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A Few Notes On Summer Movies, 2008 (Not Comics)
posted May 27, 2008

* Prince Caspian is an awful book, the worst in Christian popular author CS Lewis' Narnia series. It feels like Lewis wrote it to escape a bar bet or to make enough money to pay someone off so they'd leave him alone. Prince Caspian is unsurprisingly a mostly awful movie, although it's so confidently stitched together from superior films that it at least feels better than the book. I liked a scene where Tilda Swinton's Ice Queen or whatever the hell she was named is foiled in an attempt to come back to life. Driven by hammy actors and strange dialog, that five minutes was freaky and weird and full of the kind of stomach-churning imagery I imagine one might see a lot in a fantasy world. I was surprised it made the film.

The rest of it? Over-serious and ordinary. The endless non-violent violent combat scenes are ridiculous extrapolations on single paragraphs in Lewis' work, the vast majority of the creatures of Narnia look silly and unconvincing despite the millions spent on them, and the talking mouse Reepicheep is pushed on the audience with only slightly less "pwease wuv me" shamefulness than Poochie the Dog. Worst of all, Liam Neeson surprisingly has much too inconsequential a voice to be a memorable Jesus as Lion, which when combined with more dull-as-dirt CGI makes the series' signature character a heartbreaking bore. It should be an all-time movie-magic thrill to see Aslan, and it ends up being far from being special even in the context of the film. I found myself preferring to see one of the badgers again, which is kind of sad. A Christmas movie that feels overdressed for summer, Prince Caspian leaves me with little hope I can make it until Magician's Nephew.

* I found Iron Man to be something of a scary movie, really, and not just because it practically guarantees Marvel at least a shot at making four or five more major blockbusters even if the next few tank. Iron Man is super-slick and funny and engaging in the service of God knows what, a love letter to people that are highly amusing and romantically, adorably self-aware over, well, just about any other quality a human being can have. The notion that the proper response to violence that you yourself have caused is to build a bigger gun and use it to shoot at the first set of guns (and the people of color holding them) seems to me fundamentally repulsive, and didn't get questioned in enough of a non-smarmy way for me to ever forget the lingering implications. Considering exactly what happened, wouldn't it have been just as important for Tony Stark to ensure the financial well-being of the families of the soldiers that were killed protecting him when he was kidnapped? In fact, those soldiers dying seems to me a bigger tragedy than even the creation of a set of neato super-armor could hope to justify, no matter how charming an actor Robert Downey Jr. might be.

imageThe most interesting running idea in Iron Man is that several people in Tony Stark's life have to bend over backwards and even flaunt the rules to facilitate his genius, and therefore his shift into more righteous behavior provides solace and encouragement to those that saw something in him worthy of their support. That's not a bad issue to explore: a kind of "Sympathy for Alfred" approach. The problem is that Stark's special genius beyond his powers of intense rakish-osity and snap comic timing with his robot servants remains asserted as opposed to shown -- we're even told by Bald Jeff Bridges what invention of Tony Stark's is most important, rather than shown. I also liked the notion of a world where arms dealers are sexy dudes that score magazine covers, and that scene where Pepper Potts is worried her co-workers might think she's a whore because she dances with her boss at a charity function instead of their thinking that because she works at the guy's house all the time and is bound-to-be-related icy to his various hook-ups. I always thought Iron Man was worth a movie because it's a relate-able, executable concept. I'm a little more doubtful it has franchise capabilities, but it's not exactly 2001 anymore in terms of fresh fantasy movie properties, either.

* I don't have that nerd-ownership gene. I don't thrill to seeing my imaginary friends "treated right" (whatever that means), and I don't feel betrayed when they're in a bad movie, TV show or book. I never want to see the Star Wars prequels again, as I found them soul-destroying and horrible, but I appreciate the hilarity of George Lucas giving all those fans the finger and making the movies he wanted to make: crappy ones. If I'm not going to get mad at Clayton Moore wearing his ski goggles or Ric Flair making me look at a 60-year-old man with his shirt off far more than I ever wanted to, I'm not going to begrudge Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spending some of their collective billions getting their garage band back together and cranking through the movie equivalent of a "Rocky Mountain Way" cover.

Here's another thing. I don't have high expectations for late-period work from reuniting creative teams. I liked the Chris Claremont and John Byrne X-Men comics when I was a kid and I can read those stories with a fair degree of fondness now; I would have zero hope that a Chris Claremont/John Byrne reunion on an X-Men book would result in anything I'd even halfway care to read at this time in my life. I'm different, they're different. And yet I still couldn't get mad at them if they wanted to try. Why should I? I wasn't mad when I saw Frank Sinatra that he wasn't 1950s Sinatra. I liked The Odd Couple but never once considered watching Grumpy Old Men; still, I wouldn't begrudge Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau any fun they had on the set. I'm way behind on Woody Allen films, Philip Roth novels and Rolling Stones albums, and I'm in no hurry to catch up, but I figure that's OK as they didn't really make those things for my approval or disapproval. I don't even get angry when I think of Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform. Who has the time? God bless anyone that wants to do whatever it is they want to do.

I guess what I'm saying is that I can't imagine time more miserably spent than to sit in a darkened theater with a mental checklist and compare some new, goofy movie with an old, goofy movie that happened to be close to my heart when I was 12 years old. Because I was 12 years old. In fact, I'm sort of suspicious of anyone that can keep that kind of art close in a way that it becomes so precious to them that anything that calls that devotion into question must be shrieked down. That's a lot to put on a piece of commercial entertainment that nearly starred Tom Selleck, two hours spent at the Muncie Mall as part of a full day of shopping for Kansas records, drinking an Orange Julius, smoking a cigarette with Stu Robinson and looking at Piers Anthony paperbacks over at the Book End.

The movie I saw the other night was kind of boring, kind of a mess, decidedly half-assed and not very sharp in the writing department. I liked the space aliens and the commies and the other obvious nods to 1950s movies tropes. There was a good gag that involved riding a motorcycle into a university library and a forced gag about using a snake as a rope. I liked OK the nods to getting older and the thematic construction of putting things back vs. having things taken away. Mostly what it was was forgettable, just like the other films if you're honest about it, and unlike the first movie it's not likely to age well. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a cute movie because it celebrated pulp serials while allowing commentary on them via a self-aware hero of the more modern, cynical variety: its signature scene was Indiana Jones casually shooting an idiot with a sword rather than engage in a long, movie-style fight. There's nothing like that here, and they missed an opportunity in not going that route as the Mutt Williams character initially recalls the 1950s' film industry homemade paragon of self-commentary on the heroic ideal: Marlon Brando. But rather than a knowing, humorous take on the '50s from our perspective now, reality fairly bends until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ossifies before our eyes into a 1950s adventure story with 1930s values, like it or lump it. That's very much an older, successful man's view on the way the world should work, which of course makes a lot of sense.