Monday, July 28, 2014

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Of the original trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the least fondly remembered.  It’s a prequel which departs somewhat radically in tone and in cast from its two companions, and it contains a few very ill-advised creative decisions, about which director Steven Spielberg has said that the best thing to come out of the film was meeting his wife Kate Capshaw.  But on revisiting, there’s more about Temple of Doom to enjoy than not, though it’s still far from the other two in my eyes.

A year before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) careens off the heels of one adventure and into an Indian village where the children and a sacred stone have been abducted by the sinister forces of Pankot Palace.  His compatriots, lounge singer Willie Scott (Capshaw) and pint-sized Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), follow Indy into the eponymous Temple of Doom, where they face the brainwashed hordes who obey the devilish Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).

Let’s say the obvious – the film is culturally insensitive to the max, if not unspeakably racist.  It deals heavily in the “white savior” archetypal narrative without challenging that trope in the least, to the point where we literally have a British cavalry arriving just in the knick of time.  Now, it’s possible that Spielberg is playing with the old adventure serial formula from the 1920s and 30s – as suggested by some cliffhangery moments like the inflatable raft parachute over a cliff – and it does give him some of the ookier moments of the movie like the chilled monkey brains dessert, but the fact that the film seems at times virulently demeaning of India is a bit troubling.

The other major issue with the film is, perhaps surprisingly, Kate Capshaw’s performance.  After Karen Allen’s deft and empowering female lead in Raiders, Capshaw’s Willie Scott is a colossal step backwards.  She’s fantastic at screaming her lungs out and standing around rather uselessly, and if that’s the character the filmmakers really wanted to create, kudos to them.  But the result is something akin to the worst excesses of the “Bond girl” stereotype over in the James Bond franchise (to which, to be fair, both Spielberg and George Lucas claim Indiana Jones is partially indebted).  She is largely unwatchable and impossible to sympathize with, and I can’t help but wish Indy and the filmmakers had left her behind on this adventure.

Now for the good news:  I actually liked the film much better than I thought I would.  I’ve been going back and rewatching the films in order, and usually when I do this I skip over Temple of Doom in order to get to the vastly superior (and probably perfect) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  This time, however, I’m glad I stopped off in 1984, because the film does a number of things very right.  For one, the character of Indiana Jones is very well-developed in this film, following a compelling arc from an obsession with “fortune and glory” to a more sobered approach to archaeology and sacred artifacts.  Ford does great work as the protagonist, who’s still heaps of fun to watch.

And for all the cultural insensitivity at play in the film, it does give a very well-crafted tone to the film.  For any of the viewer’s qualms about Temple of Doom, it more than lives up to its name (and the PG-13 rating it inspired).  This original trilogy does seem to be a series of three masterpieces in setting a mood: the first, a sense of high-stakes adventure amid danger; the third, a rollicking romp through the feel-best action comedies.  Here, the tone is nearly relentless dread amid dingy and red-tinted sets; the darkness of the film pays off the character’s arc in a dénouement in which (spoilers?) all balance is restored and good triumphs.  In this sense, Temple of Doom uses its own gloom to say something important about morality.

That, and it’s an enjoyable ride along the way.  In terms of dark second installments in a trilogy, it’s not The Dark Knight or The Empire Strikes Back, but it is a film that, I think, deserves revisiting from older fans who brushed it off in their youth because it wasn’t as lighthearted as its companion films.  Surprisingly, the best part of the film on this most recent viewing wasn’t the infectious fun of Short Round (who remains a scene-stealer of the highest order and gets one of the best moments when he tells Indy, “You’re my best friend”) – it was the fact that Temple of Doom isn’t a creative failure.  It’s a much smarter film than it seems, and I’m surprising myself by how much I liked it.  I went in expecting to review it very much in the “Yes, but...” vein, but instead I’m coming away with a resounding thumbs-up.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is rated PG.  It’s probably the most intense of the four films, dealing with a human-sacrificing Thuggee cult who is fond of removing their victims’ hearts and then dropping them into a pit of lava.  There’s an aborted seduction scene in which “primitive sexual practices” are discussed, and Indy gets in one S-bomb.  Other scenes of violence – fistfights, shootings, stabbings, and being eaten by alligators – play out with either fake-looking or no blood.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday at the Movies - July 21, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, since we haven’t mentioned him since April, Batman!

Son of Batman (2014) – Batman’s back, and this time he’s a daddy.  Jason O’Mara returns from his debut in Justice League: War for his first meeting with his son Damian (Stuart Allan).  O’Mara’s Batman is not as gruff as the quintessential Kevin Conroy, but he’s somewhere between Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford – a fine heir to the throne, for my money.  (Conroy will be back in Assault on Arkham.)  More inspired casting comes in the form of Giancarlo Esposito as Ra’s al Ghul and Morena Baccarin as his daughter Talia.  Though the film doesn’t use these characters as much as I would have liked, their inclusion leads me to believe that DC is searching out new top talent – and if there’s one thing we know about the al Ghuls, it’s their penchant for resurrection.  At the end of the day, it’s a Batman film, and so for that reason I’m inclined to review it positively; I don’t begrudge Warner Bros. the seventy-some minutes of my life, and I even tend to give movies like this a bit of leeway.  But my honest assessment is that Son of Batman does strip its source material – Grant Morrison’s Batman and Son – of some of its teeth.  The original plot had Damian introduced amid his mother’s bid for “a new kind of terror,” while here Talia is reduced to a damsel in distress in favor of a focus on antagonist Deathstroke – who, between this, Arrow, and a slew of video games, may be a bit overplayed at this point.  (An eleventh-hour twist putting Talia in the mastermind’s seat would have been welcome.)  The dynamic between Batman and Damian, however, is note-perfect from the original comics, capturing the fun sense of the latest major addition, his spirited and surly son, to the Batman mythos.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

The kindest thing I can say about Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction is that it reminded me very much of the fireworks show I saw on the Fourth of July this year.  In both cases, I attended out of a mix of curiosity, a mild sense of obligation, and a persistent feeling in the back of my mind that I was going to be disappointed.  And in both cases, I got exactly what I expected.

For that reason, I feel less inclined to berate Transformers: Age of Extinction than my readers might be expecting.  I knew precisely what to expect, and my expectations were pretty low, allowing me to take the fourth Transformers film for what it really is:  the cinematic equivalent of a fireworks show, all bombast and no bravura.  So I won’t even do the usual plot summary, because the plot can be summarized almost exclusively by naming actors and shouting onomatopoeias in all capital letters.

Fortunately, some very talented actors – Mark Wahlberg, Kelsey Grammer, and Stanley Tucci among them – are cashing what ought to have been very easy paychecks, and they’re more than capable of engaging an audience just on ethos alone.  They’re reliable and stable performers, and to be perfectly honest they, together with the budget, are what separate this film from a straight-to-DVD release.  It’s not particularly innovative, remaining in a very real sense indistinguishable from the three films that preceded it.  All one should expect from a Transformers film at this point is a series of very big, very loud, and slightly dumb explosions – which this Transformers delivers, and how.

At two hours and forty-five minutes, however, it’s absurdly long, baggy and bloated.  The words “There are too many robots” should not be an issue with a Transformers film, and yet there are far too many characters who come and go for reasons that can only be described as “plot.”  There are at least five factions of Transformers in the film, most of which are devoid of personality (and the ones with characterizations are viciously broad caricatures, like the samurai Transformer voiced by Ken Watanabe and the gun-toting Transformer voiced by John Goodman).  Only some of them are visually interesting – especially the dinosaur Transformers – but there’s little need for them in a film that very much resembles its main characters – lifeless, bulky, and clunky.

Sidebar:  one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is when a film doesn’t properly introduce characters, such that I forget or never learn character names.  I think I can name about three Transformers in a cast of dozens.

Characterization aside, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a brutally tone-deaf feature, likely hard of hearing as a result of the amplified volume from the first three films.  The film barely has two settings – loud and very loud – and the pacing is astonishingly uneven while still managing to remain perfectly predictable.  There seem to be two distinct plots going on here – the American government’s pursuit of the Autobots and one corporation’s attempt to make their own Transformers – and either one of them would have made a decent enough film.  But since they’re thrown together into a film that is far more interested in explosions than in ideas, they’re reduced to what Mark Kermode has called “the loudest common denominator.”  Now, I realize that asking for ideas in a Transformers movie is like asking for a soufflé in a McDonalds, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the barest pretense of an idea.

What’s more, the film manages to be staggering insensitive, throwing around racial stereotypes to make the cast of Deadwood blush (for example, every Asian character is a master of some form of martial arts).  More patently offensive, Transformers boasts a neverending slew of quintessentially leery camera angles from Bay in which young women in tight/short clothing bend over things in slow-motion while the camera practically salivates over their lithe bodies.  It’s an eyeroll of the highest order to begin with, because Bay seems to be one of the only filmmakers outside of pornography not to realize that it’s the 21st century and we’re all trying to be a bit more enlightened than that, but what makes it worse is that the film attempts to lecture us about sexualizing young women while doing exactly that.  There’s a loathsome moment where Wahlberg asks his daughter to dress more conservatively, which almost sounds like Bay reprimanding himself, but the camera is actually poised behind actress Nicola Peltz while apparently attempting to film directly up the leg of her shorts.

Aside from the perverse leering, aside from the casual racism, aside from the problems of pacing and length, and aside from the thin characterizations, every once in a while Transformers: Age of Extinction does manage to be a little bit of fun.  There are a few decent eyeball kicks, and Stanley Tucci is a real treat as always (it’s just too bad the film doesn’t actually know what to do with him).  But it is ultimately as mindless and as ephemeral as a fireworks show, but a good deal louder and very nearly unbearably longer.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo.”  There are more robots punching robots and exploding than you could possibly imagine, and the film is replete with sexual objectification of female characters in tight clothing and accompanying light misogyny (“She looks hot”).  There’s one particularly well-timed F-bomb from Tucci and several other profanities of the scatological variety.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now the eighth “Apes film,” the second film in the third franchise since 1968.  I list off the pedigree because I am feeling a slight sense of ape fatigue.  Though the film is tracking in the low 90s on Rotten Tomatoes, my take on it is a little less enthusiastic – there’s nothing the film does incorrectly, but I do have a distinct sense of having seen all this before.

A decade after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, apes and humans live in isolation from each other.  The apes, led by Caesar (motion-captured by Andy Serkis), want to live in peace in a semi-civilized state; the humans, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), want to reclaim a hydroelectric dam in the middle of ape territory.  While Malcolm (Jason Clarke) tries to broker a peace with the apes, Caesar faces a dissenting faction from within, led by his advisor Koba.

Rather than go toward the fantastical apocalypses provided by the Heston and Burton eras, Dawn continues in the realistic vein of its predecessor, with a marked focus on the verisimilitude of the special effects.  Assessing solely these visual effects, Dawn is a triumph; between the movements and the digitized facial expressions, it’s heroically easy to forget that you’re not watching real monkeys.  There’s rumbling about Serkis being up for an Oscar for his lead performance – well, I’m not sure about that, mostly because it’s hard for me to tell what’s Serkis and what’s an animator, but I do think he’s courting a well-deserved “Special Technical Achievement” award.

There’s a lot of other moving pieces in the film that are also successful, though they’re far outshined by the technical fakery.  Oldman and Clarke are compelling enough, though Oldman’s role is roughly equivalent to Bryan Cranston’s in Godzilla – he’s there for a plot mechanism, and you’ll probably leave the theater itching for more screen time from an actor as talented as he is.  But the slightly undercooked quality of the human characters really emphasizes the fact that this is first and foremost the primates’ show.

When it comes to the story, though, I’m not convinced that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is particularly visionary.  It is certainly more subtle than Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (an obvious inspiration) in that it isn’t reductionist in its approach to protagonist/antagonist relationships.  But once it does establish Koba and Dreyfus as antagonists of a sort, the film proceeds in a fairly predictable manner.  What ultimately emerges is a very unsurprising allegory about cooperation in spite of differences, open-mindedness on the subject of diversity.  Forgive me for saying, I’ve seen this movie several times already.

With a very different movie, I’d have spent a long time on the matter of the familiar plot, but in the case of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this is less a misstep and more of a non-step.  The filmmakers don’t strike any false notes here; rather, the melody is quite familiar (no pun intended, though Michael Giacchino’s score does recall early Apes soundtracks).  The visual effects are the standout feature – the apes are strikingly rendered, the sequences in which they attack are appropriately terrifying, and the internecine struggles feel astoundingly human.  It’s not the second coming of science fiction, but it is a well-told iteration of a classic tale.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.”  There is some amount of blood seen, mostly during fights between apes.  Fight scenes between humans and apes proceed with more gunfire but with less blood; some of the scenes of attacking apes may be frightening for younger viewers.  The film also includes one F-bomb and several scatological S-bombs.

Pop back here on Thursday when The Cinema King tackles Transformers: Age of Extinction!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

The obvious pun in any review of Tomorrow Never Dies would be, “Well, gosh, why won’t it just die?”  And for a decades-old franchise that’s up to eighteen official entries, that might seem appropriate.  Tomorrow Never Dies is not a terminally ill film, though it does suffer from a very bad case of head-scratching villainy and a distinct identity crisis.

After a troubling crisis between British and Chinese military forces in the Pacific, M (Judi Dench) dispatches James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to investigate media baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), who published key details in his newspaper before they’d been made official.  Suspecting Carver’s involvement, Bond reunites with his former flame, Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) before teaming up with Chinese spy Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) to stop Carver’s plot from triggering World War III.

As Brosnan’s second outing as James Bond, there’s much about Tomorrow Never Dies that does work quite well, and it’s largely due to the persona the franchise had previously assumed in Goldeneye.  It’s serious, but not lethally so; it’s fun, but not in the quantities we’d come to expect from the slapsticky Roger Moore vehicles.  Brosnan is still a more than capable Bond, equally at home in intense action sequences and in moments of levity, including my personal favorite “banter with Q” sequence.  And I very much appreciate the way Brosnan gives Bond a sense of backstory, without resorting to the heavy-handed “mention his late wife” trope the series usually employs.

The bigger problem with the film is that its central antagonist is a megalomaniac of the highest order whose plot centers on his willingness to endanger the entire world for media ratings.  It’s a viciously shortsighted plot, a scorched-earth approach that could truly eradicate the audience he’s conspiring to acquire.  Now there’s a bit of cleanup at the very end of the film to imply that it’s all smoke and mirrors, a “wag the dog” conspiracy, but for the most part Elliot Carver is a brutally cartoonish villain in the midst of an otherwise quite serious spy film.  Worse, the absurd scope of his plot makes everyone else look like loons for taking it seriously.  I’m not sure if it’s Pryce’s fault for overplaying the part or scripter Bruce Feirstein’s for undercooking the role, but it comes off like a less well-thought-out version of The Spy Who Loved Me (which also featured a submarine-eating aquatic headquarters out to spark global conflict).

The other thing about Tomorrow Never Dies – and this may be the thing that gets my goat the most whenever a film gets it wrong – is that it feels like two very distinct pieces.  At first, there’s a corporate espionage plot with war in the backdrop, but then the film shifts quite quickly into international conspiracy and terrorism.  Both of these could make very compelling Bond films, but they’re stitched together somewhat haphazardly, even marked by the fact that Bond has to change continents for no reason than just to get to the next act.  Once each of these halves is underway, it’s truly compelling stuff, but the seam in the middle is all too visible.

I think Tomorrow Never Dies had been my first Bond film as a child, and I came to it ready to recapture those rose-colored morsels of nostalgia, but I think I realize I was a somewhat uncritical child.  There is, to be sure, a number of very nice pieces in the film.  There’s a fantastic update on the “sinister henchman” Bond trope in the form of Vincent Schiavelli’s Dr. Kaufman, a torturer and forensics expert, and I don’t even mind that he only gets the one set piece.  It’s moments like that, and like the Lois & Clark-esque banter Teri Hatcher gets with Bond, her former lover, that suggest a much more compelling Bond film than is actually present.  Heck, even the remote-controlled BMW, as outlandish as the premise sounds, is played with such fervent earnest that it works far better than it ought to.  And let's give composer David Arnold a good heap of credit; his score is essentially a modern John Barry, in that he integrates the classic Bond theme with the film's main themes to give us some truly rousing music that works just as well outside the context of the film.

Having said that, if we’re willing to swallow the BMW, how outlandish must the villain’s plot be if it’s too implausible for this film?  Taken in macro, Tomorrow Never Dies just doesn’t work, but on a micro scale there’s enough enjoyable material to make this better than at least half of the Bond films I’ve already reviewed.

Tomorrow Never Dies is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of action violence, sexuality and innuendo.”  As per usual, there is a lot of shooting, exploding, and fisticuffs.  There’s not a lot of blood, but some of the violence is disquieting in the sense that it’s all very close and visible.  As usual, Bond beds several women, though we never see anything other than bare backs; as for the innuendo, TND is one of the racier screenplays chock full of groan-worthy puns.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of The World Is Not Enough (1999) on August 7, 2014!