Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: A Wort Report Review

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does little to reinvent the series or truly justify the character’s return to the silver screen after 19 years, but as soon as Harrison Ford dons that iconic fedora a few minutes into the film you can’t help but fall under its spell. If adventure has a name, it’s still Indiana Jones.

At the beginning of the film, you’re immediately aware of the passage of time since The Last Crusade. Instead of Nazis, we’re dealing with the threat of communism and the paranoia that accompanied it in the 1950s. Indiana Jones and his friend George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone) are kidnapped by a group of Russians—led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett)—which forces then to locate an object locked away in a cavernous warehouse that should be familiar to longtime fans of the series. Of course, Indy is Indy after all, albeit a bit grayer and more grizzled since the last time we saw him, and he escapes the Russians in typical fashion. If you’re not grinning ear to ear in the cinemas when he reaches for his whip for the first time, then this movie clearly is not for you.

Indy eventually makes his way back to his university, from which he is soon blacklisted due to his suspected association with the Reds. At an age where “life stops giving you things and starts taking them away,” Indy plans to hop on a train for New York and, hopefully, find a new teaching position overseas. Along the way, a run-in with Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) leads him to South America and a journey to return a mystical crystal skull to its proper resting place. You see, only by returning the skull to the Temple of Akator can its power be unleashed. And have you guessed that Spalko and the Soviets are after it too?

While the relic this time around may require a tad more sigh-inducing exposition than the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones or the Holy Grail in the first three films, the rest of Crystal Skull zips along at a jaunty pace making it a worthy third sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s better than Temple of Doom and on par with The Last Crusade, matching the latter film in both tone and pacing. Of course, like other films in the series, it has its fair share of flaws. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) shows up at around the middle of the film and isn’t given all that much to do aside from revealing one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets in recent years and John Hurt is wasted as the delirious Professor “Ox” Oxley. Unfortunately, Hurt’s character gives an already crowded cast needless bloat. We came to see Indiana Jones. Why does he need so many sidekicks?

This film also stretches the already-over-the-top sensibilities of the Indy universe in two particular scenes. In the first act, Indy escapes a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator and emerges unscathed after being launched into the air and violently crashing to the desert floor. Later on, Mutt does his best Tarzan impression as he swings to the rescue on some jungle vines with the help of some computer-generated monkeys. There’s asking the viewer to suspend disbelief and then there’s insulting their intelligence. Those two moments take bold, awkward steps into the realm of the absurd.

But there’s so much to love about this film that you’ll forgive director Steven Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas for Crystal Skull's occasional excess. Blanchett’s Spalko is one of Indy’s best foes, while LaBeouf turns in a tremendous performance as this franchise’s heir apparent, if they choose to go in that direction. While the Internet was quick to pounce on LaBeouf’s performance early on, he’ s right at home in the film’s quiet scenes as well as its high-octane set pieces, such as a university chase and a riveting race/swordfight through the Amazon.

And then there’s Harrison Ford, who comfortably wraps himself in the role of Indiana Jones like a well-worn leather jacket. Indy still throws the best punches in cinema, still falls ass-backward into lucky situations (sometimes literally) and still oozes swashbuckling bravado better than most action stars 30 years his junior. He also holds his own against a terrifying army of incredibly cool-looking carnivorous ants near the film's finale. But he still hates snakes.
Will you walk out of the theater with a blown mind? No. Will you walk out feeling as though you’ve seen Indiana Jones’ finest adventure? Not at all. But you’ll be satisfied. Indiana Jones didn’t need to return, but we’re all glad to see him again after all these years. But then again, as Indy said himself, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”

Whether you grew up with the series or not, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a summer blockbuster done right.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

James Wortman and the Raiders of the Lost Internet

In honor of this weekend’s release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I found it fitting to scour the Internet for some of the earliest Indiana Jones fan discussion and I found this gem from the Well of Souls online fan community, posted on May 24, 1984—one day after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom hit theaters. Here’s what AspSallah81 had to say about the film.

I just got back from the Temple of Doom screening, and it’s just as we all feared: this movie has completely ruined the Indiana Jones series. Why would George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford reteam for a film that completely destroys the mythology established in the first film? What began as a jaunty homage to 1930s serials has turned into a hokey, predictable excuse to bombard audiences with special effects, irritating characters and disgusting gross-out humor. I mean, Indian royalty feasting on monkey brains, beetles and eyeball soup? People getting their hearts torn out and set on fire? Giant vampire bats that are clearly fruit bats? This movie insults your intelligence at every turn. Others in attendance seemed to be enjoying themselves throughout, particularly the mine-cart chase and the rope bridge scene, but these people are probably the popcorn munching imbeciles that will line up for that abyssmal Ghostbusters movie that hits theaters next month.

After waiting three long years, don’t us longtime Indy fans deserve better than this dark-for-the-sake-of-being-dark sequel ? Oh wait, it’s not a sequel. Doom actually takes place prior to Raiders, making it a “pre-sequel” or whatever you want to call it. A prequel? Is that a word? The Star Wars trilogy gave us two sequels and the Indy films should have followed suit. I mean, who would have cared about what happens before the original Star Wars
? I’m surprised someone like George Lucas would pull a stunt like this.

You know, fanboy griping seems kind of petty and pointless when viewed in retrospect. Thank goodness the Internet has evolved over the last few years. Oh, wait…[reads "fan" reactions to Crystal Skull]...nevermind.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Burning Rubber with Mario Kart Wii

It’s recently come to my attention that I never formally reviewed Mario Kart Wii despite owning it for several weeks now. I guess that between playing it ad-nauseum, spending far too many hours tooling around Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV and working like a madman on freelance projects I just haven’t had the chance to write about it. Well, here’s my informal take.

If you aren’t familiar with Mario Kart, you’re a loser and your friends have been keeping a secret from you all these years. I kid, of course. But anyone that’s lived in a college dorm or befriended a gamer in the past decade or so has been exposed to this madcap racing series in some way, shape or form. It’s Nintendo characters, it’s kart racing and it’s one of the most fun/frustrating games you’ll ever experience. I’ll elaborate.

You see, Mario Kart Wii—like its predecessors—is horribly, horribly even. Why is this a bad thing? Try going from 1st to 12th place at the finish line after three consecutive turtle shells get rammed up your tailpipe. Yep. It happens. While it makes for a frustrating single-player experience, the balanced, anything-can-happen gameplay makes Mario Kart Wii ideal for casual or non-gamers. They’re pretty much on the same playing field as the vets.

What makes this game even more noob-friendly is the introduction of the Wii Wheel, a controller attachments that enables you to steer your kart as you would a car. It’s a fun innovation, but try to avoid the Wii Wheel in single-player modes. Once you get up to the 150cc Grand Prix races, you’ll be cursing all to yourself…which is a totally new level of sadness for someone clutching a tiny plastic steering wheel in their sweaty hands.

I can safely say that online play in Mario Kart Wii is a tremendous step up from the wonky Wi-Fi play in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Here, it’s relatively easy to play with your friends and total strangers from all over the world. That said, I still hate the Friend Code system, and I hope Nintendo either does away with it completely or streamlines the process.

Does Mario Kart Wii reinvent the wheel (ha)? Not necessarily. The game makes some fairly intuitive use of the Wii Remote’s motion sensing capabilities, but it’s not all that different from previous entries in the series.

Kick the tires, check the oil, grab the banana peels and go for a joy ride.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Indy 5 News? Already?

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hits theaters in less than a week on May 22, but George Lucas told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival that he’s already thinking about Indy 5, E! Online reports.

"I haven't even told Steven [Spielberg] or Harrison this," Lucas said. "But I have an idea to make Shia [LaBeouf] the lead character next time and have Harrison come back like Sean Connery did in the last movie. I can see it working out."

Wow, this is quite a bombshell. While I’m sure this comment was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, 65-year-old Harrison Ford may be also on-board for a fifth adventure. He told reporters, “'Till they tell me otherwise, I will continue to be Indiana Jones.”

I’m extremely excited to see Crystal Skull when it hits theaters next weekend, but I’m not quite sure they should use this fourth installment as a springboard for another Indy movie or group of movies starring LaBeouf. If this new film is as entertaining as the first three, then I would be content as far as this series goes. But, I suppose if there’s money to be made…

Spider-Man Sequel News!

Do you have a grain of salt handy? Good. Cinematical reported May 16 that Spider-Man 4 screenwriter James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) has turned in a working draft of a script that will span two films, which Sony may shoot back-to-back.
Cinematical’s undisclosed source says, “[Vanderbilt’s] story arc has encompassed two films, making Spider-Man 5 shootable at the same time. The studio saw dollar signs and is in the process of reworking his deal to snatch up the story arc."
This is interesting news, especially considering that while Spider-Man 3 was a financial success, most audiences and critics were fairly disappointed with it, myself included. It was bloated, uneven and utterly paled in comparison to the first two films in the series. One would almost think that Sony and director Sam Raimi were attempting to deliberately sink a sure-thing franchise by releasing such a lackluster product, but a two-film continuation of the series is apparently inevitable.
A note to filmmakers: Study Iron Man and study it hard. Take the subject matter seriously, keep the narrative focused and lay off the cheesiness. If the cast is obviously disinterested in the series at this point—as evidenced by performances across-the-board in Spider-Man 3—then by all means recast. With the right people behind it, Spider-Man could be a top-shelf franchise for years to come.
Stay tuned for future updates as Spider-Man 4 swings into production.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Some Gonzo Journalism

If you’ve seen the Judd Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall, chances are you got a kick out of the Dracula-based puppet rock opera written by Peter (Jason Segel), the film's lovelorn main character. What you may not know is that that those puppets were designed by The Jim Henson Company. While this may an interesting talking point in its own right, Variety reported way back in March that Segel and Sarah Marshall director Nick Stoller will be bringing Henson’s Muppets back to the big screen. Stoller will direct the film, while the How I Met Your Mother star is slated to co-write the script for the Disney production.

In other puppet news—undoubtedly your favorite kind of news—Variety reported earlier today that a live-action musical film based on Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock is also in the works. This sudden announcement proves once again that no childhood stone (or rock, in this case) will be left unturned in Hollywood’s continued search for brand-new revenue streams through less-than-brand-new concepts.
"One of our main priorities when we first launched the Weinstein Company was to feature a broad range of family-friendly franchises like Fraggle Rock, said Harvey Weinstein, co-chair of the film’s distributor, TWC. The film adaptation of the 1980s HBO series will take the fraggles out of their underground home of Fraggle Rock (clap clap) as they explore the human world.
With all of this Henson news, where’s my Muppet Show relaunch? I’m going through some serious Swedish Chef withdrawal.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Grand Theft Personal Time

Greetings, Wortmaniacs! For once, I decided to kick back for a weekend, which of course meant that I spent much of it running errands. From last minute Mother’s Day shopping to spending a ridiculous amount of money gassing up the ol’ Subaru, I barely had a moment to myself.

Fortunately, I was afforded a few hours earlier today to dive into Grand Theft Auto IV, which let me…run errands. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game and think it’s one of the finest examples of modern gaming in existence, but one can’t help but chuckle at the tasks given to main character Niko Bellic throughout the game’s first few hours. Let us smash into cop cars and mow down digital pedestrians and gamers are more than willing to do a crime boss’ grocery shopping. I’m sure there’s some kind of social commentary there, right?

While it’s a little late for a formal review—just about everyone in the gaming press has been touching on it ad nauseum for the past two weeks—but I really have to gush about how well-crafted this game is. Kudos to Rockstar Games for creating such a detailed virtual city that lets you do pretty much anything you want. From bowling to street racing to random acts of brutality, Liberty City has it all. While most gamers are satisfied by just punching in a cheat code and running amok until the cops take them down, I’m more of a conservative Grand Theft Auto player. Yes, those do exist. I always find that to really stretch the play value of these “sandbox” types of games, playing by the in-game rules is pretty satisfying. Sure, I could enter a weapons cheat and breeze through a lot of the more difficult missions, but there’s a certain satisfaction to employing your own strategies and progressing through trial and error. At least, that’s what I’ve found. That’s not to say I don’t end up on the wrong side of the law—sometimes driving on a crowded sidewalk is just faster—but by and large, I play the game as intended.

And playing by those rules has always been a lot harder for me personally in the past because I could never get the hang of the game’s combat controls. Thankfully, the gunplay and targeting has improved immensely in this latest installment, particularly when you’re going up against multiple opponents. Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and San Andreas had some controller-throwingly difficult shootouts, but I’ve yet to encounter any in GTA IV. But then again, I’m still pretty early in the game’s storyline, so you may yet be able to buy tickets to the “James Wortman Wireless Airshow.” I’ll keep you posted.

As for online multiplayer, it’s a fun diversion and gives you plenty to do—but stay away from the Team Deathmatch gametype. The auto-aiming eliminates skill entirely and gameplay boils down to locking onto an opponent and tapping the fire button until one of you falls down and respawns. But try out a few of the multiplayer options and see which ones you like. As I said earlier, this game really does have something for everybody.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

An Arrested Development Movie Development!

While cult classic television series Arrested Development was unceremoniously canned by Fox executives after just three seasons on February 10, 2006, the Internet has been abuzz with rumors about the Bluth family's possible return in the form of a full-length motion picture. The show's stars have been pretty secretive about the project thus far, but Alia Shawkat—who played Maeby Funke—shared some interesting details in a recent Radar interview. Here's an excerpt:

"I got a call from Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator, and he said 'so have you heard about this movie we're supposedly doing?' and I said yes. And he said he was in and it was great. And Jason [Bateman], when he was doing all the Juno press, he basically just talked up [Arrested Development] the movie. He got the publicity going before anything was real. So Mitch talked to Ron Howard, who said he would direct it, and he's down. So I think Mitch was like, 'I guess I'll write it then,' and that's what I think he's doing now. And yes, I'm involved. I think everyone is."

So I guess this confirms that they're maybe, sort of, all agreeing to be involved with the Arrested Development film. Not exactly earth-shattering, I know. But hey, if the movie thing doesn't work out, at least there's always money in the banana stand.

Monday, May 5, 2008

"Come on, genius..."

If you were one of the millions of people who caught Iron Man this weekend, chances are you also caught the brand-new trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If you're a shut-in and you didn't make it to the multiplex, the video is now available on IndianaJones.com.

Now, I know skepticism is fairly popular amongst Internet movie geeks, it's part of the culture. Head over to any forum at Ain't it Cool News, for example, and you'll be bombarded with some pretty hateful bashing of about each and every upcoming summer blockbuster, with particular venom aimed squarely at Dr. Jones and company. Frankly, I don't get it.

Sure, Harrison Ford hasn't gotten any younger in the 19 years since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and a lot of fans were let down by Lucasfilm's Star Wars prequels, but I have absolute faith in everyone involved in this project. Ford, director Steven Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas would never agree to a fourth Indy film if it wasn't worth dusting off the whip and the fedora one last time. And this should excite us as moviegoers. After all, aren't adventure films like the Indiana Jones series the reason we all go to the movies each and every summer?

Okay, I Think I'm Back

Hey there Wortmaniacs. I suppose we all burn out every once in a while. Last week, I was pushing myself to finish a piece for my local newspaper, the Westmore News, and after its completion I decided that I needed to take a bit of a breather from any and all side projects to collect myself. The fact that Grand Theft Auto IV came out last week might also have had something to do with my absence from the Report.

Now, I know that it's a tad after the fact, so I'll spare you a long-winded review of the game. Chances are, you already ran out, bought it and have caused enough digital mayhem in Liberty City to give gaming villain Jack Thompson carpal tunnel syndrome from all the hand-wringing. In short, it's an amazing piece of video game that I look forward to playing each and every day after work.

If you weren't too busy stealing cars, blowing up helicopters and engaging in other unsavory shenanigans, you might have noticed that a little film called Iron Man hit theaters this weekend. Did I see it? Do you even know me? I was there Saturday with a packed theater enjoying the hell out of ol' shellhead. For my full review, head on over to Broken Frontier.

Since we're on the topic of Iron Man, which pulled in nearly $100 million this past weekend, the good people at Marvel Entertainment announced earlier today that a sequel is definitely in the works. Reuters reports that an Iron Man sequel will hit theaters in April 2010 followed by a Thor adaptation the following June. Captain America and The Avengers are each scheduled to hit theaters in 2011. If the phenomenal Iron Man is any indication, comic book fans have plenty to look forward to for the next few summers. Excelsior!