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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Icons earn their status by never changing. What they represented the moment they gained said mythos remains steadfast and sturdy, with only occasional minor alterations along the way. This is why it’s never wise to revisit a symbol, cinematic or otherwise. The moment you do, the carefully constructed barriers you built around the legend start to shatter. Unless you’re out to really revise (or even implode) the idol, what was once beloved is never quite the same. For many, this is exactly what happened when George Lucas decided to go back to his Star Wars universe. Well established - and beloved - characters like Darth Vader and Yoda were systematically reconfigured to fit a new, and not necessarily complimentary, ideal.


The good news is that everyone’s favorite action adventure archaeologist, Indiana Jones, manages to make it unscathed through this fourth installment of the long dormant franchise. Even with the massive passage of time - it’s been 19 years since Last Crusade saw our hero ride off into the desert sunset - Harrison Ford and his famed fedora are rock solid. Sadly, the rest of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not so secure. Swinging wildly between popcorn pomp and cornball circumstance, this mostly unnecessary sequel tries to update the character by bringing him into an ‘I Like Ike’/Red Scare timeframe. Yet for every element of obvious nostalgia - both internal and external - there’s an ancient astronaut plotline that gets in the way.


In the middle of the Nevada desert, Indiana Jones and his British spy sidekick George “Mac” McHale have been captured by Russian agents. Brought to Area 51, the baddies want the famed finder of antiquities to locate an object he retrieved as part of a mission for the government in Roswell. Under the steel-eyed guidance of psychic researcher, Irina Spalko, Jones locates the artifact. Soon, he’s back at the University of Chicago and under scrutiny by the FBI. When a young thug named Mutt Williams approaches him about his mother, Marion, and a mentor/friend named Professor Oxley, Jones finds himself headed to the Amazon. There, he hopes to locate one of the fabled Crystal Skulls, a relic with a link to the Lost City of Gold. Oddly, enough, Spalko and her crew are there as well, looking for the same thing. This won’t be the only surprise for the aging archaeologist, however.


Here’s the biggest problem facing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - and it’s not Shia LeBeouf playing a ‘50s era juvenile delinquent with a boarding school education. No, the main problem facing our famed archaeologist is that this third sequel is, yet again, NOT Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, it never had a chance. It can’t be as fresh as when that 1981 gem first fired moviegoer’s action imagination. It can’t replicate the novelty of bringing the ‘30s/‘40s era serial into the post-modern film world. It doesn’t have the kind of cosmic import that drove the original narrative (Commies don’t make good Nazi substitutes) and it can no longer get away with being a really good romp. No, what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s audience mandates is nothing short of a bigger, badder, broader, more ballistic and bombastic take on their favorite part-time grave robber, and not even the majesty of Steven Spielberg can fulfill those unreasonable requests.


Nor can the narrative’s inherent wistfulness satisfy said cinematic itch. Seeing Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood Williams is a treat, but her entrance is handled clumsily, given little chance to resonate. Similarly, the opening sequence at Area 51 (where we eventually learn the Ark of the Covenant was taken) recaptures the prior installments’ magic, but it quickly peters out the minute the FBI shows up and declares Indy a Red. In fact, a lot of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like an old jalopy, starting and stopping, racing and then stalling until it can get into a settled sense of story. Yet the script (by David Koepp, with direction from producer George Lucas) is too enamored with its genre-jumping tendencies to stay grounded. One moment we’re back in butt kicking territory. The next, it’s the X-Files circa 1959.


Still, Spielberg is not one of the greatest moviemakers of the post-modern era for nothing, and his undeniable brilliance brings Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back from the brink time and time again. The opening sequence shifts seamlessly from a familiar backdrop to an amazing moment with a mushroom cloud. It stands as one of the director’s most masterful stunts. Similarly, a motorcycle chase through a crowded university campus has the old fashioned zing we’ve come to expect from the series. Certainly there is very little the auteur can do with page after page of expositional muck, but thanks to the evocative cinematography of longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, we love looking at the conversational backdrops. Even the finale, filled with enough CGI to choke a Jedi, gets by on the standard Spielberg shimmer.


Not everything works out as well. For all his UK bluster, Ray Winstone’s character is ill defined and rather pointless. He’s a conflict catalyst, that’s all. Equally problematic is John Hurt as Professor Oxley. While he’s always a welcome addition to any film, he’s stuck supplying the odd moment of forced insanity funny business. Perhaps the most disconcerting though is the wasted opportunities surrounding Cate Blanchett and her cool KGB dominatrix, Irina Spalko. One thing Indy villains never lack is a clear cut motivation, be it greed, god-like powers, or everlasting life. Here, the Russian’s plan seems unclear, and even worse, slightly ridiculous. We never see Spalko really use her supposed power, and the ending does little to confirm her ability of authority.


Yet none of this will really matter to an audience primed to revisit an old franchise and friend. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is clearly a movie geared toward anyone under the age of 30 who memorized every moment of their Raiders VHS. It’s not out to revamp the series of say something significant about the aging of an action icon (Ford’s ‘maturity’ is the butt of some jokes, nothing more). By harkening back to the first film, Spielberg spends its goodwill wisely. Even Lucas’ madcap story suggestions aren’t quite as lame as all that mindless midi-chlorian business. When it was first announced that Indiana Jones was coming back, the mix of anticipation and trepidation was understandable. To paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, it’s hard to go home again. Thankfully, this return leaves our hero unharmed. 



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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Even for a preview audience, jazzed on free popcorn and the chance to catch a summer blockbuster days early, the waves of cheering and the palpable sense of sheer jubilation that went up from the crowd once the mountain in its Paramount logo did its dissolve (this time to the lowly dirt-mound home of a prairie dog), was something to behold. It wasn’t quite the roar that one would have expected from those keyed-up to see a new Star Wars flick, but it was certainly a more intense outpouring of anticipation than one sees at such box-office-stoking events. There was something else going on there besides the return of a beloved film icon whom many of us had first seen before even exiting grammar school. Maybe they actually don’t make ‘em like they used to.


In any event, the audience’s pent-up thrill upon seeing Indiana Jones first appear on screen and put on that hat (in heroic shadow of course) is quickly compounded by a clutch of tightly shot and smartly fun sequences that come rocketing out of the screen one after another. With its 1950s setting allowing Harrison Ford to act his age, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also wastes no time in digging into the era’s other obsessions: fast cars, aliens, nuclear war, rock and roll, and of course villainous Commies. It’s impressive enough that Spielberg manages to act as though it hadn’t been over a decade since he’d last directed an utter popcorn picture (The Lost World), but just as impressive is the fact that Ford coasts so comfortably through this performance it’s as though he’d barely gotten out of wardrobe from 1989’s Last Crusade. Consider this: when last we saw Indy, Harrison Ford still had Presumed Innocent, Air Force One, a couple Tom Clancy adaptations, and several late-period misfires ahead of him. But here he is, serving up haymakers to the bad guys, quipping with his smart-ass sidekick, and regularly getting the tar smacked out of him, as though not a day had passed.



Of course, nothing great lasts forever in film these days, and so the energy began to leak out of the theater. By the time the last third of David Koepp’s strangely laborious screenplay creaked into place, all the frenetic chase scenes and swiftly accumulating guest performers (Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, to name a few) couldn’t erase the feeling of tedium; much the same as one experiences when watching, say, Temple of Doom, which Kingdom of the Crystal Skull easily tops. When the film coasts into its all-too-pat finale, the applause is notedly muted, though still genuine.


Some things about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are nearly irrefutable. First, Cate Blanchett does a fantastic Greta Garbo. Second, swarms of deadly ants are possibly scarier than tombs full of venomous asps. But most important is this: the audience opened their hearts and expectations to this film because “they” (Hollywood) in fact doesn’t make them like they used to. Maybe they never did. But with moviegoers facing a grim season of pallid CGI battle-toons like The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Prince Caspian, even the problematic adventures of one Indiana Jones can feel like a rich banquet in comparison.


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Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Yo Majesty's Shunda K

Yo Majesty’s Shunda K


In a cavernous building in Logan Square aptly named the Mansion, Does It Offend You, Yeah? and Yo Majesty teamed up for a riveting show memorable on two counts: the massive noise of DIOYY, which shook our ear drums senseless, and the mysterious and unexplained absence of exactly one half of Yo Majesty.


DIOYY’s UK electro-rock could use more glam but is otherwise good for losing yr senses: of hearing, that is! I was relegated to the wings, as far away as possible from the amps, and even still am convinced I left 20 percent deafer. Well, kids, it’s like they say: ear plugs can make the pain go away. I should say that while I was making no bones about being in ear-bleeding misery, many other people (mostly young ones) were going bananas, so verdicts are: yeah, it offends me, and DIOYY can rile a crowd up no problem.


Morgan Quaintance

DIOYY’s Morgan Quaintance


Shunda K of Yo Majesty came out cool and composed in banter mode, chatting up the crowd and not bothering to explain why her other half, Jwl. B, was gone missing. When someone asked her point-blank between raps where Jwl. was, she diplomatically said “Not here. But I am. Ain’t I enough?” Cue applause. That was that. And sure thing, she was enough—performing a tight set of duets solo with perfect rapidfire timing, including crowd faves “Leather Jacket” and “Pussy Kryptonite”. It was a short set, no more than 40 minutes, but she brought it, and she brought it strong. No news I could find about Jwl. B’s whereabouts that night—and so far, no hints of inner turmoil for the band. If something’s up, no one’s talking.—Megan Milks


Yo Majesty's Shunda K

Yo Majesty’s Shunda K



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Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Bright Shiny Morningby James FreyHarperCollinsMay 2008, 501 pages, $26.95

Bright Shiny Morning
by James Frey
HarperCollins
May 2008, 501 pages, $26.95


Funny how Bright Shiny Morning is referred to as James Frey’s first novel, while A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard are referred to as “false memoirs”, as though a genre exists that removes certain books from categories of fiction or non-fiction. Those book aren’t themselves fiction—just fakes, false and full of lies. A Million Little Pieces, the book that inspired a Smoking Gun investigation into its many inaccuracies, still sells, so someone’s reading it even with that new descriptor. Perhaps they’re the same people who read Andrew Morton’s bestsellers? Because, you know, it’s okay to publish lies as fact so long as those lies aren’t about you.


So, Bright Shiny Morning is doing quite well on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble lists. It’s received a handful of really good reviews, including a very positive one from Janet Maslin at the New York Times. And Frey is coming off as the damaged hero trying to make good, and actually kinda succeeding. Frey himself reckons he’s put 2006 behind him, and his new book is his first step towards building the career he should’ve had.


Susan Larson from the Times-Picayune shares her thoughts on accepting Frey as a novelist. She’s harsh, unforgiving about Frey’s earlier deception, but her view on the new novel is ultimately positive. There’s a good NPR interview with Frey up, too. That one opens with the word “fabricator”, but ends on a somewhat positive note as well.


Frey is proving himself quite the resurrectionist. His once-dead career actually looks like it may have a chance. Then again, unless you’ve been found hording child skeletons in your kitchen cupboards, there’s very little you can’t come back from. Especially in the entertainment world.


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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The new Flying Lotus LP will be released on June 10th.  In my reckoning, it couldn’t come soon enough.  For some idea of where he’s coming from musically, here’s the video from one of the best tracks from his Reset EP. 


“Tea Leaf Dancers” provides a compact starting point for what makes Flying Lotus such a great producer and sound sculptor.  Flying Lotus’ sound is very much DJ Screw meets Tricky, with loops that knot in on themselves and a pillowy disorientation that constantly interrupts the forward momentum.  The video doesn’t so much tell a story as it does mirror the sonic mood.  In between sleep and consciousness, breakneck speed and stasis, the video has the effect of producing eye-flickering relaxation.  Okay, that’s probably just a fancy way of saying that it’s like slipping into a k-tunnel.  The unreal color and float-walk transport are narcotic and hypnotic, reproducing the same camera work that captures the light trails in sped up recordings of urban night traffic.  As far as narratives go, sleepwalking to the beach to watch the sunset isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but rendered with such dizzying simplicity and beauty, it doesn’t have to be.


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