Ain’t It Cool…No It Ain’t

So, about a year ago, a semi-popular geek movie critic named Devin Faraci was accused of some pretty serious sexual harassment.  He had some deep ties in the Austin Film Community and was a pretty big part of the Alamo Drafthouse.  This stung for a lot of people, as Faraci did tend to express progressive ideals.  He disassociated from his duties with the Alamo Drafthouse and stepped away from the film community.  While he stated he had no memory of the incident, he did not deny it could be true and did not call his accuser a liar.  It seemed like the resolution would be peaceable.

A couple months ago, it was revealed that Faraci had actually started quietly working for the Alamo Drafthouse again.  Tim League spoke a lot about second chances, but this was all coming a bit late and frankly felt a bit dishonest.  It appeared that he had started back rather soon after his public departure. And then this week?

The Austin Film Scene and Geek Movies lovers were given another shock.  Indiewire uploaded this article detailing sexual harassment and assault by Harry Knowles by Kate Erbland and Dana Harris.  If you are wondering exactly who Knowles is…well, for that we need to go a little farther back.

picture by Gage Skidmore

Harry started Ain’t It Cool News back in the late 90’s.  It was a geek website focused mainly on movies.  They trafficked in rumors, news and reviews.  They got so big, Knowles was courted by studios for approval (even getting cameos in movies) and even appeared on Roger Ebert’s shows.  His writers went on to be popular in their own right.  Harry had a film festival called Buttnumb-a-thon which was a weekend people would pay to get to sit and watch a bunch of highly anticipated films.  Harry was seen as a guy who could help or hinder your career.  You can see where this might be leading right?

Throughout this time, young women have quietly told friends of experiences with Harry.  He could be, to be generous, “handsy”.  And often, he would get a benefit of the doubt, maybe it was an accident.  I suspect most women can tell an accidental brushing of their butt or a breast, women will often give it a benefit of the doubt.  And there are guys more than willing to take advantage of this.  And in the geek community, there is a heavy reliance on the idea of the “Socially Awkward Geek.”  He just does not know any better.  He is awkward with women.  He means well.  Film writer The Blair Bitch shared this text she received from Harry:
Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 10.33.41 PM

Look at the time stamp.  That was this year.  Harry is 46 years old and should be more than old enough to have learned that this is not “proper” interaction.  That is not socially awkward.  It is creepy.

Now, to be honest, I knew who Harry was…but I never read much of the AICN site.  I tried…but I found it painfully hard on the eyes.  I thought the design was just terrible.  So I rarely read a lot of it.  If I did go, I was looking for something specific, not to wander the site.  One thing I really had never done? Read Harry’s reviews.  Film blogger and critic Scott Weinberg took a pretty firm stand with the women Knowles assaulted and harassed. He has started looking back at Harry’s reviews.  And they are…well…telling.

There were more creepy reviews.  How did this guy get on people’s radar?  His writing is terrible.  Someone claimed that at least it is not boring.  But his work is actually really dull.  Contemplating why mutant Hillbillies don’t rape the pretty actress is not interesting writing!

Between the multiple women, the creepy reviews and the creepy texts, it all paints a pretty disturbing picture.  The reviews alone should have kept him from the mainstream.

My main hope here is that the the fallout is women not feeling they have to accept mistreatment to get ahead.  That harassment and assault are not things they must just put on a brave face for if they want to advance in the film geek world.  But judging from some folks rush to stand behind people like Harry (and Victor Salva, a child rapist whose latest film is about to hit theaters) this is still something a ways off.


In Search of White People (Allen Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold, 1986)

Allen_Quartermain_City_of_Gold_PosterPretty sure this sequel was greenlit before the previous film hit theaters, hoping to have a franchise.  For Chamberlain and Stone, this was the end of the road.

Everything that plagues King Solomon’s Mines?  Is still here.  There are no improvements.  Poor effects, awkward performances… the sexism, Jesse still does not really do a thing other than getting in trouble and get saved by Quartermain.

For racism, the natives do not fare any better this time around.  They are either primitives or mysterious primitives.Their search is for the titular Lost City of Gold…a city of myth inhabited by white Africans.    The white people they find are (of course) not primitive.  Oh, and they are ruled by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

This sequel is no improvement over the first film.  Granted, it is not really any worse.  Just equally terrible.

To a Pulp (King Solomon’s Mines, 1985)

King_Solomons_Mines_PosterTo cash in on Indiana Jones, Cannon Films produced this film based on the pulp works of H. Rider Haggard.  King Solomon’s Mines has been adapted more than once, both before and after this 1985 version (mainly TV and direct to video).

Allen Quartermain is an adventurer and fortune hunter hired by Jesse Huston to find her missing father in the African Jungle.  She believes he disappeared during an expedition to locate King Solomon’s Mines.

They brave all sorts of obstacles to reach the mines, including Germans and African tribes.

The film is definitely going for the feel of Indiana Jones, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The film even cast John Rhys-Davies (Sallah in Raiders) as one of the villains.  The end result though?  Not very good.  It misses the mark in its performances, it’s action scenes and general tone.  The effects are cheap imitations of what we get from the ILM produced adventures.

What really hurts the film above all though?  It’s extremely dated sexism and racism.  At no point does it appear to have occurred to the film makers that Jesse might actually be interesting if she…well, did stuff.  Jesse exists solely to get in trouble, be saved and scream a lot.  She never shows the strength or smarts to be part of the resolution.  This was four years after audiences met the fiercely independent Marion Ravenwood.  Even Willie Scott had more presence.  Adding that Sharon Stone just lacks any charisma in the role, Jesse is forgettable and is just a pretty girl for Chamberlain’s Allen Quartermain to win.

And the racist choices.  O.M.G.  Rhys-Davies has clearly been painted a shade of brown.  It is distracting and embarrassing to watch.  The African Tribes are the worst of primitive stereotypes.

The end result is a film that just cannot compete against other pulp based fare, and lacks any charm on its own.

Why Did It Have to Be Aliens? (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,2008)

Indiana_Jones_Crystal_Skull_PosterOr…Indy Gets Old. Lucas envisioned a new Indiana Jones trilogy, with one change.  Where the first three films focused on religious and supernatural artifacts, the new films would focus on science fiction themed artifacts.  Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set in the 1950’s for this reason, and instead of Nazis, the villains are Russians.

The film opens with Indy and his friend Mac as prisoners of the Russians.  They are taken to Area 51 to locate a potential weapon.  Jones mounts an escape that leads to one of those narrow escapes that got a lot of ridicule…hiding in a fridge to avoid a nuclear explosion.  I am not sure this is really any more outrageous than his other exploits in other films.  Is it crazier than jumping from a plane in an inflatable raft?  Indy returns to his college job, only to find himself pursued by the CIA and the Russians.

He runs into a kid named Mutt…Mutt wants his help to save his mom…Marion Ravenwood.  What follows is an adventure involving the Crystal Skull.  The real Crystal Skulls are carved human skulls.  People believed they were ancient creations, but all the skulls studied have revealed to have been made in the 19th century and there does not seem to be any mythology that corroborates the claims of being Mesoamerican or even Native American.

The film ignores this and posits that there is a hidden city in the Amazon jungles.  And the skull is not human, but rather an elongated alien skull.  The film indulges aliens and psychic powers.  But a lot of the action harkens back to the earlier films.

At the same time, there is little room for anything resembling an emotional resonance…this is because the film relies heavily on goofy moments.  The action is full of it.  During an overly long chase (where the Crystal Skull keeps leaping between Indy’s crew and the Russians) Mutt gets caught in a tree.  He ends up swinging Tarzan style through the trees surrounded by monkeys.

The film also never really surprises.  From the moment Mutt appears, you can see where his storyline is leading.  Mutt is also kind of annoying.  I mean, he is less annoying than Sam Witwicky in the Transformer films…but he gets irritating none the less.

On the other hand, it is really great to see Marion back on the screen.  And she gets some real good moments within the action scenes.  She is not just there to be saved, but does the saving.  And the cast is a high point.  You have Cate Blanchett as the lead Russian, John Hurt as an old mentor of Indiana Jones, and Jim Broadbent in a small role as Indy’s boss.

And John Williams provides the score.  John Williams has created many iconic themes from Star Wars to Superman.  And his soundtrack in all the Indiana Jones films is top notch.  As the main Indy theme plays in every movie, it makes you anticipate excitement.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a disappointing return for a cinematic hero.

Choose Your Adventure Wisely (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989)

Indiana_Jones_Crusade_PosterAfter the criticism of Temple of Doom, Lucas and Spielberg opted to return to Judeo Christian artifacts.  This time was far more myth, in that they search for the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper and gifted with the power of eternal life.  They brought in Jeffrey Boam, writer of two Lethal Weapon films and the Lost Boys, to provide the Screenplay.

The film opens in Indiana Jones’ teen years.  While out with his scout troop, he stumbles across treasure hunters.  He grabs an artifact and they start to chase him.  While the sequence is fun and generally exciting, it also suffers from a ridiculous amount of fan service.  For reasons I cannot fathom, they decided they needed to explain…well, everything.  Indy’s fear of snakes, how he got the scar on his chin, how he got his whip, how he got his hat.  It is just absurd.  Who really wanted to know how or when he got that scar?  He is an adventurer…he got it on an adventure. They also establish where the name “Indiana” comes from.  It is not great.

The film then jumps to 1938, where Indy has found that same artifact.  He reclaims it and returns to the college where he is employed as a Professor.  There, he is introduced to Walter Donovan, who was working with Indiana Jones’ father, a noted Grail expert.  His father has disappeared, so Jones flies to Venice with Marcus Brody and they meet up with Elsa, who was also working Indy’s father (also named Henry, so his dad keeps referring to Indy as Jr.).  They discover he is being held by Nazis…

Everyone gets divided up, Indy and his father escaping the Nazis, Marcus and a returning Sallah heading for the location of the Grail.  They do eventually meet up in an action packed finale.

And the film does entertain, but then also tries to over compensate with background…wholly unnecessary background.  Sean Connery as Indy’s dad is certainly a fun casting choice.  He is not impressed at all with Indiana’s exploits.  In one scene, they are riding a motor cycle.  After he dispatches Nazis, he looks to his father with a big smile…and his dad is just indifferent.  The look on Ford’s face as his ego is deflated is amusing.

The film really ramps up the jokes.  Where humor complimented the prior films, this one seems almost more of a comedy.  Marcus Brody and Sallah, two fairly dramatic and competent characters in the first film are played for laughs as bumbling fools.

The film does have some nice character moments for Ford and Connery where they try and reconnect after years of a strained relationship.  The twists and reveals, on the other hand, feel heavily telegraphed.

The Last Crusade is often treated as a strong return to form, but I cannot say it is any better than the Temple of Doom.  It is certainly tonally different (and admittedly, a lot of the jokes actually work, especially between Indy and Henry).  But it has its weaknesses.

Love Is Illness (The Big Sick, 2017)

Big_Sick_PosterThe Big Sick is a fictionalized account of the beginning of the relationship of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, writer/producer Emily V. Gordon.  Kumail plays himself while Zoe Kazan takes on the fictional version of Emily.

Kumail grew up in Pakistan and his family wants him to marry a nice young Muslim Pakistani woman.  He is not really sure what he wants or even believes.  But he humors his mothers attempts at introducing him to women, tossing their pictures into a cigar box.  And when he meets Emily, they initially agree that there will be no relationship beyond their first night.  It is clear Kumail would like to continue the relationship, only declaring he is not looking for a commitment after Emily states she does not have room for a relationship right now.

But they are terrible at not dating and their relationship grows.  As they get closer, Emily wants to introduce him to her parents.  When she discovers he has never told his parents about her, the relationship hits a huge roadblock.  Here is the thing…Emily’s anger is totally justified.  And yet, it is hard not to understand Kumail’s reasoning.  He knows he risks losing his family over Emily.  The film is very careful about this.  The family is not portrayed as villains in this regard.  And that is a pretty tricky feat when your family is “standing in the way of love”.  But I felt for his parents, especially as they are shut out from a lot of Kumail’s life.  But early on it is established that one of his cousins was shunned by the family.

So, after they break up, Kumail tries to get on with his life.  But one night he gets a call from Emily’s roommate.  Emily is in the hospital and nobody is able to stay with her.  She is less than pleased to see him, but when she is put into a coma, Kumail finds himself being drawn deeper into her life.

In a standard rom com, Emily would wake up and be super touched and they run off together.  The Big Sick does not do this.  After all, when she went into her coma, she still was angry.  At one point, Emily tells Kumail that it great he had this awaking…but she was unconscious that whole time.

The Big Sick straddles that line of emotional drama and comedy better than some.  And there are scenes that ripped my heart out.  Kumail gets a call right as he is about to take the stage…and bombs in a fiercely awkward way.  He stumbles through his jokes before giving into sorrow and the sense of powerlessness in the situation.  I can tell you this, knowing something terrible has happened with someone you love and being stuck in your job?  It is mind numbing.

The scenes between Kumail, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano (as Emily’s parents) are very good.  They all connect and grow.  There is one scene, when Hunter and Romano have gone to watch Kumail’s standup (much to his chagrin).  At this point, her mother still does not trust him.  She resents how he hurt her daughter.  But when a frat boy starts heckling Kumail (in a most racist fashion), you see a new perspective growing within Hunter.  She is ferocious in this scene.

Kumail and Emily make for a good writing team here, finding both humor in their experiences as well as raw emotion.

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon

Maybe the film just connected with me in a way that I find it way better than it is.  But I found the film both fun and heart wrenching.

The Adventure Continues (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

Indiana_Jones_Temple_PosterOf course, Indy had to return.  And Spielberg and Lucas have returned, with longtime Lucas collaborator Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz providing the script.

The film opens with a musical number and Indy meeting with Chinese Gangster Lao Che.  After a double cross, Jones makes a dramatic (and entertaining) escape with singer Willie Scott.   A plane crash detours Indy and Scott, along with sidekick Short Round (one of the weirdest choices is a kid of about thirteen or fourteen) in India.  A village reaches out for Indy’s help.  Their children and sacred stones were taken by a cult.  Indy agrees and they venture forth.  They arrive at Pankot Palace.

They discover the Thuggee Cult is alive and well, worshiping Kali in caverns below the palace.  They are using the children as slave labor and consolidating power through human sacrifice.  Probably the most infamous moment from this outing is the removal of a victim’s still beating heart before he is lowered into lava.

Temple of Doom is often seen as a darker affair.  And truthfully it is.  In part, this is due to the focus on a death cult.  The Thugees were a very real community, though they were more known to befriend travelers and kill them for their possessions.  It is debated just how much a role their religious beliefs played in their actions.  The supernatural flourishes in the film are entirely fabricated.

While the tone is darker this time around, the film also has the exciting narrow escapes and death traps that made the first film enjoyable.  In spite of a new writing team, the character of Indy is true to form.  The humor is still there, much of it derived from Indiana Jones own over confidence.  Though the inclusion of Short Round makes Indy look a tad bit too irresponsible.  Willie Scott is set up as the direct opposite of Marion Ravenwood.  Scott is kind of clueless and wants only a comfortable life.  She does not like getting her hands dirty and seems scared of everything.  Sadly, this leads to the character becoming extremely annoying at times.

The villains are not explored much at all.  Most of the bad guys are in a possessed trance and do not seem to have a lot of personality (as opposed to Belloq and Toht in Raiders).

The film is really no more gruesome than the first film (which had peoples’ faces melt off!).  And the ILM effects are still largely able to stand the test of time.  Really, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not quite Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is fun and exciting enough to entertain.

One last note…in Raiders, Indy is pretty skeptical about the supernatural powers of the Ark.  And yet, in Temple of Doom, set two years before Raiders, he witnesses some major supernatural activity.  What brought him back to skepticism?

The Adventure Begins (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)

Indiana_Jones_Raiders_Poster1981 was the meeting of two titans.  Steven Spielberg had thrilled the world with Jaws and two years later George Lucas had started to take over the world with Star Wars.The two teamed up to create the ode to pulp novels and action serials of yore.

Dr. Henry Jones, nicknamed Indiana is a professor of Archaeology and adventurer.  He is not a treasure hunter, at least not in the traditional sense.  He locates artifacts in the belief that they should be shared with the world for education and discovery.

Jones is contacted by the Government regarding the Biblical Ark of the Covenant.  Teaming up with an old flame, Marion Ravenwood, Indy must stop Nazis from getting their hands on the Ark.  What follows is a series of exciting near misses at getting the Ark.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a roller coaster ride of a film.  It has the adventure, heart, and humor that engages the viewer throughout. Indiana Jones instantly has an iconic feel.  He is rough around the edges, without being a neanderthal.  He is good at thinking on his feet (especially handy in attempts to escape sticky situations.  But he is not alone here.  Marion is the daughter of his mentor Abner, and she is every bit the adventurer.  She is smart and clever, Indy’s equal.

Of course, in a story like this, villains matter.  Indy is really dealing with two foes.  One is Belloq, who is his greedy counterpart.  Belloq is a fortune hunter and seeks the Ark for his own lust for power.  He has teamed with the Nazis, led by the creepy Major Toht.  The Nazis, of course, seek the Ark to consolidate their power.

Lucas tends to be good at ideas, but a bit goofy on execution, so giving the story to Lawrence Kasdan to write and having Spielberg direct brings all their unique skills together to create one of the best adventure films of film history.  It brings the sense of the old serials to a vibrant modern life with terrific characters fighting near impossible odds.

Mumms the Word (The Mummy, 2017)

The_Mummy_PosterEverybody wants a shared Universe these days.  Granted, this is not an entirely new concept.  And Universal used to cross over their monsters all the time.  Dracula Untold was supposed to kick off the “Dark Universe” and then got “removed from Canon” and this latest incarnation of the Mummy was the new starting point.

Nick Morton and Chris Vail are fortune hunting soldiers.  They stumble on a bizarre discovery in Iraq…the tomb of the Egyptian princess Ahmanet.  They search the tomb with archeologist Jenny Halsey, ultimately taking the coffin of Ahmanet. Nick finds himself selected to be the cursed Princess’s beloved, and also the host for the god Set. After an event that results in the death of Chris and Nick, Nick awakens in the morgue.  He now finds himself haunted by Chris (think Griffin Dunne in An American Werewolf in London) and hunted by Ahmanet.  After she is captured by a mysterious organization headed by Henry Jekyll, Nick is filled in on the history of the monster hunting organization and the plans for Nick.

The film largely is about Nick trying to escape from his unwanted destiny.  There is an ill-fitted romance between Nick and Jenny.  The design sense of the film is kind of pedestrian, except for the mummy herself.  The look seems to be inspired by the Enchantress from last year’s Suicide Squad.

Clearly, a lot went into the mythology of this mummy, but the film itself seems unsure of its identity.  Are they trying to be scary?  It just is never chilling.  Is it an adventure?  It is certainly a dour one if it really is one at all.  This film lacks both the dark bite of earlier films and the gleeful fun of the 1999 predecessor.

Kingly Status (The Scorpion King, 2002)

Scorpion_King_PosterSo, in the Mummy Returns, the Scorpion King is a threat to the world, a servant of Anubis.  In this prequel, set well before that part of the story, the Scorpion King is more the underdog hero, seeking vengeance on the King responsible for the death of his brother.

Mathayus is a mercenary hired by free tribes to kill a sorcerer who works for the evil King Memnon.  The mission goes awry and his brother is killed.  Mathayus seeks vengeance and finds himself teamed up with happy fool Arpid.  When his attempt at assassination of Memnon is thwarted, he discovers the sorcerer is, in fact, a sorceress…and a beautiful one at that. He kidnaps her to use as a means of luring Memnon out into the open.

The Scorpion King is a pretty typical light fantasy film in the vein of Conan the Barbarian.  It does not get anywhere near as given to magical dealings as it’s Mummy brethren, the story hints of magic, but we do not see a lot of magic in practice.

The fights are pretty well choreographed, but the film lacks a lot of the humor of the Mummy franchise with only a few really funny moments.  This is probably one of the Rock’s most charmless roles. The female characters are treated as objects first…characters second.  This is unfortunate for Kelly Hu, as the film basically places it’s emphasis simply on how attractive she is.

The digital effects run from okay to pretty unimpressive.  There are digital snakes towards the end that look like cartoons.  Nothing about the film really stands out at all.  It remains a rather forgettable exercise, in spite of spawning three o it’s own sequels (all lacking Johnson).


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