Friday, May 30, 2008

Indian Jones: Regio del Teschio di Cristallo

Summary: I saw "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" in Italian in a mostly empty theater in Pisa. It wasn't only the tower that was leaning that day; my spirit often began to list as the movie hit a variety of unexpected dull spots.

No, I didn't understand every word, but I certainly was aware that there were talky scenes and a plot too silly even to qualify as amusingly preposterous. The Italian dubbing (whoever did Indiana Jones sounds more mellow than Harrison Ford) probably took a little something away from the movie, but let's be real: The only reason to see a movie such as this is for the thrill and fun of the action. A couple of the big chase scenes deliver, and there's even a bit of brilliance in the opening, but overall, this edition of "Indiana Jones" hardly seems worth a 19-year wait.

Here's what you might learn if you watch the movie dubbed into another language:
-- Harrison Ford doesn't have much going for him by way of facial expressions; he looks as if he's tired and you may find yourself wondering whether he really wanted to revisit this role.
-- Cate Blanchett (as a Soviet bad girl) is worth watching in any language.
-- Shia LaBeouf doesn't really translate into Italian.
-- Updating Indy to the 1950s produced some interesting early effects. (A shot of Indy -- his body silhouetted against the mushrooming backdrop of a nuclear bomb blast -- resonates, yesterday's hero facing a new, untamed force.
-- The action set pieces are best when they're given a comic spin, which they mostly are.
-- Some of the effects don't look especially real.
-- Given all the time the actors spend underground, the guy who had the cobweb concession must have made out like a bandit.

Is there more to ponder here? Not much. I enjoyed watching the movie in Italian, and read enough about it afterward to convince me that I didn't need to see it again in English. "Indiana Jones" may be making a ton of money, but for me, it's basta! Enough already!

One more thing: Above, a look at the interior of the Odeon in Pisa, where "Indiana Jones" was playing on several screens, each named for a different Italian city. I saw it in the Venice auditorium. Each ticket comes with an assigned seat. I attended an early afternoon showing, which is one of the reasons the theater was relatively empty. Big screen, decent projection, plush seats. Fine place to see a movie with the added feature that the restrooms are located in the back of the auditorium. I guess it says something about "Crystal Skull" that I didn't notice anyone heading for the bathrooms during the show.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Getting ready to return to U.S.

Trying to figure out an Italian keyboard is not the easiest thing in the world, so I am going to keep this brief and avoid contractions. Almost done with Italian journey. Checking news on the Net, I noted that director Sydney Pollack had died of cancer at age 73. Sad news. More about Pollack, a true journeyman, later. He visited Denver a number of times, often in conjunction with the Starz Denver Film Festival. In his later years, Pollack seemed to produce more than he directed, but he had a sure hand, and was able to express himself across a wide variety of genres. He was a director who definitely knew how to serve the material, not himself.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Down from the mountains -- but only briefly

Summary: Took the train to Florence today in search of some big-city life. I had no time for the abundant cultural sights, many of which I've already seen, but few of which I've exhausted. Instead, I had a nice lunch and strolled through the city before taking the train back to Lucca, a much less frantic -- if less significant -- city.

Meanwhile, I've been reading very mixed reports about the new edition of "Raiders," which premiered at Cannes, so I feel less deprived by being in the Tuscan hills where people seem more interested in food, wine and beautiful vistas (not necessarily in that order) than in the latest Hollywood release.

Lucca, by the way, boasts several venues for movies, all of which are playing Italian films -- or so I'm told. I don't know if any of these films are any good, but it's encouraging to see Italian theaters that haven't entirely been taken over by American releases.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hidding in the mountains above Lucca

Summary: I'm in the mountains above the Italian city of Lucca, and do not have easy access to the Internet. I'm using a dial-up connection that operates at glacial speeds. I'm decompressing and trying to overcome the obsession with being connected. What does it mean to be connected anyway? Am I really better off knowing that Sen. Edward Kennedy has had a seizure or can life go on without such knowledge? How precisely will I survive without being able to keep up with the NBA playoffs, never mind how the second Narnia movie did at the box office? I plan to take a walk and think about such things -- or maybe not.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Bond, James Bond in Siena

We're walking around Siena killing time before a highly recommended restaurant opens. (It's called Cane e Gatto and if you're ever in Siena, it's definitely worth killing time for.) As we wander, we suddenly find ourselves on a narrow street -- not that there's any other kind -- away from the central square. We hear the sounds of drumming. Ah, we think, a parade. Good way to divert ourselves from hunger, impatience and tired feet.

Turns out that we not only don't get to see a parade, but we don't get to see the source of the noise, a film crew working on "Quantum of Solace,'' the new James Bond movie, this one directed by Marc Forster ("The Kite Runner," "Stranger Than Fiction," "Finding Neverland" and "Monster's Ball.") I have nothing exciting to report about the movie other than that a friendly production employee who's helping to block off the street tells me that the crew has visited Siena twice for what amounts to five minutes of movie. We're talking across languages so I'm not entirely sure, but I think he said it would take 14 days of shooting to get those five minutes I have no idea whether Daniel Craig -- the almost new Bond -- is here or whether this is strictly second-unit stuff, but it seems that the series again has spared no expense to ensure that it's as location-rich as possible. Loved "Casino Royale," and can't wait to see the next installment to find out what was going on down that street.

Meanwhile in other Siena movie is none. Playing here; "What Stays in Vegas," "The Other Boleyn Girl," "The Darjeeling Express," and "Superhero Movie." Good luck finding an Italian film.

Not sure when I'll post again. Heading for the Tuscan hills.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On the road again -- only with great art

Before heading to the hills outside Lucca, we've detoured to Siena, where we've never been. If you want the tourist lowdown on Siena read Rick Steven. The public television and guide-book maven has covered Europe with the relaxed efficiency of a well-equipped invading army. To the casual traveler, it almost seems as if all of Italy is a giant tourist destination, a national theme park of historical attractions, artistic treasures and Roman Catholic iconography. Others have written about all this, so much that you half wonder whether every piece of art in Italy hasn't had its own book -- or, failing that, at least its own postcard.

Movies? I've seen posters for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," but so far, the only contact I've had with film is via the marquee of a theater outside the train station in Pisa, an Italian town in which the tower definitely leans and in which it's not easy to find an Internet cafe. Now playing in Pisa: Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega in "10 Items or Less," a movie I hated. Maybe it would be better after being dubbed into Italian. I'm not tempted to find out.

I read that "Kung Fu Panda" has played at Cannes and received a less-than-enthusiastic reception in Variety. Ditto for "Sex and the City: The Movie." As always, I'm eager to read about the less glamorous, more artistic side of Cannes -- the festival's meat and potatoes -- but I'm relieved that I don't have to cover Cannes, where I'd no doubt fall prey to the compulsion to see five movies per day. These days -- in my semi-retirement -- I take three movies per day as a civilized limit. Not that I'd be at Cannes even if I were still working. Never got to go, and I wasn't about to travel on my own dime. The problem: Attending Cannes cost more than a dime.

People watching in the Piazza del Campo -- Siena's main place to hang -- my wife and I play "guess their nationality" with the hundreds of passersby, most of them madly clicking away with their digital cameras. We argue over a couple. I say American. I'm adamant. She says German. She's equally convinced. We're both surprised because is not our typical kind of disagreement. We're usually inclined to more subtle distinctions -- French or Belgian, say.

We, too, snap digital pictures, drawn irresistibly into the fray. Snap. Look. Snap. Look. We wander through the Palazzo Publico, once the seat of Siena's mighty governance. The big deal here are frescoes, which follow a rule of Italian painting of a certain kind; i.e., If there's a wall space available, cover it with something: scenes of epic battles, allegories about good and bad government, etc. These vast and glutted works were, I suppose, the movies of their day, lavishly depicted spectacles in which the public could endlessly indulge.

Still a bit jet-lagged we dutifully take in more of the sights, finishing the day outside the city walls where we eat a thinly crusted and not especially wonderful calzone. A television blares away, a comedy involving a bulky man in drag. Next up: a comic report from Cannes that features a nice looking man in a tuxedo stalking celebrities.

Of course, a joke looms. After a suitably brief interval, the man turns around to reveal a protruding, naked artificial buttocks. Pretensions instantly are shattered by this daringly unimaginative mix of elegance and buffoonery. I particularly like it when the guy shows up outside a balcony where an apparently oblivious Sean Penn talks on a cell phone. The guy in the tux prattles on in a tone I take for mock seriousness. I'm the only one in the pizzeria laughing at what looks like an Italian version of an Ali G moment.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Turning my back on a couple of biggies

Summary: For the first time in almost 30 years, I'm going to miss the opening of a major new release. I'll be traveling when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas bring "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" to a theater near you, possibly to every theater near you. To further add to my movie isolation, I'll still be on the road when "Sex and the City: The Movie" opens later this month.

I'll be away from the movie scene until June 1, but don't feel sorry for me. I'll be traveling in Tuscany, where for the bulk of the time I'll be languishing on Italy's largest remaining intact estate, eating immoderately but joyously and luxuriating in the Merchant/Ivory surroundings. I'll be in the heart of the country where uptight Englishmen -- in an array of greater and lesser novels -- traditionally traveled to loosen the bonds of a restrictive culture.

As I traverse the mountains above the walled-city of Lucca -- keeping an eye out for wild bore -- I'll think of you folks and even blog a bit.

That's one of the joys of no longer working for a daily paper. I don't have to fret about missing something. I'll catch up when I return, and for once, I'll be able to take a look at a couple of major movies apart from the hype machine that surrounds their release. By the time I see it, "Indiana Jones" will be yesterday's news, having been shown to the U.S. press, to the multitudes at Cannes and to an eager public.

Let me digress. Last Sunday afternoon, I happened to stumble upon a TV showing of "Saving Private Ryan." Watching the gripping landing sequence at Omaha Beach, I again was reminded again of what a great filmmaker Spielberg can be. That sequence remains one of the most harrowing I've ever seen. Of course, "Indiana Jones'' puts Spielberg back into the campy world of junk culture that spawned the series in the first place. We'll see how it goes -- or, more precisely, you will. By all means, don't wait for me: Post comments, and watch for reports about my adventures as I transport my sour disposition to sunny (I hope) Italy.

I should, of course be looking forward to this trip. I've been to Tuscany a couple of times, and I've always enjoyed myself. But there's one hitch: To get to Italy, you have to fly. You have to submit yourself to the discomforts of a trans-Atlantic flight. We can't afford business class and upgrading with mileage has become about as difficult as finding gas under $3.00 a gallon. One prays to be spared mewling infants, unruly toddlers and those who insist on reclining their seats so far back that you feel as though you've been jammed inside a waffle iron. The air aboard the average plane can be awful, and the service sometimes seems tainted by an unmistakable odor of misanthropy. I hope experience proves me wrong.

Still, I'll soldier on as best I can, venting when the need arises. All in all, I'm looking forward to sampling life away from the movie fast lane, and am headed to what may be the best place in the world to do it.

Friday, May 9, 2008

"Speed Racer," a boring blur

Summary: "Speed Racer" has preternaturally bright colors, an ingenious mix of animation and live-action and enough technical wizardry to satisfy the geekosphere, by which I mean folks who prefer "oh wow!" responses to common sense. Still, the movie struck me as a colossal and unrelieved bore, a melding of senseless action and dull exposition that never engages us on an emotional level. This time, the Wachowski brothers (of "The Matrix" series) have adapted and enhanced a '50s Japanese cartoon series. They would have done well to remember that more sometimes really is less.

Unless you're a kid who must see "Speed Racer" to avoid expulsion from the inner sanctum of your clique, you'd do well to appreciate the movie's glories via the trailer. That way you can avoid the Wachowskis' reductive morality, a simplistic view that pits love of the game against corporate exploitation. And once you get accustomed to the movie's wildly eclectic look -- Saturday morning TV on psychedelics -- you may also find it repetitious.

Shattering time-bound narrative structure, the Wachowskis allow their story to leap all over the place, beginning with the title character Speed Racer (Emil Hirsch) as a boy and jumping ahead to Speed as a young man and talented driver. Speed is the second oldest son in the Racer family. In this tipsy segment, Speed's older brother Rex (Scott Porter) gets crosswise with dad (John Goodman), a man who builds racecars and inspires family loyalty.

When Rex dies in a crash, Speed inherits the Racer mantle, and we meet rest of the family. Susan Sarandon plays Speed's mom. She conveniently shows up for heart-to-heart talks when they're needed. Speed also has a younger brother (Paulie Litt), a kid who hangs around with a chimpanzee, a bit of monkey business that seems aimed at very young audiences.

The plot, which hits the screen with the force of shrapnel, thickens when an industrialist named Royalton (Roger Allam sounding as if he's doing a Christopher Hitchens imitation) tries to recruit Speed for his racing team. Royalton promises money and fame and a chance to compete in the Grand Prix, the big enchilada of races in this frenzied universe. Here's a shocker: Royalton's as corrupt as they come. When Speed politely turns down Royalton's offer, this smooth-talking piece of corporate slime tries to initiate him into the horrors of adulthood. He tells Speed that all the races are fixed and that Speed is a naive chump.

The rest of the plot isn't worth recounting, even if it were possible. Know, though, that Christina Ricci shows up as Trixie, Speed' s luscious-looking girlfriend. There's even a part for Richard Roundtree of the "Shaft" series. He plays a retired racer whose exploits once inspired Speed and his dad. Korean rocker Rain portrays another driver.

It takes the Wachowskis more than two hours to sort out a mess of a plot, but the real point here seems to be to create a world that feels like none that we know, thereby allowing younger audiences to lose themselves in a multi-layered swirl of color and action. I'm just not young enough, I guess. The extreme close-ups that floated across the screen made me woozy, and I occasionally found myself looking away from the screen so that I didn't have to put my popcorn bag to air-sick use. The movie seems predicated on the notion that chaos can be fun.

During my self-imposed respites, I began to develop a theory -- albeit a small one. The Wachowskis have taken elements that normally might make us gag -- simple-minded views of the world, undeveloped characters, juvenile humor and pointless speed -- and gotten some of the world's most talented people to work their magic on them. It's what you might get if the great pastry chefs of the world collaborated, swarmed around the kitchen in a mad frenzy and came up with a cupcake. Some will enjoy the icing; others will wonder how so much fuss could produce so little result.

A Las Vegas marriage and Brazilian jiu-jitsu


Summary: Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz join forces in the romantic comedy "What Happens in Vegas." Although the movie has some laughs, it also scrapes gracelessly over dry patches. Diaz knows how to do the romantic comedy rumble, and Kutcher keeps pace, but the material doesn't go anywhere unexpected. and watching Kutcher and Diaz claw at one another can seem more rote than funny.

Talk about predictable. Kutcher's character has an unprincipled best friend (Ron Corddry); Diaz' character has an acerbic best bud (Lake Bell). Kutcher's character is another immature boy/man; Diaz' character is efficient but tightly wound. Of course these two shouldn't be together, which means that they ultimately will wind up taking a joint leap into the happily-ever-after.

"What Happens in Vegas" isn't so much a movie as a series of contrivances. Begin with this: Kutcher (fired from his job) and Diaz (dumped by her boyfriend) wind up in Las Vegas where they meet, get stinking drunk and marry -- all in a night. Upon returning to New York, they try to get the marriage annulled, but a devious judge (Dennis Miller) orders them to make a go of it for six months. Ready for another contrivance? Our mismatched couple happily would risk contempt of court, but for one complication: He won $3 million in a slot machine using her quarter. The judge rules that whoever abandons the marriage first will forfeit the money.

Heavy on slapstick, "What Happens in Vegas" develops a "War of the Roses" mean streak before Kutcher and Diaz are allowed to make nice. The goal: to make you laugh and then warm your heart, but you'd have to be crazy about either one of the two principal actors to see "What Happens in Vegas" as anything more than a lukewarm comedy with a few welcome moments of heat.


Summary: In "Redbelt" -- a departure from the usual David Mamet movie -- the playwright enters the world of martial arts. What he finds there are the echoes (some dim, some louder) of previous interests: the way commercialism thrives on con games and the need for the pure of heart to walk a narrow moral line. Transporting the tropes of boxing movies to the world of full-contact fighting, Mamet earns a split decision. I'm not sure the movie will satisfy either Mamet loyalists or martial-arts fans.

If there's a clear victor in Mamet's "Redbelt," it's actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Mike Terry, a master of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The plot draws Terry -- who spends most of his time instructing cops -- into a world of temptation. From the start, it's pretty clear that Ejiofor's Terry won't capitulate. He mistakenly believes, though, that he's dealing with men who are honorable.

The movie builds toward a big fight, a showdown in which Terry must decide whether to sell out his principles for the sake of expedience. He believes that fighting is about upholding values and escaping from difficult situations. He refuses to participate in competitive fighting.

Mamet directs in his usually efficient style. He creates airless worlds in which the characters deal with their problems in concentrated form. Little seems casual as Terry moves through the plot, and a variety of colorful and potentially duplicitous characters are introduced: Terry's wife (Alice Braga), a troubled lawyer (Emily Mortimer), an action movie star (Tim Allen in a welcome serious turn), and the star's manager (Joe Mantegna). The playwright also makes room for appearances by such Mamet stalwarts as Ricky Jay and David Paymer.

The dialogue in "Redbelt" is less inclined toward Mamet-speak than usual, but there's no mistaking Mamet's hand. I guess the point of all this is that Terry's fight has metaphoric punch: Defense beats offense, and pure intentions and skill can lead to victory over crass commercial interests. Think of it as fantasy for hard-core cases or -- if you want to stretch the point -- for lone artists who know something about battling Hollywood foes who fight dirty and are proud of it. A statement about Mamet's movie career? Draw your own conclusions.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Robert Downey's heavy metal hit

Summary: In a comic-book culture (that would be ours), it's hardly surprising that comic books provide the basis for some of Hollywood's most successful films. The latest comic book hero to enter the fray is Iron Man, a creation of the folks at Marvel Comics, who also gave us Spider Man. "Iron Man" probably does a better job of introducing its tarnished hero than in figuring out what to do with him. Still, the groundwork has been laid for another mega-buck franchise. On top of that, the movie provides a vehicle that Robert Downey Jr. -- once one of Hollywood's baddest of bad boys -- can ride to redemption.

"Iron Man" has a gripping beginning. Arms manufacturer, technical genius and party animal Tony Stark (Downey) rides in a Humvee with soldiers in Afghanistan. He's making jokes and being amusingly flip when an explosion upsets the apple cart of a life in which nothing -- even weapons of mass destruction -- seems to have been taken seriously.

Suddenly, Stark finds himself a prisoner of an unidentified group of insurgents. These are life-changing circumstances to say the least, and they quickly transform Stark from a glib genius to a man with a single-minded mission. Stark, who escapes from his captors by cobbling together a metal suit that protects him from bullets and launches missiles and flames, vows to destroy the weapons that he has created, which not only are wielded by American soldiers but by their enemies.

"Iron Man" owes much of its success to Downey, an actor who, at first blush, seems an unlikely candidate for a franchise movie. Intense with a darting intelligence that can't quite find a resting spot, Downey seems more suited to cynicism than heroism. But he pulls off this super-heroic big-screen feat, probably because -- for all his armor -- Iron Man has feet of clay. His weapons-dealing past and party-boy personality have kept him from committing to anything.

Once he returns to the U.S., Downey's Stark sets about perfecting his Iron Man suit, a task that gives director Jon Favreau, an actor who has directed pictures such as "Elf," an opportunity to blend special effects with Downey's irony-prone personality. Scenes in which Stark tries to master jet-propelled flying offer an amusing mixture of trial-and-error experimentation.

In addition to the expected, high-tech marvels -- most of them housed in Stark's cliff-hugging Malibu home -- a supporting cast accessorizes the proceedings. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Pepper Potts, the loyal assistant who loves Stark but tries to keep her distance. Terrence Howard, looking a bit bored, appears as Rhodey, a high-ranking military man who specializes in weapons procurement. A bald, bearded and initially unrecognizable Jeff Bridges plays Obadiah Stane, an executive who works for Stark and who opposes Stark's plan to shift the company's focus from wanton destruction to the selective elimination of evil.

The movie's various themes probably fall a bit short of mythic, but the key to Iron Man involves his heart. Wounds acquired in the explosive opening scene require that Stark's life be maintained by an artificial device that keeps shrapnel from penetrating his heart. This glowing bit of advanced technology makes him look like a modern day Tin Man, assuming -- of course -- that the Tin Man could have made Oz look like a Tater Tot that had had the misfortune of tangling with a flame thrower.

A booming, end-of-picture battle allows sound to trump sense, but that's the way of these pictures. The clangorous battle between two men in iron suits feels a bit generic, almost as if it were something we might expect to see on the ride home from work. I found myself asking -- ungratefully I suppose -- "You mean this is it?"

Truth is I'd rather watch Downey than a special effect that conceals his body inside carefully articulated heavy metal, but Downey's a strong enough actor not to vanish amid the high tech bric-a-brac. That could be the movie's saving grace. You remember the man more than his brilliantly engineered suit.

Serious, provocative and way off base

Needed: A moratorium on movies that in any way depend on school shootings to advance their plots. If you don’t believe me, take a look at director Vadim Perelman’s “The Life Before Her Eyes.” Perelman directed the serious and provocative “House of Sand and Fog,” but in this outing, he manages to turn a school shooting into a disturbing contrivance. His movie comes off as a heavyweight wannabe, sort of “Sophie’s Choice” meets “Elephant.” It all begins when Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) – a teen-ager given to sexual experimentation -- is cornered in the bathroom of her school with her best friend (Eva Amurri), a young woman who’s chaste and religious. The sicko killer who has imperiled the girls forces Diana to make a devastating decision. The movie then flashes forward 15 years to a time when the grown-up Diana (Uma Thurman) must deal with memories of the terrible event that marred her school days. “The Life Before Her Eyes” tries for a “Sixth Sense” twist at the end, but instead of feeling surprised, you may feel as if you’ve been had. You’ll be right.