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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Steven Spielberg)

The biggest development, in terms of script, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might actually be George Lucas’s fingerprints. Between Last Crusade and this sequel, Lucas created the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” television series and introduced the idea of canon to the series. As an example, in Crystal Skull, Harrison Ford tells Shia LeBeouf about an adventure from the television show. There’s also the character being part of every historical event (he was in the O.S.S. during World War II–that one isn’t so far-fetched–but he was also at Roswell in 1947–that one is sort of ludicrous, but maybe not). It adds a different tone to the film; all of a sudden, everything needs to be explained. For the first time in an Indiana Jones movie, there’s significant exposition to the character’s off-screen life.

Another development (talking about Crystal Skull traditionally seems impossible, so I’m not even going to try) has to do with how the film handles age. Even with cheesy (but unfortunately necessary) techniques to reference absent friends, the film’s approach is somewhat startling. With an action-packed opening, even with a couple asides to aging, it’s hard to remember Harrison Ford is older (especially with a long break between this film and the last). Then, gradually, it becomes clear how aging has affected the character. LeBeouf’s presence allows for these moments, especially in the scenes with he, Ford and Karen Allen. Even as LeBeouf takes a more central role in the last act, it’s still Ford’s show and Crystal Skull becomes the first franchise film I can remember where age is really a factor and not just lip service (with the obvious exception of Rocky Balboa). Clint Eastwood, for instance, never actually let his action heroes be old. In Crystal Skull, for the most part, the film doesn’t discuss aging.

The next two differences are about production, less abstract.

First is the film’s frequent references to other films. The series started reinventing old serials, then maintained that air without being as directly referential. In Crystal Skull, the references are a lot more neon. It opens with an American Graffiti homage. It’s discreet, only noticeable when thinking about Lucas’s involvement. There’s a major Naked Jungle reference. But what Spielberg does in Crystal Skull, what makes it noteworthy, is apply modern filmmaking mores to a historical era. He even gets away with positioning LeBeouf in a Marlon Brando reference–he makes it work. The most successful example of this application is the motorcycle chase. It’s a fantastic, Indiana Jones motorcycle chase set in a late 1950s college town. It’s fantastic. But the film’s also, tonally, supposed to fit in the 1950s, not just terms of setting, but also genre. Crystal Skull owes more, plot-wise, not so much in execution, to the science fiction films of the era than anything else. Spielberg doesn’t work particularly well with that aspect and does a lot better with the Red Scare elements.

Spielberg’s also working very different technically. With CG (I’ll get to it in a minute) mattes instead of painted ones, Janusz Kaminski shoots a Technicolor adventure. Crystal Skull‘s cinematography, from the usually pedestrian Kaminski, looks wonderful. It might even be the best photographed in the series. The CG is almost exclusively excellent. The much-publicized jungle fight looks great, for instance. Only one strangely matted, too cartoony jungle swinging scene looks bad (for whatever reason, CG has never achieved the acknowledgment of artifice, like rear projection and mattes have). What Spielberg does with the CG, creating fantastic visuals–in addition to the 1950s story trappings–furthers that Technicolor label. Spielberg’s acting sequences are still top-form.

The story does suffer from those elements though. Just from the title–Kingdom of the Crystal Skull–it’s clear this one isn’t as salient as the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail. The title itself is absent any mystery or excitement (…and the Lost City or …and the Golden City would have worked better). It’s a hard story to title, just because the film’s more about what the character learns about himself–never a series emphasis. Koepp’s script has some really good moments, but there are lots of missed opportunities. In the end, it’s not his fault. Koepp can’t fix Lucas’s broken story (just because one can make an Indiana Jones sci-fi movie doesn’t mean he or she should).

Ford’s good in the film, playing the aging well. But because of that cold, action opening, it takes a while to see how Ford is handling the character’s aging. Once it’s clear, it’s fine. Ray Winstone is wasted in his supporting role. The character’s a script necessity, nothing else, and Winstone can’t do anything with it. Similarly, John Hurt’s fine doing a simple role–the casting is another difference with this one, it’s interested in casting recognizable actors. Karen Allen’s good, has some great moments with Ford and LeBeouf. She and Ford’s chemistry from twenty-seven years ago picks up without a hitch (too bad Lucas didn’t let Spielberg put her in every movie, she and Ford would have done a great Nick and Nora). Jim Broadbent’s goofy little role is fine enough too, but the approach (he’s a stand-in for Denholm Elliott) is unimaginative.

I’m not surprised Cate Blanchett is excellent. I assumed she would be good, but I never had any idea how great she’d be. Her character’s got the worst character arc, but Blanchett handles it with aplomb. She relishes in the character’s scripting problems, turning them into advantages.

Here’s the surprise–Shia LeBeouf. Under Spielberg’s direction, LeBeouf turns in a good, solid performance in an impossible role. He handles the period acting well, he handles the action well. Only when Spielberg puts him in a scene out of an unproduced Jurassic Park cartoon does he stumble. It’s a movie star turn and something I never would have thought LeBeouf could achieve.

Another unfortunate difference, the last, is John Williams’s score. He uses themes from the first and third films (there’s not a single acknowledgement of Temple of Doom in the entire film) and uses the main theme as much as he can. He never gives Crystal Skull its own theme. It’s a lazy score, exactly the kind of bored score Williams has been turning in since… well, as Last Crusade is his last enthusiastic one, for eighteen years (with a couple exceptions, I’m sure).

The big problem with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, besides that title, is the ending. There’s a big-time rip-off of The X-Files and, even though it’s competently produced and so on, it’s just wrong. Lucas’s silly story catches up with the film. Then, all of sudden, Spielberg and company turn it around for the last scene and the close. They don’t just, belatedly (which is even referenced in dialogue) correct history, they also end it on a great cinematic smile.

Just like Temple of Doom, Lucas hurts the film. But this time, it’s not too much Lucas.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by David Koepp, based on a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas; produced by Frank Marshall; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Cate Blanchett (Irina Spalko), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Shia LaBeouf (Mutt Williams), Ray Winstone (Mac), John Hurt (Harold Oxley), Igor Jijikine (Dovchenko) and Jim Broadbent (Charles Stanforth).


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Transformers (2007, Michael Bay)

Transformers features giant robots fighting each other. Such scenes look excellent, from a special effects standpoint. Depending on the specifics of the scene–how the giant robots are fighting, fists or guns, and whether or not there are humans involved–sometimes the scenes are very well directed. While Transformers does have a lot of action, the robot fight scenes are mostly reserved for the end… and then Bay either does well or poorly. He can’t compose a real–punching, kicking, scratching, biting–fight scene. If there aren’t guns and cars involved, while it looks cool with the CG, it’s a flacid.

Complaining about that particular defect of Bay’s direction of the movie is a little cheap, because there’s so many bigger complaints to make. To get them over with… Bay doesn’t really get interested in the Transformers themselves. They only have a handful of scenes with any attempt at characterization and only one of them goes well and it’s because it’s a comedy scene and Bay used to direct comedic commercials, so he does it well. He’s also more in love with his military story than Shia LaBeouf’s, taking to so far as to give Megan Fox’s stupidly written character a lot more emphasis. LaBeouf’s character is poorly written too, but Fox’s is worse. What else. Oh. It doesn’t look like Michael Bay. There’s no sensuality–did I really just say Bay has a sensuality to his style? He does: the overcooked thing. Transformers has maybe five or six of those Bay shots. The rest is style-less. The action scenes are great, the chase scenes are good, but there’s no personality. It’s like Bay didn’t want to get bad reviews for his fast cuts or something (Spielberg’s a hands-on executive producer when it comes to blockbusters… anyone else remember the rumor he added the T-Rex-sized ghost to The Haunting himself?).

Even Bay’s creative casting is gone. In his Bruckheimer days, Bay movies would be filled with recognizable faces. Not so with Transformers. I kept hoping for someone interesting, but no one popped up. Not well known actors in supporting roles (like Bernie Mac or Kevin Dunn), but recognizable character actors in small roles. Nothing along those lines here….

I thought it might be because the Transformers were going to be significant, but they aren’t (as characters, anyway… as giant robots fighting, they’re fine). The present action of the film takes place over three or four days, with the Transformers coming in the night before the last day. They’re hardly there, which is one of the script’s major problems. Though maybe not. It’s a problem, but the script is so bad, it’s difficult to make qualitative judgments. Even if the movie makes no sense, the Transformers don’t have to have terrible dialogue. But they do. The script hurries things along so much, flipping between LaBeouf and Josh Duhamel’s army story. LaBeouf is far from an acting giant, but the script really does him a disservice… it sets him up as a shallow jerk-wad. I heard one of the screenwriters compare it to E.T., but it’s like E.T. if the audience was supposed to hate Elliot (I’m sure it’s just Bay who dislikes LaBeouf’s character, since he doesn’t fit the Bay macho man mold).

I was hoping it’d be something like Jurassic Park or Twister, an effective summer blockbuster with some degree of wonderment at its content. It has none. Bay’s just not the right director for it, even though some of it looks really cool (but I think that credit belongs to ILM).

But, who knows? Maybe if Bay were working from a vaguely competent screenplay… But the Transformer based on Stripe (from Gremlins) was really funny.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Bay; written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, based on a story by John Rogers, Orci and Kurtzman; director of photography, Mitchell Amundsen; edited by Paul Rubell, Glen Scantlebury and Thomas A. Muldoon; music by Steve Jablonsky; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ian Bryce; released by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Starring Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Tyrese Gibson (Technical Sergeant Epps), Josh Duhamel (Captain Lennox), Anthony Anderson (Glen Whitmann), Megan Fox (Mikaela Banes), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Hugo Weaving (Megatron), Rachael Taylor (Maggie Madsen), John Turturro (Agent Simmons) and Jon Voight (Defense Secretary John Keller).


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