Friday, May 23, 2008

Steve Teaches You to Make Iced Tea

Look out, Gordon Ramsay...I think we have our next world-famous celebrity chef right there. This guy is Personality Plus! He's got It!

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Obviously, Harrison Ford's 2008 self, aged 65, can't carry an action-adventure film as credibly as his 1981 counterpart. But even though audiences will forgive a lot because of their fondness for Ford and the character of archaeologist Indiana Jones, they still want an action movie to star an action hero. That's just how these things are done.

I think Steven Spielberg had a plan to work around Harrison Ford's advanced age in this new Indy movie...and I think that plan was kind of a stupid one. Essentially, Spielberg has slowed the entire movie down considerably from its predecessors, taken his foot off the metaphorical gas, if you will, to make Ford's slower Indiana Jones appear dashing, energetic and spry by comparison.

I'm not kidding...I wish I were. Everything's slower about this Indiana Jones movie. The plot develops slower. The jokes and the big set pieces and the puzzles roll lazily by, separated by periods of relative inaction, rather than rattling off in a steady stream.

There's just something off about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The pieces are all there, it's well-directed and shot, and it's a lot of fun in spurts. I recognized the elements of an Indiana Jones movie immediately - the props, the music, the tone, the little tongue-in-cheek moments, some of the actors, the structure - but they didn't ever coalesce into anything that felt as compelling or immediate or delightful as a real Indy film.

It just never settles into place, and I think the issue here is the pacing. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom race along at breakneck speed. Crystal Skull kind of ambles around, takes its time developing its stately, familiar plot, then shuffles off. It's like getting a visit from an aging relative you rarely see around the holidays. You're happy to see them, and they probably brought you something even though they're on a fixed income, but all you really end up doing with them is sitting around discussing the Old Days. Great-Aunt Dot can't get around like she usedta...

To make sure I'm being clear...I don't think Harrison Ford or his age is the real problem here. He did just fine; it's a better performance, more lively and with more attention to small observations and details, than any he's given since The Fugitive.

No, it's as if the movie itself is old, like it's afraid it's going to break a hip if anything surprising, original, unexpected or sudden happens, or if a single concept is introduced that doesn't recall one of the previous Indiana Jones movies. The only twist in the whole thing comes about 5 minutes in, and it doesn't even take. You'll get more turnabouts and dramatics during a "Lost" episode's opening credits than this entire film. Seriously. That's not hyperbole.

The plot is, essentially, Last Crusade all over again. Dr. Jones (Ford...duh...) is informed by a '50s greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) that an old friend (John Hurt) has disappeared while searching for a priceless artifact, in this case, a magical Crystal Skull that was treasured by an Ancient Mesoamerican civilization and hunted by a conquistador. Only if Jones can find this dead knight's final resting place will he be able to piece together the mystery of the Crystal Skull and find the temple to which he must deliver the prize. Ah, but, he's being chased by a brilliant, cruel Soviet psychic (Cate Blanchett) who wants to use the Skull to conquer the world.

That's all well and good, although there's a science-fiction element introduced at about the halfway point that feels really out-of-place in an Indiana Jones film. Is it an affront to organized religion that these films, which always vested their supernatural phenomenon in some version of God (either Jewish, Christian or Hindu), have now removed the Deus from their Machina? Or were screenwriter David Koepp, Lucas and Spielberg so tickled with the notion of introducing a '50s B-movie plot into a movie set in the '50s, they overlooked how this material would play in the Indiana Jones universe? Mulder and Scully will be pleased...but will anyone else?

This backstory's a bit more complicated than a search for, say, the Holy Grail, an object that's already relatively famous and easy to describe. ("Jesus' Cup!") Which works out well for Koepp and Spielberg, because they get to avoid shooting too many of these pesky action scenes the kids are so crazy about.

There's one big action set piece in the entire film - a really solid chase scene that culminates in a spill down a massive waterfall. It's pulled off nicely, and looks really good, and is exceptionally well shot by Janusz Kaminski and cut together by Michael Kahn. And I love the way Cate Blanchett delivers the line "Do svidaniya, Dr. Jones" before kicking Indy out of a moving truck. But it still feels kind of bloodless for the film's big action climax, and though it's far better than average for an American action film, it's nowhere near as memorable as the Mine Car Chase or the Bridge Climb in Temple of Doom, nor is it up to the standard of the tank battle in Last Crusade. And I'd rather watch b-roll taken on the set of Raiders than this chase or anything else in Crystal Skull.

The film's remaining action is incredibly brief, and frequently shot from far away. Spielberg has a tendency to place his actors in the foreground and show us extremely impressive feats happening in the middle distance, out of reach, letting us fill in the excitement going on for ourselves as the cast takes it easy. I'd imagine it simulates quite well the experience of being a tired middle-aged father of 3 on a long weekend day spent at Magic Mountain. "No, no, you kids run along and do Viper again...I'm just going to hang out here, maybe get a diet soda or something..."

Cate Blanchett's performance as the evil Irina Spalko is essentially note-perfect, but she isn't given nearly enough to do. (Plus, her final send-off is far far less awesome than that of any other Indy villain in history. Again, it's like Steve was afraid of over-exerting himself. EVERY Indy villain gets an sweet, gruesome comeuppance. It's goddamn tradition!)

Spalko's a better foil for Jones than Elsa Schneider in Last Crusade or Mrs. Spielberg in Temple of Doom, but she gets far far less development or screen time than either of these characters. We're at the point where it seems there's no kind of movie or character Cate Blanchett can't pull off...She's equally effective in high fantasy, period drama, serialized action-adventure and fucking Bob Dylan biopic. She was the only thing in the movie that left me wanting more.

Maybe that's not fair. I liked the film well enough, but the whole experience felt like going through the motions. Even as an audience member. I found myself chuckling at things I recognized, not things that were actually chuckle-worthy. Near the end, the film starts hinting that young Mutt will get his own spinoff adventure film series, but no one - from Indy to Mutt to Steven Spielberg to the fans in the audience - seemed terribly excited by the prospect. Unless they just don't want to get anyone too excited this close to nap time.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Between No Ferns with Thomas Lennon

I interviewed actor/screenwriter/intense Dune fan Thomas Lennon ("Reno 911," "The State") the other day. He's an intensely awesome guy, and gave our little Mahalo Daily podcast a full hour of his valuable time. I think it's definitely among the best Mahalo Daily episodes with which I've been involved...Let's watch!

The Co-Hostess with the Mostest

As of today, we've seen all the podcasts produced by our six Mahalo Idol finalists, and bloggers are starting to chime in with their selections for who should move on. (I should mention, you can actually vote for your favorite at I'm fairly certain the audience favorite will automatically move on to the next round.)

Let me just say, I totally appreciate all the bloggers who noted that I desperately need an attractive female counterpart. As blogger Tony Andrew Meyer notes, "realistically, the show needs an extremely attractive host (especially if co-hosting with Lon)." Apparently, to Tony's mind, nothing is worse than looking at a fat guy who doesn't have an extremely beautiful woman beside him. I guess the two of us would even out into, like, some relatively plain-looking hermaphrodite at which you wouldn't mind gawking for 4-6 minutes at a pass.

Now, it wouldn't be fair for me to name a favorite, and I don't want to influence the viewers' selections (not that I feel like I have that kind of sway, but you get what I'm saying). However, I would like to post all the ladies' entries and offer some of my thoughts to any interested parties...

Leah D'Emilio

Leah kicked off the contestant podcasts winningly with a trip to a Capoeira studio to do some Brazilian Dance Fighting. I kind of wish there had been a bit more footage of her actually trying to do some Capoeira moves, but what I really liked about this episode was the sheer amount of information presented. Leah's extremely polished, and when you watch this, you feel confident, like you're in the hands of someone with a plan, someone who will make you just a teensy bit smarter. My episodes certainly don't offer anything like that. I tend to get caught up in one-liners and silly costumes, forgetting that part of the original idea behind Mahalo Daily was to be informative and enlightening. Leah remembered.

Also, did you all know she's an accomplished singer-songwriter? Got to be worth a few bonus points...

Michelle Hummel

Michelle's episode is set at an Anaheim go-kart track. I think her advantage here is that riding around in a go-kart is genuinely a lot of fun, and viewers can tell she's actually enjoying herself, not just going through the motions. The phrase "great energy" has been thrown around a lot in this competition - almost to the point of becoming meaningless - but there's no other way to describe Michelle's performance in this episode...Her playfulness and enthusiasm come through.

She's also probably the best actress of all the finalists. Whenever we'd give her direction for one of the teasers, she would nail the performance on the first take. Her crying scene in Teaser #4 is spot on.

Nadine Heimann

Nadine's episode is about Mixed Martial Arts CAGE FIGHTING! I mean...yes! Best choice of topic, I think, out of all six contestants, and as we all know from that other "Idol" show, your choices say a lot about you and can often make or break your whole performance. Plus, I love the way she just goes for it and actually does some of the moves with the instructor here, even flipping him over her shoulder at one point. A cool visual like that, in a lot of ways, is more important than all the perfectly-enunciated intros and outros (or "extros," as Alex Albrecht might say) in the world.

In general, I'd add that Nadine's very physical and athletic, which would make a great counterpoint to my fat, sedentary ass. Right, Tony?

Sarah Atwood

I'm not trying to say Sarah doesn't have her own style, but this feels like a Belmont-era "Mahalo Daily Classic" to me in a number of ways, from Sarah's friendly, laid-back tone to her total engagement with the subject to her slightly nerdy sense of humor. (Hey, that's not a knock, it's even in the name of her blog). Something else I'd point out about this episode...I think you probably hear more from the interview subject here than in any of the other contestant's shows...Sarah's not desperate to interject - she allows her subject to drive the conversation. This is something with which I struggle all the's tough for me sometimes to just shut up and let someone else engage the viewer, even if they're the ones people want to hear.

Sarah's already built up a pretty strong Internet fan base on her own, without the Daily, which essentially proves she can do the job before we even have a chance to offer it to her.

Kristina Allison

Kristina is completely and thoroughly natural on camera. She's just herself. I'm noticing in the comments on her episode around the Web that some people don't like that...They want her to be more outgoing or excited or bubbly or something, I suppose. And I'll grant that most people (myself included) put on at least a bit of a persona when they get on camera. But, in this video, Kristina just has a casual conversation with a sound mixer about his job, without ever making it feel forced or stagy. She's just chilling with Dave, checking out his studio. Because of this ability to make you feel like you've hung out with her after watching a 5-minute video on the Internet, I think she might have the most potential to become Internet Famous. This is a girl with whom geeks will want to Twitter.

Also, did I mention she's the lead singer for rock band The Paper Dolls? Come on!

Andrea Rene

Andrea's episode, set at a gun club's firing range, is hilarious. Actually hilarious. I've actually been to one of these places and tried it out myself, and her reaction strikes me as entirely appropriate - the experience is weird and intense and freaky and extremely fun. There were some negative comments on the Daily page about her somewhat casual attitude towards the guns (at one point, yes, she kind of breaks protocol by pointing a gun away from the target), but it didn't bother me a bit. I was too busy being massively entertained. This was a big risk - I thought so from the moment she suggested the idea - and it really paid off. A great sense of humor is a big part of what we're looking for in a host, and if we were going on laughs-per-moment alone, I think Andrea would have it wrapped up.

I should also note, Andrea has had a lot of other hosting gigs, on and off-line, and she has nailed every single challenge we've put forth in "Mahalo Idol," leaving little doubt about her potential success as host.

Let us know your thoughts at Mahalo Daily. I'm not exactly sure where we're going from here - Jason has discussed everything from eliminating one lady per week to cutting it down to 2 on Monday - but we're committed to giving the audience a say in the matter. Your votes will COUNT! Which is more than several U.S. states can say with any measure of certainty. That's the Mahalo Daily difference.