Wednesday, May 28, 2008

SO CAL DIMS AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL



There were good eats, good friends, and some might even say a good movie-- Sunday night during Memorial Day weekend the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society kicked off the summer movie season by gathering together under some ominous-looking clouds and even a few patches of starlight for a tailgater screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at our flagship drive-in, the Mission Tiki in Montclair, California.

The gatherings of the SoCal DIMS faithful have evolved since the inaugural meeting back in the summer of 2005 from informal get-togethers at favorite ozoner locations to share stories, pictures and ideas for further events, to taking new memberships and interacting with customers in Southern California drive-in snack bars, to helping coordinate special events. And now the latest wrinkle in the celebration, the SoCal DIMS tailgate party, is kicking off its second summer of family-oriented fun for drive-in movie fanatics and casual moviegoers looking for a fresh take of the summer movie season.

Though it was a mite cool by Memorial Day weekend standards, there were still plenty of cars congregated near the front of the screen at 6:00 p.m., early admission time for SoCal DIMS members and friends who get the pick of the lot with plenty of time to spare for socializing, unpacking and packing in plenty of homemade chow before the movie starts. Of course we always leave room to visit the snack bar as well, and the Mission Tiki’s, done up in beautiful retro tiki style, is not to be missed. (In July, the group will be visiting the newly renovated Van Buren Drive-in which boasts the best snack bar of any Southern California drive-in, built as it is around the nucleus of a giant grill on which fresh carne asada is always sizzling.)


Spend a few minutes at the drive-in with the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society...

The Mission Tiki’s veteran projectionist nonpareil, Jeff Thurman, even made time for a gracious and typically witty tour through the drive-in’s projection booth, which was a fascinating look at what makes a technically superior drive-in like the Mission Tiki tick. The tour, along with some of the pre-game festivities, has been documented by SoCal DIMS cofounder Sal Gomez in the embedded video here. If the drive-in tailgater looks like something you’d like to get in on, there are four more scheduled tailgate parties for the summer of 2008, as well as a special Monsterama all-night film festival at the Mission Tiki coming in October. So mark your calendar, and check out all the good stuff Sal has for your enjoyment at the SoCal DIMS web site, where you can keep up with the latest news, check out some great photo galleries, keep up with some great blogs and links, and much more.

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Screengrab courtesy of Jim Emerson

It’s never a total disappointment being at the drive-in even when the movie doesn’t measure up, because the experience itself is so much fun. Unfortunately, the movie this time around, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while not a complete flop, definitely had many of us craning our necks to sneak peeks at the Iron Man/Speed Racer double bill on the neighboring screen. The kinetically charged visual energy Spielberg brings to almost every project, evidence of the true cinematic storyteller abiding in his heart and bones, is something I’ve always counted on in his great movies, and speaking as someone left largely seduced and abandoned by the Indiana Jones series as a whole, that energy is never more important to me than it is in these tales, for it is about the only thing there is to enjoy in them. (Mike Gilbert might say the new movie continues Indiana’s essential brownness.)

There are the incidental pleasures in the first three episodes—Karen Allen’s introduction in Raiders, Indy’s encounter with Hitler at a Nazi book burning in The Last Crusade, and for me the high point of the entire series, the opening “Anything Goes” musical number, in Cantonese, and subsequent scramble for diamonds that leads off Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (This sequence is so good that I’m inspired to revisit the entire movie again in the hope that, like I did with 1941, I might discover a brilliant movie underneath the insistent memory of all my initial bad reactions. At this point it’s almost a truism that any movie Spielberg feels he has to apologize for is probably better than its reputation.) However, Crystal Skull, like no other movie in the series, feels rote and uninspired, both in its perfunctory, muddled story and its indifferent direction, Spielberg’s most disinterested since the first half of Jurassic Park-- the self-referential in-jokes inserted to tweak the nostalgia of the series’ fan base are little compensation for a narrative that simply never gathers steam in the manner of even the least of the previous films.

The movie’s traditional dissolve, a bliss-out of graphic continuity, from the peak of the Paramount logo to an actual mountain, or in the inspired instance of Temple of Doom, a gong embossed with the representation of one, an image which carries its own wonderful raft of associations, is turned into a joke here, one which ends up at the expense of the movie itself. Is it reactionary of me that my spider-sense went all tingly upon seeing the Paramount logo give way to… a gopher mound? Neither the mound nor the CGI gophers that surround it (sigh) ever amount to anything, ever resonate with the action. (Now, if it had been an ant hill…) Is this Spielberg’s way of telling us to lower our expectations? Even if not, the juxtaposition still comes off as an inconsequential joke, hardly a harbinger of heights of action and adventure soon to be scaled. Even the movie’s look, grounded as it is in the buffed, CGI-tinged realism of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s images, disappoints— there is no single moment in Skull to match the glowing hallucinatory beauty that Douglas Slocombe brought to the first three films, where the jungles themselves seemed alive, ready to pounce, and the movies, especially Temple of Doom, virtually popped off the screen.

The opening sequence, which introduces us to Indy’s new nemeses, the Russians, led by Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, a sculpted-in-evil Soviet scientist (and apparent psychic), promises a workout for Indy and our adrenaline glands. But the movie surprisingly sets aside the frisson of unease generated by Indy’s discovery, under threat of Spalko’s insistence, of alien remains in a mysterious warehouse in favor of the meat of the subsequent adventure, upon which those remains bear no apparent connection-- the appearance of a motorcycle-riding young tough named Mutt (Shia LeBouf by way of Brando), who recruits Indy to rescue his mother, a captive along with Indy’s old colleague (John Hurt) who knows something about the titular see-through cranium. Indy butts heads with the headstrong youngster, and you can practically hear the gears of the picture start to grind. The audience is consistently two steps ahead of Indy as to the true identity of Mutt and his mom (What other rationale would there be for the return of Karen Allen?), and the testy exchanges between old icon and duck-tailed youth are nostalgic in a bad way—they remind you that the dialogue in these pictures was rarely better than musty. The scrapes they get into, punctuated by those repeated close encounters with Spalko and friends (“We meet again… and again…. and again, Dr, Jones”), are Indiana Jones lite—there’s literally nothing at stake during a three-stage plunge down a waterfall when, after the first dive no one gets anything more than wet, or during a nifty run-in with savage red ants in which one villain gets devoured head-first. (At least the snakes and spiders and bugs from the previous movies were real snakes and spiders and bugs).

But most disappointing is that crystal skull itself and what it means, about which there is much awestruck gaping and speculating, none of which translates into a compelling narrative and about which to say more would be in violation of the Spoiler Act of 2008, in effect for the 42 Americans who have still not seen the new movie. Suffice it to say that Spielberg and George Lucas, in attempting to fuse Indiana Jones with the sensibility more akin to the representative ‘50s sci-fi that defined the genre during the time of their story, offer a resolution that sputters like a wet fuse, neither exploiting the fear of invading aliens that the entire movie has been pointing toward (the warehouse in which the movie’s opening action takes place in painted with the hard-to-miss legend “Area 51”), nor fulfilling the thread uniting the previous three films, the archaeological pursuit of God. (Erik von Daniken might disagree, I suppose…)


For the most part, the cast is game—it is good to see Allen on screen again, even though she’s given nothing as memorable as that drinking match from Raiders to do here; John Hurt convinces us (once again) of the enormity and hallucinogenic logic of the images he must be staring at inside his own head; and I even dug Blanchett’s heavily accented Soviet dominatrix moves, Natasha Fatale-by-way-of-Charlotte Rampling—she gets at the would-be spirit of the proceedings and is only marginally less frightening than she was in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. But Ray Winstone is wasted as Indy’s double-triple agent compadre. And Harrison Ford, like Spielberg, just seems tired of the whole show—he’s there because, like the director, it wouldn’t be an Indiana Jones movie without him, the truism of which young LeBouf, primed as he is to become the inheritor of the Jones mantle of scholastically inspired derring-do, may soon discover. After enjoying him in Holes, Disturbia and Transformers, the young actor wears out his welcome here—it may be just as dangerous to enter a movie dressed like The Wild One as it is to equate your movie with a pile of gopher dirt.

Those predisposed to welcome another installment of the Indiana Jones series may be far more forgiving of the movie’s lack of pizzazz—there may even be an implicit defense of it in the unavoidable theme of an aging icon of cinematic heroics. Yet Indy, despite his copious stunt doubles and his director’s attempt to not seem hopelessly analog in a digitally converted world of action cinema, seems creaky and outdated here, the movie only a faint echo of the level of excitement we know Spielberg can bring to an adventure picture when he’s firing on all cylinders. The mission statement of the original movies was in part to resurrect the breakneck narrative of ‘30s serials and refashion them in the technology-infused cinematic grammar of the ‘80s. How ironic, then, that Lucas and Spielberg, in no longer reaching back to the ‘30s, or even the ‘50s, but instead to the template of the ‘80s movie that changed blockbuster action movies forever, should appear so winded and wheezy in their modernity. Forget the crystal skull—in 2008 it’s Indiana Jones that’s the museum piece.

(Drive-in photos courtesy of Sal Gomez, Kathy Beyers and the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society)

11 comments:

Burbanked said...

You make an excellent point about the logo-to-gopher hill fade-in, Dennis, and the fact that that single shot - the opening shot! - really sets the movie up for disappointment. The big problem with this movie is that I actually convinced myself, seemingly through force of will and stubbornness, that I was having a good time. It wasn't until the second half-ish point that I realized how the creeping dread and frustration were taking over.

You're right that there's truly no single shot or setpiece in this movie that will stand the test of time as there are in its precedents. Everything that approaches greatness - such as the great silhouette of Indy and the mushroom cloud - is simply thrown up onto the screen and allowed to die there.

I suppose it's silly to let a movie franchise sadden and disappoint me so, but it's just a damn shame.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I haven't read a review yet that makes me want to rush out and see this. But then, I didn't actually think there would be so I guess I'm not surprised. Still, after each new review I still feel disappointed, and I'm not even a Spielberg/Lucas fan (referring to them together) after Raiders, so I don't know why it seems disappointing. Oh well.

Nice to see you though in the little movie clip there with your plate of goodies. Geez, I wish I could make it out there for one of these events.

And I hope you'll stop by and check out my movie today as well. Hope to see you there.

Qbrick said...

I've always appreciated Spielberg's gifts as a director but have never been able to stomach his hubris.

In promoting 'Crystal Skull', he's exhibited his typical self referential mode of expression as evidenced by following:
"I didn’t want Janusz to modernize and bring us into the 21st century...I still wanted the film to have a lighting style not dissimilar to the work Doug Slocombe had achieved, which meant that both Janusz and I had to swallow our pride. Janusz had to approximate another cinematographer’s look and I had to approximate this younger director’s look that I thought I had moved away from after almost two decades."

Oh Please.

Guess what Steven--while you were preening over your younger self--you forgot to see how he worked.

Something else Spielberg missed was the value of shooting stunts in the manner of that "younger director".

The heavy dependence on CGI to sell the stunts (something he promised not to do) turned 'Crystal Skull' into a live-action Road Runner cartoon. When the amphibious vehicle went off a cliff-- landing in the tree-- my final hope for a good Indy experience went with it.
Three waterfalls later and I wanted my money back. As evidenced by the opening shot of 'Crystal Skull',
Spielberg had managed to make a mountain into a mole hill.

Editor A said...

The photo of Nonie eating the hot dog is priceless!

Peet Gelderblom said...

I love Road Runner cartoons...

Also: I've found out the *actual* reason why the the gopher mound dissolve rubbed you the wrong way, Dennis. Whereas I could appreciate Spielberg being a little tongue-in-cheek (these films are entertainments, after all), you were reminded of multiple forced viewings of Alvin and the Chipmunks. I managed to steer my two boys away from that movie and consider myself all the happier for it ;-)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peeeeeeeet! You said the "A" word!

Peet Gelderblom said...

Alvin! Alvin! Alvin! :-P

Dennis Cozzalio said...

One thing that's nice is, Patty bought them the CD of the old Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Beatles LP (1964), and they've become familiar with 78-rpm versions of several early Beatles hits. The Chipmunks still drive me insane, but it's a lot easier for me to haul the CDs of the old albums out for them to enjoy! Daddy, tell us more about this John, Paul, George and Ringo you speak so highly of!

driveindude said...

Dennis,

That's funny you say that. My son always remarks that his "friends" (classmates) always tease him that he knows all the words to those "old songs."

Seth's response is always the same, "They are dorks huh Dad"?!?!

Sharon said...

Dare I be the contrary voice in defense of this movie. I must say that I went into it feeling more than a bit wary. Would I be disappointed in Indy 4 the way I was with other sequels in recent years that did boffo box office (Pirates 3, etc.)? The answer was a resounding hell, no! I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, much to my delighted surprise. While I do my best to be as unspoiled as possible, knowing that Karen Allen was in the movie did kind of give that away, but so what? It didn't detract from my enjoyment one bit. I loved finally seeing Harrison Ford in a role that he's suited for. Karen Allen needs to stop knitting and make some movies. It was like visiting with old friends that you're afraid that you no longer enjoy and discovering that the old magic is still there for you. I'm hoping to make it back to the theater to see it again this weekend (it'll either be this one or Sex and the City). Thanks to Steven, George(!), Harrison, et. al. for helping to restore my faith in summer movies. Over the last few years I had begun to think that I had lost my movie mojo, that the reason that I wasn't having a good time at the movies like I used to was because I had changed. The last couple of months have shown me that it wasn't me -- it was the movies that sucked!

Weigard said...

OK, I’m a little late to the discussion, but we teachers do lead busy lives in May and June, and I finally got a chance to see the new Indiana Jones movie two days ago. My reaction was a little puzzling. I enjoyed the film – how can you not enjoy seeing Indiana Jones again? – but it seemed, by far, the weakest of the four films. I’m surprised that this was the “marvelous film idea” that got all these people on board for one more go around. Everything just seemed down a notch. Here is what stuck out the most to me:


Acting: I’ve seen enough interviews of Harrison Ford to get the impression that he’s a bit of a dull guy in real life. Lately, though, it seems like that’s bleeding over more and more into his acting. His demeanor in the film is so laid back, it’s hard to tell whether he (the actor) doesn’t care, or if this is all so “old hat” for Indy that it’s no big deal. I assume Indy is supposed to be around 60, but he feels closer to 80. Karen Allen was wonderful in the first film, and here, she just didn’t make much of an impression – perhaps more because the writers didn’t find much for her to do. With that said, you’d think it would be Shia LaBoeuf’s film to steal – and yet, he never seemed to embody the 50s greaser, or come across as a worthy successor and heir to Indy. I guess it’s “Mutt” that he calls himself, but in the theater it sure sounded like his name was “Mud” – seemed more fitting too. : ) Cate Blanchett and John Hurt were the only exceptions. It seems bad when the villain is more alive and interesting than any number of heroes.


Writing: Maybe this isn’t entirely fair, since most sequels suffer from this sort of problem. But the main thing that makes Raiders the best of the films, for me at least, is the ambiguous nature of Indy. Is he a hero? There’s something very dark in him, though, something that keeps the audience from completely siding with him until near the end. Bellocq says that they’re not so different, and for most of the film, it certainly looks that way. The introduction of Indy is masterful, following this man in a hat who seems obsessed and all-knowing and perhaps a little cruel in forcing his assistants into danger. We learn something of his cavalier attitude with Marion long ago, and he comes back to manipulate her further (trying to get the “worthless medallion”). Later, when some mending of the relationship has happened, he leaves her in captivity to get the ark. He has an excuse, but does it really make sense? He wants the ark, and that’s what possesses him most. All these aspects make him a much more interesting character. In the sequels, much of that darkness is gone. In Temple of Doom, they at least came up with a plausible way to bring it back, through the transformation after drinking the blood of Kali – but we can’t help but think it’s temporary, and the “real Indy”, the good Indy will show up after a while. I didn’t feel that way in Raiders. In Last Crusade and Crystal Skull, we don’t even have that brief moment of darkness. In fact, with Indy’s being forced to peer into the skull, it seems like there was a perfect opportunity to have something along the lines of what happened in Temple, and the writers chose not to. Has Indy become so much of an icon that we can harbor no ambiguity as to his character?


One other thing that bothered me about the film was the one subject that did seem to evoke a little passion in Indy – the nasty Russians. I have a hard time buying that this is the man Indy would become in the mid 50s, even with Cold War paranoia. Admittedly, it’s easy to demonize Nazis and make them the force of evil. But Indy is a scientist, and knows the worth of an individual. Even in Last Crusade, once it’s revealed that Elsa’s a Nazi, he doesn’t treat her as simply a Nazi, but as a person. Why does he react with such vehemence (for a change!) with regard to the Russians? It just rang false to me.


Music: As with many of the people involved with the film, it seems that they’ve been out of their heyday for a while now. John Williams used to be a lock for a great score, but there haven’t been many in the last decade that have made much of an impression on me. In each of the first three films, there was not only the heroic theme from the first film, but new music that captured the imagination and the spirit of the film. I didn’t find it here. Not that it was inappropriate or annoying – just not memorable.


Directing: I’ve been a little disappointed with every Spielberg film since Saving Private Ryan. What happened? Since then, they’ve never felt quite complete somehow. Munich is very good, except it feels like it’s missing part of the film. War of the Worlds isn’t bad until a shockingly strange abrupt ending. It makes me feel like he’s still a great craftsman, and could make another great film, but that his heart just isn’t quite into it anymore. If so, I hope he gets more of that spark back – I would have hoped this would be the film that would do it, but instead, it seems like a bunch of moments that hearken back to the old Indy films, deprived of their joy or meaning. The “mountain into a molehill” has already been mentioned. The recurrence of familiar lines is something that always feels a little cheap to me, and they’ve turned to that here as well. One that kind of surprised me were some of the shadow/silhouette shots. They were used beautifully in the original film – surprising, larger than life, with an ominous overtone (such as the shadow falling on the ark’s container in the Well of the Souls). Here, they didn’t resonate at all, except as familiar shadows of a much better film.


Those wouldn’t matter if the film were more interesting. I’m not expecting the Tolstoy of action films, but I would have liked to have seen a little more care put into it. In Raiders, there are so many small touches that reflect someone working to make even slight improvements to the overall effect of the scene. For instance, when Bellocq and Indy are in the bar, and Bellocq is telling him how similar they are, we can see Indy seething and ready to explode. But part of that comes from setting up the scene so that, just past Indy’s eye, we see a tiny bit of the ceiling fan going by, creating a flickering effect that adds to the perception of Indy reaching his boiling point. Maybe Spielberg doesn’t feel like it was that important, and isn’t interested in going to that much trouble to set up a shot any more. But it’s one of the things I really miss. The use of CGI throughout rather than live action critters bothered me, too – yes, they’re pretty realistic, but viewers today can generally tell the difference. Having real snakes in the Well of the Souls made all the difference in the scene, even if they weren’t all real. And once we see inside Area 51 and recognize it, couldn’t we have a little more fulfillment of our expectations than a glimpse of gold?


Jim Emerson’s Scanners post on Spielberg and the geography of action scenes was very interesting. Essentially I agree with what Spielberg said – the action scenes in Raiders and Temple are so much more involving than similar scenes in, for example Batman Begins (even though I liked the movie), because you can feel the flow of the action rather than the blunt force of impact. But what happened in Crystal Skull? The scene that seems like it should have been a classic is the chase in the jungle. Spielberg did have a variety of shots that seem like they are trying to anchor the action scenes in the space around them. And yet it all came across as fairly meaningless. Vehicles were hard to tell apart, and with people switching around from one to another, it seemed more like a shell game than an exciting chase. In the ones from earlier films that are most memorable to me, there were fairly simple goals in mind (use this horse to get the ark away from a convoy of trucks), or a simple setup that gives opportunities for a lot of different kinds of action (the mine car chase). In the jungle chase, it was more like the mine car chase, except without the variety of action. About the only thing memorable to me was Mutt straddling the two vehicles – not exactly groundbreaking excitement.


So, why then did I like the film? I’m not sure. As I mentioned, it’s nice to see Indy again, even if it’s a lesser attempt. Plus, it’s been ages since I went to a movie! I think that it might be because I can still imagine a great Indiana Jones movie, and if this wasn’t it, at least it gave flashes of some of the things we might see in it, a reminder of what made the early films great (if more by absence and shadowy reflection). I left the theater with my dream of another great Indy movie intact. I hope it comes along in fact some day, when everyone involved has the drive to make it happen.