J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for May, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Posted by J on May 24, 2008

Curse those relentless advertising blitzes! If only we hadn’t seen sidebar ads, movie trailers, and pre-release promo articles. If only we hadn’t seen Harrison Ford go on The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and all the shows in between. If only Indiana Jones hadn’t been a part of our entire lives — as a movie icon, as video games, as action figures. But it all worked well as a form of external motivation (or mind-control?) — we were compelled to go to the theater and pony up our $15 for two hours of escape. So did everyone else, judging by the crowd size. In our midwestern locale, the factory workers and farmers crowded into a plush theater to soak in another cultural production from Hollywood. No one blinked at the horror movie previews, and many laughed at the part in the Get Smart preview where a man gets smashed by a bus traveling at 60 mph. (In fact, the people behind us cackled at every punch and crotch shot, leaving us to wonder what kind of jollies Grand Theft Auto gives them.) It reminded us of the bit in 1984, when Winston Smith attends a movie.

But to this movie. The narrative formula is the same as the other three movies, but here, Steven Spielberg unexpectedly combines his two favorite topics: the dysfunctional nuclear family and aliens. Aliens here take the place of God, whose “power” was channeled in the other Indiana Jones movies to destroy curious Nazis. So now, thankfully, aliens get to play the part of the goofy higher power.  They look ridiculous doing so.

Meanwhile, the bad guys that Dr. Jones confronts are Russians. They not only anti-family, disrupting the Jones family’s unexpected reunion, but they also invade the United States. The movie, weirdly enough, subtly derides what popular culture now imagines as the right-wing politics of the 1950s, while fully embracing the possibilities of the Red Scare in order to make the plot move forward. But who can blame Spielberg and Lucas for cashing in on the fear of terrorists while at the same time pandering to their liberal buddies?  Just as with previous Indiana Jones movies’ dumb depiction of supernatural power, this movie has a rather dumb depiction of politics and the 1950s.  Thankfully, as usual, Jones himself stays out of it all.

But this Jones movie, like the others, is really about style and action. You get what you pay for: extended action sequences and Jones’ cool hat. Our one problem with this is that the movie has plenty of CGI effects, which look unreal and give the movie a video game feel. We still like sets, makeup, props, puppets, and stuntmen. Give us not a computer drawing; give us instead something concrete and real.

But — and this may be the movie series’ only redeeming quality — Jones is a laconic hero, who loves both the pursuit of truth and a good, necessary fistfight. No manicures for him. Just his brains, his fists, and a whip.  He is a modern-day rarity: a grown-up Boy Scout.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence:1

Morality: 7 (for two grotesque deaths and unnecessary taboo words sprinkled in to up the rating to PG-13)

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Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Silly but Entertaining | 2 Comments »

The Illusionist

Posted by J on May 23, 2008

(SPOILER ALERT here: but we don’t think it matters much if you read before you watch.)

There is much of the Gospels in The Illusionist. That is what makes it all the worse. Consider the “hero,” Eisenheim the Illusionist. He’s a great, mysterious man who can amaze crowds with supernatural tricks. He could be a demagogue if he wanted to; he’s clearly a man with the power to woo the masses. His problem is that the government is after him. That is, a German prince gets jealous of Eisenheim’s crowd-control abilities, something that any government would like to have more of. So the prince sends his pack of bureaucrats, the police, to hound and investigate Eisenheim. Yet Eisenheim evades them, while coming up with a new trick: bringing people back from the dead.

Our miracle worker, Eisenheim, is an illusionist. How does he really summon forth ghosts? The movie never tells us, unfortunately. This was one of our problems with it. While the audience in the movie is amazed at Eisenheim’s magic, we (the real movie audience) can see that every trick is a CGI effect, a fake “trick” integrated into the movie in its post-production phase. We were never awed at all by Eisenheim. The movie is not about tricks — certainly not about tricking us — and since we saw the plot twist coming an hour before it happened, there were no surprises here.

Eisenheim is no Christ, though. He merely succeeds in getting his girl and moving to the country — the American frontier dream. Actually he beds the German prince’s fiancee — an acceptable move because Hollywood is our Moral Authority (“Blessed be thy name!”) and “True Love” must conquer all. We don’t mind “True Love” tales — they can symbolize Christ and His elected church — but we get sickened when they okay cheating and fornicating. The end of this movie considers those actions acceptable.

For all of its high-class actors, period sets and costumes, and gold-tinted frames,The Illusionist is just a cheap combination of Shakespeare’s MacBeth and The Tempest. Looked at another way, this movie is a cheap fairytale. A poor boy loves an aristocrat’s daughter. They grow up. The boy, a magician now, reunites with his love. She happens to be engaged to a prince, who is jealous of the magician. The magician tricks the prince, the prince dies, and the hero and his lover live happily ever after. And that’s all we really learned.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 3

Morality: 0

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Period Drama, Reality-Fantasy | Leave a Comment »

For All Mankind / In the Shadow of the Moon

Posted by J on May 23, 2008

We now bring you two documentaries on the Apollo missions. Do not watch both — they cover the same ground — but it might be worth watching one. You have your choice in style and presentation. For All Mankind (1989) is about how it feels to go into space, while In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) is about how it felt to the astronauts to go into space.

This difference is important, and perhaps culturally revealing. In the Shadow of the Moon features the Apollo astronauts on camera, telling their stories and occasionally hamming it up. It is a standard presentation of celebrities. You, the viewer, can live vicariously through their experiences. But they, the celebrities, are the mediators between you and that experience. The movie’s focus is thus doubly on them. It is about 1960s space exploration, but it is also about personality and national heroes.

For All Mankind is not about personality. The film is entirely narrated by interview clips with Apollo astronauts, but they do not appear on camera and you do not know who is speaking. The entire film is comprised of these interview clips and original footage from the Apollo missions. The filmmakers made the most of that footage. It is suffused with color, edited well, and glorious. With no personas in the way, the movie’s point is to draw the viewer into the making the trip to the moon, circa 1969. Augmenting this voyage is a score composed by Brian Eno, which might put off some people with its New Age sound. We once remarked that Enya’s music is supposed to sound like waterfalls in outerspace, which is the vibe of this movie’s soundtrack.

We enjoyed For All Mankind better than In the Shadow of the Moon, but it is a matter of taste. Both movies are laudatory about government space agencies that used up a whole lot of capital (it is amazing, for instance, to see how much debris is destroyed or discarded at a spaceship launch). Both movies praise NASA and John F. Kennedy (who’s presented as a prophetic lord in both) for taking the high-risk gamble of sending American pilots to the moon. And both movies have the same narrative arc: they start with spaceship takeoff, discuss orbiting the earth and weightlessness, and then spend most of the time describing Apollo 11’s moon landing. Best of all, both are almost completely harmless — a nice relief from all the immoral junk peppered throughout everything we’ve attempted to watch lately.

Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

The Simpsons Movie

Posted by J on May 6, 2008

Since there is no plot that the Simpsons TV show hasn’t partaken in, The Simpsons Movie is a TV episode with 50 extra minutes. For regular viewers, you’ve seen it all before. For those who’ve never seen it before, the movie is all you need.

Somewhere in the mid-1990s, social standards of crudity bypassed the Simpsons. We can remember when the show first came out. Much parental spleen was vented at Bart and Homer Simpson, both of whom displayed vulgarity that some people at the time didn’t want their children to emulate. The Simpsons, then, was primarily about a dysfunctional nuclear family in a dysfunctional town. Nowadays the Simpsons are praised as upholding the values of the nuclear family and small-town America. This change in standards illustrates how low standards have sunk. Homer is still a self-centered blowhard who repeatedly alienates his wife and children, while Bart (in the movie) is encouraged by Homer to skateboard naked around Springfield and get drunk.

There are possible good messages in the movie, underneath all of its crude cleverness, but those are ultimately undermined by its farcical tone. It is not “nuanced” as others have claimed. Nothing is sacred in the town of Springfield, and so everything can be turned into a raucous joke. We weren’t sure how to take the moment when, in an emergency situation, Homer hurriedly flips through the Bible and screams “This book doesn’t have any answers!” This moment is left alone, and it undoes the reasonable portrayals of Ned Flanders (the stereotyped evangelical) and Springfield’s church.

The movie’s willingness to turn everything into farce is too bad, because it satirizes the authoritative powers of the Environmental Protection Agency. After Homer pollutes Springfield’s lake, a pig-headed Washington bureaucrat decides to seal the town of Springfield inside a dome. There are a few excellent scenes in which this bureaucrat persuades President Schwarzenegger to seal off Springfield, and then destroy the town altogether. This portrayal suggests the unjust tyranny of a central authority against the dysfunctional but pleasant, small American town.  It’s too bad that we didn’t care in the end.  We felt as if we were to act like Nelson, pointing at everything and giving off a loud “HA HA!”

Entertainment:6

Intelligence:6

Morality: 1

Posted in Animated, Comedy, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | Leave a Comment »

Ocean’s Eleven

Posted by J on May 2, 2008

By the end of Ocean’s Eleven, you will want to be George Clooney. He’s stolen millions, won his wife back, his best friend is Brad Pitt, and he has great abs. Praise be for Hollywood movies! If we can’t be celebrities, by golly, we can vicariously share in their exotic fantasies.

Yes, the entire premise of Ocean’s Eleven is that a group of “heroes” elaborately steal money from a casino vault. In the end, they rejoice to Debussy’s Clair de lune. Fountains gloriously shoot streams of agua. Ocean’s gang of eleven men smiles and revels. They’ve done it. They are officially thieves.

Best of all — for George — his wife has a brief moment of erotic thrill when she learns that he’s pulled off the heist. So she ditches her casino boyfriend to return to George, the real macho man. Sigh, we wish we could be George. Then we could make movie fantasies about breaking the eighth commandment. If only Hollywood had written the tablets on Mt. Sinai. It sure pretends that it did, movie after movie after movie.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 2

Morality: 0

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Clever but Immoral, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »