Take 5 (reviews)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
How is it possible for one man to completely destroy two of the biggest movie franchises in movie history? I'm talking about George Lucas, of course and here is a movie any filmmaker would be embarassed to have in their filmography. It really is THAT bad, and this coming from someone who hates hyperbole. Skull doesn't even feel like part of the world of Indiana Jones. It's phony like Dr. Pib or Tab. It wants so hard to appease hardcore Raiders fans, but dumbs itself down for those new to these characters. The problem may be that the filmmakers decided to push Indiana up the timeline into the late 1950's. The Nazis are no longer the enemy; Atom bombs, Communists, and UFO mythology have taken their place. The previous films in the trilogy always had a fantastical element about them with their spiritual beings melting faces, and heart-snatching priests, and ghostly knights guarding ancient Biblical relics. But these fictitious plot pieces are tame compared to the over-the-top antics in Skull. Suddenly using a python to rescue Indy from quicksand, or swinging through the jungle like Tarzan with vinefuls of monkeys, or giant man-eating ants aren't fun -- it's just plain dumb. Harrison Ford does a good job doing his usual thing. This is his role afterall. Shia does just fine in a superfluous role (the big reveal surrounding his character isn't anything you couldn't guess from the trailer). And Cate, poor Cate. She does what she can in the role of a poorly written villianess. And writing Karen Allen into this script is a shameless attempt to cash in on Raiders nostalgia. Her Marion is a complete waste in this story. I can't blame Spielberg, though. He and Harrison both wanted to film the original Frank Darabont screenplay that was ultimately rejected by Lucas. Spielberg's a naturally gifted filmmaker and it shows despite the crummy material he had to work with. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has easily worked its way to the top of my Worst of 2008 list.
Cave of the Yellow Dog
What a treat the films of Byambasuren Davaa have turned out to be! Here she trades the desolate Gobi desert of her previous film Story of the Weeping Camel for the beautiful, rolling green hills of her native Western Mongolia. The story is as simple as the lifestyle of the family it observes. Nansal, the oldest child of a nomad family, finds a stray dog in the wilderness and brings it back home to the dismay of her parents. The dog turns out to be a bit of a nuisance, but when it saves the family's youngest child from harm, there's room in the clan for the furry one afterall. Nuggets of wisdom are dished out in earnestness throughout the movie. In one scene, the mother asks Nansal to pull the fingers back on her hand and try and bite her palm. When the child gives up in frustration, the mother says, "Just because you can see it, doesn't mean you can have it." It's simple honesty in a scene like that that makes Yellow Dog a pleasure to watch. If the story seems thin, it's because Davaa is less interested in plot than to capture on film the day-to-day life of a nomad family. Much of the film plays out in detail as the family members collect dung for fire, or milk the goats, or make and bundle cheese, and so on. Those with short attention spans will find their patience tested. Anybody else will be rewarded with this treasure of a movie.
Be Kind, Rewind
I really didn't understand what director Michel Gondry was going for in Be Kind, Rewind. The popularity of the (extremely) low-budget recreations of high-budget Hollywood Blockbusters suggests a skewering of the Studio Tent-Pole Machine. Yet, a community effort to create its own movie as a last-ditch effort to save an old man's obsolete business asks if these very movies can save. I found myself just kind of smiling through a lot of the film. the only big laugh comes from the ignorant Jack Black character as he's done up in Black Face. Mos Def earns my respect as an actor with his natural, effective performance. The biggest misstep is not allowing the audience to actually view the final product of these recreations (called "sweding" in the movie). However, a website after the end credits directs the curious to these mini-parodies. Never has the material been so suited for its director, and played out so flat on the screen.
Understand, I had zero hopes or expectations going into this movie. My interest in seeing 10,000 B.C. stems from watching National Geographic or Jungle movies on TBS with my Dad on Sunday mornings growing up. I knew from the first time I saw the trailer that this was a movie he and I would get a kick out of. 10,000 B.C. is bad. Really bad. The story of the ordinary-boy-who-falls-for-the-hot-girl-who-gets-kidnapped-by-outsiders-so-he-must-rescue-her-and-learn-to-be-a-man-and-warrior has been so overdone through the history of cinema it's easy to call out plot points like a sixth sense. But story is not the reason to watch the movie. Roland Emmerich has made some incredibly trashy, bad films over the years. But he knows how to make trash look good, and spectacle is what his films are all about. I'm not recommending this movie by any means, but at the very least tune in for the Mammoth Stampede about 20-minutes in. Wooly CGI animals have never looked better!
Aleksandr Sokurov would probably rate in my Top 5 filmmakers of all time. For my money, you just can't do better than the dream-like beauty and heartbreak of Father & Son and Mother & Son. And Russian Ark is an absolute wonder to watch as a filmmaker's film. In Moloch, It's 1942, and Adolph Hitler, Eva Braun, and friends the Goebbels' and Martin Bormann arrive at a mountainous castle retreat to relax and get away from their political lives. The group wanders, and eat, and drink, and talk, and argue, and wander some more. Moloch is Sokurov's most accessible film, yet my least favorite of his I've seen thus far. The story is told pretty straightforward with very little of his visual tricks which I adored from his other films. The script is disjointed at times, but doesn't seem as cryptic as his later work. Sokurov believes in film as art; something to simply exist, and evoke emotion, and never to pander to audience expectation. Considering the subject, however, I just wonder why "art" has to be this uninteresting.