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Rating History

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
8 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Indiana Jones movies open with the famous Paramount Pictures logo dissolving into some mountainous form, be it a South American peak in [i]Raiders of the Lost Ark[/i], an embossed emblem on a Chinese gong in [i]Temple of Doom[/i], or a dry boulder in Utah at the start of [i]The Last Crusade[/i]. In [i]Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull[/i], the long-awaited fourth installment in what may be one of the best franchises in movie history, the logo dissolves into a tiny prairie dog hill in Nevada located on the outskirts of Area 51. Perhaps director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas are reminding us at the start of the movie to keep our expectations low despite the arduous wait and growing anticipation we lovers of the series have endured. Still, the first frame of [i]Crystal Skull [/i]is reassuring. To our benefit, those involved in resurrecting Indy after a 19-year hiatus have their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks.

Indiana Jones is back and he still kicks ass.

[i]Crystal Skull [/i]delivers enough fun proving the naysayers wrong. It doesn?t match the unfairly high expectations [i]Raiders of the Lost Ark[/i] sets forth, which we all know is ultimately impossible. After all, we are experiencing a movie that Spielberg and Lucas know how to do best. [i]Crystal Skull [/i]makes all the imitators pale in comparison. Okay, so there are a few flaws but to complain about Indiana Jones is like complaining that your visit with an old friend went terribly awry because he or she wore the wrong shoes. Indiana Jones and the franchise itself is a throwback to those old-fashioned, B-movie matinee serials. ([i]Buck Rogers[/i], anyone?) The goal is simply to entertain and be swept away to another world. That doesn't necessarily mean that filmmakers sacrifice quality storytelling. ([i]Raiders[/i], anyone?) Movies of this sort should be fantastical and off-the-wall?relentless in its adventurous spirit and bold in its often-implausible moments. We?ll go for the ride if the ride?s well worth it. These movies demand our imagination. Sadly, that?s the biggest obstacle Indy?s going to have to endure this summer. How can an old-fashioned adventure hero be relevant to the iPod generation, who?s perpetually plugged-in, apathetic and incredulous?

Ironically it?s technology that makes this movie less than stellar. For all it?s old-fashioned sensibilities, the use of CGI in [i]Crystal Skull [/i]feel painfully out of place, taking away the pure, visceral joy of what makes an Indiana Jones movie?there?s no real, tangible sense of danger here, and the film suffers for it. Also, the dialogue could use a little polishing. Perhaps screenwriters David Koepp and Jeff Nathanson try too hard to emulate the spirit of the earlier entries.

[i]Crystal Skull[/i] is one gorgeous set piece after another, with purposefully garish lighting (very reminiscent of [i]Last Crusade[/i]) and out-of-this-world (literally) plot points. It?s now 1957, and the bad guys are no longer the Nazi?s but the Commies. Dr. Jones is a tenured professor who partners up with a young student named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) because their good friend Oxley, played by John Hurt, disappears while tracing the origins of this crystal skull?a quartz relic that evil Soviet agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) believes came from an earlier civilization, possibly form another world. On their quest, Indy and Mutt cross paths with one-time flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who also happens to be Mutt?s mother. There?s some healing to be had between Marion and Indy, and perhaps some seccrets that need revealing. Throughout the film, we?re jampacked into loads of action, thrilling set pieces and lots of trap doors and hidden clues. The action is relentless. For example, when Spalko and Mutt cross swords above moving vehicles and other obstacles, it brings me back to the glorious action of pre-CGI movies?and I?m not just saying this as a fencer myself. It?s nice to see movies do good old-fashioned stunts again.

Thankfully, there are way too many strong points to overlook the weak ones. The best is Harrison Ford. Even if he?s older and wiser, his whip (and wit) still cracks and finally, Ford shines again in a role he was born to play. Composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn give reliable work, be as they are Indy veterans having worked on all four films now. The supporting cast is great as well, with Cate Blanchett as the evil Ruskie dominatrix Irina Spalko complete with an over-the-top babushka accent. It?s also nice to see Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. Shia LaBeouf tries to keep up with his older counterparts and succeeds most of the time, even if his sensibilities seem a bit too 21st century. His strength has always been playing the young sarcastic, uber-cool know-it-all which LeBeouf doesn?t really get to display here since he?s suppose to be a cool kid in the 1950?s. Speilberg tries to immerse him in the era, even giving him a grand entrance a la Marlon Brando in [i]The Wild Ones[/i], complete with the hog, jacket and tilted cap.

Indy IV could also be considered a coming-of-middle-age story. There are plenty of over-the-hill jokes about Indy?s age. Besides, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford made the first three well into their thirties. Now they?re in their sixties and still going strong. Perhaps, that?s the coolest thing about this whole Indiana Jones resurrection. Underneath the excitement and brought out by Indy?s constant fatigue and ?I?m-getting-too-old-for-this? comments is a celebration of journeys traveled. Those of us old enough to remember experiencing any one of the first Indy movies on the big screen are probably too old to be going around celebrating an iconic character of our youth by gorging on the merchandise and wearing fedora hats at the mall. ([i]Raiders[/i] is the movie that made me want to become a filmmaker.) But having Indiana Jones back now that we?re older reminds us that life is full of adventures, no matter how old or young. It?s one thing to be old and another thing to do it the old-fashioned way.

And sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best way.

Welcome back, Dr. Jones. We?ve missed ya.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
8 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[font=Arial][size=3][color=white]Stephen Sondheim?s music is not for everyone. His songs are never meant to be catchy. Some might even say it?s 'unsingable.' Most of Sondheim?s work?[i]Sweeney Todd[/i], [i]Company[/i], and particularly [i]Assassins[/i], can be interpreted as cold, impersonal shows about people who are cold and impersonal. Subconsciously or not, most people who hear his music for the first time are immediately turned off. Perhaps by the music theory itself: broken chords, dissonant harmonies, and ever-changing time signatures. Those who can?t stand Sondheim hold a very valid argument. Yet unlike most musical theatre songwriters who cater to writing simplistic jingles to illicit standing ovations, Sondheim writes songs to serve character and story, not necessarily to please the ear. Anybody who?s ever tried to tackle a Sondheim song knows what I mean. His music is both an emotional and cerebral experience happening all at once. [/color][/size][/font]

[font=Arial][size=3][color=white]When it was announced that [b][i]Sweeney Todd[/i][/b] would be turned into a film, fans of the show immediately knew that Tim Burton, with his trademark gothic sensibilities is the right director to do it. After all, Tim Burton?like Sondheim?is not for everyone. To some, his movies are cold and impersonal about people who are cold and impersonal. But whether you?re a fan of these two artists or not, seeing the work interpreted is what makes the experience satisfying. So it?s fascinating to see Tim Burton interpret Sondheim?s music through the medium of cinema. It?s a perfect artistic marriage and for that alone it makes seeing the film adaptation of [b][i]Sweeney Todd[/i][/b] worth seeing.[/color][/size][/font]

[font=Arial][size=3][color=white]Now the film adaptation of this award-winning gothic musical succeeds for the most part, but sadly falls short of being perfect. Tim Burton?s re-imagining of the classic stage show?a cross between an epic Wagner operetta, and a Hammer horror flick?works because he wisely scaled it down on film. It?s a far more intimate experience without a trace of ?Broadway.? He delivers a very dark, scathingly funny movie and it?s gorgeous to look at. The sets by veteran designer Dante Ferretti and costumes by multiple Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood are exceptional. Still, [b][i]Sweeney Todd[/i][/b] truly is a horror film, rooted in Grand Guignol theatrics. It?s scarier than the best horror flicks of recent memory (the [b][i]Saw[/i][/b] franchise included) because it depicts with gut-wrenching emotion and detail the capacity of evil that lurks in each of us?our thirst for justice that can lead to madness. It?s been a long time since a horror movie truly haunted and [b][i]Sweeney Todd[/i][/b] definitely stirred some dormant fears. Isn?t that what art can and should do sometimes? [/color][/size][/font]

[size=3][color=white][font=Arial][b][i]Sweeney Todd[/i][/b] is a moral fable revolving around a young barber named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) who was unjustly sent to prison by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), sentencing Barber for the purposes of coveting his gorgeous wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and his infant daughter for his own. When Barker returns to reopen his barber shop, he becomes Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who 'shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.' He?s hell-bent on revenge?a madman who kills to feed his anger. Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who owns the pie shop below and bakes perhaps the worst pies in London quickly becomes Sweeney?s accomplice. She too has a few screws loose in the head, and soon they both work together as Mrs. Lovett creates diabolical meat pies out of Sweeney?s poor victims.[/font][/color][/size]

[font=Arial][size=3][color=white]It?s apparent that Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman follow Sondheim?s lead first, letting the music and the spirit of the show pave their wonderful performances. Depp as the demon barber of Fleet Street is flat-out enjoyable. It?s a bone-chilling moment when Depp?s Sweeney sings to his razor and belts out, ?Alas, an extension of my arm.? In that one defining moment of the film, we see Depp who is undoubtedly a gifted actor, breathe life into Sweeney. All of his ideas and choices are embodied in character and in song, meshed into a gratifying performance that you can?t take your eyes off of. It?s no surprise that he could sing (he was in a rock band before) even if his baritone is too thin and grungy to pull it off. Sondheim writes songs that start out seemingly melodic yet soon build up with dissonant key changes and plenty of counter-rhythm and off-kiltered syncopation. Depp makes it work, even in his disturbing duet with Rickman, ?Pretty Women.? Alan Rickman?s villainous Judge Turpin is delicious and never one-dimensional. What separates both their performances from the rest of the cast is their complete grasp of their characters. Both Depp and Rickman allow the music, Burton?s succinct direction, and the spirit of the piece to sink deep into their characterizations and choices. [/color][/size][/font]

[font=Arial][size=3][color=white]So with a piece as difficult as this, it?s apparent that the root of the problem lies with the casting; choosing actors who truly can handle the schizophrenic nature of the material. With the exception of Depp, Rickman, Timothy Spall?s aide-de-camp role and Laura Michelle Kelly as Sweeney?s wife, the rest seem a bit out of their league. [b][i]Sweeney Todd[/i][/b] is a very difficult show to sing, and watching the actors mangle their way through some of the hardest key changes ever written is like watching a high school football team go up against the New England Patriots. No matter how good you are, you?re not there yet. Singing and music aside, Burton and his players never seem to grasp beyond the subtext. Helena Bonham Carter is terribly miscast as Mrs. Lovett, a role far more demanding on all ends of the spectrum, not just the singing. Her performance is uneven and she never truly nails it, trapped in every deranged heroine character Tim Burton has imagined for her. Mrs. Lovett is a larger-than-life woman. Carter plays her more as a trapped little victim instead of a survivor. It takes guts and confidence to turn men into meat pies and serve it up to the masses. With Carter?s Lovett, I just don?t buy it. The two young lovers Anthony and Johanna played by Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener are serviceable, but weightless. Sacha Baron Cohen of [b][i]Borat[/i][/b] fame provides some comic relief as Sweeney?s competitor Pirelli, a role that?s always been poised to steal the spotlight, even for a few lighthearted moments. But still, his presence is short-lived, literally. There are a few minor quibbles about cut songs, particularly the crowd-pleaser ?The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.? On the plus side, those cut songs still remain as underscoring and surprisingly, this well-worn score sounds like Bernard Hermann at his finest.[/color][/size][/font]

[font=Arial][size=3][color=white]At the end of it all, [b][i]Sweeney Todd[/i][/b] is the work of two artists who dare to be different. It?s not for everyone. I?ll admit that it helps to know a little bit about the works of both Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim to truly appreciate it. Perhaps I?m biased. Many (myself included) consider Sondheim as the finest living veteran of his craft. Sondheim?like George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein before him?uses music not only to tell the story, but to embody a character. The musical score of [b][i]Sweeney Todd[/i][/b]from the 1979 play to this new film adaptation is a textural work of musical beauty. The score has become a modern classic not only among theatre enthusiasts but music aficionados as well. But that?s expected of Sondheim, whose body of work alone has brought the composer to the highest echelons in the world of music. Tim Burton gives a worthy cinematic interpretation of it, offering perhaps his strongest movie since [b][i]Ed Wood[/i][/b]. Sadly, his cinematic tale is marred by a few of his key players hitting too many wrong notes.[/color][/size][/font]

Michael Clayton
9 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Dark, brooding and wholly effective, [i]Michael Clayton[/i], written and directed by Tony Gilroy, is a morality fable, giving us a glimpse of the importance of decency and ethics, or the lack thereof. This intelligent, absorbing thriller sharply focuses the lens on corporate America and how inadvertently affected we have become by their set of principles, standards, and values. Someone?s got to stand up to ethics again, and who better to do it than George Clooney, the perpetual playboy and the ultimate suavecito?

Yet seeing [i]Michael Clayton[/i], all the superficiality of being a superstar is buried deep underneath Clooney?s strong, nuanced performance. He?s proved in recent outings that he?s not just a movie star?he?s one hell of an actor. Clooney loses all the wattage that surrounds him to play the title character with depth and grit, proving that he is the definitive leading man of our time.

Clooney is Michael Clayton, an in-house ?fixer? for a prestigious New York law firm. He?s the go-to guy whenever there?s a problem that the firm needs to keep on the down low. He works in that gray zone where liars and cheaters dwell, taking up their Ivy League fašades and glad-handing fellow masters of the universe in their private clubs. Michael doesn?t belong there. He considers himself more of a janitor; tidying up the mess and the trails these dwellers leave behind. Sure, he?s upscale and cool, but underneath lies a man who knows he?s sold his soul to the devil countless times. It?s during those interior struggles that our lead actor truly shines and writer/director Tony Gilroy masterfully let?s us linger in those moments with unending close-ups, giving the audience time to study every tiny variation in Clooney?s performance.

It wouldn?t be fair to say that the movie works simply because of Clooney. Yes, he contributes much to its success but he couldn?t have done it without Gilroy, an accomplished screenwriter whose credits include scribing the Bourne films and helming the director chair for the first time here with great results, even if at times you feel Gilroy?s watched too many Sidney Lumet films and read way too many John Grisham novels to handsomely mount his own combined version of the two. Much of the film relies heavily on flashbacks, which makes for a difficult follow. The plot is thick and the dialogue, though wonderful, a tad wordy. The first act takes forever to get going yet thankfully the film?s denouement is strong enough. At least Gilroy knows when to let his characters shut up and just be.

The performances keep the film moving and Clooney is backed by a fine group of supporting players. Tom Wilkinson, screaming for a Supporting Oscar nod, plays Arthur, the firm?s star litigator and Michael?s good friend and colleague. Arthur has a huge meltdown putting the firm and its clients on shaky ground, starting the chain of events in the film and its countless twists and turns. There?s also a reliable turn from director/actor Sydney Pollack as a key senior partner. Asides from Clooney, the other most interesting performance comes from Tilda Swinton as Karen, the chief counsel to a major corporation. It?s too easy to pin her down as the villain of the picture but based on her mesmerizing performance, she?s a sad sack of a person who hides her pains through a searing wall of banality. She?s that heartless stranger who probably only needs to be loved, but you can?t help but look at her with disgrace. You pity her but at the same time, you can?t believe the things she says or does. Underneath the stilettos and corporate veneer lies someone utterly dangerous and that?s scary because Swinton?s Karen is a person we all know exists. Quite a contradictory character that only mirrors Michael?s very own personal conflicts. What makes Michael Clayton a worthy entry into the legal thriller genre is the notion that corporate America creates no black-and-white villains; everyone more or less inhabits various shades of gray, lying in the comfort of that terribly vague gray zone. It?s a less optimistic Erin Brockovich, and much like that movie, Michael Clayton has done the difficult feat of making a well-known movie star lose all their glam, glitz and star-power to give a performance that perhaps may become one of the most important turns of their career.

Hairspray (2007)
9 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I?ll be the first to admit that I was tepid to see the third reincarnation of [i]Hairspray[/i]. I?ve always enjoyed the original 1988 campy Jon Waters cult-classic and I?ve seen the show done on stage to great effect. The idea of turning a movie-into-a-stage-musical-back-into-movie didn?t seem promising. Remember [i]The Producers[/i]?

Thankfully, I was proved wrong. Big time. The latest rendition of [i]Hairspray[/i] is infectious and catchy enough to get the toes tapping of even the most skeptical of filmgoers. Unlike its movie musical predecessors, [i]Hairspray[/i] isn?t afraid to sing and dance out loud, embracing the genre and all its glory?like one of those pastel-tinted musicals of the sixties starring Elvis Presley or Pat Boone crossed with a Fred Astaire extravaganza. Maybe even add a bit of those 60?s variety shows like Laugh-In or the Ed Sullivan Show.

The two most recent and successful stage-to-screen adaptations pale in comparison; [i]Chicago [/i]seemed ashamed to be a musical in the first place and [i]Dreamgirls[/i] masked its musical identity behind the device of pop music. Here, [i]Hairspray [/i]isn?t ashamed at all, like the story?s plump heroine Tracy Turnblad, energetically played by newcomer Nikki Blonksy (and Ricki Lake in the original film). She?s big, bouncy and full of life.

From the rousing opening number, ?Good Morning, Baltimore,? the heavy-set Tracy doesn?t let her weight weigh her spirits down. She?s bright, optimistic and way ahead of her times. She rushes home after school with her best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes) to catch The Corny Collins Show, the local teenage TV danceathon. Back then every local TV outlet had a show like that, which eventually got killed by Dick Clark and the nationally aired American Bandstand. Corny Collins (James Marsden) has his Council: a group of dancing teenagers led by Amber von Tussle (Brittany Snow) who is the star of the show along with Elvis wannabe/local heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Efron). Tracy longs to be part of the Council but she?s got to get past Amber and her mother Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) who happens to own the TV station, and enforces that only white, good-looking kids be on the show. Once a month she allows Negro Day, which is organized by the local record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). All this is rehash from the original film but Adam Shankman?s direction and choreography makes it feel fresh. Actually, he?s fashioned quite a spectacle. The choreography is fluid and the film never misses a beat. There?s a wonderful number titled ?Welcome to the 60?s? that evokes Jacques Demy?s [i]The Umbrellas of Cherbourg[/i], with its pastel costumes and street-corner moves. Marc Shaiman?s enjoyable songs are all a pastiche of the music of the times and its definitely one of the movies strong points. Musical scores rarely translate well on screen. Thankfully Shaiman?s score does to great, storytelling effect. Perhaps that?s what makes the movie work. On stage, I always thought the show felt like a film, with its ingenious way of staging things like movie stills. The movie version makes it all come full circle.

What makes it undeniably fun is watching a game cast of actors play their parts with glee. Michelle Pfeiffer is a hoot as the villainous Velma von Tussle, and John Travolta makes Edna Turnblad, Tracy?s big-bosomed Mama who?s traditionally played by a man, such a tender, loveable character. When Edna finally struts her stuff, you can?t believe that it?s a man in a fat suit because Travolta?s Edna has so much grace and poise. Shankman choreographs it well, but Travolta makes Edna his own. The rest of the supporting cast is delightful: James Marsden?s Corny Collins is a surprise?who would have thought Cyclops could sing? Allison Janney, always good in anything she does, makes a small part a memorable one. Queen Latifah makes the best of Motormouth Maybelle, a role that?s always been part Aretha Franklin, part saint and Christopher Walken as Edna?s husband Wilbur perfectly showcases his talents as a real song-and-dance man. Asides from Blonsky, the teen cast is sadly overshadowed by their adult (and far more experienced) counterparts. Amanda Bynes simply can?t sing and Zac Efron just doesn?t have that strong a presence to pull off leading man, albeit a very young one. The film?s incessant cheerfulness gets a bit ingratiating in the second act especially when it gets deep into the racial issues, with some numbers that feel forced compared to the breeziness of the first and last half of the movie. Still, it?s a flaw easy to overlook.

Underneath the beehive hairdos and the brisk air of nostalgia, [i]Hairspray[/i] is a message movie that remarkably weaves some strong issues like community and acceptance into song?and all with a heavy dose of fun. Yet what?s fascinating is how wonderfully unabashed the movie is about being an off-kiltered entertainment piece, especially during the summer movie season. It?s a film easy to dismiss, one to dish out to lovers of the genre, but it?s hard not to embrace it, even if it?s going against the mainstream. It?s not as raunchy and racy as Jon Waters would probably have it?think of it as Jon [i]Waters-it-down[/i]. Casting teen-friendly actors like Amanda Bynes and Zac Efron and earning a family-friendly PG rating, it rarely hints at the possibility of Waters? vulgarity. It could also simply be the sign of the times. Even though all of [i]Hairspray[/i]?s reincarnations possess Jon Waters? flamboyance and gay sensibilities, this is truly a movie for everybody because it maintains the heart of the earlier versions: it?s not how you look while moving to the beat, it?s how the beat makes you feel.

[b]3.5 out of 5 stars[/b]