Monday, July 14, 2008

Leaving Hollywood

There’s always somebody willing to claim that movies are worse than ever before, usually because that somebody personally doesn’t have as much interest as they did, uh, before. So I’m going to assume that it’s really not the Hollywood movies but the fact that 30 years of steady film viewing has laid a pretty solid groundwork, that I don’t have as much spare time and that $8 matinees reduces the impulse to check out marginal films (and by “marginal” for me that includes anything from Adam Sandler to No Country for Old Men).

Then again I’ll go ahead and argue that two of the big hits from early summer are good evidence that in fact Hollywood movies aren’t what they used to be. Yeah, blockbusters may not be good measure but Iron Man and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are sloppy, narrow-minded blockbusters and not much fun either.

Iron Man actually opens with an energetic sequence that promises this won’t be any stodgy film but then the missiles hit and the stodge arrives. After this the only way to get through it is imagining how it could be rewritten. So when Tony comes back after his kidnapping he pauses for a brief product placement (what, none of the hospital or military base cooks could make him a cheeseburger?) and then has immediately and somberly decided that SI (or whatever it’s called in the movie) will no longer make weapons. Now imagine instead that on his return Tony lives up the high life as Mr Hedonism. Then we get to the scene that’s already in the film where the journalist points out that Tony’s kidnapping buddy’s home town was destroyed and then that’s when Tony makes his decision. Actually could it have hurt to make the journalist something other than a bimbo? Or for that matter Rhodes and Pepper have nothing to do except let Tony explain things to them. And if any film ever needed Towne/Tarrantino scriptdoctoring this would be it. How could an entire stream of adults have OKed the line where the buddy tells Tony that he has everything but nothing? So easy to fix: Buddy starts with “You have everything….” and Tony finishes “but nothing. Yeah, people tell me that all the time.” Hey, What Would Hecht Do isn’t a bad motto. Plus there are times when the Iron Man armor is portrayed so lovingly that you’d think the sequence was directed by Goebbels or at least Marinetti. The whole thing drags to a conclusion over some corporate infighting that’s at best a poor choice – nothing much is at stake. Considering the scene where Iron Man does a little gunboat diplomacy in the Middle East that completely ignores any concept of due process or rule of law then maybe we’re better off that the filmmakers didn’t decide to tackle Bigger Issues.

Indiana Jones isn’t as dull but it’s not any more substantial. Considering the series’ track record probably few people expected this to be any good and, well, it’s not. The opening sequence shows how little Lucas & Spielberg understood what they did in the past. Indy gets out of being captured by the Russians because a dropped gun just happens to go off. There’s nothing clever, nothing heroic, no swashbuckling derring do, just plain blind luck. And then the whole refrigerator thing should embarrass everybody involved and the aliens are just an enormous mistake. After a while you start wondering about stuff that there’s no point wondering about: If the artifact in the warehouse was that strongly magnetic shouldn’t it have been affecting other objects for years? Where was that recovered alien corpse supposed to have come from anyway? How again did all those skulls go back and forth? It’s almost like they were making an Indiana Jones ripoff. It’s pretty clear from the start that the kid is Indy’s son so why not play that up? Have some fun in the film with something the characters haven’t yet figured out. The kid looks so silly as Marlon Brando when he first appears that I still have no idea whether that was meant to be taken seriously, as an indication of his badassishness. Still, the tip to Land of the Pharaohs (the knocked-out ornaments that unleash flowing sand) is nice.