Monday, May 26, 2008

"So I take it you didn't like Speed Racer?"

This was a post Michelle left in my comments about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In fact, it was a challenge. So, thanks to a free movie ticket earned from paying for a lot of other movie tickets (thanks, Regal Cinemas) I went to see Speed Racer.

There's more to say than the other critics, who pointed out how loud, noisy and blinding the movie was. My original take on that was that Speed Racer was a Nickelodeon movie, only a little more daring than Spy Kids or Shark Girl and Lava Boy. They added guns and kissing and occasional curse words that Nickelodeon wouldn't use, but basically the movie was at that level.

But there was something beneath the surface. And it hit me about halfway through the film.

It was where the racing magnate, E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allarn) tells young Speed (Emile Hersh) his view of racing, trying to frighten Speed into signing with his megacorporation racing team. Racing is all a fix, he explains. The winner of the Grand Prix, the race that is Speed's greatest desire, is predetermined. The only important thing about the race is the way it publicizes companies, makes their stock value rise and gets people to buy their stuff.

Speed denies it. The movie, from that point on, is an attempt to prove Royalton wrong.

The point is that the Warshowski Brothers weren't talking about racing in that scene. They were talking about Hollywood. For the studios, the success or failure of an Indiana Jones sequel isn't as important as the amount of cash they can get for product placement and sponsorships. The quality of the movie almost doesn't matter; the date it appears in theaters, the amount of promotion and the name recognition of the stars is more important. To the Royaltons of the movie business, that is.

It was true that the Warshowskis were once like the Speed Racers of the movie world. Their first film The Matrix surprised everybody. But their sequels were little more than coasting. I was given a DVD of the third movie; I still haven't brought myself to take it out of the shrink-wrap and watch it.

For that matter, Steven Spielberg was once a cinematic Speed Racer, too. But the quality of the latest movie wasn't as important as the tie-ins with Dr. Pepper. A strong dramatic motion picture like Schindler's List may have won an Oscar, but it got the executives of Paramount and other companies nagging "When you gonna do another Indiana Jones and make us a lot of money?"

Here's the worst part. Even if the Warshowski's did manage to "win the race" for themselves and not for corporate sponsors, what did they win it with? A literal translation of a kid cartoon, with only minor improvements in the morality of the original. (Speed's mom, played offhanded by Susan Sarandon, now is a welder of race car chassis as well as a maker of pancakes. Trixie (Christina Ricci) does some martial arts moves and can race a high-performance car - without a single lesson. Hooray for cheap symbolic feminism.)

This past weekend, at the OASIS convention in Orlando, I saw some things that fans have been watching for a long time; the fan-fiction Star Trek: New Voyages movies. The effects are pretty fair amateur CGI, the plots are slight improvements on the original TV series, but these people wanted to make a "good Trek show." They weren't paid to do it. They did it with their own money and labor.

Maybe the New Voyages shows were a bit too reverential. Maybe they were too worshipful about Trek mythology and character, in a time where a Stargate series has more complex characters and dialog. The New Voyages were still more inspiring than Speed Racer.

The Warshowskis - yes, and the Spielbergs! - should learn from them, and not just their visual style or their choice of set colors. They might learn from another line said by Speed in the movie, paraphrased here: moviemaking isn't something you need to do, it's something you have to do.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Get your own hat, kid.

First of all, thank you, Dr. Pepper, for the excellent deal. If you buy four 2-liter bottles of the Doctor at K-Mart, for a limited time, you get a coupon with a code. Punch in that code at a web site and you get to print out a coupon good for $7 off when you see...

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull!

Not since Disney gave us critics passes have I had such a good deal. (Hey, Disney, we're still critics, how about some passes again? Please?) I paid about $2.50 per ticket. I took two friends; that's twelve bottles I gotta consume.

At any rate...a lot of critics, including the impetuous fools at Ain't It Cool News, have been knocking this film. They suffer from overinflated expectations. It is not the Second Coming. It is not a career-changing film for either Spielberg or Lucas. It will not heal the wounds in your heart left by Speed Racer. far this summer, it's the best thing that could happen.

Without giving away too much, obviously Dr. Henry Jones Jr. is in his sixties, as is Harrison Ford. But he winds up dragooned into a crazy quest, when a Russian team kidnaps him and forces him to help them out. The first third of the film contains every bit of cultural kinks you may remember about 1950's America, from commie-baiting to nuclear tests. And the dedicated Russian lady spy, Irina Spalko (Kate Blanchett) with a lesbian dominatrix pageboy haircut and a propensity for fencing.

The second third drags in a teenage biker named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, whom I'll call "Side O' Beef" from now on). This Marlon Brando stand-in is attached to this quest because his mom is involved - and it's Indy's original old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). There's lots of prancing around in South American jungles, but sadly, not as much "local color" as previous films. The native people are either background characters or cannon fodder, people put in the way of Indy and Mutt's quest.

The final third...contains the big mystery, but let's just say it is of a piece with the 1950's pop-culture obsessions from Part 1.

This is a different, more mature Indy - as opposed to the nowhere-near-as-mature Rambo played by Stallone in that pointless sequel earlier this year. For the first time, Indy is and using the vast knowledge you'd expect an archaeologist to possess, instead of macho bluster and bar fight tricks. In fact, the fight scenes are thoughtful fight scenes. They are more about spatial orientation and physics than they are about ham-handed upper-cuts.

If you don't expect this film to forgive your sins and bring on the Rapture, you'll have a fine time at it. Certainly better than that awful Sex and the City thing.

And the title of this review? It refers to the final sequence of the film. There's been people suggesting that Spielberg and Lucas were setting up "The Adventures of Indiana Jones III" using Side O' Beef as the star. The final scene plays with that suggestion, but ultimately discards it. As it should be. Because the 1960's and JFK killed the hat as a fashion accessory for men, as Kurt Busiek wisely said in Astro City comics. This film says that the times are clearly changing. Instead of a hat and a whip, if there is an "Indy III" to join the ranks of Lupin III, he'll be using a comb and a switchblade.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Want some advertising? For $3? UPDATED.


As part of a deal with a discount bookstore, I got a subscription to Entertainment Weekly for a few months. (After which I started to pay for it.) I am cancelling the subscription this week. Let me explain what triggered my gag reflex.

You see the cover. Read it carefully. That's right. Over half the magazine covers the upcoming disaster film, Sex in the City. By "covers" I mean "advertises."

To begin with, Sex is agony for anyone except the flightiest of women and gay men. If you remember the long-running HBO series, it's about some Manhattan women who apparently have no real jobs, but make enough money to dress in drop-dead fashions and the most killer shoes. They have affairs with numerous vaguely-handsome and bland men. They talk a lot about the sexual and emotional relationships they have.

The movie revolves around the wedding of one or more of these women. Be still, my heart.

Those pages in Entertainment Weekly talk to the actresses, briefly. They give the standard actor speech, about how happy they were to work on this fabulous project and how wonderful their co-stars are. They are filled with close-up photos of the clothes and especially the shoes. A pair of lime-green spike heels, with the designer label clearly visible, fills about half a page.

There are a few paragraphs among all those pages that aren't pure hype. They are lame natterings about how things might be different if, let's say, Miley Cyrus was one of the horny women. Or Mark Wahlberg was one of their men. Most of this is in-joke material, funny only to the people who are soaked in celebrity culture up to the nostrils. You think we geeks with our talk of Doctor Who and Farscape puns are closeted and obsessive? Meet some of the Entertainment Weekly writers sometime.

"Wait a minute," you're saying. "Of course this is advertising. This is a Time Warner publication describing a Time Warner movie." Yes. But they made me pay for the advertising.

And the quality of the advertising-as-pseudo-journalism shows. There is flop sweat steaming off the pages. The megacorporation is fearful that anything but adoration and wonder at the appearance of this film will cause the movie to tank. They are so afraid that nowhere in the article is there a hint about the plot of this movie, if indeed it has one.

And what angers me more is that this isn't exceptional. It's become the dominant mode of entertainment journalism, in print or on television. Perhaps the only independent movie critics in commercial media, the last of a generation, are Roeper and Siskel. The host of PBS's movie shows, Michael Medved, is a right-wing Christian propagandist (the show is sponsored by prominently Catholic businesses), which makes him less than forthright - but at least he isn't whoring for a megacorporation, only his political buddies.

On the Internet, things are better. Although Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News often descends into hype, sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Film Threat are much more honest than the paid press. The people who see those movies often have to sneak in; the studios no longer give complementary passes to internet review sites. They don't want honest critics. They want media whores.

None of the Cartoon Geeks will act like that. Which is why we don't get free passes to the movies or cheery calls from big celebrities or anything like that.

I can't change the face of movie criticism. But I can refuse to pay for advertising of a movie I don't wish to see. If more people did the same, perhaps we might get honest movie reviews once again.

EDIT: Of course, I meant Ebert and Roeper. But even Roger Ebert can't quite forget Gene Siskel; in the open of his show he has a photograph of his long-time, dearly departed partner on his desk.

Also, I was somewhat unkind to the new generation of critics. There are a few critics with the chops. Stephanie Zacharach of is one of the best. And despite his love of hype (and occasional pandering) Harry Knowles is a knowledgable film historian, an impressive intellect. (Although Ebert couldn't accept him as a permanent partner after one tryout.) You have to hunt for them, though. If there's a flashy party, with glamourous women and handsome men strolling down the red carpet, and paparazzi won't find a solid critic within five miles.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dah, Dah, Dah-Dah-DAAAH!

First of all, at this time, Michelle is in the midst of returning home. Once everything is settled, we will be recording a new Cartoon Geeks cast again. We have seriously tried to do a once-a-month show, but life seems to be getting in the way. We shall persevere. to Iron Man. It is as good a movie as its box office bears out. I finally was able to afford tickets for myself and two friends; I didn't trust my own reaction. Everyone enjoyed it, including the big old guy who never read comics and who has a sour opinion about most modern movies.

The character of Tony Stark was never a favorite of mine. It was hard to feel for him. He was rich and a party boy. He had all the toys. Sure, he had a defective heart that was supposed to make us feel for him. But he compensated for it by basically being a bully. His assistants were pretty much treated badly.

Remember Pepper Potts, his secretary with whom he cozied in the movie? He was so secretive and so unresponsive to her, in the comics she ended up marrying the sourpuss chauffeur "Happy" Hogan. The biggest emotional hook that the comic developed, in the 1980's, was that Stark became an alcoholic. The writers took him to the bottom, deposing him from Stark Industries and making him a pathetic homeless vagrant. At one point, Stark went hunting down all the weapons using his tech and destroyed them, an Ayn Rand deathcamp solution since some of the weapons he destroyed were ones he'd sold to the US government.

Most recently in the comics, Stark helped the U.S. Government hunt down the Marvel superheroes in the "Civil War" plotline, forcing them to work for the government or go to prison. His understandable conservative attitudes turned into Karl Rove-like power-mongering. Basically, he's a guy you could easily dislike.

Well, Marvel did a good job with the movie. Stark became likeable. And as other people have pointed out, there is a bonus to having Marvel Studios making the movie, instead of licensing the product to someone else.

If you stayed through to the end of the end credits, you saw the big surprise cameo. Recall what Nick Fury said? I don't, but it was something about "stepping into a wider world." That was not simply "the Avenger initiative." That was also a sly inclusion of Captain America's shield in one scene. That was a skyscraper identified as "Roxxon" (an evil megacorporation that actually killed Tony Stark's parents in the comics). That was the subtle reference to the "Ten Rings," which of course means Iron Man's main villain, the Asian conqueror The Mandarin.

The big problem with superhero movies is that studios only license one superhero per movie. That means, in each movie, there is only one superhero in the world. Superman movies never refer to Batman, or vice versa (until a much-delayed crossover movie makes it to the screen, if it ever does). Spider-Man shares Manhattan with dozens of other Marvel heroes, some of whom he has wound up fighting by accident, but you wouldn't know it from the movies.

But with Marvel producing its own movies, and only using the studios for releasing the films, they can put anybody and everybody they control into the films. Marvel can make superhero movies the way they used to make superhero comics, with guest stars and guest villains.

Marvel paid a lot for this. To create Marvel Studios, they promised the future film revenues of twelve of Marvel's characters, including Iron Man. If you want the business details, you can read this Business Week article here.

Suffice it to say, on the Spider-Man movies, Marvel only makes 5 percent of the potential profits. With Iron Man, they make a lot more. It is a slick business deal...slicker than anything Tony Stark could have put together.

This is, in fact, the most upbeat bit of fanboy news we've had in a while. Speed Racer is looking as empty as the sequels to The Matrix. "Moon" Night Shyamalan and his upcoming take on the Living Dead looks awful. I've seen the first part of A&E's remake of The Andromeda Strain and it gored and grossed up the original Michael Crichton story something awful.

But Marvel...even if not all their films work, I think they'll show Hollywood and the megacorporations something. Namely that you don't fix what doesn't need fixing. I thought Tony Stark would have needed a lot of changes to make him a viable movie character. Undoubtedly Disney, Warner, and the other big guns did too. But we were all wrong. Marvel was right. They created the character, and they know better than anyone else what made him popular. They didn't give him a "cute dog" or the other nonsense that film adapters love to add. And if Marvel Films keeps it up, they might make genre films fun again. It's about time.