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by Bill Gibron

11 Sep 2007

They say it’s the toughest hurdle for a writer to overcome. Plot and characterization can draw on a dozen different elements, and subtext and themes usually arrive organically through the organization and creation process. But coming up with a title? Yeesh, that’s the benchmark between scribbler and scribe, talent and tool. If you’re looking for proof of such a literary reality, gaze no further than the last 10 years in George Lucas’ production career.

With the recent announcement of the new Indiana Jones IV movie moniker (more on that in a moment), Luke’s legitimate deadbeat dad is three for four in lousy cinematic handles. And if you thought nothing could compete with the serials gone South smell of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, wait until you feast your ill-prepared peepers on this newest nonsensical name. Unless it gets tweaked somewhere between the publicity and the close of production, the man in charge has hobbled pal Stephen Spielberg with the following lamentable label:

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Huh? What’s that again? Since when did this series suddenly see a new age Master of the Universe make-over? What, pray tell, does such a 1930’s name tell us about what to expect come May 2008? With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade, we at least had some idea of what was ahead – in each case, an ark, a temple, and a quest of some sort. And since each of the previous installments dealt with life or death, good vs. evil struggles, the mental movie began playing before a single section of celluloid was unspooled.

But what, exactly, is a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? At first glance it appears almost like gibberish, as if a videogame designer on a five Red Bull buzz simply typed random power words onto his laptop. Upon closer examination, part of the title entity could be a reference to the pre-Columbian myth surrounding the supposed mystical powers of 13 such carefully carved pieces of quartz. Though many of these relics are now considered to be the work of modern artisans, a legitimate claim of age suggests an ancient, spiritual spook show. Knowing Lucas, it could also be a throwback to the old comic strip hero The Phantom. Crystal skulls were used quite frequently in the masked hero’s adventures. 

So while the spy geek savants over at AICN and IGN decipher and dig into all manner of legal and questionable evidentiary sources in the neverending race for high tech scoops (they’ll figure this fiasco of a name out soon enough), it’s appropriate to pause and consider the overall state of the crappy movie title. There have been a rash of them lately - The Squid and the Whale, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. To be fair, it’s not that these monikers are meaningless. Some are taken from novels and other preexisting sources, while others reference important elements inherent to the storyline. But in many cases, simply stating the obvious doesn’t always provide the necessary understanding or knowledge – not even if you call yourself Scary Movie.

In truth, the worst film monikers are those that come as a direct result of a filmmaker’s unflappable belief in their own ideas. Others derive from studios unsure how to market the original onerous name. Then there are the cases where a foreign film arrives on these shores newly christened, all in an effort to get Westerners interested in what another part of the world has to say. When you add it all together, it’s plain that more goes into a truly terrible label than the “off the top of my head” conceits the concept suggests. Certainly arrogance, incompetence, and overreaching all play a part. But some things can’t be rationalized. After all, is there really a reasonable excuse for calling anything The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies? Didn’t think so. .

Which leads us back to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The rumor mill reports that LucasFilms actually submitted six potential titles to the MPAA and for potential copyright. For the record, they were:

Indiana Jones and the City of Gods
Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds
Indiana Jones and the Fourth Corner of the Earth
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Gold
Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Covenant

Apparently, old Georgie couldn’t decide which to choose, and threw a dart at his list. Seems his aim was pretty bad. Aside from Fourth Corner of the Earth (which really is no better than the final selection) the other four possibilities actually sound like realistic Raiders sequels. It’s not a clearly definable line – one man’s Destroyer of Worlds is another’s Quest for the Covenant - and let’s not forget that Lucas loves to create chaos where there’s calm. Before the DVD release of the original Indy trilogy, he insisted that the first film change its name to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to add “continuity” to the releases. Ugh.

And yet, this doesn’t really address the dilemma of a movie hampered by a horrible title. It’s hard to say if a lame name – or even more perplexing, a vague or uninteresting one – really affects awareness. Studios will state, unequivocally that branding is important to the successful selling of a film. But would The Wind that Shakes the Barley or The Shawshank Redemption play better to a mainstream audience if they were retitled The Anti-British Rebellion or Escape from Shawshank Prison, respectively? For that matter, could an obvious step outside the bonds of retail reason like Lust, Caution (Ang Lee’s latest, a WWII erotic espionage thriller) actual overcome both a bizarre moniker and an NC-17 rating to be anything other than an out of the way arthouse critical darling?

It will only get worse in the coming weeks. From the bland and uninspired Michael Clayton (which is really about more than the character forming the film’s identity) to Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (which is a lot like naming something after the classic HR Pufnstuf rhyme “Oranges, Poranges”) the art of summing up a film in a single, significant phrase is clearly a skill many inside the industry no longer possess. Unless it sings of the bleeding obvious, anything illustrative yet esoteric is truly beyond their grasp. It’s the main reason why every facet of a franchise and almost every segment of a series is stuck with a numerical nomenclature – Roman or regular.

All of which makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that much more depressing. It comes from a pair of talents that took American Graffiti and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and turned them into words that actually resonated with some kind of pre-release intrigue. True, both films found the majority of their classicism after they hit theaters – and the same could be said for any of the titles discussed here. But as the proposed Phantom Creeps components of the Star War prequels indicated, sometimes, a dumb name begets an even stupider movie. With its already potent feeling of “been there/done that”, and the ageism issues with the lead, here’s hoping the famed action hero archeologist’s trip to the land of glass heads it’s not a disaster in the making. While the pedigree suggests otherwise, the title tells a different story.

by Joe Tacopino

11 Sep 2007

The media has given decidedly mixed results of General Petraeus’ much awaited testimony to the U.S. Congress. After appearing before both houses of Congress, the four-star general has given a frank, yet ultimately unsatisfying, assessment of the War in Iraq. And while the obnoxious protests from the hearing room are making the anti-war left look ineffective and downright silly, there is a prevailing sentiment among the mainstream in this country that finds this war and its prosecution unacceptable. So what’s the Fourth Estate’s role in translating this testimony into decipherable language? When is this war ending? Are we winning? Is this occupation making us safer from terrorism? So far the reporting on this matter has addressed these important questions with just about as much urgency as the general’s rambling, unspecific testimony. Let’s hope we get some more analysis in the coming days instead of the ambiguous reports coming out of the press these past two days. 

by Jason Gross

11 Sep 2007

Like most other viewers, I wasn’t so much appalled as much as bored by Britney Spears’ recent MTV Video Music Awards appearance.  She’s didn’t trip or stumble but she committed an even worse sin on TV- she wasn’t interesting anymore.  Since this was billed as her ‘comeback,’ it was doubly bad for her to get such a horrible reception.  I’m not going to tell you that she didn’t stink (it definitely S-U-C-K-E-D badly) but I still have to wonder about all the hate leveled at her.

by Rob Horning

11 Sep 2007

Yesterday’s FT had an article about Wal-Mart’s recent environmental commitments and whether the company should be lauded or criticized as not going far enough. The gist is that they can function the way the state of California does with auto-related legislation—if the state mandates changes, the automakers must accommodate to preserve access to the largest vehicle market in America. Likewise, if Wal-Mart insists that its suppliers avoid using certain chemicals in its products, they have to change their ways. (Wal-Mart has already ruffled the feathers of the Vinyl Institute with its intention to stop buying products made with PVC.) If Wal-Mart orders a huge amount of concentrated laundry detergent (saves water) or fluorescent lightbulbs, then the price and production of these items are affected accordingly. And Wal-Mart, as one of the nation’s biggest commercial real-estate owners, can have a big impact if it makes all of its sites energy-efficient, as it plans to.

So what could be wrong with all of that—with the world’s largest company using its leverage to force changes for the better. It seems rather straightforward but there are a few wrinkles. First, these environmental changes, laudable as they may be, may be part of a smokescreen distracting Wal-Mart’s critics from its dubious labor practices. By being on the green forefront, Wal-Mart can divide and sap the power of the various groups that had aligned against it and begun to lobby for regulation and state intervention into its practices. It also doesn’t address the fundamental problem of its business model, which is to prevent the lowest possible prices, labor and environment be damned. Generally speaking, Wal-Mart off-shores miserable labor conditions so that it can present its goods at rock-bottom prices with relatively clean hands. And then it can point to its sales figures as a kind of pseudo-democratic endorsement of its methods—see? the people love it! And the low prices are seen as extending more power to poor consumers, who get more bang for their buck. But low prices are a product of failing to internalize the true cost of cheap goods, of the wastefulness of shoddy, disposable products. The blight of consumerism may be considered a kind of moral pollution that can’t be adjudicated economically. Were Wal-Mart truly committed to change, it might make an effort to have prices reflect the true costs (if they could somehow be determined outside of market forces) of its wares, or it might make efforts to attract consumers with some other lure than low prices, though when it tried an upscale move last year, it lost market share (and who is to say an upscale move is any more laudable than a commitment to cheapness; that replaces disposability with a climate of status envy). From this point of view, Wal-Mart’s low prices offer cosumers a Faustian bargain of purchasing power at the expense of political power.

But the main reason that critics need to continue to gripe about Wal-Mart is that its recent gestures toward sustainability and environmental concern are essentially marketing gimmicks, a product of the pressure already put on them by critics—it’s all basically a PR move necessitated by the volume of complaining. Basically, nothing Wal-Mart can do should stop the bad PR, since the bad PR is arguably all that has been demonstrated to motivate the company to change. Otherwise it might revert to being guided by ruthlessly seeking effiency and wrenching out all it can from its supply chain by any means necessary. Currently, Wal-Mart seems to be seeking a middle ground, pursuing green initiatives that are also economically efficient, that won’t be in danger of alienating not-so-green shareholders. Until Wal-Mart makes bottom-line concessions in the name of environmentalism, compromising profits in some explicit way, there’s no reason for critics to temper their criticism. The vehemence of that criticism is what’s pricing the value of Wal-Mart’s moves.

by Bill Gibron

10 Sep 2007

As the Fall continues to bombard us with its cultural relevance, the DVD distributors are maintaining a sales status destined to complicate and perplex the entertainment picture. This week alone offers titles that should be coming out next month, when monsters and madmen are more relevant and revered. Then, there’s a small character study from Canada more or less fated to get lost in the significance shuffle. Two Hong Kong action aces deliver some of their most divisive works, while a notoriously unreleasable film from Sam Fuller finally gets a digital airing. In fact, the surreal nature of the selections seems to indicate a lack of counter programming skills, especially in light of autumn’s catch-all commercialization. Still, anytime a lost classic like our SE&L selection shows up on store shelves, able to be purchased in a version that does the title justice, we won’t care what time of the year it is. So here’s the best bet for 11 September, and a few more intriguing choices to go along with it:

From Beyond

Stuart Gordon went from Chicago theater company director to horror geek God with his wildly invention H.P. Lovecraft zombiethon Re-Animator. When it was announced that he’d follow-up that film with yet another tale from the eccentric genre scribe, his newfound fans freaked out. What possible terrors would he uncover this time around? When they saw the results, however, they were less than impressed. For some reason, From Beyond is not as well regarded as its companion piece, and after watching the film again after several years, the lack of abject appreciation is even harder to fathom. This is a first rate offering of offal, an F/X free for all with blood, bodies, and entrails everywhere. Maybe it was all the talk of engorged pineal glands that made audiences uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the strange, mid-movie S&M workout. It could be that Gordon’s devotes just wanted more of Herbert West and his living dead dark comedy. Whatever the reasons, this is a BETTER overall film than Re-Animator. It proves that this mild mannered moviemaker was more than a geek show carnival barker.

Other Titles of Interest

Away From Her

Sarah Polley, perhaps best known as the Sally Salt in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the chief female zombie fighter in Zak Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, takes the director’s chair for this fascinating film about Alzheimer’s Disease and letting go. The radiant Julie Christie is the aging woman afflicted with the illness, who finds life in a nursing home equally unsettled. An audience and critical favorite, home video now provides a chance at broader appreciation.

The Burning

After Halloween and Friday the 13th established the slasher film as the pop culture commercial cause celeb, everyone and their knife-wielding brother wanted in on the windfall. This 1981 knock-off has an intriguing lineage. It features a story by Harvey “Miramax” Weinstein and acting turns by Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. Tom Savini supplied the gruesome special effects. While far from a scarefest classic, it does have its decidedly disturbing – and disgusting – moments.

D.O.A.: Dead or Alive

Corey Yuen, a Hong Kong action maven noted for such films as Jet Li’s The Enforcer and The Transporter, brought every adolescent boy’s favorite female based video game to the big screen – and no one cared. Shuffled around from release date to release date, and given little or no publicity, it’s no wonder its target demo missed the call. They probably didn’t know it existed. DVD will hopefully show how Yuen supports a slight story with lots of signature martial arts bravado.

Face/Off

When John Woo went Hollywood, few expected something this downright delightful - especially after the seeming missteps of Hard Target and Broken Arrow. But thanks to stellar performances by Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, and an unusual and unique premise, the results are one of the director’s few English language masterworks. True the outsized story can, occasionally, barely contain the acting histrionics on display, but with Woo’s patented slo-mo mayhem, it goes down like candied crack.

White Dog

Maverick auteur Sam Fuller caused quite an uproar with his follow-up to the well received war film The Big Red One. Accused of racial insensitivity – and in some cases, outright bigotry – the filmmaker adapted Romain Gary’s tale of a seemingly calm canine ‘programmed’ to attack only black people, and the resulting firestorm sent him into European exile. Apparently, early ‘80s audiences didn’t understand the metaphor Fuller and co-screenwriter Curtis Hanson were going for. Maybe the post-millennial mob will.

And Now for Something Completely Different
American Cannibal: The Movie

It’s one of the weirdest movies to come down the pike in quite a while. Imagine Borat, except instead of sending a fake Kazakhstani journalist around America making fun of our foibles, we have a pair of reality show creators trying to sell the various networks on a show involving people eating. There has been a lot of Internet arguing over whether or not this is a 100% legitimate effort or not (a great deal of it is staged and scripted, the subjects clearly in on the ‘joke’), and how you come down on that question will color your overall perception of the picture. Even outside such issues, the film has its flaws. Our two leads do so much handwringing over the whole reality show concept that you wonder how they ever survived in such a cutthroat business. Then there’s the lack of closure come finale time. Too may questions are left laughingly unanswered. Perhaps the filmmakers were going for a Blair Witch kind of openness. The only thing they manage to achieve is a similar sense of overhyped dissatisfaction.

 

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