A Review of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

CAPTION:  Cate Blanchett tells Harrison Ford, “YOU MUST RELIVE YOUR CHILDHOOD.”

Where Were the Dinosaurs?, 25 May 2008
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Nineteen years after the alleged Last Crusade, producer George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg, and over-the-hill star Harrison Ford reunite for a fourth Indiana Jones film with The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Only in our overly ironic post-modern world could a film like this exist where Spielberg attempts to recapture those magic movie moments he created back in 1981 with the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was an attempt to re-imagine the classic action-packed serial adventures from the 1930’s and 1940’s. But can those magic moments ever truly be recreated?  Though it stumbles through nostalgia tinted frames, Indiana Jones and the Kindgom of the Crystal Skull is by no means the disaster that was Lucas’ Star Wars prequels or the mind-numbing exercise that was last year’s Transformers.  Those were four dour commercial films coldly designed to evoke feelings of a lost childhood era that were saved only by amazing visual effects. Surely we hope to say more about this film.

Indy deserves to be cut a certain level of slack. Many of the complaints swirling around this long-awaited flick (i.e. the screwball dialog, the cornball stunts, and the cheesy effects) were present from the very beginning of the franchise. And lest we forget, a large portion of people were initially appalled by the heart-ripping Temple of Doom and mildly disappointed with the creaky Last Crusade.  Even the holy grail that is Raiders of the Lost Ark ended with a lame special effects sequence (and one hell of a face melting). Those who love big set driven stunt action complete with one-liners and death defying tumbles will eat this stuff up just like they did the first three films. My major complaints with this fourth film are the cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, who hyper-lights everything to the point of images being washed out or made smeary, and the lazily lame screenplay from David Koepp, which borrows far too liberally from X-Files era rejected story lines.

The cast is hit or miss with Ford about as effective as you would expect at his age, Cate Blanchett acting the crap out of her villain role (and what great fun she has with that Ukrainian accent), Shia LaBeouf (he’s no River Phoenix) barely tolerable as a motor-head punk kid, and Karen Allen all fun and smiles, most likely from finally securing a big payday after all these years. The update to the 1950’s didn’t quite work for me as no amount of Cold War hullabaloo and Chariots of the Gods style mumbo-jumbo could replace the inherent kick-ass spookiness of Nazis hunting for religious relics. Storywise, Spielberg manages to fit in all of his recurrent child-like obsessions with divorce and aliens, and he playfully recycles his greatest hits not only from the first three films but also from other flicks he’s crafted over the years. When the adventure moved to the Amazon rainforest, I half expected a T-Rex to come traipsing through the jungle for a spell.

The beginning of this installment is a tepid mess, but once Karen Allen shows up about an hour into the film to reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood, the film picks up tremendous steam. For about thirty minutes or so, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a rollicking, old-fashioned white-knuckle adventure complete with car chases through a jungle and along the edges of a cliff, sword fights, waterfall drops, and giant killer ants. The kid in me couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when once character’s face is eaten by the little buggers. It was for these thirty minutes that I completely forgot about Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose scenes replayed in my mind for the remainder of this film’s run-time. Were those magic movie moments recaptured? No, but they were temporarily forgotten and clumsily intertwined with some mildly entertaining new ones. I guess that’s about the best we could’ve hoped for. Just think, this could’ve starred Tom Selleck or been directed by Michael Bay.

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A Visit to Fort Mifflin

Recently featured on the TV show Ghost Hunters, Fort Mifflin always finds itself at the top of the list of most haunted places in Philadelphia.  Built in 1771, the fort was an important outpost during the Revolutionary War designed to defend Philadelphia from British ships.  During the Civil War, the fort was turned into a makeshift prison for captured Confederate soldiers, wayward Union soldiers, and unruly civilians.  Over the years it has served as a training ground and up until 1954 was the oldest fort in the nation in continuous use.  The venerable Fort Mifflin has weathered the passing of time as it lies between the Philadelphia Shipping Yards and the International Airport along the Delaware River while many claim some of its past residents refuse to leave. 

I recently paid these hallowed grounds a visit one dreary spring afternoon with a friend looking for ghosts.  Maybe it was the gloom of the light rain falling, or the meditative drone of the airplanes flying so low overhead, or the toxic smells wafting over the marshlands, or the perfectly staged lighting or lack thereof in each and every passageway and tunnel, or the fact that I hit my head on one of the lowly arched doorways in the festering bowels of the ancient fort, but there was certainly a feel to the place that could only be described as creepy.  Here are the photos I captured while exploring Fort Mifflin: Continue reading

A Review of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”

This spring I continue to utilize my Netflix queue to take myself to “school” with film classics.  Earlier in the month I finally sat down to watch Citizen Kane in its entirety for a critical review.  Without further adieu…

Say, Charlie, you gotta name for that sled?

 

All That Ballyhoo!, 5 May 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

On the Criterion Collection DVD of Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane there is an original theatrical trailer where Welles cleverly advertises the film by introducing us to the cast including the chorus girls, whom he refers to as some nice ballyhoo. That pretty much sums up my opinion of the often over analyzed film that always shows up at the top of the list of greatest films ever made. Even though this was the first time I sat down to watch the film as a whole, I knew everything about it from studying it in film class and from the countless number of essays, homages, and parodies that have come down the pike over the years. It seems impossible now to judge the film against a blank slate, but with great ballyhoo comes great scrutiny.

Released in 1941 by RKO as a Mercury Theater Production, Citizen Kane is the tale of an influential and shockingly wealthy newspaper tycoon (Welles) inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst. The story follows the investigation into the origins of “Rosebud”-the mysterious word Kane utters on his deathbed. Following newsreel footage announcing Kane’s death, we are then thrust into a series of flashbacks through interviews with various people who knew Kane that reveal the nature of his character.

From a technical standpoint, Welles’ film is as innovative and engrossing today as it was yesterday. Every single piece of cinematic trickery, every dissolve, every long tracking shot, every seamless edit, every play with chronology, every special effect is perfect. Welles was audacious and inventive with his art, and it is for these technical aspects that Citizen Kane will always stand the test of time.

However, the story of Citizen Kane remains cold and distant. I didn’t instantly connect with the characters and the plot the way I did with other classics from the period like Casablanca or The Third Man or even more recently, There Will Be Blood. Often, the supporting players over-act, and the flashbacks are tedious (especially the one detailing Kane’s second marriage) or emotionless (like the scene showing Kane’s snow covered childhood). There’s a certain smug arrogance to the whole production that makes it seem like perhaps Welles was secretly making a comedy. It leaves one wondering how it would’ve come across had Welles actually been allowed to do a straight up biopic of Hearst.

Is it any wonder that so many critics today hail this as THE all time great? Much of today’s cinema is geared towards style and technique over substance, and way back in 1941, Welles was the first to author this very modern brand of cinema where the art is not in the story but how it is told and shown to the audience. His Citizen Kane is technically rich, layered, and enthralling but narratively vapid. Did I ever really care about Kane or Rosebud? No, but it was fascinating to watch. It’s some very nice ballyhoo indeed.

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A Review of “Iron Man”

CAPTION:  Gwyneth Paltrow uses a military escort to pick up Robert Downey Jr. from rehab.

Adequate Cure for Cinematic Anemia, 6 May 2008
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

The crown prince of America’s premier weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (a sober Robert Downey Jr.) grows a conscience after being captured by terrorists in Afghanistan and decides to fight for what’s right in an innovative piece of body armor technology that will henceforth be known as Iron Man in Jon Favreau’s predictable but fun Marvel comic film adaptation.

Wisely abandoning the corny mawkishness of the Spiderman films and the recent attempt to revive the Superman franchise, Iron Man instead offers up some light satire, bright-eyed cynicism, and an attempt at witty banter. The always lovely Gwyneth Paltrow is a delight as Stark’s sassy assistant Pepper Potts, and it’s nice to see her doing something light and fun for a change. Also part of the off-kilter cast are Terrence Howard as Stark’s inexplicable military friend and Jeff Bridges bald and bearded as Stark’s mentor (and dun dun dun…enemy?) Downey Jr. apparently ad-libbed much of the dialog, which sometimes falls flat, but for the most part works. It’s certainly far more enjoyable than the typical fan-boy in-jokes that plague most comic book movies.

Certainly this is no Batman Begins in terms of depth and scope of drama, but with slam-bang special effects and an effortless feel (despite a slow build up to the action), Iron Man certainly fits the bill as a better than average comic book/action film. Is it any wonder critics and audiences have embraced it so warmly after suffering through loud obnoxious dreck like Transformers?  While it has been a bit oversold, Iron Man proves that great special effects can be built around a smart story that doesn’t have to pander to the lowest common denominator. Until The Dark Knight it will have to cure our cinematic anemia.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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Turning the Screws

Henry James’  classic novella from 1898, “The Turn of the Screw” opens with a group of friends discussing ghost stories:

“I quite agree–in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was-that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch.  But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child.  If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children–?”

“We say of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that two children give two turns!  Also we want to hear about them.”

Whereas Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula is most thought of as the ultimate example of a horror story expressing the dangers of Victorian Era repression, there is no tale more subtly crafted around the theme than Henry James’ ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw.”

What has kept readers like myself up all night lost within its pages is the slow, methodical pacing and build-up that lead to a shocking climax.  Part of the suspense is in laboring through James’ carefully constructed, sophisticated, overly wordy, and charmingly antiquated prose.  You read on because you get a creeping sense of the disturbing subtexts while waiting almost painfully for something to happen at the end of all this analysis and talk.

Reading the novella in turn brought me to watch the 1961 film adaptation The Innocents.  It astounds as one of the best examples of a film honoring the spirit of its literary source material while standing alone as something purely cinematic.  It’s also creepy as hell in that very reserved old fashioned Victorian Era kind of way.  I highly recommend reading the novella first, and then viewing the film to compare and contrast.

____________________________________

CAPTION:  Oh, let’s not get hysteric.  What would Freud say?

Atmospheric Translation of Classic Ghost Story, 5 May 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is a wonderfully atmospheric film translation of Henry James’ classic Victorian Era ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw.” Highlighted by stunning black-and-white cinematography from Freddie Francis (who later worked on David Lynch’s The Elephant Man) and fabulous set designs, The Innocents stays very close to James’ text while adding a few cinematic elements (like the music box, highly suggestive visual symbolism, and the reading of a macabre poem) as it weaves its tale of a governess (Deborah Kerr) trying to unravel the mystery surrounding some strange apparitions on a lavish country estate where she cares for two young children displaying some odd behavior.

The brilliance of the film and the original story is in the ambiguity. There are two logical interpretations: the governess is slowly going mad, or the estate is haunted. Regardless of which interpretation you take, there is still plenty of room to intertwine the disturbing Freudian subtexts involving the governess’ repressed emotions and what the children have actually seen, heard, known, or experienced. I can’t think of a more refined or subtle exploration of what happens when an adult transfers or projects their own psychological hang-ups onto children in their charge than James’ quietly suspenseful potboiler.

The performances are a bit melodramatic at times, but note perfect in their proper context, with Kerr prissy but sympathetic and the children expertly performing the sudden turns from innocent angels to sinister manipulators. The Innocents does feature some dated sound effects that come across as annoying rather than creepy, but the visuals and the shrieking climax are what will stick with the viewer. Unlike recent (and for the most part very worthy) modern updates on the story like The Others and The Orphanage where a twist ending reveals the only true interpretation of the ghastly events, The Innocents leaves it all to the imagination of the viewer. The imagination, it seems, can be a very dangerous thing with which to play.

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A Review of “Things We Lost in the Fire”

In 2004 it was Birth.  In 2005 it was The New World.  In 2006 it was Marie AntoinetteThings We Lost in the Fire was the most unfairly dismissed and overlooked film of 2007.  Most audiences go to movies for escapism, and Things We Lost in the Fire flew in the face of that notion and dealt with subject matter that never lights the box office on fire but deserves to find its audience on DVD.

CAPTION:  Shhhh, Halle Berry, go to sleep.  No one needs to know you were in a movie that was actually good.

One Day at a Time…, 4 May 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Sometimes you have to view movies one day at a time. As a film buff, I have to take the good with the bad. Danish director Susanne Bier’s first American venture, Things We Lost in the Fire is one of those surprisingly good human dramas that often gets lost in the shuffle and doesn’t receive the credit it deserves.

When Audrey (Halle Berry) loses her husband (David Duchovny) in a tragic Good Samaritan act gone bad, she deals with her grief in an unexpected way by inviting his drug-addicted best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) to come live with her and her two young children while he “gets on his feet.” Featuring a music score designed to remind people of 21 Grams (which also starred Del Toro and played with many of the same themes) and interesting cinematography full of extreme close-ups and small visual details designed to evoke intimacy and realism, Things We Lost in the Fire delicately mirrors Audrey’s grief process against Jerry’s rocky recovery.

The film is far from perfect as it sometimes deals with subjects (especially the scenes where Jerry is withdrawing from heroin) in a clichéd manner. Berry also struggles as she seems to underact in some of the more poignant scenes as a way to balance her overacting in some of the more theatrical scenes. However, her performance as an organic whole is very strong, and her character and her family feel and look “real.” The things they say and the way they deal with their situations are raw and heartfelt without ever being sappy or sensationalistic. The kids are naturalistic, and they actually look like they could be the children of Berry and Duchovny. Del Toro is once again a revelation, and his performance speaks volumes with his mannerisms and facial expressions as he attempts to reconcile his sad past with a hopeful future. Sadly, his tour de force was overlooked by every end of the year awards in 2007.

The bread and butter, however, is in the small details. Things We Lost in the Fire uses visual motifs, side stories, character foils, mirroring, and nuanced repetition in dialog as ways to develop grander themes. This is the stuff of great novels, and rarely do we find it attempted in film. What could have easily been dismissed as a melodramatic weeper turns out instead to be something quite good. The overlapping closing scenes where Berry speaks not a word while coming in from the rain, and Del Toro delivers a rehab monologue that gives quite possibly the most honest insight into addiction and recovery ever captured on screen, is a hauntingly hopeful mosaic of small moments. Yes, there were some moments of formulaic Hollywood gobbily-gook and some moments of strained drama, but these closing moments are real. They are good, and we as human beings (as film goers) have to learn to accept the good.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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