Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'm How Old?

“I remember when gas was less than $5 a gallon,” I’ll be saying to my grandchildren when gas is $48 a gallon. And they’ll say to me, “Grandpa, you’re so old. What’s gas?” And then they’ll strap on their hydrogen jet packs and fly off to the virtual master brain for the fourth dimensional sensory simulation unit.

Until then, I can rest comfortably knowing that gas is well below $50 a gallon and that it only costs $200 to drive a rented Ford Explorer from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for a semi-annual weekend getaway. At least there were four of us that split the gas this last weekend, although two of these passengers subjected the driver, yours truly, to a two-hour ‘N Sync marathon.

For those of you who are my age, ‘N Sync is like New Kids on the Block, but with Justin Timberlake. And I believe that starting in Barstow we listened to every song ‘N Sync ever lip-synced, mercifully skipping the Christmas songs.

The way these trips work is that on the way to Vegas the girls get to listen to their Ipods, and on the way back, I get to listen to mine. I take my opportunity with the radio to teach these kids about my generation’s music. I like to think of myself as a tour bus, cruising down the musical freeway known as the mid-nineties. If I can get these young ones to crack open and crawl out of their MTV shells, then maybe we can not only have fun, but perhaps learn something as well.

But as usual, by the time we were two tracks in to Wildflowers everyone was asleep.

Halfway through the trip back I discovered that the Explorer was equipped with satellite radio. I quickly found my favorite station, Backspin. Backspin played all of the rap music I listened to in junior high and high school-- Naughty by Nature, Public Enemy, KRS 1, NWA, etc. I tried to impress Camille by naming the artist and title of every song that came on.

“Back when I was in high school,” I told her, “I had over 200 rap tapes.”

“On 8 track?” she asked.

Listening to all of my old music made me think about how rap used to be so notorious. And then I remembered that back in those days, even The Simpsons was controversial. When I was in junior high, Bart Simpson shirts were banned from some high schools.

But I didn’t feel old until the DJ, Kurtis Blow, said “This is Backspin, the station playing the dope cuts from back in the day.” And that’s the speed of life. One day you’re in high school cruising down the strip in Greencastle, Indiana bumpin’ 2 Live Crew in your dad’s truck, the next you’re listening to some old rapper tell you that, yes, it’s been fifteen years and your youth belongs to a time that is now referred to as "back in the day. "

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Some Notes on Dodger Stadium

Two Thursdays ago I went with my friends Bryan and Brendan to the Cubs game at Dodger Stadium. We had seats in the third deck with a fine view of the entire field. (One of the many things I like about Dodger Stadium is that all of the seats are pretty good.) It was a fantastic game with the first-place Cubs taking an early lead, blowing that lead, and then coming from behind to win by one. It was also Takashi Saito bobble head night.

There are two things that occur at Dodger Stadium that any self-respecting Cubs fan loathes. The first is the wave. The second is the overabundance of beach balls bouncing around the park. Apparently, Dodger baseball isn’t entertaining enough in its own right; fans have to bring activities. Brendan takes the proactive approach and annihilates any of the beach balls that come his way, usually to a chorus of boos and crying children. On that Thursday, Brendan wasn’t even going out of his way to grab the floating distractions, but the two balls that bounced in our area landed on the empty seat right next to him. He had no choice. In the ninth inning Saito came into pitch, and Brendan held up his Takashi bobble head and ceremoniously decapitated it in front of the entire section. He was pelted with food from angry fans. The good news was that the curse worked, and the Cubs scored the winning run that inning. The bad news was that I was hit by a cup of ice thrown at Brendan by an angry fan who had as good of aim as Saito did that night.

On Saturday, I was still recovering from Thursday’s dinner of two dodger dogs and tray of garlic fries. Camille and I had great seats thanks to my Dad, who sent me tickets as a graduation gift. We were eight rows off the field on the third base side in screaming line drive, foul ball territory. The day was hot, and for some reason I thought that being at a ball game made me immune to sunburn. After the game, I looked like an embarrassed lobster.

The Cubs lost badly that day, and so did Big Brown. The good news was that I only lost a few dollars more on the Belmont Stakes than I did paying $15 for parking outside Dodger Stadium. Getting out after the game took a good 50 minutes. For those of you not familiar with Dodger Stadium, all of the parking is in the ravine where Dodger Stadium is located. There are three or four roads out. Everyone drives, and the exits bottleneck as the game ends. This is why Dodger fans leave the game in the seventh inning, to beat traffic. That day I managed to find the worst of the parking lots, which was a level down from the main parking area. We had to wait for most of the main lot to empty before we could even move.

But for those who haven’t been, Dodger stadium is a great old ballpark. (It’s now one of the oldest and my favorite in California.) The best time to be there is sunset when an orange glow is cast over the hills and palm trees behind the outfield bleachers. And when the Cubs win.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Last Tirade

Oh, hell. I went and did it again. But this is the last one. I promise. Do you really think I’m going to be writing blogs about Indiana Jones when I’m sixty? Okay. Maybe if I get the right idea for a blog. But it absolutely has to be the right idea. And George Lucas has to approve the concept.
My change of heart came last night when I received two e-mails. The first was from my friend, Brendan, mentioning that the Frank Darabont Indiana Jones script, Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, had been leaked online. The second was from another friend, Rooster, and contained a copy of said script-- the script that Spielberg loved and that was going to be filmed until the Lucas veto. Honestly, it wasn’t a question of whether City of the Gods would be better than David Koepp's script for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was a question of how much better.
First and foremost, there is no Mutt. This isn’t a story to set up the next franchise; this is an Indiana Jones movie. Otherwise, the plot is largely the same, involving a crystal skull and the search for the fabled lost city of the gods.
But this script is well written, and makes much more sense than Crystal Skull. Still wondering why the Russians kidnapped Indy (in his archeology gear for some reason) in the first scene in Crystal Skull and how the ensuing warehouse sequence connected to the plot? In City of the Gods everything makes sense. Indy shows up at the top-secret army warehouse because he sees his Russian friend sneak some fellow Russians into the base using Indy's own car. There is no mention of an alien or Roswell or any of that. The Russians are there for stolen plutonium and a mysterious object in a bowling ball bag.
After escaping the same nuclear blast in Crystal Skull and being accused of being a spy because of his connection with the Russian friend, Indy is put on leave as a professor and becomes the victim of an assassination attempt. When his would-be assassin kills an FBI agent, it looks like Jones did it, so now the police are after Indy too. This series of event leads Indy to the contents of the bowling ball bag-- the crystal skull. Off to Peru to clear his name, Indy delivers the skull to Marion Ravenwood, who doesn’t know that she is working for Russian spies. Indy decides he’s going to tag along in the search for the city of the gods, and Indy and Marion are soon being pursued by the Americans, the Russians, and the Peruvian government. The script certainly raises the stakes, and is that much more exciting as a result.
But most importantly, Darabont gets the characters right. Marion is as feisty as ever. And she is not outwardly happy to have Indy tagging along. Indy soon learns that Marion is married to a competing archeologist. Hence actual character development and story arc as Indy must come to terms with the fact that he has always loved Marion and has lost her. In Crystal Skull they seemingly get together for no other reason than they are supposed to. There’s also a fantastic mid-air fight sequence between Indiana Jones and the Russian friend who betrayed him. It’s too bad this wasn’t filmed. The river sequence is much better as well.
The script is not perfect. It’s long, and there are some drawn-out moments of exposition. There is still a Tarzan scene, and there aren’t three, but four waterfalls. There are also giant jungle creatures, which I’m not sure works, but at least explains how a horde of ants could eat a person in two seconds. Ultimately, the few outlandish action sequences make just enough sense to allow the reader suspend belief, a fine line that the Indiana Jones series constantly toes. Unlike Koepp and Lucas, Darabont seems to understand this dance. It’s the difference between forgiving some of the more over-the-top moments and not. In other words, there are no gophers.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Blah

Welcome to my first sequel blog! And you only had to wait one week. Normally, I don’t like to do more than one post per topic, but I have more to say about Indiana Jones. And unlike Steven Spielberg, I don’t have to take advice from George Lucas.

It’s impossible to say, exactly, from what perspective one should view Kingdom of the Crystal Skull since most of us are watching it through a lens of nostalgia for the other films. For some, this could mean accepting Kingdom despite all of its faults. My buddy, Mike, who liked the movie, wrote to tell me that while he had some of the same issues I did with the film, he felt it was on par with the rest of the series. He points out that both Temple of Doom and Raiders of the Lost Ark were full of “what were they thinking” moments. He points out that the mine car chase in Temple was just as outlandish as the vine swinging scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. “Those old films are not always as good as we remember them,” he says. And he’s right. (One could also point out that surviving a nuclear blast in a refrigerator is no more probable than surviving a plane crash in an inflatable raft.)

But others, myself included, associate the first three films with great childhood memories, and remember the films as epic adventure masterpieces. Admittedly, for those people, Kingdom had hardly a chance of living up to impossible expectations. And that’s a fair enough pro-Kingdom argument.

But I still think Kingdom of the Crystal Skull failed as an Indiana Jones movie. To me, it still seems overstuffed and unnecessary. It just doesn’t work on an emotional level, or on a story telling level the way it should. (See original blog.)

I think one of the problems with Kingdom, as well as with the new Star Wars movies, is that George Lucas has never adapted to the increased sophistication of today’s audiences. Ironically, this is something that he himself helped nurture by being a pioneer in special effects and then promoting himself and his methods like mad. Like never before, audiences scrutinize special effects. Bad CGI groundhogs just don’t cut it because you can’t wow audiences anymore with anything that looks fake. It’s sad in a way, because audiences are now in on the magic trick. And since Indiana Jones doesn’t seem to be begging for extensive CGI, when it looks bad, it looks really bad. At least the Star Wars films were consistently nothing but special effects.

It’s also possible that Lucas doesn’t understand his audience anymore. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the audience that went and saw Indy skewed older than your typical action film. The fan base are the ones who saw the originals in theaters, no longer teenagers. Yet, goofy groundhogs and Shia LeBeoff swinging from a vine seemed thrown in to satisfy Lucas’s kids. (He ran into this same problem by making the Star Wars sequels for children. But Lucas doesn’t have to learn from his mistakes anymore. He can afford to be lazy.)

Lucas must not go to the movies anymore because there are plenty of examples of big-budget, mega-successful genre films that are both commercially viable and appeal to hard-core fans and critics. Like Batman Begins. Or Casino Royale. People don’t want to see cartoons anymore. They want their fantastic stories to be more grounded in reality. (Iron Man played it perfectly.) It’s a fine line, the one between fantasy and reality, one that Lucas doesn’t seem to grasp. Or maybe he just refuses to grow up like the rest of us.

Of course, it’s not fair to put all of the blame on Lucas. Spielberg did direct the movie. He’s the auteur. But my theory is that Spielberg became annoyed with Lucas, decided he just wanted to shoot the movie already, and gave in. So don’t be surprised if the Howard The Duck prequel is on its way.