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Tuesday, May 21

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

By now you've probably read more than your share of reviews of the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones series. And unlike other films people either love or hate, IJATKOFCS seems to be inspiring a legion of lukewarm reactions. Because of my ridiculous travel schedule in the month of May, I missed the Chicago press screening of the film. As a result, this may be the only review you read that comes from a critic who saw the Spielberg-Lucas-Ford collaboration with a paying audience at midnight, early on a dark Thursday morning. These were the grizzled die-hards, sporting fedoras, fake bullwhips and rubber snakes. It was a slightly older crowd than the normal fare you might see at a midnight opening day screening; I'm including myself in that mix. This was an audience primed and ready to love this movie, and from the after-screening reactions, it seems like most of them did with some reservations. As for me, I thought IJATKOFCS was good, or at least good enough, but it's not the kind of movie experience that fills me with so much love that repeated viewings are required. I'll wait for the DVD before taking this one in for a second time.

Most of the 2- or 2.5-star reviews of IJATKOFCS have been right on the money. I might even bump it up to three when I watch it again. The film feels like a transition work. It reminded me more of the spirit of the "Young Indiana Jones" series, which is a very good thing. I liked the way that show placed Henry Jones Jr. in the context of the history he was a part of. There's a bit of that going on here. This story of Crystal Skull is set in 1957, during the height of the Cold War and the Atomic Scare. Although it's not specifically said, Indiana is blacklisted by the government. The music, hairstyles and clothes of his students are more "Happy Days" than anything else. His new sidekick, Mutt (Shia LeBeouf) has a black leather jacket and Brando-style white riding cap as he cruises around on his motorcycle. Jones lives in a 1950s that the government wanted us to be afraid of; here, all of the Red Scare paranoia is justified. A group Russians (led by Cate Blanchett's Irina Spalko) breaks into a familiar-looking enormous warehouse searching for something that may or may not be the key to not just a new weapon, but a new kind of weapon that only a communist could truly appreciate, those soul-sucking, mind-controlling bastards.

I know some people have come down on Blanchett's truly bizarre performance, but she adds the best kind of new blood and energy to the franchise. She's unbelievable beautiful, and the fetishist in me loves the jack boots, severe bob and shiny rapier. But she's also sometimes the only one who seems to react the way a normal person would react to the inconceivable events she's witnessing. And there is some crazy shit going down in this movie. I've grown to expect a certain level of Christian and other types of mysticism in this series, but what goes on in this movie would probably seem more at home in an episode of "The X Files" than a movie about an archeologist. I'm not complaining; it just requires an adjustment period. I'm undecided on my thoughts about LaBeouf in this movie. He certainly has the physical stamina to carry the series on if that's what Lucas decides he wants to do, and I've always enjoyed watching him work. He's maybe a little too much of a smart ass for my tastes here and needlessly rebellious, but if they can tone him down a bit, he'll rock as the heir apparent.

Indy has other sidekicks, played by John Hurt and Ray Winstone, both fine actors, both utterly wasted in this movie. Winstone's constant changing of sides (which he calls being a double agent) annoyed me; but his worse crime is the fault of the screenplay (one of many): he's a terrible foil for Harrison Ford. As for Hurt, playing the lost explorer who guides the group through the Amazon to their grand treasure, he's even worse. He's supposed to be crazy, but he's only as crazy as he needs to be in each scene. If they need him to be a babbling idiot, he is; if they need him to make sense for a scene, he straightens up a bit. A fine actor, Hurt is reduced to a totally inconsistent plot device rather than a real character. And what about the much-lauded Karen Allen's return as Marion Ravenwood? She's another one that must assume the role of plot device. And unlike her magnificent and heroic turn in Raiders of the Lost Ark, here she's more or less a helpless victim.

I could pick apart the screenplay for days, but the core story is fairly solid. The set pieces are great, but if I had to criticize one thing, it's that there's too much CGI in this movie. Compared to other summer movies, there probably isn't that much, but for an Indiana Jones movie, it's everywhere and it's extremely easy to spot to the point of distraction. Aside from that, the structure and the pacing of the film are good if not great. Ford is still enough of a presence to carry this puppy home; there's a sequence involving ants that will give me nightmares for weeks; and the opening scenes in the warehouse are clever and exciting. At this point (or perhaps even before this point), you need to stop reading reviews and decide for yourself.

Reprise

A much-celebrated work in its native Norway (where it won several national film awards, including Best Picture), Reprise is an energetic and youthful approach to looking at the perils of fame and the worth and weight of friendship in trying times. Best friends Phillip and Erik both mail their manuscripts to publishers on the same day, both believing they have written works that will change the world. Unfortunately, only Phillip is published, and his book is lauded from the rooftops by critics and readers as being the definitive statement of his generation.

Through the course of this story, director and co-writer Joachim Trier often uses a curious but exciting device of showing where the two young men's lives might have gone if things had gone a bit differently at various point in their lives. Sometimes these brief asides reveal as much about the boys' dreams and ambition as they do anything about alternate timelines and the ultimate "what if's". But even without these fantastical diversions, Reprise offers unpredictable paths for Phillip and Erik that include mental meltdowns, love, betrayal, idol worship, punk music, loads of self-reflection and, of course, role reversal. Reprise exists in that "only in the European movies" place where authors are lauded the same way as film stars on talk shows, at appearances and in the press. Perhaps in Norway they are treated this way; I see this same treatment in many French films as well (including in Roman de Gare reviewed below). Since you rarely see such lauding of writers in this country (except on Oprah's Book Club), it always strikes me as unrealistic, but it also makes me happy to think that maybe it's happening in other places.

Reprise has its dark and light moments, and ultimately it succeeds when it explores the nature of celebrity, the fickle qualities of the public and the critical press, and the subtle changes in a person's outlook and personality when they achieve even the slightest and most fleeting moment of recognition in the public eye. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Roman de Gare

One of the highlights from this year's European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center earlier this year is now opening today for a proper run at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. In a film that is constantly questioning what is real and what is fiction, the French release Roman de Gare (an expression for pulp novels sold in French train stations) is a spirited collection of thrills and great acting starring Fanny Ardant as a popular novelist whose research assistant has gone missing and is presumed dead, perhaps at her hands. As the film opens, Ardant is being questioned by the police about the events. Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated plot thread, a strange middle-aged man (Dominique Pinon) approaches a young woman (Audrey Dana) at a roadside service station after he fights with her boyfriend, who abandons her. There have been radio reports of a murderer who has escaped police custody, and we immediately suspect this stranger of being the killer. But the man confesses to his new driving companion that he is the ghost writer for Ardant's novelist character and that he's got an idea for a novel that he will publish under his own name.

Writer-director Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman) jumps back and forth between these two storylines, which are clearly not set on the same timeline. Dana brings Pinon to meet her family, hoping to pass him off as her boyfriend. Meanwhile, Ardant is preparing for an extended boat trip with her absent "assistant," so he can have some alone time to write. By the time the identities of all the players are made clear, it becomes obvious that Ardant is not willing to have her career derailed by an ambitious ghost writer, and with her publisher breathing down her neck for her new novel, the stakes are perilously high. Roman de Gare features a strong mix of tension, humor, character-driven drama and an examination of the celebrity highlife, all of which combine to make a fabulous and suspenseful melodrama. The story is complex without being the least bit confusing, and Lelouch does a marvelous job juggling the two timelines and slowly stripping away the mysteries of his work. Pinon is the real star of the show, holding back just enough to keep us guessing and giving us just enough to suck us into his fantastic life story. This is terrific filmmaking from a legendary filmmaker who clearly still has significant works in him.

The Animation Show 4

One of the greatest things about living in a city like Chicago is that we get fairly regular access to a small handful of traveling animation festivals that come from the likes of Spike & Mike (who seem to have two festivals going at any one time—a more conventional collection and another that offers a fabulous group of sick and twisted shorts) and Mike Judge & Don Herzfeldt's Animation Show, which now has its fourth anthology of all new offerings. It's always tough to review these kinds of programs because it really boils down to whether there are more worthy films than sub-par stuff. Spike & Mike's stuff is a bit more spotty, if only because they tend to repeat shorts from year to year (calling them "fan favorites"), but so far the Mike & Don Animation Show has been solid as a rock for four years running. Show number four has a few duds, but the stuff that's good/great here far outweighs the average (nothing here is bad).

The announced highlight of this program is the latest five-minute glory from the legendary Bill Plimpton, "Hot Dog" (which completes his "Guard Dog" trilogy, for those of you who know he had a trilogy going). Plimpton is something of a miracle worker, offering complete and hilarious stories with some fairly crude drawings and a brain full of great ideas. Other highlights include Steve Dildarian's "The Life and Times of Tim," which is being turned into a series for HBO. Good choice. The laid-back approach of the film reminds me a bit of "Dr. Katz," but the subject matter (in this case, Tim's girlfriend who returns home to find him sitting on the couch with a hooker, and Tim attempting to deny that he knows who she is) is far more racy. I was in awe of the latest from PES's stop-motion wonder "Western Spaghetti," a simple cooking lesson that is far from simple in its execution. A pair of shorts from Matthew Walker ("Operator," which has a man calling God to ask an important question, and "John and Karen," about a tense moment between a polar bear and a penguin) are marvelous examples of subtle, less-is-more humor that absolutely work.

The three "Yompi the Crotch-biting Sloup" shorts are bound to become cult classics, while "Raymond" from Bif Productions is a doozy of a mind-fuck involving a swimming instructor looking for a way to get to the ocean using experimental drugs. My second-favorite short, "This Way Up," about a pair of undertakers trying to get a coffin to the funeral on time, is as good as any Pixar short in recent history and far more sinister than any of the Tim Burton-produced animated features. But the one short I could (and did) watch dozens of times is "Love Sport Paint Balling," chronicling the "bloodiest" paintball game in history (and that's all I'll say). These two offerings are worth the price of admission, but lucky for you, you get about 80 minutes of some of the best animation out there from around the world. My underlying feeling about any collection of shorts, whether they be live-action/documentary stuff you might get at a film festival or these floating animation festivals is that they need to be supported even during an off year. Fortunately, this is a very good year for The Animation Show, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Passion of the Mao

Perhaps a little too wise-ass for its own good, this overly jovial look at the life and legend of China's Mao Zedong from director Lee Feigon is, nonetheless, packed with great information and insight that you probably aren't going to find in any other biography of Mao or any other notorious historical figure. There's no doubt that Feigon knows his stuff, and perhaps this wacky approach to the usually drab bio doc is his way of making his subject more interesting to the unindoctrinated, but sometimes he and narrator Aaron Freeman get a little too casual with the proceedings for my taste. Still, by using animation and revealing some lesser-known portions of Mao's life (like his sexual tastes and lack of hygienic practices), Feigon does paint a much more complete picture of the Great Helmsman than I've ever seen.

Not leaving out anything regarding the various revolutions Mao was a part of and survived, the film does a fantastic job of getting into his methods in dealing with enemies and rivals. Surprisingly, the film also makes it clear how progressive and willing to deal with the West Mao was when his other Chinese leaders would have preferred a more isolationist approach to politics. Using propaganda materials, newsreel footage, memoirs and oodles of other research materials, Feigon (a research assistant at the University of Chicago) does the best job I've seen giving concrete examples of why Mao is one of the few dictators in the world whose influence is still felt today and whose people never turned on him. Some documentary purists might take issue with the film's chosen method of disseminating information, but if you can put up with that, there's a great deal of useful and fascinating facts to mull over.

The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, May 25 at 7:30pm; Monday, May 26 at 5pm; and Thursday, May 29 at 8pm. Director Lee Feigon will be present for audience discussion at all screenings.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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