goofy design that is on the printed page. Just compare 70's TV Spidey to the movies':
But where are the Kirby and Romita pictures? Where's a good Bob Kane grey-and-black Batman when when you need him? Impressive though these movie costumes may be, doesn't the entire exhibit betray its mission statement by engaging only the derivative examples of the original superheros? If superficiality and "constant reworking" are the main trends in superhero design, as they say, then wouldn't they be best served by engaging the two-dimensional, 4-color masterpieces of the comic book page? The best we get are giant Alex Ross frames, blown-up into murals for the totally obscured backgrounds of the exhibit. And then, tucked away in the final leg of the installation, are plexiglass cases showcasing a very expensive collection of some very famous issues. Action Comics #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15 are in there, among others (by the way, that's the first appearances of Superman and Spider-Man for you non-geeks). But they're just sitting there, unassumingly. No commentary, no open pages, and I don't even remember artist credits (although I could be wrong about that).

The Met is happy just to give us the tangible movie memorabilia. I guess that sells more suggested donations. But even by comic movies' admission, these aren't true superhero costumes. Remember that line in the first X-Men, after Wolverine questions the black leather team uniforms: "What did you expect, yellow spandex?" It's a great line, which this blog has cited before, and it reminds the die-hard fans to relax and remember that a literal representation of their favorites would look ridiculous onscreen (remember 70's Spidey?). This brings up another issue, which is the fact that the comic pages have begun to imitate their film versions:
But I digress. The simple fact is that these costumes ain't the originals. What the fashion designs have to do with it all, I'll leave to another blogger to address. But I think that using movie costumes to discuss superhero influences in contemporary fashion is like using sci-fi film vehicles to say that space flight has influenced modern automobile design. It's one step removed, and it discredits the stated goal of the project... and it disappoints die-hard comic fans who blog.
Saving grace of the exhibit: the silver Iron Man suit, built by the great Stan Winston before he died, is a beautiful piece of work. It may also be the costume that is closest to its original comic page inspiration, and it looked like a functioning machine. Later at the musem, as I walked through the armory, I thought, "That suit belongs here." It's a work of art, and that I will fight Andy Warhol's ghost on.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Maybe He'll Come Back as Carlin the White

I try to keep things relatively clean here, but...


George Carlin

Sunday, June 22, 2008

You Can't Fight in Here, This is the War Room

Today's random observation...

Is anyone else watching the Get Smart trailer reminded of the war room set in Dr. Strangelove? It's probably just me. What a waste of brain cells, bandwith, and time this blog is sometimes. Sorry gang.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

GTAAM #2: Stan Winston Edition

A.I., The Wiz, The Relic, Predator 2, Congo, End of Days, Leviathan

What do these movies have in common? Answer: they're not good. Granted, Congo has Tim Curry and Bruce Campbell at their cheesy best, but other than that, they have at least one unifying, redeeming quality: Stan Winston worked on them. Winston died earlier this week at the age of 62, and I'm a little slow to blog about it, but this is sad news for a fanboy movie buff.

Winston was a special FX guru who was as versatile with make-up and goo as he was with metal and microchips. He was as much a designer as he was an engineer, and pretty darn close to being another Ray Harryhausen. Let's just run down a list of some of Stan's creations:

. The T-800
. Predator (granted, the mandibles were supposedly James Cameron's idea)
. The Alien Queen
. Edward Scissorhands
. Jurassic Park's dinosaurs
. Iron Man
And, as less iconic work, but personal favorites of mine, I'll add:

. The Thing (made the dog monster, rest of film was handled by Rob Bottin)
. Galaxy Quest (gave animatronic control to the actor's own face, rather than remote control)
But this blog is supposed to be an installment in the Great Things About Awful Movies series. So let's get back to the first list of duds. I won't go through one by one and discredit the movies I mentioned (or the many other crap-fests on which Winston worked in his long career). If you like Spielberg's Asimovian wank-fest or that Crichton-in-the-jungle mis-fire, good for you. I don't feel the need to pick a fight.

"Awful" may be a strong word for some of those flicks, but the point is that Winston's work on them stands out. It is the best of what special effects have the potential to be: technically proficient (often seamless), dramatically motivated, imaginatively fantastical, and yet grounded in a realm of believable physics. Winston's creations are often the reason for coming to the theater, and yet always subservient to a larger purpose. They are great form, to be sure, but they always serve a great function as well. And in the cases (like the duds above) in which there really is no greater narrative worth paying attention to (for my money), one can just sit back and watch the eerie beauty of his robots in A.I., cringe at the effectively frightening Relic, or even gasp in terror at the sheer horror that is Michael Jackson's presence in The Wiz.
Winston's monsters move unlike anything we've seen, yet they move in a way that seems utterly real. They look, at times, like the most preposterous concoctions of fantasy, and yet they look like things that could actually exist. And, working through the onslaught of digital FX in Hollywood, he most often favored puppets and models over computers. He believed movie magic could be made with one's hands. He made good movies better, and made awful movies at least a little fun. He made wonderful, wondrous things on film, and he will be missed. R.I.P. Stan Winston.
P.S. My friend SW asked that I mention Death Becomes Her, but I'm sorry dude, I don't think he worked on it.

In the Middle of an Oreo, It's the Most Delicious Thing I Know

... with props to Weird Al. The new Mars rover has uncovered a mysterious white substance in its tracks. Apparently, the NASA eggheads can't tell if it's salt or ice. Is that where their list of possibilities ends? How about Martian pigeon s%!#? Or maybe it's something more sinister...
Is anyone else reminded of The Stuff? This is the 1985 classic in which the discovery of a great-tasting white ooze leads to the marketing of a new food product that takes over the brains and melts the bodies of those who eat it. I'm just saying that the rover should be careful. And if NASA suddenly starts selling Martian Yoplait, stay away!

Heights and Lows

I know, I'm slow to post these days. And there is plenty of geek news as well. I'm in pre-production on a movie, and that leaves little time for the important things, such as discussing the physiology of fictional masses of pink goo from space. I'll probably have a few posts in rapid succession now.

Musicals may not be the usual nerd-fodder we discuss here, but neither are gay pride parades, and those made it into the pages of this blog. So at the risk of raising questions about my sexuality, I'll talk about the great American song-and-dance industry. Two pieces of news hit us hard this week:
Firstly, and most happily, In the Heights has taken the Tonys for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations. Trophies went to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bill Sherman, both of them friends of the blog. All of our love and congratulations goes to them. But this good news is offset days later by the death of Cyd Charisse, who, as you can see below, is, um, hot.
One of the greatest partners of Kelly and Astaire, her work had a formative influence on the artistic taste -- if not the libido -- of this blogger, and she shall be missed. If her "Dancing in the Dark" with Astaire in The Bandwagon doesn't move you, you might be a Body Snatcher.

Viva Heights, and R.I.P. Cyd.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Too Close Encounters Make Me Want to Indy Phone Home

My long absence is herewith redeemed (I hope) by some long-winded geek talk. Usually, I try to avoid the most blogged-about topics. Why be just another straw in the cyber haystack? But I can't help myself. I gotta moan about Indy IV. Where to start? Ok, first of all... big spoiler alert. This is for people who saw it or don't mind having it ruined. Then again, one of my main beefs is that the movie has no surprises. A spoiler alert is almost a moot point, since the movie telegraphs from its first big scene -- hell, from its poster -- all of the inner-workings of its would-be mystery.

The film opens at a remote desert military base ("where the government keeps all its secrets"). One need not be a fanboy geektard to have heard of Area 51, and just in case you didn't get it, there's a giant "51" stenciled prominently on the wall. To the best of my recollection, even Independence Day doesn't name its desert alien research facility, but one gleans that it's Area 51 by implication. And when Independence Day has a movie beat on subtlety, that should give you a hint as to what's in store for you.

Some evil Ruskies steal a mysterious crate from the facility. Will we wait with baited breath until later in the film to discover its secret contents and guess at why the villains want it? No, they'll open it right away and most conspicuously reveal what is, quite obviously, the carcass of a little green man. Ok, we saw the poster on the way into the theater. We saw the elongated skull with giant eye sockets and a South American pyramid behind it. One of the first shots of the film is of a "this means something, this is important" mound of dirt à la Close Encounters. And now, five minutes into the film, we see an alien at Area 51. Ok, so I guess Indy's going to discover that aliens built the pyramids... but there must be a twist, right? It can't be that simple, can it? It's been forty years since Chariots of the Gods? was published. Again, one need not be a complete nerdling savant to have heard about the theory that the Mayan and Aztec gods were extra-terrestrials. This is stuff that has made its way into pop culture apocrypha. So Misters Lucas and Spielberg must have a twist for us somewhere, surely.

Alas, no. And this is my biggest problem. The film has nothing up its sleeve -- no mystery, no magic. It trudges along, Indy slowly coming to realizations about the forces at work behind the plexiglass -- pardon me... "crystal" -- skull. Near film's end, when our heroes find ancient murals depicting the "gods" ruling over the ancient El Dorado, they hold the skull aloft, all aghast at the "exact match" of its silhouette against the cranium of the figure on the wall. John Williams's music swells, as if to build this into a moment of tremendous revelation. But didn't we figure this out from the movie's poster? And didn't Cate Blanchett's swashbuckling Soviet confirm it all explicitly in some exposition she delivered earlier in a tent? That sense of revelation -- of discovery -- so important in the first three Indy films (and in Indy's chosen field of archaeology), is disappointingly absent here.

What is present are more references and homage à old Hollywood serials and genre pictures than one might have thought possible. Seems like they loved Elvis movies, swashbucklers, flying saucer films, and even Tarzan flicks (as is evident in one of the most arbitrary and odd action sequences I've ever seen). Lucas, Spielberg, and screenwriter David "Let Me Explain This All For You So That Performance, Camera, and Cutting Don't Have To" Koepp have jammed so much stuff into this Indy adventure that when the dust all settles, one realizes that very little has come of it all. It's a pastiche of disparate adventure serials with no connecting tissue... a colorful ramen soup with no noodles or broth (I'm hungry... you'll have to endure a food metaphor).

Our auteurs also seem happy to reference themselves as often as they do Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller. I suppose a certain amount of that is unavoidable, and perhaps necessary, in a series as beloved as Indy, especially when he's been absent from theaters for 19 years. But at the end of the day, this stuff does nothing for me. In the first action scene, a crate gets busted open in Area 51, giving us a fleeting glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The opening night crowd I saw it with errupted in cheers, as if to say collectively, "Yes! We saw that movie!" So what? How's this movie going? Photos, paintings, and even a bronze statue of characters-not-returning-for-this-movie populate the film, far more often, I'd venture, than is necessary. I love Karen Allen, and my experience is that her Marion Ravenwood is everyone's favorite Indy girl, but after the applause garnered by her entrance dies down, she's just here to drive the car around while father and son do all the work. Allen's presence in the film does little more than remind us that Indy movies used to rock.

Ray Winstone, another actor I like a lot, also seems to be here as a mere phantom of the John Rhys-Davies buddy role. But Mac turns out to be nowhere near as endearing as Sallah, nor even remotely as important to the narrative. Seriously, what does this character offer to the film? Given a strangely poignant farewell at the end, this cypher of a character is supposedly a dear old friend and partner of Indy (we've been told so), but he doesn't have a likable moment in the film. If he and Indy did have good times together, then this film, again, only serves as evidence that I'd rather be watching the movie about those times.

Even the props fill me with this sentiment. The film's namesake is the most kitschy, unwieldy, plasticine movie tchotchke I've seen since Nicole Kidman's lips in The Golden Compass. It sits awkwardly in Harrison Ford's arms, looking most clumsy and un-enigmatic as he talks about how special it is. The crystal skull is completely devoid of the Ark's majesty (Raiders), the holy grail's gravity (Last Crusade), or even the Sankara stones' elegant simplicity (Temple of Doom). It's hokey. And it seems decidedly unexceptional, even by the film's own standards: Blanchett casually shows us her alien cadaver in her riverside tent, complete with extraneous crystal skull inside. I guess, through some convoluted logic, the hero skull is more important, but I couldn't help but wonder, "What's the big deal," when these skulls seem to be dropping out of the skies.

And these skulls, so over-explained to us (and therefore so devoid of mystery), do Indy a disservice. I like my Indy films pitting him against Judeo-Christian mythology and magic, or at least some Hindu cult voodoo. Indy is a rational academic who faces the greatest, most fantastical, supernatural incarnations of good and evil. Now, suddenly, he's in an atomic-age sci-fi story. Indy investigating aliens is as de-mystifying as saying that The Exorcist is about a girl with a weird psychosis, and as counter intuitive as would be Sigourney Weaver's Ripley fighting the Mummy. It's oil and water... unsettling and unsatisfying for a fan.

There is the pretense of some very grandiose forces at work here. Blanchett's fate mirrors the villains' demises at the end of both Raiders and Last Crusade. The agents of evil, in their tireless thirst for power, open a Pandora's box and are destroyed by a power greater than their own. But Blanchett's Irina Spalko isn't nearly so evil as the villains of Indy films past. We never see her murder innocents, enslave children, or even burn a book. The most sinister plan she has to offer is to "make you all think like us without you even noticing it." But if Americans are as boneheaded, jingoistic, and bomb-happy as they are made out to be early in the film (the film's brief attempt at some political commentary about the American psyche), then would that really be a bad thing? And frankly, I'm not so sure that what happens to Spalko is punishment. She dissolves and is pulled into another dimension, overpowered by the wealth of knowledge she is shown by looking into E.T.'s eyes. Isn't that what she wanted? She is given an ambiguous fate: disintegrated by physical, human standards, but given the ultimate "gift" of her alien superiors.

So the sweeping, bombastic climax of the film is hard for me to care much about, not least for the unabashedly digital overload in its execution. And this, perhaps, finally, is my last major beef with the film (nitpicky qualms could populate another blog this length). There's so much computer-generated scenery and action that it's hard to spot Indiana Jones in there. We expect this from Star Wars. But Indy is most fun when -- like the old serials it emulates -- it is cobbled together out of chickenwire, paper-mache, glue, models, and cobwebs, not rendered from wireframes, bits, pixels, ones, and zeros. The lush, hand-made matte paintings of old Hollywood have been replaced by flat digital plates, and computer composites have taken the place of photo-chemical prints on emulsion. All the original effects, even the optical ones, were physical; they were done by hand and relatively crude machine, just as Indy uses whips, revolvers, and fists rather than the rayguns and warp-drives of Han Solo.

Amendment 5/27: I thought of a much simpler way to illustrate the problem here, and perhaps the bigger picture as a whole: Indy and company running down a digital gauntlet of giant, computer-generated gears will never be as exciting and interesting -- let alone as iconic -- as Harrison Ford running from a very real, physical giant boulder, as he did in Raiders. That encapsulates why this movie fails for me. If you have no problem with that contrast, then good on ya... you might actually enjoy this.

That movie magic, sadly, may be gone forever, and that's no more apparent than it is when watching Indy 19 years after we last saw him. A lot has changed in that time, and of course, times change and technology develops. But then, is it too much to ask for some ingenuity in storytelling? Alas, Crystal Skull's biggest tricks aren't tricks at all. Even the first utterly mediocre Alien vs. Predator managed to come up with a pretty creative twist on the Von Daniken theory of pyramids-by-aliens. The best Lucas and Company have to offer us here is "No, they weren't from outer space, they were from another dimension." Really, does anyone care by that point? Oh, well then maybe we can take a moral from this? How about it, Indy? Yes, Indy tells us (and I paraphrase from memory), "The Mayan word for 'gold' also translates to 'treasure.' It wasn't gold they were after, it was knowledge. Knowledge was their treasure." Koepp is the king of that insulting "1+1=2, therefore 2=1+1" dialogue. It's crap like that which incensed this blogger to write one of his longest entries yet. And for that, I apologize. Those of you who have made it this far, I salute you, just as I salute those of you still planning on venturing into the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Godspeed.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Pauline Kael Resurrected as a Canine

I guess the dog saw Episodes I-III.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

This is My Blog and it Freaks Me Out

And, since it is my blog, I am allowed to self-promote. I haven't done it here yet. Please check out the link below for my new project with John La Zar, famously of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (above).

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

ATAGM #1: Naughty Naughton

In honor of wife-beating actor, David Naughton, I am creating a new feature, based on my ongoing series, Great Things About Awful Movies (when I say ongoing, I mean I still only have one entry). And so now I inaugurate its sister series:

Awful Things About Great Movies

IMDb reports
that Naughton, best known as the star of John Landis's An American Werewolf in London, "has served time in jail after pleading guilty to domestic battery." He hurt his wife, which is bad enough, but even worse when you consider what his hands look like:


Anyway, American Werewolf has always been one of my favorites. I've seen it more times that I care to admit, and each time is fun. But in recent viewings, I've realized just how annoying Naughton's performance is. I love how Landis conceives the character, David Kessler. He's the upper-middle class liberal-arts Jewish boy, beloved by his family, funny, occasionally charming, but a bit of a schlemiel (see why yours truly likes this flick?). What happens when that kid, on a back-packing trip with his high-school buddy in the UK, becomes a werewolf? Neurosis, kvetching, fears of being different (and too hairy!) all set in... but at the same time there's an exhilaration at being a sort of monster superbad motherf#&%er. You know, all the things we Juden deal with on a daily basis, right?

So fine, David Kessler should be a nudge (non-Yids, you pronounce this "noodge"). But this isn't a balanced portrayal of a nudgy character, it's just a nudgy performance. Forgetting the fact that both Naughton and pal Griffin Dunne seem too old to be students, Naughton is just downright whiny. He's emphatic, erratic, and sarcastic when he should be nervous, neurotic, and acerbic. There's no subtlety. He feels straight out of high school theater to me (yes, I mean that pejoratively). And don't tell me there's no room for subtlety in a gory werewolf comedy. Bull. This isn't a Troma movie. There's a line to walk. Dunne does it marvelously, and all the Brits play their roles with icy English deadpan. Jenny Agutter is the pretty, subdued shiksa that every Jewish boy wants to bring to orgasm. And look for a young Rik Mayall in the Slaughtered Lamb pub scenes.

Let's remember, too, that this is the film for which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the Best Achievement in Makeup Oscar. Rick Baker (the closest thing there's ever been to a makeup auteur), created some of the most amazing effects you'll ever see. For my money, they hold up beautifully, and I say Baker's wolf could maul any of today's computer-generated lycans. Just compare this work to the wolves in the 16-years-later and totally unrelated An American Werewolf in Paris to see how far monster FX have fallen by venturing into the digital realm. But technical wizardry aside, London succeeds as a monster movie, as a parody of monster movies, as a sex farce, and as nostalgic homage to the days of Val Lewton and Bela Lugosi. But really, if for no other reason, this is a great movie because of the transformation sequence... still my favorite monster metamorphosis on film by far (with Bridget Jones' Diary a distant second).

Naughton may be ok in that one scene, by virtue of its violent content matching the lack of nuance in his performance. But I certainly care more about Kessler in dog form than in human. I mean, imagine a Graduate-era Dustin Hoffman in the role. Visualize that, and you'll see what's lackluster about this. Surely, there was a better choice out there than Naughton (seen here realizing that his foreskin has grown back):

I tried for years to get over Naughton because I like the movie so much, but in light of his recent assholery offscreen, I have no problem dissing him. Happily, he's not enough to ruin the movie for me. I'll end by embarrassing Naughton (such as I can) with two things. Firstly, he was a Pepper:

Secondly, here's his #5 Billboard chart hit of 1979, "Makin' It." No joke, that's Naughton singing. It was the theme song to a short-lived disco sitcom of the same name, in which he starred. Good riddance, wife-beater.