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by Bill Gibron

25 Jun 2008

When it was first announced that George Lucas, Harrison Ford, and Stephen Spielberg were contemplating a fourth dip back into the Indiana Jones franchise and the character’s wishing well of good will, there were immediate red flags. The first was perhaps the most disconcerting - Lucas had just successful sunk his formerly viable Star Wars series, and most of the prequel problems came directly from the movie mogul’s hands-on approach to the material (scripting, directing). The acknowledged king of the popcorn blockbuster at least guaranteed someone sane - and skilled - behind the lens, but Lucas was still going to handpick the story to be told…and the individual to write the all important screenplay.

In the past, the scripts for the Indiana Jones films were crafted by some fairly impressive scribes. Raiders of the Lost Ark saw Lucas share story credit with Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff) while Lawrence Kasdan got the nod to polish the plotlines. Temple of Doom had American Graffiti‘s husband and wife team of William Huyck and Gloria Katz behind the typewriter, while the Last Crusade employed Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple) and Jeffrey Boam (The Dead Zone, Innerspace) to bring the trilogy to an end. So of course, the first question many fans had was - who would write installment #4. Oddly enough, the first name tossed around put everyone at ease.

While he is many things, Frank Darabont is definitely a smart, intelligent filmmaker. After spending most of the ‘80s writing genre junk like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, and The Fly II, he landed a gig helping bring the exploits of everybody’s favorite archeologist/adventurer to the small screen. From 1992 to 1993, he helped fashion the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles into a cult hit. Of course, 1994 saw him finally break out into the big leagues, his adaptation of Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption turning into one of the most beloved films of the decade (and in some circles, all time). So he seemed like a natural to retrofit the aging character for a post-millennial mindset.

Of course, with all things Indy, Lucas made sure his imprint was all over the proposed plot. Certain elements had to be part of the updated environment. The Cold War would be substituted for WWII, Soviets would stand in for Nazis, Jones would be reunited with a famous face from the past, and the main narrative element would center around ancient astronauts, aka aliens, and the infamous crystal skulls that supposedly suggest that previous civilizations were inspired by (or perhaps started by) these visitors from another realm. It was a tall order, but if anyone could pull these divergent elements together, it was Darabont.

That was back in 2003! Now, five years later, we have the finished film, a semi-successful jumpstart of the entire Indiana Jones universe, with the possibility of more to follow. Strangely enough, Darabont’s name is nowhere to be found. While Lucas and Speed 2/Rush Hour 2‘s Jeff Nathanson are given story credit, it is David Koepp who earns the coveted WGA nod. Responsible for a myriad of projects both good (War of the Worlds, Spider-Man) and mediocre (Snake Eyes, The Trigger Effect), he now sits on the final screenplay, maestro of the character’s move into a golden sunset retirement.

Those uninspired by the Summer hit openly questioned what happened to Darabont’s draft. After all, this is an Ain’t It Cool News world, a place where films are reviewed and critiques confirmed BEFORE casting is even considered. Recent efforts like Rocky Balboa, Rob Zombie’s reimagined Halloween, and Speed Racer all got a going over before the first frame of celluloid could be shot. So the lack of a legitimate Darabont script seemed suspicious. After all, Lucas loves to keep a lid on his process, the better to keep the potential detractors at bay. And the pre-publicity junket provided the brave game face that marketers need to have their movie make money.

But you just knew that, somewhere along the line, Darabont’s version (entitled Indiana Jones and The City of the Gods) would eventually turn up. And supposedly, it has. About three weeks ago, 11 June, G4TV’s The Feed - along with several other sites - ran reviews of what they called “a bootleg copy” of the script. Available for a short while in a PDF file, those lucky enough to grab a look (before it was summarily removed from the web) learned a shocking fact - many of the elements fans complained about in part four were nowhere to be found in Darabont’s draft. Even more disconcerting, Lucas’ money grubbing mitts seem to have guided the film away from its origins and more toward a crass, commercial feasibility.

Perhaps the biggest difference between what Darabont created and the final product is the lack of a certain character named Mutt. The adolescent rebel without a clear creative cause (except, perhaps, to carry on the Jones’ legacy in another franchise of films) is nowhere to be found in City of the Gods, while he more or less dominates the last two thirds of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Many view this character as a pure Lucas contrivance, an unnecessary link to Indiana Jones’ past that exists only to further the series’ future installment prospects. Making matters worse, new neo-teen it boy Shia LeBeouf got the nod, indicating that in action adventure terms, the flavor of the moment defies artistic advantage.

Mutt’s absence aside, the other major element gone from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is bad gal diva dominatrix Col. Dr. Irina Spalko. In her place - which really is a loss considering that the indomitable Cate Blanchett would be out of the film as well - City of the Gods has a series of unclear culprits, individuals who all want a piece of the glass head action. Even more intriguing, the actual aliens themselves are made into villains by Darabont, evil in their desire to keep the skull’s secrets away from the modern world, if you will. If there is one weakness in this occasionally talky script, it’s the lack of a clear antagonist. Indy always seems to work better when he’s up against a Belloq, an evil cult, or those bedeviling Germans of the Third Reich.

What’s increased in Darabont’s draft is the involvement of Marion Ravenwood. As we learn during Kingdom‘s first act University of Chicago chase, Mutt has a mother named Marion. Much later on, we are reintroduced to the Raiders fave, Karen Allen bringing the same spunk and drive to the part that she did back in 1981. The thing is, as soon as she’s introduced, the new film treats her like luggage, a grinning goon carry-on that simply enjoys basking in her former lover’s presence. Of course, in Koepp’s script, she’s mother material, giving Indy a biological link to the sequel shape of things to come. 

But Darabont actually treats Marion like an important part of the story. She is more sidekick than cast off, back to the original role she played during the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant. She’s determined, not domesticated, a capable partner in this latest hunt. Clearly, Lucas didn’t want nostalgia usurping a potential payoff, so City of the Gods’ take on this material was tossed aside. In its place was a moment of fanboy fodder, followed by little else. Indeed, while reading over Darabont’s script, many of the elements audiences complained about (the A-bomb/frig escape, the giant ants) are present, but handled in a serious, sobering manner (something Spielberg tried to match in his work behind the lens).

The last big difference rests in one of Kingdom‘s weakest subtexted - the notion of Indiana Jones as a potential communist sympathizer. The McCarthy era element within the storyline is quickly shuttled aside for more of Mutt’s Wild One vagueness, and the whole notion that, somehow, during the War, our hero could have turned (especially after helping the Soviets steal the Area 51 secrets) is played as pointless. In Darabont’s script, Indy is actually friends with one Yuri Makovsky from the USSR. It makes the eventual betrayal more plausible, palatable, and the questions of his motives much easier to accept.

Of course, Darabont tosses in the action. There is a wonderful bi-plane scuffle, and a last act denouement which, while not quite the optical spectacle delivered by Spielberg in the actual film’s finale, does provide the requisite send-off. Elsewhere, Indy’s dad makes an appearance, as do other characters missing from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If you believe that this really is Darabont’s work (he loved his version so much that when Lucas rejected it, he asked for pal Spielberg to intervene), then what is clear is that, while his boss wanted a way to reinvent the franchise with a new lead (Mutt Jones and the Soda Shop of Death! ) City of the Gods was attempting something far more tenuous - pleasing the fans while finding a way to update the material after 16 years away from the fray.

Many have noted that Lucas, already a pariah among even the most devoted fans of his previous efforts, cleary mandated a certain type of script, one that relied on occasional drops into junk culture juvenilia for the sake of a certain demographic (can you say Jar Jar Binks???).  He never intended the 200X Indiana Jones for adults, believing - rightly or wrongly - that the character remains forever cemented to its Saturday kiddie matinee serial roots. And no one knows if Darabont’s particular vision would stay intact throughout the production process, a system that sees stars, producers, studios, and eventual focus groups adding their trademark two cents.

But one can dream - and in that capacity, Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods by Frank Darabont (or whomever) provides that point of conjecture. It reminds us of how manufactured most movies are, the creative committee stretching far beyond the simple mandates of a wide-eyed aficionado. That anything good comes out of such a struggle seems impossible, and yet the eventual release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hit more marks than it missed. Would Darabont have been equally successful? One never knows. But what’s clear is that, in a battle for the final word, there was Lucas’ way, or the highway. All roads lead to his take on this material, for good and for bad - just like the fans worried about way back when.

by Nikki Tranter

25 Jun 2008

“If you’re lucky enough to have even one book gets into people’s consciousness in that way then its fortunate, and the fact that that book (Midnight’s Children ... 27 years after it was published is still interesting to people, I’m very proud of that.”

Salman Rushdie discusses his knighthood on a short, taped interview with the BBC News.

The AFP has a piece on the event here, and India’s Sify news has a brief piece on its site.

Meanwhile, Rushdie’s new book, The Enchantress of Florence, was reviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer during the week. Reviewer Carlin Romano had this to say:

In some ways, “Enchantress” launches a successor style to now-passe magic realism—call it sardonic exoticism. On top of Rushdie’s customary wryness (one perk in Akbar’s water-park capital is “the best of all possible pools”), Rushdie takes Rabelasian risks here that will please all serious readers: those who expect sentences, and not just plots, to surprise them.

by Rob Horning

25 Jun 2008

Where I work, someone has thoughtfully put a $6 bottle of Kiss My Face Organic Grapefruit and Bergamot self-foaming hand soap beside the bathroom sinks, and every time I use it, I think, “Wow, this is far classier than using the industrial fluid installed in the basin-mounted pumps.” (I also think, “Weird. My hands now smell like Froot Loops.”) Today, because I had just been reading Megan McArdle’s post about morality as a luxury good, I also thought that it’s probably true that more people will be motivated to enivronmentally friendly behavior by its aspirational aspects, by the luxury it connotes, than by any sense of moral rectitude. In consumer society, morality is more of a product than a line of reasoning, and an identity signified through props as opposed to an ethos sustained through a series of actions.

McArdle is mainly interested in the positive freedom our general prosperity allows for: “Morality lies in doing the best you can with what you have. Given that I do have the luxury of finding delicious vegan food and non-leather shoes, I believe I have an obligation to do so. If that should change, I will go back to eating and wearing animal products without moral regret—though with a fair amount of digestive distress.” I think the framework that orients our notions of what prosperity means (more stuff) means that the calculus that goes into our moral decisionmaking may have been recalibrated for most of us, away from a focus on pursuing voluntary obligations and toward the idea of accumulating moral stances as so many prized possessions, reified into various tokens that symbolize our green concerns.

Hence, the Method soap strategy, which Rob Walker wrote about a few years ago. he talked to Eric Ryan, one of Method’s founders.

‘‘Design is a fast way to make these products more high interest,’’ Ryan says, to the target audience of ‘‘progressive domestics.’’ Environmental safety was ‘‘a goal,’’ one that he still sounds almost surprised to have achieved. But form is what really sells some $10 million of the stuff annually. Much of the feedback from enthusiastic customers boils down to: ‘‘I kind of thought it wouldn’t work, but at least I’ll have this cool container left over. Then I got it home and used it, and I’m shocked at how well it actually works.’‘

For most consumers, the sleek design and the product’s environmental perks are of the same ilk—distinctive qualities that mark the consumer who uses such a product as being of a better class. Environmentalism is not a ethos but a design quirk. This may be the only way to corral individuals into acting on a problem that is far too large for any one person’s actions to affect—to ignore outcomes and sell it on style.

by Terry Sawyer

25 Jun 2008

Granted, this was never part of “pop’s” past, but this No Lay song which I originally caught on a 2005 Grime compilation called Run the Road, I thought she would be the breakout superstar of the UK hip hop scene.  Of course, that hasn’t happened yet, though a new LP , No Comparisons could put her miles above far more modestly talented imports like Mike Skinner and Lady Sovereign.  Her flow is frenetically knifed out, flipping angles so fast that it takes a constant listening sprint to keep apace.  Of course, that level of aggression could prove problematic since Americans tend to prefer Fergie to Jean Grae and the image of slicing someone guts for garters is about as darkly evocative as Jean Grae’s line about taking Satan to a baptism in a flooded basement.  There’s also Grime’s antsy grooves, more ricochet than head bobbing, though the stuttering success of imports like Justice could soften the market for something a bit more jagged in the hip hop market. 

I also can’t help but love her total lack of guile.  If you can’t come up with some outrageous Bowie-esque persona why not just be yourself, hanging out with your friends, braiding some hair, and lounging around in your neighborhood.  Hip hop would do a far greater service to affirm people’s lives rather than indulge some of their most childish fantasies.  All hail No Lay!  Get on this bloggers so that she can be as heralded as already forgotten hip hop saviors like Uffie.

by Bill Gibron

24 Jun 2008

A gang of goofball mobsters, led by the Van Dyke-sporting Vito, robs a jewelry exchange, but the gems accidentally end up in the back of a contractor’s truck. A simple commute home, and the heist is a complete bust. As the criminals regroup, our blissfully unaware builder, David Clarke, celebrates his child’s birthday by giving her the most politically incorrect toy ever to hit the market (and that includes the anatomically correct “Joey” from All in the Family).

This little symbol of insensitivity, decked out in blackface and singing the kind of racist minstrel music that made Al Jolson such a Roaring Twenties sensation, is loved by the incredibly gap toothed Nancy…so much so that she takes the pilfered baubles she discovered in the back of Daddy’s rig and stuffs them up the doll’s backside.

Since Vito wants the trinkets returned pronto, he puts Joe Cory and his life partner Curtis on the job. Unfortunately, Joe has a jones for homicide, and needs to get in a few pre-diamond-hunt killings before he goes bug butt. After ascertaining that contractor Dave is married to local lounge singer Linda, Joe heads over to the floorshow to do a little mopping up. But Linda has taken Nancy and her Dixie doll on a Greyhound bus tour of northern California.

While Vito and the rest of the motley crew that couldn’t steal straight take David hostage, lovebirds Curtis and Joe make for the Pacific Coast Highway to stop the chanteuse. Long stretches of stagnant, silent pursuit ensue. Everyone ends up on Grizzly Adams’s doorstep, trying to figure out how to get hold of the treasure while avoiding Joe and his tired Psycho a Go-Go shtick.

As it starts, Psycho a Go-Go has a lot of promise. The swinging nightclub setting, with swirling, gyrating dancers in their frilly fringe minis and knee-high boots. The throbbing back beat of a typical ‘60s bit of garage pop. Flashing, psychedelic lights and the air of civil debauchery (exploitation, here we come!). But then Tacey Robbins shows up like a bouffant Winnie-the-Pooh and starts to croon. As the haunting, hateful “My L.A.” drives a stake of shamelessness right into your cranium, the musical barrage just won’t stop. All hopes for something sordid and swinging die down.

The editing picks up and soon everything starts spiraling out of control. Your mind starts to free-associate on such ideas as suicide, self-abuse, and playing in traffic. The anonymous torsos that pass for dancers keep shouting, “We got it!” and images of the plague and pleurisy shuttle across your retinas. And still, Tacey tunes on, hoping to sell us on the notion that she is actually entertaining. But our hopes are already dashed, both the flesh and the spirit are weak, and we end up metaphysically drawn and quartered.

Then the real plot kicks in. Oy! What a narrative it is. Botched robberies, irritated construction workers, little girls with heinous dental issues, and a bald, bulky Jack Nicholson wannabe with his own cap-toothed traumas (Roy Morton, making his Joe Corey a mindless mental case) add up to one shape-shifting cinematic sludge pit. Mixing your motion picture metaphors is never easy for a low-budget film, but this stealing-meets-slasher-by-way-of-Desperate Hours doody is so chaotic the Sex Pistols are wishing it for the UK right now.

Dammit, certain elements here ought to work! They should push the puzzling, pedestrian storyline out of its sheer stupidity and over into surreal estate territory. After all, our child actress has a brown-painted doll called “Christie Minstrel” that constantly breaks into chipmunk-ish versions of such sour Southern sop as “Camptown Races” and “Swannee River”. The crime syndicate employs a hulky, mute handyman named Curtis who lusts after every man he sees like he’s ready for a Fire Island rendezvous. His homosexual love leanings are so obvious and overt that you expect Curtis to start singing Bronski Beat songs.

But no, instead we have the sullen, shrill Tacey Robbins and her ill-conceived musical numbers urping all over our eardrums. Unable to lip-sync convincingly, and with all the stage presence of a jar of spoiled mayonnaise, Robbins and her songs should add up to at least a few minutes of miscreant fun. After all, if Arch Hall Jr. can make atonal talentlessness terrific, why can’t she?

The answer is all Al Adamson. You can tell that he had no idea how to make all these divergent, disconcerting elements labor to his advantage. What could have been riotous and ridiculous is played straight, and as a result, comes across as dense. Adamson’s Psycho a Go-Go is an angry movie, filled with contempt for everything: the characters, the plot convolutions, and the audience. He doesn’t try to entertain you—he more or less brow beats you into cinematic submission, following the illogical premise that if he puts it on the screen, it will somehow magically transform into a movie. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, we get endless shots of Roy Morton / Joe Corey mindlessly groping Ms. Robbins, Curtis mentally undressing the male cast members, and a demonic race-baiting doll. Suddenly, Psycho a Go-Go turns a must-see into a no-no.

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