Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

July 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

On the positive side, it’s great to see Harrison Ford back as Indiana Jones, he seems to be enjoying himself, and he can still pull off the role. Setting the film in the fifties as well as introducing his son (meaning there’s at least one new element) and bringing back Karen Allen as the love interest were all good ideas. Aside from refusing to deny the fact that Ford is older, setting the film in the fifties is also wise for allowing the setting to be another distinct era, complete with Cold War paranoia.

The film is certainly entertaining, though on the negative side we’re a long way from the gritty stunts of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the curious lack of tension in the action sequences is partly because of all the CGI effects — the Tarzan sequence in particular is quite daft — but also almost certainly because this is the fourth time around, and even the rhythm of the film is familiar as it juggles plot and action. As the villain, Cate Blanchett sports a Louise Brooks haircut and appears to be under the impression it’s her job to be as two-dimensional as possible, even as another character changes sides so frequently I stopped caring. So it’s the weakest Indiana Jones film, though still head and shoulders above a lot of adventure films.

Oh, and for the record, I recognize Raiders is the best one (over at Rotten Tomatoes the consensus isthat it’s “one of the most consummately entertaining adventure pictures of all time”) but Temple of Doom (1984) remains my favourite for breaking from the formula and doing something different, as well as being the most gleefully relentless film in the series. Hopefully there will be another film, and it won’t be afraid to be somewhat smaller scale (as we saw in Temple of Doom) and break the pattern of world-shattering discoveries we’ve seen so often in the series.


The Thin Red Line (1998)

July 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

This is certainly among the most amazing films I’ve ever seen. The idea of a poetic Second World War film that also happens to be utterly beautiful at times might seem a little odd. But it’s important to note the battle scenes are not gloriously filmed, just a lot of other moments, which means in a subtle way it asks why on earth we’d ever choose to enter into such chaos.

I’ve never seen a film that’s such a powerful anti-war statement, while at the same time it’s so far from lecturing the viewer. Director Terrence Malick has made very few films compared with many other directors. He also has a very particular directing style, shooting many hours of extra footage and then deciding to use that quick shot of a brilliant toucan, or whatever he chooses — in other words, he gathers a great deal of material and then shapes a film from it, like a sculptor removing whatever he doesn’t want from a block of material.  And while he may have made fewer films than some other directors his age, I think quality counts more than quantity, and his films always make an impression. The Thin Red Line remains my favourite of his, for having an emotional impact and a statement that matches the visuals.

28 Days Later (2003) and 28 Weeks Later (2007)

July 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Playing on our fears about infectious diseases, 28 Days Later is utterly gripping, compelling as both a horror film but also a film that has a few statements to make.  A virus referred to as “rage” turns people into rabid, adrenalin-filled hostile zombies, and spreads so quickly that by the time our central character Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes in hospital there are only pockets of survivors fighting for survival.  And it has to be said, whoever invented the sprinting zombie has seriously heightened intensity in this particular genre.  Jim meets other survivors, and finally they discover a small base camp of around ten soldiers, which is ultimately a weird little microcosm of society: a slightly mad leader, one compassionate and thoughtful personality, some followers, and one dude that make the infected population outside the camp look pretty good by comparison.  There’s even a slavery theme thrown in the works, with one infected soldier kept on a leash, to see if they ever starve to death. Even the very definition of infected is called into question — couldn’t someone utterly lacking in compassion arguably be said to be infected with something?

The first film also has a touch of mystery, given that the viewer learns along with Jim exactly why the busiest streets of London are deserted, and has lighter moments that break up an almost unbearable tension — here’s our crew of survivors joyfully rampaging through an abandoned grocery store with the first real food they’ve found in weeks, or here’s a character that can still crack a joke. Finally, despite a lot of understandable bleakness for a nearly-the-end-of-the-world film, the end allows some hope, and the idea that however brutal the epidemic, there will be survivors (there are alternate endings on the DVD, but I think the one ultimately stuck on the film is the best one).

Unfortunately, I’m not sure I think 28 Weeks Later has any of these things, really. Watching a few of the extras, the filmmakers describe it as “a lot more action, a lot more gore,” and “a survival film.” Um, sure. The thing is, the first one was a survival film, and managed so much more it almost defies classification. This time around it’s a decent budget and a slickly made film once again, but I didn’t catch much in the way of themes or ideas. And forget lighter moments to break up the tension, 28 Weeks Later seems to delight in introducing heroic characters and then giving them all the most horrific deaths. Finally, the end can only be described as a blatant set-up for a possible third film.  So, let’s call this the franchise that didn’t need to be a franchise.  But rent the first film, it’s an edge of your seat ride, and the smartest horror film I’ve ever seen.

Bitter Harvest (2001)

July 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

One of those small, important films, Bitter Harvest (originally released as How Harry Became a Tree) is an impressive modern fable about the perils of hanging on to hostility.  It stars Colm Meaney — best known as O’Brien on some of the Star Trek shows, but an actor with an impressive CV — as a local farmer in a small Irish town in the twenties who declares a popular pub owner his enemy, and swears to do all he can to bring him down.  After all, “a man is judged by his enemies.”  Cillian Murphy plays his son, unsure about his loyalties, handsome but also “not the brightest candle on the Christmas tree.”

Yugoslavian director Goran Paskaljevic keeps things fairly subtle until the end, but the dark humour and strangely fascinating moments — particularly the final, strangely beautiful moments of the film — are certainly underrated, and certainly not to be missed.  It’s unlikely this film will ever get a lot of attention, but I’d certainly like to see it happen. And, despite the simplicity of the original title, I think How Harry Became a Tree suits the peculiar qualities of a modern fable much better.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

July 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Basil Rathbone had played a lot of magnetic villains in the thirties, but in 1939 he was suddenly, immediately and for all time one of the great actors to play Sherlock Holmes in a couple of lavish productions with Fox studios: Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

If you’ve never seen them, these are terrific productions, with an increasingly bumbling Watson the only drawback (say what you want about him not being as smart as Holmes, he wasn’t a complete idiot, either).

Unfortunately, despite the success of these films, the studio decided times were changing (the Second World War had started, of course) and audiences wouldn’t be into historicals. Universal studios took over, and in Voice of Terror (1942) Sherlock gets an update — a slightly bizarre, wind-blown haircut that looks sharp enough to cut your hand, and he fights the Nazis.

The film involves an awful lot of talk, a certain amount of action happening offstage, and a certain amount of stock footage as well. There’s also just something fundamentally wrong about the whole thing, really. If Holmes must be brought into the forties, he should at least be in stories that resemble Conan Doyle, not globe trotting like some kind of early Bond. Universal made three Holmes vs. Nazi films before audiences began to request something more traditional — some wind, and maybe a mansion or two in the English countryside.

Universal began to get it right in later films, though in the twelve films made with Universal (yes, that’s a total of fourteen films with Rathbone as Holmes) the update to the forties remained, largely for budget reasons. Personally, I think it’s unfortunate he didn’t do more historicals, as an updated Holmes can be vaguely faithful to the spirit and style of the stories, but ultimately it just isn’t the same. A Holmes that quotes Winston Churchill as he drives to the airport may have been needed at the time, but the later films with Rathbone only hit occasional moments that feel like Sherlock Holmes.

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

July 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’m not sure I understand something here. I mean, I know it’s all about making an entertaining summer action flick, but who sets out to make such a preposterous action film? Who decides that after someone is hit by a pickup truck going full speed, she can just hang on to the hood until the truck goes down an elevator shaft, and then she and the hero can duke it out while hanging from cables and a tenuously balanced car?

Let’s try something else, for a second here. Let’s remember an old action film from 1982.  A little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Harrison Ford is in a huge pit with snakes and a few torches to keep them away, when his companion freaks for a second and shoves a torch in the direction of the bullwhip on his belt, his “Ow, Jesuuus!” immediately making him human and vulnerable. On the other hand, if your hero can hop from a collapsing expressway to the wing of an F-15 fighter and then hang on, the fun goes out the window. At least, it does for me, along with the suspense. Die Hard (1988 ) had action that was vaguely within the limits of possibility and so did the sequels, even if they were less memorable than the original.

Competition in the genre and even the need to top the last film in the same franchise seems to have led to some increasingly cartoonish standards. I imagine the next film will be called Between a Rock and a Die Hard Place, with Willis leaping from the top of Mount Everest to kick a dude in the head. Or, maybe the next one could be loosely based on the Dickens book, Die Hard Times. That might be more original, at least.

The Orphanage (2007)

July 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

When you watch a Spanish horror film that turns out to have heart and intelligence you can see how there would have been pressure to produce it differently in North America.  For example, there’s a ghost of a kid who keeps appearing with a bag over his head at the end of hallways, staring at people and making weird-ass noises, and you can’t help but think that in a North American remake, there’d be some desperate race to find a way to destroy the ghost, instead of a film that — without giving away too much, hopefully — has a central character who tries to understand the kid. Sometimes you can destroy the hatred, not the hateful object. This isn’t any kind of revelation, and yet many horror films ignore the idea.

Central character Laura grew up in an orphanage and later buys that same orphanage with her husband and young adopted son, who soon finds he has a lot of imaginary friends playing more and more complicated games, and drawing him away. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, with apparent help producing it from Guillermo Del Toro, it’s interesting to watch the directors talk about how they’re interested in using fantasy to get at truth, not reality.  Some of those weird-ass noises go completely without explanation, and it’s fair to say the film develops into something more complex than most horror films.  There are one or two truly horrific scenes, but I think they serve to illustrate that it can be a frightening world, and underline that desire to shelter someone from it.  Some will find the film a little sentimental, but I think the performances and music are actually restrained, and keep the film from going over the top. I have to be careful about what I watch in horror these days, because the current trend to produce what some critics calls splatter-porn holds no appeal for me.  Fortunately, this was not a misstep, and it’s even recommended.

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