Tag Archives: film

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (spoilers)

I have to admit I doing my best to keep expectations down to a minimum with this film. I still bear the scars of the Star Wars prequels. On the other hand, this film had two things going for it that those films did not: firstly, the setting is (literally) more down to earth – meaning there was less scope for going completely green screen; secondly, with Spielberg at the helm there was a good chance he would be able to keep Lucas’ worst excesses under control. At least that was the theory.

The truth of the matter is, Indy IV is less of a travesty than Star Wars I-III, but by as much as it should have been. One of the biggest problems was the lack of any surprises. For about the last fifteen years it has been rumoured that if a new Indiana Jones film were to be made it would involve UFOs and tie together the Roswell incident with the theories of Erich von Daeniken. And so it turned out to be. But this in itself is very old fedora. We’ve had the X-Files. We’ve had Stargate. And Steve? Remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind? There was no point in going to all the expense and effort of making a film that had nothing new to say. Surely the reason for all this delay and all these screenplays was that they were looking for a decent twist in the tale. If that was the case, they clearly failed.

The other main plot thread is equally badly handled. You don’t need to have read the internet rumours to have figured out that “Mutt” Williams was going to turn out to be Jones’ son, so why leave it to halfway through the film for the revelation? This was hardly an Empire Strikes Back-style twist – we knew from the titles who the mother was and they even continued the joke from the Last Crusade about being named after the dog. Yet, while the Last Crusade spent a fair amount of time exploring the father-son relationship, in Kingdom it is all-but resolved in a single scene.

That was a shame because at the start I really thought they were going to take this in a more interesting direction. The first part of the film seemed to be concerned with exploring how this 1930s pulp action hero would be a fish out of water in the atomic 1950s and that all his achievements would be forgotten in a country dazzled by science and gripped with Cold War paranoia (and at this point can I just ask: what was the point of the first five minutes of the film except to give Lucas an opportunity to wank over his American Graffiti glory days? It slowed down the film interminably). In comic-book parlance, this is a case of the Golden Age crash landing into the Silver Age. Yet that theme is completely forgotten within half and hour.

In place of all this promise is a very by-the-numbers adventure which, having flirted with the idea of exploring something deeper, recoils and retreats into safety. The problem is rooted, I think, in the fact that Spielberg and Lucas got their fingers burnt so badly with Temple of Doom while winning high plaudits for Last Crusade. In truth, neither of those films were the respective disaster or triumph that legend makes them out to be (although I don’t disagree that the later film is the superior). Temple of Doom is undeniably sexist and racist, something which cheapens it. But as an exploration of the lead character it is the most interesting of the lot. A prequel to Raiders, at the start Jones’ ethics are rather closer to Belloq’s in the first film. Doom is about why he ultimately rejects that way of life and turns instead towards a purer form of archaeology.

The theme running through the series is the tension between wisdom and knowledge. In Temple, Jones lacks wisdom and is nearly destroyed. In Raiders, he has learned enough to know that there are times when too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In the Last Crusade, lesson learnt, he doesn’t merely avoid getting himself destroyed but gets to save his own father in the process. But there was already a sense that the Last Crusade was merely retreading Raiders ground. Kingdom just repeats the same tired formula. Wouldn’t it have been better if this had been an attempt to redo Temple, without the flaws, rather than simply remake Raiders imperfectly once again?

This also comes with plot holes as well. Big gaping ones in fact. The film ends with Dr Jones reinstated at the university he teaches at and getting married to Marion. All very well, and in common with all recent Spielberg films to end so happily. But hang on: if US intelligence were paranoid about to what extent Jones was conspiring with the Russians at the start of the film, how did he explain the fact that almost immediately afterwards he vanished into the Amazonian rain forest with the same group of Russians, apparently got them all killed and all evidence of what happened has been destroyed? And how come it isn’t just him that gets reinstated but Jim Broadbent’s character?

The aliens and their behaviour don’t seem to make that much sense either. How come the crystal skull’s “stare” works on Jones and Oxley but not the apparently psychic Spalko? And yet it seemed to work very well indeed on the all-but brainless giant ants. And if the aliens were so concerned about getting their thirteenth skull back, what about the alien recovered from Roswell (apparently sitting in a Russian truck somewhere in the jungle)? For that matter, since the aliens are clearly visiting earth still, and that damned skull was so magnetic, how come they didn’t simply recover it themselves? None of it sadly made much sense; worse, if these questions had been answered they probably would have resulted in a better film overall.

Oh, and a word about CGI. I expected some CGI. You can’t get away from it these days. I don’t begrudge the decision to depict a nuclear explosion – it was well done. What I really hated was the fucking ewoks. Well, okay, they weren’t actually ewoks, but it did almost feel as if Lucas and Spielberg felt they had to do something to twist the knife after watching that South Park episode.

So it is that in the Nevada desert, Jones encounters a bunch of CGI prairie dogs (is this some kind of obscure Caddyshack reference that I’m missing?). Later, Mutt decides to become Tarzan and in so doing befriends a bunch of CGI monkeys. Neither of these elements adds anything to the film except to give the effects department more to do. They pissed me off so much in fact that I almost expected the gray alien that appears in the finale to say “how wude!” before eating Cate Blanchett’s brains.

This isn’t to say it’s all bad. Some (but not all) of the action sequences are what you’d expect from an Indiana Jones film. When Karen Allen switches on that smile, it’s like a day hasn’t passed since 1981 (the lack of screentime for Karen Allen overall is another crime for which Spielberg and Lucas must be made to account for). It certainly could have been worse and the fact that it resists the temptation to try to compete with the Mummy franchise is no small mercy. But after 19 years, this needed to be something very special indeed. As it stands, it only succeeds in making Temple of Doom look good.

Why is the UK so lousy at cinema?

Amid all the gloom of the past few weeks, a nugget to warm my cockles: it turns out that the film Three and Out has been a massive flop.

For the past month, Londoners have had this film rammed down their throats via a mammoth advertising campaign and a faux controversy over Aslef condemning the film for promoting the idea of suicide by underground train. I can only wonder what Aslef got out of the deal as this gave the film a huge amount of free advertisng. The promoters responded by making the controversy a central part of their marketing, publishing ever increasingly bizarre adverts in the London press attempting to summarise the “debate” and screaming censorship every 30 seconds.

But as film promoters go, Aslef have nothing on the Catholic church and the film remained in the doldrums. Speaking personally, I was lost as soon as I saw my first poster, with an image that managed to evoke the twin horrors of Britpop-travesty Shooting Fish (with Gemma Arterton standing in for Kate Beckinsale before she discovered leather basques) and Sex Lives of the Potato Men.

But it does beg the question why the UK is so bad at making decent films. Our TV is of variable quality, but there is enough good stuff on the small screen to suggest we are not lacking in film-making talent. There appears to be a particular problem with lottery-funded projects, which all consistently have the same anonymous transatlantic quality – superficially British and “edgy” but played for safety and ease of access for US audiences. It has made celebrities out of no-marks like Guy Ritchie (even his one “good” film wasn’t actually very good) while ruining the careers of numerous talented individuals.

It does seem to me that whether you approve of subsidies or not, when they fail to lead to anything of either critical or public acclaim they should be reconsidered. Maybe we should try it the other way around, offering million pound prizes to the teams responsible for the most successful British film of the year? You might baulk at throwing public money at people who have already found success but how is using it to prop up a pile of hideous shite any better?

Constantwhine (can’t be arsed to think of a decent title)

I watched the film Constantine last night despite having avoided it for three years. It was three quid at Madame Zaza’s or whatever the Virgin Megastore is called these days, and I was at a loose end.

For those who don’t know, Constantine is based on the DC/Vertigo comic Hellblazer although the main character first appeared during Alan Moore’s iconic run on Swamp Thing. I’ve only recently started reading it again (I gave up when it was written by Americans and they used Manga-esque artists to draw it; I intended to pick it up when Mike Carey started scripting chores but never got around to it), but doggedly collected all the Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis scripted issues.

The important thing to know about him is that he is an occult grifter; a chancer and a gambler who is always a couple of steps away from damnation and who invariably ends up getting his mates killed. The tone is not so much Gothic as grungy. He survives pretty much by his wits alone and certainly doesn’t have any Batman or James Bond style gadgets. Superficial characteristics? John Constantine is blond and English (Liverpudlian technically); Alan Moore’s description of him was that he looks like Sting (this was in the early 80s when that was meant as a compliment). It is mostly set in London and he has a dimwit mate who is a cabbie called Chaz.

The film version? Constantine is the ultimate Californian, played as he is by the black haired Keanu Reeves. It is set in LA. His “assistant”, called Chas, is a cab driver but a sharp witted kid played by that bloke off the Transformers film. Oh, and eschewing the no gadgets rule, Constantine has a pair of ‘holy’ knuckle dusters, a ‘holy’ gun and a dragon flame flamethrower. It borrows liberally from both the Delano and Ennis runs of the comics (Papa Midnight, Gabriel, the lung cancer…) but twists each and every one of these features into something more generic and less fundamentally interesting compared with what can be found in the original. Far from the solo operator found in the comics, Constantine is recast as some kind of quasi-official exorcist who “deports” “half-breeds” on behalf of the Catholic church.

It is usual for film adaptations of comics to play fast and loose with the source material, yet the most successful (critically if not commercially) have been the ones which, if not in keeping with the details of the strip on which they are based, at least stick to the essence. Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman Begins and Ghostworld are all examples of this. There does seem to be something about Alan Moore creations which inspire filmmakers to simply take the piss out of the original fanbase. Constantine isn’t actually, in my opinion, the worst offender in this respect. From Hell was utterly horrendous, taking as it did a book which explored the subject of Jack the Ripper in a poetic, meta-fictional way and shoehorned it into a bog standard Hollywood thriller with Johnny Depp doing sub-Jack Sparrow impersonations.

At least there are no pretensions about Constantine. It’s trash and it knows it is. I found myself liking it a lot more than most of the other popcorn sub-horror trash I’ve put myself through in recent years. Both Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare are fabulous.

But why does Hollywood gorge itself on this hamburger when if it stuck more closely to the source material it could be feasting on steak? Yeesh. Watchmen is going to be so painful, isn’t it?

Handbags! Not so extraordinary gentlemen…

I was somewhat underwhelmed to read in Empire this month about alleged tensions on the set of the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (as I insist on calling it) between Sean Connery and director Stephen Norrington. After 7 pages, it emerges that this consisted of little more than not getting on very well and Norrington on one occasion goading Connery to punch him, which Connery declined to do. Oh, and one of the stages got flooded. Ho. Hum.

It is particularly unfortunate that we only get to read one side of the story: Connery is certainly a bona fide movie star, but he has always seemed to be quite precious about it (okay, I admit it, I just don’t like his politics).

But the real problem with this article, and the reason for this rant now, is that it doesn’t touch on either the ongoing travesty that is Hollywood’s inability to “get” Alan Moore (the best thing that can be said about “LXG” – as they like to call it – is that it isn’t quite as godawful as From Hell) or the legal battle that Moore faced when some no-mark sued him for plagiarising his never-before-heard-of yet vaguely similar screenplay. That’s a far more interesting story.

It’s also a missed opportunity not to mention the Black Dossier, the latest League comic which is currently unavailable in the UK due to several potential copyright issues.

Alan Moore is a funny one. In a recent article in the Megazine, Alan Grant describes Moore as a “character developer” as opposed to a creator. This seems like a gross insult to the man until you realise that it happens to be true. Name an Alan Moore classic comic and the chances are it is derived from something else. There are exceptions – V for Vendetta, Halo Jones, DR and Quinch – but most of his best work has been based on other people’s creations.

None of that is to deny his genius. But it does make one wonder why he is so extraordinarily precious about his own intellectual property.

IP Wars: Episode Two

Thanks to all concerned for all the positive comments I’ve had regarding my post last week on intellectual property. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the response despite the article’s glaring flaws.

One of the things I meant to write about, which Jock reminds us of (via Mises Blog) was the whole Radiohead/In Rainbows phenomenon. Amazon currently rates this album, released this week, at 2 in its music sales chart, and 1 in rock and indie. Not bad for something being given away for free a few weeks ago (speaking personally, I really didn’t think much of the album being a pre-Kid A kind of guy, but each to their own).

It does make me wonder however if the future of physical music purchasing lies in the 70s. Back in the days of vinyl, bands would often turn their LPs into wonderful must-haves, with large, glorious artwork, books and sleevenotes. The scrappy booklet that can be found inside most CDs doesn’t compare. Already all major releases (including Radiohead’s) have a limited edition; at what point will these become standard issue?

Doctor Vee also highlights another omission: the argument in 2007 about whether or not to extend the copyright of recordings, lead by the rather deep pocketed Paul McCartney and Cliff Richard. He points to a paper by Rufus Pollock arguing that the optimal length of copyright from an economic viewpoint should be around 15 years. I haven’t read the full paper yet but it looks interesting.

Anyway, it made a nice change from the endless strings of memes and goodwill messages that dominate the blogosphere at this time of year.

Intellectual Property – the big 21st century faultline?

Eqypt are set to pass a law forcing royalties to be paid to, erm, Egypt, every time anyone makes a copy of a pyramid or an ancient Egyptian relic. This presumably means I’ll owe them money every time I press the arrow (^) key. But of course, this isn’t the first time a government has passed a special law to protect a specific piece of intellectual property: after all in the UK we have given Peter Pan protected status specifically with a view to bankrolling the Great Ormond Street Hospital, and who could object to giving money to sick children?

This is a rather extreme example of the what is increasingly emerging as a major faultline in civilisation which seems set to dominate much of the 21st century. On the one hand we have global multi-media empires which look set to exploit – and extend – IP as much as possible. What some economists call “superstar economics” means that a piece of IP – pretty much any piece it seems can be exploited for millions, even billions of euros at a global level. On the other hand, there is the open source movement, the idea that the future lies in collaboration and sharing. Largely voluntary movements such as Creative Commons may seem benign enough, but Bill Gates has already denounced open source as a new form of communism, and beyond the obvious face offs such as Napster, we have yet to see how more sophisticated ideas about opening up other mediums and industries might challenge the status quo. One thing to look out for in my opinion is how the movement for opening up access to public data develops. Already there are rumblings objecting to the idea that people should have free access to something that the government has been flogging to private companies for years. Crown copyright has effectively lined the pockets of companies such as Dod’s for years; what will lobbyists do if large amounts of what companies such as this do suddenly becomes available to every Tom, Dick and Harriet? Somehow I doubt Dod’s is going to take this lying down.

One thing is sure, the traditional industries are feeling insecure and starting to behave in a manner not unlike a cornered animal. The ridiculous behaviour of the Performing Rights Society, described on this blog last month, is far from unique. Buy or rent a DVD, or go to the cinema, and it is now par for the course to essentially accused of theft by the very company you have just increased the coffers of in the form of their insulting and bossy FACT warnings (to be fair, their recent cinema adverts are somewhat gentler and might even be accused of having a sense of humour, if you don’t mind being talked down to by a cartoon rodent).

Over the past few days there have been a number of articles in the press about the music industry (and now MPs) taking a stance against websites such as eBay selling on tickets. We are now to understand eBay and the like as being virtual “pimps” – an analogy which is fine so long as you accept that the same basic description applies to estate agents (indeed any kind of agent) and indeed anyone working as a middle man in any industry (including, erm, record companies).

Harvey Goldsmith is proposing legislation to make it illegal to resell tickets to music gigs along similar lines to the existing legislation that applies to football matches. Yet this legislation is there for a very specific reason: it is designed to prevent football hooligans from buying their way onto their rivals’ terraces. Whether you approve or disapprove of this legislation, its intent is to stop people from being maimed and even killed; Goldsmith is calling for nothing more than the protection against their own gullibility.

Much of what seems to be developing appears to be perfectly legitimate. For example, what’s wrong with creating a futures market for ticket sales? It sounds like a perfectly good service for sports and music fans.

The solution to all this seems to be obvious to me: rather than trying to shut down the auctioneers, who are only providing services at the price people are willing to pay, why not sell all tickets in this way in the first place? The music industry appears to take great delight at how quickly they sell out of mega-gigs, yet all that ensures is that the tickets go to the most enthusiastic, the luckiest and the most organised. The average punter loses out at every turn. Surely auctioning tickets would not only ensure that the company (and artist) gets the right price, but would limit the potential resell value. We don’t need new laws, we just need new business models.

(The music industry in particular doesn’t seem to get market economics. If it isn’t complaining that the value of tickets to gigs is to high, it is complaining that the value of CDs is too low. The CEOs of Sony, EMI et al wouldn’t look out of place in the management board of a tractor factory in Stalin’s Russia)

But it doesn’t end there. Both global patent and copyright laws have been extended in recent decades. The original idea behind such laws appears to have been forgotten and pure greed has taken its place. Globalisation means that the earnings potential from a new idea has massively increased; yet at the same time we’ve artificially increased it further still, and long lives will extend this still further. To take one example, J.K. Rowling, a rich woman who can afford the very best in healthcare, is likely to have a very long life. Let’s assume she lives to 100, in 2065. The copyright on her books will stay with her estate until 2135. That means that her great-great-great grandchildren will still be profiting from their ancestor’s books. Is there really any justification for that? I’m all for an artist’s work being protected, but when a work becomes a global brand, doesn’t there come a point when the money made from it is no longer reflective of that work’s value and more based on the value of the marketing behind it? Doesn’t there come a point where these laws no longer protect creativity but stifle it?

Compare Batman to Robin Hood. Anyone can make a Robin Hood movie; the character is in public domain. To make a Batman film (or comic for that matter), you need the permission of Time-Warner. Who does this serve? Isn’t Batman now an iconic enough figure in popular imagination in such a way that is bigger than any corporation?

It is, I readily acknowledge, a moot point. But I’m less concerned about the here and now than I am about the prospect of a century of corporations owning vast catalogues of intellectual properties archived from the 20th century and trying to find ever more creative ways of exploiting them. As a civilisation, we’ve never had to face such a privatisation of ideas before. Technology will make it easier for corporations such as Disney to take legal action against anyone using their IP without permission – on the web and, without wanting to get too sci-fi here, ultimately in your mind? – yet what moral rights do they have over such cartoon characters that have become part of our folk memory?

It strikes me that all this could take a turn for the much worse and inevitably there will be a backlash. And ultimately this is deadly serious because it goes far beyond books, music and cartoon characters; much of the value of our stocks and shares are rooted in intellectual property; challenging the laws allowing Marvel to keep hold of Spider-Man could have enormous consequences for instance. And that means huge vested interests are at stake here.

As with land, I can’t help but feel that the debates on intellectual property that were raging at the turn of the last century will increasingly be revisited in the not so distant future. At stake is nothing less than who owns our very culture.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age – too much wind

I loved Elizabeth, the original Shekhar Kapur / Cate Blanchett film. Sure it was historically inaccurate, but it was done with such aplomb. Basically the film was The Godfather Part I in a frock.

So I was expecting Elizabeth: The Golden Age to be the Godfather Part II. Sadly, it was rather closer in quality to Part III, with the excrutiating romantic subplot, but without the downbeat ending. At least no-one makes pasta at any point.

First of all, the two most interesting and potentially cinematic aspects of this period of Elizabeth’s life were the rivalry with Mary Queen of Scots and the Armada. Neither of these are handled particularly well. What we get instead is a silly romantic triangle between Elizabeth, her lady in waiting Bess Throckmorton and (Sir) Walter Raleigh. Raleigh is an interesting figure in his own right, but hardly a central part of Elizabeth’s life, so it is questionable why he is included at all. Worse still, he is elevated to the status of Greatest Living Englishman, singlehandedly discovering America, defeating the Spanish and (almost) bedding the Virgin Queen. Legend aside, only the former has any basis in fact. Francis Drake is reduced to a two line, two scene part, ceding his role entirely to Raleigh (they should have gone the whole hog, Monty Python style and referred to him as “Sir not appearing in this film”). I’ve got only one word for that: bowls.

As for Elizabeth, Blanchett remains a fantastic actress and does the best with what she’s been given. But ultimately, the characterisation of her is unbelievably crass; it boils down her being a middle aged woman in dire need of a shag. While this is a fairly interesting refrain up to a point, bringing Raleigh into the equation leads to the film getting swamped in melodrama. Poignancy is sacrificed in favour of operatics.

As for Mary, while she is ably performed by Samantha Morton, she is given almost nothing to do. I would suggest that this should have been the central relationship in the film, yet Elizabeth’s initial refusal to execute her and final acceptance that she should is got out of the way in the course of a single scene, all tension lost. At least she gets a good death scene, dolled up to look all the world like Björk.

The film alleges that the Babington Plot was botched deliberately to force Elizabeth to execute Mary and thus give the Spanish a pretext to invade. But the more famous conspiracy theory – that Walsingham framed Mary to get her out of the way – would have been much more interesting to film (Walsingham in general is presented in a remarkably sympathetic manner – he gets away with brutally torturing people and still gets to be the good guy – Donald Rumsfeld must love this film). Indeed, none of the court intrigue of the first film is retained – the conclusion we are invited to believe is that only Catholics are capable of such cloak and dagger stuff. Indeed, a more anti-Catholic film you are likely to be hard pressed to find. It’s almost like the English’s revenge for Braveheart (albeit directed by an Indian).

The final invasion is disappointing. This is one of the greatest sea battles in history; all we get are a few close up shots of sailors crawling around with missing limbs and Clive Owen looking all moody and heroic. What we wanted was something like a reined in version of the fight scenes in Pirates of the Carribbean; what we got was TV movie cheapness.

There’s a motif throughout the film of people going on about wind – obviously foreshadowing the events leading to the destruction of the Armada – but quite what point they are trying to make evades me. Sure, I get the fact that there was a “wind of change” going through Europe at the time, but I get the feeling they are trying to make some kind of more deeply profound point which I missed completely.

The first film ends on an ambiguous note, with Elizabeth adopting the persona of the Virgin Queen. This film ends with her effectively becoming the persona. This itself should be an ambiguous ending, but what happens is that the botched invasion convinces Elizabeth that she is chosen by God and she essentially is Born Again. Fair enough, but the director appears to agree with her; the wind that destroyed the Spanish fleet is all-but suggested to be the Holy Spirit Itself. Maybe it is my atheism showing through, but to conclude this is to paint Catholics as not only bad during this period of history, but as fundamentally Godless; this is a pretty brave theological statement. But it also makes for boring cinema. So you got lucky, Liz, get over yourself. Isn’t the randomness of history so much more interesting than lazy notions about destiny?

Ultimately, the core cast are excellent (apart from Clive Owen who is just Clive Owen), but the film is one long list of missed opportunities. Where the first film gave us shades of grey, here we have only black and white. Ultimately this smacks of a political agenda that simply gets in the way of what should have been an excellent film.

Kitsch piracy

Paul Walter blogs about the brief return of Radio Caroline, which was also discussed on the Today programme today.

One thing that seems to have been forgotten about the pirate radio controversy in the 60s is that the Minister in charge of shutting them down was one Anthony Wedgewood Benn. These days, both Benn and Caroline are categorised under the same heading of “cuddly national treasure”. Still, it is a shame that the Today programme didn’t interview him about it. That of course would mean getting Tony Benn to defend government policy and remind us that, contrary to careful brand management, he was once part of the establishment. Nevertheless, it is a shame that the BBC, which was chomping at the bit at the time to get Caroline banned, now portrays it as a nice harmless thing. If that is the case, why is the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act 1967 still in force? Isn’t the BBC failing in its duty to educate and inform, in favour of kitsch nostalgia?

On an only partially related note, the last time I went to the cinema, they showed a ridiculous new FACT advert before the film warning us of the evils of piracy. It ended with “Love film. Hate piracy.” I wonder how Johnny Depp feels about that?