Hopeless Hollywood Sameness

Yesterday Kish and I decided to go see a movie.  It’s been hot as blazes in Columbus recently, and humid, too, and the idea of sitting for a few hours in an air-conditioned movie theater watching an interesting film was very attractive.

We haven’t been to the movies in a while because, candidly, the array of films offered this summer hasn’t been very appealing.  We have a narrow window of consensus — Kish can’t stand sci-fi and superhero movies, and I groan at the idea of sitting through some deep study of dysfunctional families — but we thought we’d give Jason Bourne a shot.

rs-jason-bourne-ea2bec70-27d1-4c0a-abc0-dcd61b987aa9Several hours later, after we’d been assaulted by loud, chaotic, and grossly improbable non-stop action, we emerged with the realization that Hollywood apparently has run out of ideas.  I think I may have seen part of an actual Jason Bourne movie in the past, but I’ve definitely seen this movie before — over and over and over again.  The film is so trite and formulaic that it immediately seemed like I was watching a rerun.  Even Matt Damon, who typically makes interesting films, couldn’t salvage it.  If you’re considering going to watch it, save your money.

Take every car chase scene you’ve seen since The French Connection, Bullitt, and The Blues Brothers movie, make them louder and longer and more destructive, and move them to Athens and the Vegas strip.  Input a rote, duplicitous bad guy with absolutely no redeeming qualities as the evil head of the the CIA and expect the audience to root for him to be killed.  Take an ambitious female agent with ambiguous loyalties off the shelf.  Add in an unbeatable hero with superhuman intellectual and physical capabilities and have him tracked by another apparently unstoppable cold-blooded killer who he has to fight at the climax.  That’s the plot.  Sound familiar?

The summer movie season used to feature inventive, different movies, like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars and Forrest Gump.  That’s no longer the case.  Now we get sequels, remakes, and canned, tried-and-true formulaic crap.  It’s no wonder that the box office receipts are down this summer.  What we’re getting from Hollywood these days really sucks.

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The Best Action Movie, Ever

This weekend the CAPA summer movie series at the Ohio Theatre features Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I might wander over tomorrow afternoon to catch a showing of what I consider to be the best action adventure movie ever made, and watching it on the big screen will make it even better.  That’s if I can get a seat, of course — the last time the Ohio Theatre screened Raiders, more than 2,000 bought tickets to watch it.

I’m sure that some people will disagree with my assessment.  I guess it depends on how you define “action.”  Raiders isn’t filled with fight scenes, although it has some truly great ones, and if you’re looking for a huge body count, this film really won’t fill the bill —  but the people who do get killed tend to die in very novel and interesting ways, whether it’s getting pincushioned by poison darts or chopped to smithereens by the propeller of a plane or being melted by the Wrath of God.

raiders-of-the-lost-arkBut if you’re looking for action from beginning to end in exotic locations, with a very human hero and his two-fisted love interest mixing in a lot of laugh-out-loud humor along the way, Raiders is the movie for you.  The first scene alone, with Indiana Jones brilliantly avoiding countless traps, getting betrayed by his assistant, and barely avoiding getting crushed by a giant rolling stone in his quest to steal a gold icon, is worth the price of admission.

Then you follow it with appalling Nazi bad guys, Old Testament biblical stuff, and some of the greatest stunt work ever filmed.  We get to see Professor Indy in the classroom with his love-struck female students, then teaching the Washington bureaucrats what they should have learned in Sunday school, Marion’s drinking bout with Nepali goat herders, the monkey who gives the Seig Heil salute, an exhausted Indy’s decision to shoot down a sword-wielding giant, Marion’s encounter with the Nazi whose apparent torture instrument turns out to be a coat hanger, Indy and Sallah and Marion at the Well of the Souls . . . and you realize that there’s so much great stuff in this movie it blows away the competition.  And when the capstone shows the Ark of the Covenant being crated and stored in some unending government warehouse, you’ve simply got the greatest action movie, ever.  There’s really no argument.

Raiders is playing at 7 p.m. tonight and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. tomorrow.

“Top Men”

Whenever I hear a speech by Donald Trump these days, I hear the same refrain.  Every problem will be solved by getting the best business people to work on it — to build a wall, to negotiate trade deals, etc., etc., etc.  We heard this again in The Donald’s victory speech in New Hampshire last night.  Of course, those stud managers and negotiators who are going to save the country and let us “win again” never get named.

It reminds me of one of the last scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, after Indy has recovered the Lost Ark of the Covenant, turned it over to the U.S. government, and learned to his dismay that he’s not going to be able to study it.  Who is going to study this object of unimaginable power?  The tubby, pipe-smoking government bureaucrat simply responds, with smug assurance:  “Top men.”  Of course, the Ark ends up boxed into a crate and carted off to some anonymous shelf in a seemingly endless government warehouse.

The next time the Trumpster makes this point, I wish he would just use the phrase “top men.”

No Good Summer Movies

Jaws was released on June 1, 1975.  Taut, believable, and  brilliantly acted, telling the story of a gigantic great white shark that terrorized a resort town and then coldly set out to kill the men who were hunting it, Jaws was perfect fare for the summer.  Anyone who saw it in a theater with a big screen, with the iconic “dun-dun, dun-dun” music playing and letting you know to prepare yourself for the awful carnage that was going to begin at any moment, will never forget it and always feel a thrill when they think of it.

Summer used to be the big season for movies.  You could relax in air-conditioned comfort, enjoy the movie, and practice the hinge move on your girlfriend in a darkened room.  And Hollywood always seemed to deliver at least one great movie that ran throughout the summer.  Whether it was Jaws, the original Star Wars movies, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, or Animal House, every year there was at least one can’t miss movie that everyone was talking about.  Watch any of those films, or the other summer blockbusters that you remember, and you’ll see well-made films that stand the test of time.

Last weekend Kish and I decided a trip to the movies was a good idea, so we checked the roster at the nearby multiplex.  Another Transformers movie.  Another X-Men movie.  A silly comedy, Tammy.  A remake of a TV series, 22 Jump Street, that we never watched in the first place.  Edge of TomorrowThink Like A Man Too.  And others, equally forgettable.  And this weekend, the big premiere is of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — another remake, one that the previews indicate is full of computer-generated scenes of rampaging apes.  We yawned and decided to pass — and we’re not alone.  With these lame offerings, is anyone really surprised that Hollywood receipts are way down this summer?

In the past, Hollywood at least seemed to make an effort to deliver summer movies that were new and exciting, well-written, well-acted, and well-made.  Now, it offers a steady diet of remakes and movies that rely heavily on formulas and special effects, explosions, and groin shot humor.  If Jaws were released this summer, it would stand out among this tired and uninspired fare like LeBron James at a junior high school game.

C’mon, Hollywood.  At least try!

Lessons Of The Lunar Nazis

The hottest ticket at this year’s Berlin Film Festival is a self-proclaimed “B Movie” called Iron Sky.  Its consciously over-the-top plot features Nazis trying to conquer Earth from a swastika-shaped base on the far side of the moon.

I doubt Iron Sky will ever make it to our local multiplex cinema, but the movie’s popularity shows, once again, that people are endlessly intrigued by Nazis.  Books, movies, and TV shows involving Nazis always seem to find an audience.

The original Star Trek had two episodes involving Nazis — one in which a drug-deranged Dr. McCoy goes back in time and changes history so Germany wins World War II, and another where a famous historian tries to help a culture by modeling it on Nazi Germany, with predictably disastrous results.  Nazis make great bad guys (and often comic relief), as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Inglourious Basterds, among many others, have demonstrated.  Some years ago the book Fatherland, about a detective who uncovers a dark secret in a triumphant Nazi Germany, was a best-seller.  Alternative histories in which Germany prevails in World War II also are a staple of that genre.

Nazi Germany was one of the most brutal, bloody, awful regimes in the history of the world.  Why is it such a popular subject for fiction — to the point where it can even be the subject of humor?  Why does Nazi Germany seem to be a far more popular setting for fiction than, say, Imperial Japan?

Perhaps it is just because Nazi Germany, with its goose-stepping soldiers, stiff-armed salutes, and elaborate uniforms and ceremonies, already seems so fantastic that it is especially well-suited to whatever embellishment a creative mind could supply.  I also wonder, however, whether fictionalizing Nazi Germany is just a kind of cultural defense mechanism.  If you routinely depict Nazi Germany as a setting for outlandish activities, maybe it is easier to forget that a racist, bloodthirsty, soulless government actually existed, slaughtering Jews by the millions and dominating Europe, only 70 years ago — within the lifetimes of millions of still-living people.

Outdoing Indiana Jones

Modern technology is allowing for amazing advances in, of all things, the discovery of sites and artifacts of ancient civilizations.  The most recent example is found in Egypt, where the new field of “space archaeology” — which seems oxymoronic — has produced the discovery of 17 lost pyramids and thousands of previously undiscovered tombs and settlements.

The space archaeologists use space telescopes, powerful cameras, and infra-red imaging to identify materials buried beneath the surface.  Ancient Egyptians built using mud brick, which has a different density than the surrounding soil and allows the outlines of buried structures to be detected.  One use of the technology was applied to make discoveries at the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis, which will forever be recalled by fans of Indiana Jones and Raiders Of The Lost Ark as the home of the Well of Souls and the Ark of the Covenant.

You don’t need a bullwhip, a well-worn hat, and the ability to take a punch to be an archaeologist — a satellite, a camera, and a creative approach to using new technology will do just fine.  And what is really exciting about this development is the potential uses of this technology in Babylon, and Persia, and other sites in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere.  Who knows what other evidence of ancient civilizations will be found buried beneath the sands?

The Lost Symbol

Although my reading taste typically runs to non-fiction, occasionally I like to dip my toe into popular fiction.  That is how I came to read The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown.  It probably is the last time I read a fiction bestseller without a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader.

I had read The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons and I didn’t think either of them was particularly compelling, so I probably should have passed on The Lost Symbol.  My rule, though, is that once I start to read a book I am obligated to finish it.  Therefore, after I started The Lost Symbol, I soldiered on to the end.  It didn’t take long for it to become a struggle.  I think part of the problem, for me, is that I just don’t care for the “thriller” genre, where the hero possesses an improbable combination of immediate knowledge and skills and events unfold at breakneck speed.  I think The Lost Symbol describes the period of about 24 hours, and for most of the book the characters are racing from place to place in Washington, D.C., all the time having meaningful expository or puzzle-solving conversations.  We are taken from the Capitol to the Library of Congress Reading Room to the National Cathedral to various other D.C. landmarks, and in each location we learn in weird, often extraneous detail about its construction, symbology and Masonic influences.

The writing and plotting seemed very pedestrian to me.  We have the athletic, able-to-immediately-call-to-mind-encyclopedic-knowledge academic who can promptly identify obscure symbols and paintings, remember the makeup of buildings, and recall the various teachings of ancient brotherhoods.  We have the brainy female scientist from the rich family of brainy public servants who is on the threshold of a great discovery.  We have the shadowy government figure, the mysterious brotherhood whose members occupy virtually every powerful position in the country, and the ultra-capable villain who overcomes every obstacle but then is stupidly tricked at the end.  Each of these figures had their one character trait that differentiates them from the masses of cardboard cutouts.  Academic?  Claustrophobic — check.  Scientist?  Motivated by desire to stay up with her brilliant brother — check.  Government figure?  Ball-busting and intimidating despite her small stature — check.  Helpful priest?  Blind — check.  Villain?  Tattooed and sadistic — check.

I frankly thought the identity of a the villain was totally predictable.  Whenever a supposedly dead person is described as “beyond recognition” — be it burned beyond recognition, beaten beyond recognition, crushed beyond recognition, dropped in a vat of acid and fried beyond recognition — my suspicions are raised.  Show me the body!  And in this case, I don’t understand why the villain wanted to kill the scientist or destroy her ground-breaking experiments; it seemed completely extraneous to his goal to find the secret knowledge that would give him unimaginable power.  Finally, when I saw that the book was about the Masons, I groaned inwardly.  Like Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark after he looks down into the Well of the Souls and sees by torchlight a writhing mass of asps, my reaction when I see the Masonic Order in a novel is to roll over on my back and groan:  “The Masons!  Why does it always have to be the Masons?!”

As I read the book I began to notice the verb choice in each sentence, which is a pretty good indicator of less than stellar writing and plotting.  In this book, everyone seems to be striding to and fro. No one moseys, or saunters, or sidles, or even just walks.  I also hate it when characters talk to themselves in italics.  Did I just see that wall move? It is almost as annoying as the decision to print every statement by Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany in capital letters, LIKE HE WAS SHOUTING ALL THE TIME.  Ugh.

So, I can’t recommend The Lost Symbol.  I am sure there are good thrillers based in Washington, D.C., but this isn’t one of them.