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by Bill Gibron

15 May 2008

When it comes to reviving old horror clichés, the French have been on quite a roll recently. First, they deconstructed the stand alone suspense thriller with the straightforward shocker Ils. Then they took on the hoary slasher genre with the gruesome, gore-drenched delight Inside. Now, Xavier Gens, the man behind the mainstream Hollywood video game actioner Hitman has reconfigured the isolated terror take best exemplified by Tobe Hooper and his larger than life man-monster Leatherface. And while it’s not as successful as his countrymen’s contributions to the category, Frontier(s) is still one surprisingly sick ride.

The current political situation in France is horribly unstable. Young people, fed up with the conservative tone of the government, the institutional racism, and lack of opportunities, are rioting everywhere. During one of these fracases, Yasmin and her criminal brother Sami are trapped. With the help of other gang members Alex, Gilberte, and Farid, they get their fallen mate to the hospital and head out into the countryside. The plan? Make it across the border and into Amsterdam. Stopping off at an out of the way motel, they run into a group of nasty neo-Nazis. Ethnic hatred aside, the leader is looking for someone to help continue his family’s master race…and Yasmin might just fit the bill.

If Lionsgate, distributor of this After Dark Film Festival reject (originally part of the eight film overview, but pulled at the last minute to avoid MPAA hassles) was looking for an American title for this oddly named French film, there’s a couple of obvious suggestions. With its killers in a remote locale leanings, The Teutonic Chainsaw Massacre would make for a nice exploitation name. Or better yet, the secluded slaughterhouse posing as a hostel might suggest something like Motel Heil. Seig Psycho also comes to mind. Any one of these marketable monikers would come close to describing the sluice induced grotesqueries that make up this movie’s motives.

For those offended by blood and guts, Frontier(s) flaunts the very limits of both. While the opening sequences are rather sedate, once Gens gets going, it’s brutality and vivisection served up in heaping hack and slash helpings. Characters are carved up with sadistic regularity, and no one is exempt from the bountiful bloodletting. One individual winds up literally covered, head to toe, in arterial spray. It makes the critter claret bath Carrie White takes while at the prom seem calm by comparison. With its buzz-sawed body parts and exploding heads, this is one juicy jaunt.

There is also a fair amount of suspense here as well. Because it plays directly into the recent social strife dividing France (unrest settled mostly around class, immigrants, and race), the entire black/white - Caucasian/minority subtext suggests something much deeper. When our first two gang members stumble upon the out of the way inn, their ethnicity is enhanced by the Brunhilda nature of the lead villainess. Even better, the old school Hitler devotee is all Reich rants and ethnic cleanser. How this unusual dynamic plays out gives Gens plenty of room to maneuver. He drinks in the hatred and spits out sequences of unconscionable cruelty. 

Yet there are a couple of minor flaws here. One revolves around familiarity. If you remember that famed Southwestern splatter fest from the early ‘70s, you’ll be able to predict almost every one of Frontier(s) freak show plot points. There’s the carefree kids, the remote backdrop, the oversized killer, the crazed family, the second act escape, the eventual recapture, the final confrontation, and the “will she or won’t she” run for freedom. Certainly, Gens offers a couple of critical changes here and there (the Sawyers didn’t have mutant cannibal “children” crawling around their Texas homestead). Still, enough of this movie feels recognizable that tiny hints of disappointment pepper the grue.

And the acting is no great shakes either. Yasmin, more or less reduced to illogical ‘last girl’ status, is essayed by Karina Testa as a series of whines and pouts. Once it’s knives out, she substitutes shrieks for the latter. The rest of her crew is equally one note and indecipherable. They are reduced to playing types - scared novice, hard ass hero - before falling under the bad guys’ assault. Only our Nazis get any kind of characterization, and it’s more scripted than performed. The men are thuggish ideologues, concentration camp guard types without a prison populace to destroy. The head of household, on the other hand, is the kind of Final Solution apologist who appears frightening for what he stands for as well as his actions.

Since it all seems so obvious, so steeped in what previous masters of horror have handed out over the last four decades, Frontier(s) fails to appear fresh. It also cheats a bit, giving audiences ample false hope before finally fulfilling its payback parameters. But just like Ils, and Inside (as well as Haute Tension and a few other prime examples), it is clear that the current social clime in France is feeding fear in a big bad way. Most macabre scholars like to point to political uncertainty as a spawning ground for our most violent, repugnant terrors. Some even liken the rise in so-called ‘torture porn’ to the post-9/11 uncertainty in the world. Whether this is true or not, Frontier(s) still finds a way to mine the past while staying rooted in the present. It may seem recognizable, but it’s a well made and effective awareness.

by Bill Gibron

14 May 2008

Dear Fellow Writer:

The time is now. It’s our moment to put up or forever shut up. Print is dying, there’s no two ways about it, and those left rummaging for readership are turning to the old fashioned wire services for their rote, by the book copy. As a community, we’ve been waiting for an opportunity to shine, to show that we are just as legitimate as the men and women who dictated filmic fashion for the last 60 years. New technology may mean a new way of communication, but frankly, we’re doing a piss poor job of getting our point across - that is, when we can come up with a cogent and coherent argument to begin with. It’s time to cast off the amateurish aura given off by what many of us do and recognize the role we will play in the next decade.

As more and more fourth estaters are “bought out”, as the studios see the honest to goodness lack of interest audiences have in what the critic has to say, it’s time to reconfigure the cinematic aesthetic. It’s all well and good to be advocates for the unusual, to champion the disregarded and unfairly marginalized. But with said obsession comes a blindness. We can’t see the formative forest for our own particular (and often petty) trees. Perhaps it’s time to open up the lines of dialogue and come up with a consensus - not just on the magic of motion pictures, but on what constitutes the art of film writing in this new webbed day and age.

Let’s get a couple of caveats out of the way right up front. First, there is a big difference between film criticism and film reviewing. It’s the difference between a paragraph and a gesture. A reviewer offers a simplified shorthand, letting the reader (or listener) know quickly and without much mental strain whether a movie is worth their hard earned dosh. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a strategy. It gives the would-be ticket buyer a consumer advocate advantage. If they generally trust your guidance - meaning they agree with your up/down assessment more times than not - they will use your ‘review’ as a means of solidifying their sentiment. It’s how Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel transformed the craft. They went from skilled champions of letters to reliable men of fingers (or thumbs, actually).

Second, a blog is not a legitimate place to opine. Don’t take this the wrong way - the web log has come a long way in the last few years, respected by many in fields as diverse as sports, politics, and music. But since the art of filmmaking is founded in a solid sense of unified perspective, a million different judgments cannot create a viewpoint. Journalists are sworn to maintain some level of indifference, to weight both sides of an issue before putting out an assertion. In the blogsphere, such concrete contentions are all there is. Certainly, some put great thought into what they say, but as Harlan Ellison once accurately offered, everyone is not entitled to their own opinion, just their own learned one.

Of course, not everyone can find a place upon a paying site, nor is everyone associated with such a capital venture vindicated or valued. Money is not the object here, and real film criticism has little to do with number of hits, page views, or outside links. No, if we are ever going to change the studios idea of what the new Internet critic can and will be, we have to recognize the problems we’re constantly creating for ourselves, and strive to reevaluate what our position really stands for. In the last few decades, since the advent of home theater, cinema has become a diminished, almost disposable commodity. Perhaps if we set up some guidelines, or better yet, some personal and professional objectives, we can speed the problematic plow.

Initially, we have to recognize that marketers and advertising representatives live by some arcane, insider rules. Back when editors demanded deadlines and writers had to squeeze screenings in between duties as a desk jockey, it was easy to play by their parameters. But nowadays, thanks to instantaneous publishing and day/date turnaround, it’s easy to fudge with such strictures. If online critics suffer from one grand overgeneralization, it’s that we’re desperate for that scoop, hoping to hit the information superhighway with our take on an upcoming title as soon as we can upload our text. Naturally, by violating the embargo dates and other studio demands, we bite down hard on the very hand that feeds us.

Until the day when the notion of print media prerequisites goes the way of the dinosaur, we should vow to keep by these silly rules. Sure, we can’t stop the ‘anonymous’ audience member from rushing over to IGN or Ain’t It Cool News and posting their thoughts on a blockbuster several weeks before it premieres. Studios will never stop that unless they cease handing out free tickets to drum up word of mouth support. But if you are lucky enough to be invited to a press screening, you should play by whatever industry mandates exist. They will come around to our way of thinking eventually. Until then, pushing the issue will only force them to circle their wagons.

Next, act like a professional. That means treat everyone you come in contact with in a dignified and respectful manner. Some screening reps are merely part time help whose love of film has led them to counting heads and writing up reports. Pissing them off does very little, but it sure helps cement your status among the rest of the local community. Established writers have no problem blackballing you, taking time to write the actual suits about how rude, arrogant, unreliable, and amateurish you are. Remember, there is already a stigma attached to what we do. Acting like an asshole when a certain amount of decorum will do simply adds months to the eventual decision toward acceptance.

As part of said discussion, avoid being a shill. If you love a movie, let your analysis argue for it. Spouting off sentences in hopes that they will be picked up for theatrical poster/DVD cover art inclusion may seem like a great way to get your name recognized, but real writers recognize a suck up rather quickly. Pandering to the audience - or in most cases, the messageboard demographic - does a disservice as well. Outright vitriol has a place in criticism, but not simply to sell your fanboy credentials. You are entitled to your learned opinion remember, and the only way anyone can tell if your take is well thought out is by showing them - literally.

If you want to call yourself a writer - the first stage in any claim of critical expertise - you’ve got to fly outside your comfort zone once in a while. Don’t pride yourself on being the ‘horror expert’ or the ‘foreign film champion’. Specialization leads to isolation. Indeed, if you adore science fiction and only want to write about/fixate on same, you’ll hardly be heard when you need to talk about comedies or kiddie films. This doesn’t mean you can’t lean toward one genre or another, or develop a serious appetite for one cinematic style over another. But to defend your expertise in martial arts movies and then dump all over an animated cartoon infers a sloppiness - and arrogance - on your part.

Perhaps the most important facet of bringing the online critic in line with his or her print predecessor is the notion of analysis. Pauline Kael remains a wildly regarded writer because she measured her judgment with a great deal of understanding and perspective. She earned same from years in appreciation and study. Her name is now remembered as one of the artform’s greats, a pioneer who placed every movie she argued within a context of knowledge and perception. For now, it’s okay to have little or no frame of reference. You can get by without delving into Hollywood’s past, or Europe’s Neo-realism/New Wave phases. But sooner or later you’re going to need a proper film foundation. Avoiding it just makes you look foolish.

Marshall McLuhan used to argue that every new medium mandates its own unique set of standards. The old is frequently tossed completely aside, only to have its established elements creep back in over time. It’s not out of necessity. No, it’s more or less a question of respectability. The major sports keep stats as part of their history, using comparison and the conquering of same to track their legends and make them linear. Criticism requires the same subtext. Tossing aside what so many have done so well for decades smacks of stupidity. After all, in order to rewrite the rules, we first have to engage and embrace the laws that led us here. Sure, there will be growing pains. But it’s better to have the opportunity to progress than to be shut out of the situation all together.

Unless you’re happy with having every motion picture placed on a simplified ‘pro/con’ consideration, if you believe that letting unfettered freedom dictate how the movies we love are forever remembered, it’s time to stop whining and start writing. It will require a kind of toughness and an attention to discipline that the current post and pronounce ideal just won’t support. It always happens - once the rebels take over the town, they tend to revert back to the power poisoned policies that fostered the revolution in the first place. By recognizing a universal need to grow up (present company MORE than included), we can create the benchmark before others initiate it for us. True, it might mean that not everyone can play - at least on any semblance of a level field. But it’s better to lay the foundation now, before those without a clue do it for us. And we know which side they’re on. 

by Bill Gibron

13 May 2008

Rebecca, Laura, and Jennifer are three college friends who are just now facing the cruel, calculating nature of life outside school. The fact that they graduated some seven years before apparently means nothing to their sorority sisterhood. Each has hooked up with a guy who really freaks out their female intuition.

Laura thinks her husband is an immature, cheating louse. She leaves him only to discover he has depleted their credit cards (to the tune of $47,000) and screws anything that moves. Rebecca is turning 30 and her free-spirit sexuality is starting to stink like old hashish. She is sleeping with an older man who has an unnatural obsession with his always scantily clad teenage daughter. Jennifer, on the other hand, is married to a rich attorney and has a lovely little daughter. But she apparently gets a little too toddler tantric at time, so she robs the rough trade cradle outside of high schools and bangs the acne out of them in hotel rooms.

Between Laura’s emotional breakdowns, Jennifer’s sexual suicides, and Rebecca’s incest inquest, these gals maintain a pretty heavy emotional social calendar. When Jennifer abandons her family for life as a streetwalker, her educated friends go running to the rescue. Will they locate the MBA madam (yes, BJ, Jenny went to graduate school) or are they destined to simply sit down and cry until the Mascara smears in telltale pools around their pre-plastic surgery cheeks?

Go ahead: call me an insensitive male chauvinist pig. Brand me with testosterone and serve me up, Neanderthal style. Heck, just go ahead and call me what I am - a man! But this critic did not get Mascara, not one mind-numbing, pre-menstrual moaning minute of it. Imagine a version of Lilith Fair with only Tori Amos playing atonal songs about her vagina. Picture yourself wedged between Ani DiFranco arguing with the Indigo Girls at a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness. Jeez, if you’re married, just think of any completely pointless argument you’ve had with your spouse, and Mascara will pretty much match it for cockamamie Kabala crapola.

This movie is so in touch with its feminine side that the Divinyls are suing for copyright infringement. Now, perhaps this burly bag of snips and snails was not the intended audience for this exercise in estrogen and completely non-erotic gal-on-gal bonding. After all, they say men are from Mars and women hate penis. That would explain the alien ass gas, indecipherable suffragette stool samples that come pouring out of our lead lassies’ mouths. The girls of Mascara speak in Oprah-ready sound bites and live lives filled with every feminine hot button nightmare, from abuse and betrayal to boyfriends who have sex with their teenage daughters. About the only anti-social agenda points not experienced by our everyday ladies are female circumcision and bisexual lesbian experimentation.
Mascara is a movie that wants to say something deep and profound about young women in a society that has convoluted the rules as to what makes them female. It ends up being a poor woman’s Sex in the City, with tract housing and the Galleria substituting for material girl Manhattan.

Part of the problem is filmmaker (?) Linda Kandel’s horrible direction. After watching 30 minutes of her nervous, constantly in motion camera work, you’ll swear that she and her cinematographer suffer from ADD, St. Vitus Dance, and reverse motion sickness. The Blair Witch Project didn’t have this much Panaflex pandemonium going in its hand-held hurricane. With every shot, every edit, the frame and composition are in motion. Pan camera to the right. Move frame up and to the left. Dolly past a couple as they walk down the street. Perhaps she is trying to baffle us with visual tricks to keep us from focusing on her less than laptop screenplay that substitutes symptoms for statements.

But Kandel also can’t handle her actors. You have to wonder who Ione Skye screwed over during her Tinseltown tenure to have such a horrible voodoo curse thrust upon her once-promising career. The formerly transcendent talent plays a human hippie version of the null set so blankly that she threatens to supernova and implode into a black hole, taking the rest of the movie with her. Not that Duran’s Duran, Amanda De Cadenet, is any more lively. So disconnected that telephone operators should be standing by to warn you she’s not in service, her unhappy whore housewife is all blank stares and empty gesture. She does have one scene of quiet dignity though: depressed after having sex with a punky teenager, she sits buck naked in the shower, water running over her shoulders as she gobbles a plate of meatballs and drinks red wine from the bottle. The fact that she goes off to sell her cookies as a high-class call girl is not as shocking as the idea that, somewhere along her selfish slide into sex for cash, she got married and had a kid.

About the only convincing acting turn comes at the accent of Lumi Cavazos, who personifies the complete and utter simp magnificently. Unfortunately, this means we are treated to 90 minutes of watching an ill-natured doormat get shat upon by the world until, through the magical healing powers of childbirth, she and all our other characters are rehabilitated and cured.

Indeed, the big problem with Mascara is that it wants to tackle every woman’s issue all at once. This overstuffed film plays like a four-year course in gender issues crammed into a single butt-sagging final exam. In the plot are scenes/allusions to sexual battery, assault, date rape, statutory rape, incest, physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, abandonment, adultery, pedophilia, suicide, mental illness, substance abuse, prostitution, death, familial dysfunction, and bad acting classes. You could survey a women’s prison for six months and not find this many maladjusted, misguided females or omnipresent social ills.

There is nothing realistic about a single character going through 50 of Dr. Laura’s 100 stupid things women do before said female reaches 30, and yet we are supposed to believe that every pseudo-psychological struggle that a human can go through just so happens to occur to all of these idiots in six months of their life. These women aren’t victims so much as they are communicable carriers of interpersonal trauma. And using biology, the instinctual makeup of the female body to reproduce as a life-righting ritual, is cheap and far too simplistic. If all of life’s big-ticket traumas could be cured with a deep breath and a push of placenta, criminologists would be hiring midwives to help solve serial murders.

Mascara is a chick flick that out distances Lifetime and Oxygen in the communal crisis arena. These ladies really do suffer for their lack of a Y chromosome, and just our luck they have a hyperactive camera around to catch their agony for posterity.

by Bill Gibron

12 May 2008

Leave it to film’s last agent provocateur to do what a sloppy stoner comedy couldn’t. A couple of weeks ago, when the lackluster lampoon Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay opened, audiences were treated to a last act exercise in paltry political commentary. Briefly, our Asian/Indian heroes try to reclaim their good patriotic name after being mistaken for terrorists. Through a series of stodgy misadventures, they somehow wind up in Crawford, Texas. There, they hook up with our current Commander In Chief, and after a few blunts, the supposed purple haze induced belly laughs begin.

Now, there is nothing new with painting our sitting President as a foolish frat headed party boy. It was a legacy that he carried across two elections (and two wins), and South Park savants Trey Parker and Matt Stone did something similar - and far funnier - with their 2001 sitcom That’s My Bush. Comedy Central cancelled that sage-like series, only to revive the leader as loser ideal with their Our Gang rip-off L’il Bush. Since the advent of humor, government officials have born the brunt of satire and comic criticism. The powerful have always found themselves in mirth’s machine gun sites.

Mostly, it’s viewed as harmless fun, a chance to knock down an elected official with the only weapon remaining inherent in the people - the freedom of speech. Of course, the current administration has used every post-9/11 tactic they can to curb such rights, but leave it to the jesters to maximize what few liberties are left. The portrait painting is also kind of lame. Bush is dumb. Bush is out of touch. Bush is controlled by advisers out to forward their own agenda, not that of the nation. None of this is new, and seldom is it clever. But it avoids the real problems with this presidency, so it’s also more or less ignored.

Where someone like George W. really needs to worry however is when someone serious takes up their cause. In this case, Oliver Stone has just announced the final casting on his proposed limited biopic on our 43rd executive officer (Entertainment Weekly offered a sneak peek in this week’s edition). The project, entitled W., will begin filming in a few weeks, and while not every role is set (the writer/director is still looking for someone to play vilified VP Dick Cheney), Stone seems ready. With the suddenly hot Josh Brolin parlaying his No Country for Old Men cred into the title part, and supporting turns from Elizabeth Banks (as Laura), James Cromwell (as Daddy Bush Sr.) and Ellen Burstyn (as Momma Barb), this promises to be another controversial send-up of history.

It’s well worn territory for the criminally underrated filmmaker. Even though he owns two Oscars (for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) and has made several sizeable box office hits, including Wall Street, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday, it’s his political pictures that have raised (and equally reduced) his reputation. Many see JFK as a misguided masterpiece, a conspiracy theory tricked out as actual fact, while Salvador is too liberalized to explain the Central American crisis of the mid ‘80s. He’s taken on Fidel Castro (his 2003 documentary Comandate) and made one of the most jingoistic films about the terrorist attacks of seven years ago (World Trade Center).

Yet for anyone looking to gain some insight into what Stone might be attempting here, they need look no further than the brilliant deconstruction of the only US President ever to resign from office. 1995’s Nixon was seen, at the time, as the perfect combination of man and material, a subject that Stone could really sink his teeth into while exploring the post-Vietnam Watergate watershed that drove a decade into decadence and indecision. Yet, oddly enough, the famous burglary celebrated by the Washington Post and its pair of supercop journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein, was a minor part of the narrative. Instead, Stone looked for a big picture pronouncement, hoping to highlight the paranoia and pettiness that drove this leader to illegal acts of insane arrogance.

While some considered the hiring of Anthony Hopkins antithetical to the movie’s designs (how a British actor best known for playing a suave serial killer could take on one of the most American of political icons was frequently questioned), it turned out to be a masterstroke. Stone wasn’t looking for a mimic, or worse, a Rick Baker manufactured make-up version of Nixon. He wanted to showcase the human being inside. What Hopkins did was genius. By finding out what made this predatory political animal tick, he literally turned into the crooked Commander in Chief. It’s impossible to watch this film 13 years later and not see the media made images present in the UK thespian’s mannerisms.

Apparently, W. won’t be so broad in its scope. Nixon went from the leader’s days as a poor California boy to almost every electoral benchmark in his career. In recent interviews, Stone likened this latest project to The Queen, a narrative that takes seminal events from the subject’s life and shows how they add up to the man we see today. In comparison to Nixon’s “symphony” he says, W. will be more like “chamber music.” Of course, there are other hints at the approach within his comments. He calls Bush “an alcoholic bum”, pointing to his “conversion to Christianity” as the driving force in his professional and political decisions. For a director who never skirted scandal, embracing hot button concepts like addiction and religion seems par for the course.

Yet just like Nixon, one expects extensive dramatization in order to get to the essence of an area. One thing films can be faulted for is such a shorthand concept of truth. It’s impossible to cover all facets of an individual’s personality, even with the jaded judicial notice of an already clued-in audience. Composites have to be created both in characterization and circumstances. Stone is often raked over the coals for taking such a condescend view, but within the language of film, it’s literally impossible to deal with an entire lifetime in three hours. Of course, some might argue with the intent of those who try, but with all great art comes even greater ambition - and hubris.

Additionally, W. is planned for an Election 2008 release date. That means that Bush will still be President when the movie is in theaters - barring any production delays or problems (like the upcoming Actors Guild strike). How that will affect Stone, or his cast, remains to be seen. Additionally, movies like this usually strive to set the tone for someone’s legacy. Nixon wanted to humanize someone that was systematically demonized. It may have wound up doing a little of both. Similarly, W. has the potential for shedding some light on the current Commander’s often puzzling decision making process. It could also go Harold and Kumar all over his rationale.

No one expects Oliver Stone, a serious moviemaker, to have the President of the United States snorting coke off a stripper’s treasure trail, but it’s clear that a subject like George W. Bush places such a sequence in the realm of dramatic possibilities. Even early script reviews have argued that W. balances the administration’s tendency toward bumpkin burlesque with real insights into how the politics of fear work. Maybe Stone will settle for something in the middle. Or we could be seeing the unmaking of an already undone leader. One things for sure - this is one man who may be wishing the world saw him as a dope smoking stooge after all. The truth may be far more telling - and terrifying.


by Bill Gibron

11 May 2008

In one week, we critics will know for sure. The time frame is ten days for the rest of the moviegoing rabble. Barring any cosmic collision or other Earth shattering event, the fourth (and hopefully, final) installment in the chronicles of one ‘part-time’ professor Henry Walter “Indiana” Jones, Jr. PhD will finally unfold. It’s been an astounding 27 years since the original Raiders of the Lost Ark redefined the popcorn action movie, setting up a series of like minded entertainments that would come to dominate the ‘80s. In between there have been two sequels (Temple of Doom in 1984, Last Crusade in 1989) and a TV series outlining the archeologist’s earliest exploits.

And now, a mindboggling 19 years since the last motion picture wrapped up the man’s myth quite nicely, reputation ruiner George Lucas and his blackmailed partners in crime Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, are reviving the series for one last shot at…well, some kind of glory. Given the god awful title of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the top secret project has seen its far share of controversy. From Ford playing the character at his advanced, AARP-like age (he’ll turn 66 this July), to the pre-production hoopla over the hiring - and unexpected firing - of writer Frank Darabont (who handled similar chores for the property when it was on television), fans have prayed that none of Mr. Star Wars Prequel’s pedestrianism transferred over to this title.

As of today, all signs point to pathetic…or at the very least perfunctory. The trailers have taken the original movies’ mystique and washed it in a veil of forced nostalgia. It wasn’t until recently that we actually got to see parts of the plot, and the From Russia with Love meets Apocalypto vibe isn’t fooling anyone. Now comes the first major death blows - anonymous early reviews on websites like Ain’t It Cool News. Spielberg and company are livid, publically complaining that the first “official” showing for critics won’t be until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plays Cannes on 18 May (the same day it screens for other media outlets around the US). Yet somehow, secured to a surreal policy revolving around blind bidding and state’s rights, a few exhibitors have seen the movie - and their opinion is not pretty.

In general, most believe the film won’t match the hype, that obsessives who’ve languished over their VHS/DVD copies of the trilogy will be greatly underwhelmed by what’s onscreen. They point to the well-hidden plot (more on this in a moment) and over-familiarity with the material as weak points, while giving marginal praise to what Spielberg and his capable cast do behind the camera (though Shia LaBeaof suffers the harshest words). While it represents the smallest majority of those who will finally establish the critical consensus on this highly anticipated summer stock, it’s clear that, at least out of the starting gate, Lucas’ decision to reprise this franchise is meeting with high expectations and less than satisfied reactions.

And then there is the storyline. Without going into heavy spoiler territory (and if you want to walk in completely unaware, skip this paragraph and move on), Dr. Jones is a now a WWII vet, compelled by the Soviet government to find the legendary Crystal Skull. Apparently, it’s actually part of an alien skeleton (located in Area 51 - how original) and once returned to its rightful resting place, it provides a source of great power. LeBeaof plays a character named Mutt Williams, who may or may not be Jones’ son, and Marion Ravenwood is back as well. The trailer promises Ama-zombies, jungle car chases, and the standard stunt physicality that made these movies so memorable.

Clearly, any return to this character and these movies creates an almost impossible level of fan frenzy. It’s the reason that Temple of Doom consistently remains the least loved entry in the franchise. Of course, coming on the heels of the brilliant masterpiece that is Raiders, it’s not hard to see why. But as with most one-sided perspective, forged out of personal want more than medium needs, a sequel must suffer through the classic cinematic Catch-22. It has to provide more of the same while being different enough to warrant its existence. It has to recapture the old magic while making new, retelling the same story with the same characters while bringing a freshness to both.

It’s a dodgy motion picture paradigm, one that few filmmakers have ever successfully maneuvered. Peter Jackson may have won an Oscar for The Return of the King, the last installment in the Lord of the Rings epics, but many look at The Fellowship of the Ring as the franchise’s best (good luck with those Hobbit prequels, Guillermo). Similarly, The Matrix may have redefined the artform - at least for a few years - but the subsequent slam bam revisits created more hatred than holiness. Spielberg himself, perhaps the only director capable of capturing lightning in a bottle more than once, has been reluctant to revisit his oeuvre. Over the course of 24 feature films, he’s only been involved in four sequels - the three Indiana Jones films, and a Jurassic Park repeat.

Of course, he’s the only director who could pull this off. While marginalized by minds who think it’s easy to make sharks suspenseful, flying saucers fascinating, aging white men heroic, or animatronic extraterrestrials believable, he stands as one the greatest auteurs of all time. While his participation in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seemed obvious, a lot had changed in his career since Dr. Jones and his Dad rode off into the sunset nearly two decades ago. Armed with a couple of Oscars, and more than enough industry and commercial cred, going back to this already established property seemed antithetical to his own career needs. Of course, imagine the uproar had Lucas left him out of the project all together, or worse, decided to direct it himself.

Perhaps that’s why everything has felt a little forced since the very beginning. The fourth film was announced a couple of years ago, and comments by Ford even indicated the ticking time clock bomb hanging over everyone’s head. While age is never a major issue in Hollywood (the biz will reconfigure any narrative to meet what they consider to be profitable demographic designs), having someone your grandfather’s age play a rough and tumble man of action pushes the boundaries of believability. The early pre-reviews don’t criticize Ford or his performance - they leave most of the vitriol for Master Shia - but with his sagging star power and paltry box office returns, Indie isn’t innocent either.

As the time clicks away to the planned press screening, as both sides gather ammunition and prepare for a fight, as the turnstiles twist and the money starts rolling in, only time will dictate the final legacy for the Indiana Jones franchise. If this movie makes scads of cash (outside the critical accord), you can bet that the suits will be slobbering for more. If it fails to attract an overwhelming financial windfall, this may be the man-myth’s last hurrah. Whatever the case, it may be time to gear down the rabid love for the series to something more realistic. Sadly, like the serials that inspired them, the time may have long since passed for this particular product. 

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