Like Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, I’m overjoyed to find myself on the big board, with all the cool kids who’ve written “Most Popular” Popdose posts. And I didn’t even have to do anything new; hell, I called in sick last week, and upon my return there was my weeks-old summer-movie-guide entry, #4 with a bullet. Folks, you’ve taken me this far, so I humbly ask that you take me all the way. The heck with those “worst of the ’80s” music posts: what was so bad about Starship and “Kokomo,” anyway? At the very least I should be in the running for the steak knives.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It was the first movie I pre-raved about in my ever-climbing survey, so a word or two about it is in order. I saw it with my parents, which in itself packed a nostalgic charge, back to 1981 and Raiders of the Lost Ark, when you had to get to the theater early and be prepared to wait an hour to see the show. With “event pictures” opening three per summer weekend nowadays and thousands of screens showing them around the clock, we pretty much just breezed in with 15 minutes to go on Memorial Day, which meant we had to endure a fate worse than a temple of doom: Commercials. Didn’t have those back in 1981—but when I first saw them appended to movies in Hong Kong in the late ’80s, and audiences sitting sheeplike through them, my crystal skull prophesied that the practice would jump the Pacific, and so it did.
My sixth sense also told me that there was scant chance of Spielberg and Lucas getting the old-school summer-movie mojo back, 19 years after the last, wearying Last Crusade. I wanted to believe it, and my faith was partly rewarded. The new movie strikes a reasonable balance between CGI (the Dark Star where Lucas lives) and real stunts (Spielberg, keeping the faith), and it has been shot and edited by old Spielberg hands to look like a picture copyrighted in the pre-MTV, pre-Flashdance, and pre-digital effects eras, when everything had to get faster and glitzier. Too much digital hullabaloo regurgitated in three-second bursts on-screen and I start to nod off, my synapses overloaded with visual junk food.
I stayed awake and alert throughout Crystal Skull, however, even during the heavy-going expository bits, which should have been delivered on the fly and off the cuff, like so many Hitchcock “MacGuffins.” More effort, frankly, should have gone into making the plasticized crystal skull itself look a little more imposing. For this I blame Lucas, with whom I have been estranged since the near-debacle of the Star Wars prequels. Actually, I blame Lucas for everything that went wrong; surely, the Caddyshack-ish gophers that pop up in the first sequence, spoiling the action beats, were his idea. I’d blame him for the silly, bendy-twisty contortions Shia LaBeouf endures atop moving vehicles during the big Peru chase, if I hadn’t recalled them from Spielberg’s non-Lucas pictures. Oh well: Boys will be boys.
If the movie dawdles on its way to the kingdom of the crystal skull, well, so did Howard Hawks’ Hatari!, or John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, two autumnal delights from old masters in repose. Today’s aging masters are entitled to their tomfoolery. And this boy-at-heart (and his parents—could they, in 1981, really have been three years younger than I am now?) got a kick out of enough of what they’ve given us to forgive the lapses. There are welcome reunions (Karen Allen and Harrison Ford, Harrison Ford and his career) and amusing homages to ’50s kitsch, from juvenile delinquent sagas to The Ten Commandments and The Naked Jungle (although the scarab beetles in the knockoff Mummy pictures trump this one’s fire ants) to the notion of reds under every bed.
The movies were never innocent, but Spielberg and Lucas believe in the old-fashioned values. It’s not altogether their fault that the era of beautiful matte paintings and stop-motion animation and all the handmade things I loved about the movies when we were all less gray at the temples is gone forever. The irony and cynicism that are rife in today’s franchise pictures, which dare you to take them seriously, is not theirs. I haven’t quite made up my mind if Indy v.4 is a good film or not; it may take another screening or two, and I know I look forward to the opportunity. For all its compromises, however, it comes as a great relief.
The other “indies” in release may be as hard to find as a kingdom of a crystal skull, but these columns should come in handy when they turn up in your neighborhood or, alas, on DVD, a typical fate these days in a challenging marketplace. I was gratified to learn that The Visitor, which I saw in a near-empty house here in Brooklyn, is getting plenty of visitors, and has thus far grossed over $3 million, a nice haul for a film of its type. It is an upwards climb, however, and I doubt these three pictures will be scaling the ladder.
In an amusing coincidence, joining the latest opus from those two legendary Hollywood titans is the newest picture from Teutonic stinkmeiseter Uwe Boll. Rumors abound that pedestrians anywhere near the vicinity of a theater playing Postal are being kidnapped and forced to watch it, with their eyes clamped open Clockwork Orange-style. [Just kidding. I think.]
Surprise. Postal is the best film in its maker’s “uwe-vre.” Granted, the bar is not set high. With his cerebellum-challenged videogame adaptations Boll has fringe status as our answer to Plan 9 from Outer Space’s Ed Wood, and he revels in his badness. With his propensity for publicity stunts, like arranging boxing matches with critics, he is kith-and-kin with his countryman, Werner Herzog, who once ate his shoe to settle a bet. I could whip his ass, and will if sequels to Alone in the Dark and House of the Dead materialize. But like a dog that has finally learned to do its business on the sidewalk and not the carpet, he deserves a little treat.
The gonzo appeal of Postal is that it is not housebroken. The movie takes the premise of a game of dubious morality (its creator and Boll tussle over the fidelity of the adaptation in one scene) and runs it through the Kentucky Fried Movie and South Park shredder. In the opening scene Muslim hijackers decide their leaders were lying about the promise of 100 virgins in the afterlife and reconsider their plans, just as angry passengers break into the cockpit and steer the plane into the trade center building, inadvertently starting our ongoing mess. I shamefully admit I laughed, and can vouch that there is nowhere for the film to go but down. There is a plot, something about Osama bin Laden (played by “Soup Nazi” Larry Thomas, minus any accent or particular ethnicity) planning to destroy America with avian flu, which in an exceedingly roundabout way is foiled by the put-upon Postal Dude (Zack Ward), his cult leader uncle (Dave Foley), trash-talking little person Verne Troyer, and a bevy of pistol-packing models. Old timers David Huddleston and Seymour Cassel turn up to talk about poontang, then make plans to get some from Postal Dude’s morbidly obese wife, who doles out sexual favors from their trailer.
The jokes are hit and miss, often within the same scene: Foley frontally nude in a hung-over romp with bare-breasted acolytes is funny, him nude and on the toilet taking a fearsomely noisy dump immediately afterwards, not so much. Clearly the Boll touch is not Midas’, and Postal has as much pyrite as gold. Glittering consistently, however, is Ward, a ginger nut who handles the various loosely hinged facets of his character with comic aplomb and is a real find. Every so often, the movie twinges that toxic little nerve we all have, the one that tells us that the world is sliding into the abyss and that rather than do something about it it’s better just to sit back and laugh at the insanity. Call Postal a Boll movement.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers has his uses, and the actor is perfectly suited to the history-with-no-boring-parts approach taken by The Tudors, a favorite in my house. But a capacity for caring and sharing is beyond the reach of his unwholesome good looks. In Bend it Like Beckham he looked like he wanted to rape all the soccer-playing teens in his charge; in The Children of Huang Shi, I feared for the Chinese orphans he’s entrusted with, and thought they might do better sticking it out with the invading Japanese. George Hogg, the true-life journalist he’s playing, is a better fit for Christian Bale or Ewan McGregor; the journeyman director, Roger Spottiswoode (of that much better newspapering yarn, Under Fire) drew the short straw with Meyers, who is out of his element hijinx-ing with little kids.
Then again, not much of Huang Shi sat well with me. The early scenes, as the Japanese precipitate the Nanking massacre in 1937, are taut; the rest, as Hogg leads the boys to safety in a perilous Silk Road crossing over indifferently filmed locales, awfully fictionalized-feeling. When I saw Gangs of New York, I could sense the presence of three screenwriters standing behind Cameron Diaz, just barely out of camera range, trying desperately to find something for her to do. There they were again, hiding behind Radha Mitchell. She’s a no-nonsense Aussie nurse faced with the impossible task of trying to romance Meyers, who in a further burden on his performance is obliged to be shy whenever she’s around. [The former Elvis and Velvet Goldminer seems as gangly as Dracula.] More up to snuff, and adding a dash of movie star charisma, are Hong Kong favorites Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, reunited from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and doing their best not to steal the picture from their Caucasian co-stars. [Why Mitchell, whose character has a history with Chow, would even consider a fling with Meyers is one of the unsolved mysteries of the script.] All this backstory continually pulls focus from the boys, who only become the heart and soul of the story in the end credits. Here their real-life counterparts, now elderly, talk about their experiences, and I was, finally, moved. A good documentary on the subject, on the heels of last year’s excellent Nanking (now on Cinemax), would be more appropriate than this tarted-up gloss.
There’s nothing superficial about Stuck, the latest tale of terror from director Stuart Gordon. Years ago I interviewed Gordon about his creature feature From Beyond and was gifted with a hat, from which protruded the nastily penile pineal gland that is at the root of the story. I wore it proudly all over Chicago and was pleased to find that the director, who has been blown sideways through the independent film market since we met in the mid-’80s, is keeping the faith as much as Spielberg and Lucas. His last film, of David Mamet’s sordid play Edmond, was more upscale; this one, spun from the notorious 2001 murder case, is low-slung, mean, and gritty.
A cornrowed Mena Suvari is Brandi, a calculating health care worker who after a night’s carousing runs smack into the homeless, jobless Tom, played sad-sackedly by Stephen Rea. Tom is inconveniently affixed to her windshield, for which an increasingly unstrung Brandi seeks permanent relief when she gets car and unwanted passenger to her garage. [Her drug-dealer boyfriend adds a complication or two.] Brandi’s illegal immigrant neighbors, protective of their own status, are of no help to the desperate Tom, who finds a new resolve from his life-and-death predicament. Gordon has rewritten the ending of the Texas tale, giving his black comedy take a gratifyingly grindhouse finish. If he wants to send me a replica of Stuck’s broken windshield, I’ll wear it all over Brooklyn.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.