May 28, 2008

The Best and Most Successful Sequels of all Time

The release of Indy 4 got me thinking about sequels. What were the best sequels ever? I took the Top 250 films list on IMDB and sifted it for sequels. There are 13 sequels in the top 250, or just over 5% of the list. Here's the list of movies which are sequels by the purest definition of the term:
  1. The Godfather: Part II is not only the best sequel ever, but the third best movie ever.
  2. The Empire Strikes Back is a great sequel, perhaps better than the original Star Wars?
  3. Aliens (1986) is an entirely different kind of movie from the original Alien (1979)-- The original was a "haunted house" movie set in a spaceship, while Aliens is a Vietnam war movie with aliens.
  4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is James Cameron's other great sequel on this list.
  5. I think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ranks so high partly because it looks so good in comparison to the widely disliked Temple of Doom. I enjoy the movie very much, but I find Temple of Doom to be underrated.
  6. Return of the Jedi is a better movie than the presence of the reviled Ewoks suggests. Fans are still bitter, and why not? George Lucas populated an entire planet with living teddy bears. Why not introduce The Planet of Happy Meal Tie-Ins while we're at it?!
  7. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) ranks higher than the original Frankenstein film.
  8. Toy Story 2 is definitely better than the original.
Five other movies in the Top 250 are technically sequels, but I haven't counted them. A sequel could be broadly defined as "a movie which continues the stories of characters in a previously released movie". However, I have chosen to define a sequel more strictly. In my opinion, a true sequel is a sequel both in narrative and in its production. A sequel must be an entirely new production, filmed completely separately from the original film. Here are the other five sequels from the Top 250 which I have excluded, with my reasons:
  1. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is sort of a prequel to A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, but Sergio Leone never intended it that way, and several actors appear in all three movies in entirely different roles.
  2. The Lord of the Rings 2 continues the story from Fellowship of the Ring, but all three films were produced and shot simultaneously.
  3. The Lord of the Rings 3 concludes the story from #2, but all three films were produced and shot simultaneously.
  4. Batman Begins is a reboot, not a sequel. Batman Begins re-tells the origin of the Batman character and discards all the events of previous Batman movies.
  5. Kill Bill, Volume 2 is also a simultaneous production with Kill Bill, Volume 1. While the Lord of the Rings movies were never meant to be edited as one whole feature, Kill Bill was intended as one three hour feature, until producer Bob Weinstein convinced director Quentin Tarantino to re-edit the movie into two shorter movies, guaranteeing a boost in ticket receipts: even if only half of the audience for Volume 1 returned to see Volume 2, that's a 50% increase in revenue for the studio.
Meanwhile, I checked the Top Grossing Movies of All Time (USA, as of May 28, 2008), and, no surprise, 25% of the top 250 are sequels. Here's the Top Eleven, not in order:
  • Shrek 2 and 3
  • Star Wars Prequels 1, 2, and 3
  • Pirates of the Carribean 2 and 3
  • Lord of the Rings 2 and 3
  • Spider-Man 2 and 3

May 25, 2008

Indiana Jones 4

What is the big deal about Indiana Jones? Why did we have to wait 19 years for another movie when the formula is so simple and the result is so effortless? Fans have built up the Indiana Jones movies into something much more Important than they really are. The first one is the perfect adventure movie and the most entertaining movie I have ever seen. Indy 2 and 3 are just fun adventure movies, no different than any other typical adventure movie- the quality is much higher than a typical movie, but Indiana Jones movies aren't a Big Deal.
All of this made Indy 4 such a pleasant surprise. It was far from perfect, and it may be the 4th best movie out of four Indy movies, but it was still very entertaining. The opening sequence adventure sets the tone of the movies firmly in 1957 Cold War America, where it seems we have reason to be scared of the Soviets. No jungle vines or spiders, it's all radioactivity and rockets.
Once Jones gets back into his tweeds at college, Jones travels to South America in search of an old friend who has gotten tangled up in a mystery, much like Jones's father went missing in Indy 3.
I was worried that Indy 4 would include too many references to the previous films, too many 'wink wink' jokes. The bad news is, they're all there, the good news is, they're mostly all in the first 30 minutes. For example, there's no need to point out that Jones's previous Dean Marcus Brody has passed away, and there's no need to linger over a photo of his late father. My wife reported giggles when the camera slowly pushes in on a framed photo of Henry Jones Sr, and I rolled my eyes at the whole idea of shoe-horning in their passing into the plot. Later on, they bring back Jones's fear of snakes into a extremely silly scene which should have been cut out, or even better, never shot to begin with.
My main complaint is with the script in the second half, when the movie really gets bogged down with too many characters and too many plot complications. The screenplay does not need to be complicated or innovative. Simplicity is the key, and this plot was over-complicated, and there were too many characters. A little more finesse, a little smoothing of rough edges would have helped. By the last third of the movie, Indy is dragging four people around with him: perhaps Indiana Jones and Can We Get A Head Count Please? could have been a better title:
  1. Ray Winstone (The Departed, Sexy Beast) is "Mac", a fellow adventurer who may have some conflicted allegiances. His part is completely extraneous. The character is pretty flat, he doesn't act as a real sidekick or assistant to Jones, and he sucks up time with his bad accent and bad moustache.
  2. Shia LeBeouf (Transformers, Disturbia) is "Mutt" Williams, a brainy dropout turned would-be rebel in Marlon Brando's Wild One leather and George Lucas's pompadour. Mutt and Indy do some of the initial investigating together, and we get to see his curious character evolve as they climb through Peruvian catacombs. However, like the other three tagalongs, he gets lost in the shuffle as the movie bloats and bloats. There's a silly "Mutt takes the Indy mantle" joke at the very end, but that thread got dropped a long time earlier. One of the exciting action sequences is when Mutt takes Indy on a great motorcycle chase across his college campus. Nothing like real stunts with no CGI to get the blood pumping!
  3. John Hurt is Professor "Ox" Oxley, Indy's old friend who's obsessed with the Crystal Skull. My main problem with him is that he's dead weight. They have to drag him everywhere, and he simply slows them down to the point where I wondered how the quintet ever escaped any danger? I seem to remember that Abner Ravenwood filled a similar role in Raiders, and he dies before the movie even begins. Instead, Oxley is kidnapped by the bad guys (just like Indy's dad in Last Crusade). A simple rewrite would kill off Oxley before the movie begins, and then, ninety minutes into the film Indy and Mutt could have found his remains in an especially poignant way- not a dry eye in the house!
  4. Finally, and most bittersweet, is Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. We all loved her in Raiders, so it's too bad that she has so little to do in Indy 4. She has two lively spats with Jones, and she gets to drive the DUK in a chase sequence, and the rest of the time she's just tagging along. Allen does look great, though.
My only other major complaint, besides the rough screenplay, was the cinematography: retired English cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shot the first three Indy movies. Indy 4 was shot by the two-time Oscar winner, Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski won those Oscars for shooting Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List. He has also shot eight other Spielberg movies. As talented as he is, he did not shoot Indy 4 to look like Indy 1-3, he shot it like a Janusz Kaminski movie. Besides adding his own feel to the camera work, none of the movie felt like it was shot on location. Indy 1-3 all felt like Spielberg was out there with his flappy desert hat on, getting sunburned, eating Spaghetti-Os out of the can, living rough. You could smell the B.O. on the sweaty extras. Indy 4 felt like it was shot on Lucas's ranch in Marin County.
HEY! It's That Guy! Note: Who was cast in his second Harrison Ford movie, as a federal agent interrogating Jones? None other than Jan Itor himself, Neil Flynn from Scrubs, whom we last saw in 1993, as a Chicago cop trying to arrest Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.
THEATER NOTES: AMC Aviation 12, Linden NJ, is a fine place to see a movie. Too bad the crowds are as restless and chatty there as everywhere. It's bad enough when adults take their 7-9 year old children to the movies. Yes, the kids talk to Mom and Dad in their living room voices, and they ask obvious questions about the plot. It's more frustrating when the adults get restless during the non-action scenes and start talking. I feel like bringing some cat toys with me. Then when a plot-driven talking scenes comes on screen, I can toss the ball with a bell inside down the aisle, and these ADD adults can chase that instead of talking. My sister-in-law reports the guy next to her was playing games on his BlackBerry during the movie, and he paid $10 to sit in that theater. Go figure.

Also On Memorial Day, Through The Years

I have been to the movies on Memorial Day Monday 13 times in 24 years, but it's not a great track record. 

May 14, 2008

117: Empress Zhangsun

I got the title and "artist" of this mix from a posting on the Brainiac blog at The game was to create a real-sounding artist and CD title from random Wikipedia entries, and real-looking cover art from random images on the Web.
ARTIST: Empress Zhangsun
TITLE: Effect of a Habit
  1. "Superfly" - Curtis Mayfield
  2. "Music is My Hot, Hot Sex" - CSS (from an iPod Touch commercial.)
  3. "Soul Meets Body" - Death Cab for Cutie
  4. "Hold Your Head Up" - Argent (one of the true one-hit wonders. I don't think Argent ever had another Top 40 single.)
  5. "The Sweet Escape" - Gwen Stefani (aka my ringtone)
  6. "Don't Bring Me Down" (live) - A cover of the ELO song by The New Pornographers (an iTunes exclusive)
  7. "Sweet Emotion" - Mike Gordon and Leo Kottke (a mellow cover of the Aerosmith song)
  8. "Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well" - Mike Doughty
  9. "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)" - Dave Edmunds covers a fun, late-1970s Bruce Springsteen song. Edmunds is one of the rare rockers of the singer-songwriter era to specialize in covering his contemporaries' material. I bought this LP at a yard sale exclusively for this song.
  10. "Everybody Went Low" - John Hiatt
  11. "Reggae Merengue" - Tommy McCook & The Supersonics (this instrumental was sampled by Lily Allen for her song "LDN")
  12. "Pick Up The Pieces" - Average White Band (how are you supposed to find instrumentals like this when there's no lyrics? Also, DJs don't announce all their songs anymore. I may have gone online to check a station's online playlist to track down this frequent movie soundtrack staple.)
  13. "Gotta Get Back" - Shelby Lynne
  14. "Please Read The Letter" - Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
  15. "Precious" (live) The Pretenders, live at the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea, December 1979. I bought the two-LP set in Central Square, Cambridge, last winter.
  16. "Thankful" - Glenn Phillips (This song from the former Toad The Wet Sprocket singer was a free download from iTunes. I think I was given this promo download as a credit-card-style coupon at SXSW in 2007?
  17. "Blue" - The Thorns
  18. "Gypsy March" - Grand Ole Party (I saw the GOP at the free party for BUST Magazine, at SXSW 2008.)
  19. "Bodysnatchers" - Radiohead
  20. "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" - The Temptations

May 3, 2008

Guys Movie Night: Iron Man

Really very good. I was very pleased with the action, the drama, the comedy, the heart, the un-obtrusive effects. Robert Downey Jr. is a charming combination of witty, loose, rebellious, and passionate, and the urban youth audience at Boston Common simply loved him in this movie. I have my doubts that they've seen him in many movies- I don't think Wonder Boys made $100,000,000 in its opening weekend -- but he carried the crowd around in the palm of his hand (see photo).
QUIBBLES: The hole in Stark's chest was implausibly deep. And the paid placements of Audi vehicles were a bit tedious. And I am starting to wonder what we all saw in Gwyneth Paltrow in the first place? We also saw some all-new trailers, of varying excitability:
  • Indy 4: I get less excited for this movie with every additional promo I see.
  • The Dark Knight: I am concerned about the Multiplying Villains Sequel Syndrome: I hope Harvey "Two-Face" Dent doesn't become a bad guy until the end of this movie. I think we can all agree that The Joker is enough villany for one movie.
  • The Incredible Hulk: Edward Norton is a great choice to play David Banner. We all know he has a bottomless well of intensity- just rent The Illusionist to sample his intense staring. However, the new Hulk effects look uninspired, and the Hulk-like bad guy he must battle (Tim Roth gets irradiated too?) looks even worse. From a marketing standpoint, I don't understand the casting: none of the names above the title will draw people in. I predict this will bomb as hard as Speed Racer did.
  • You Don't Mess with The Zohan: The audience loved this trailer. I have my doubts.
  • The Love Guru: All the old Austin Powers jokes have been recycled. I simply cannot believe that he has brought back Mini-me again. Is he writing jokes in a complete vacuum? The audience just sat there and waited for it to be over.
  • Hamlet 2: Steve Coogan (Night at the Museum) is a bad actor-turned-high school drama teacher who tries to save his drama program by staging a ridiculous musical sequel to Hamlet, featuring, if we are to believe the trailer, Jesus Christ and a time machine. The audience also laughed repeatedly at this trailer, a much better reaction that The Love Guru got!
(At AMC Boston Common, DLP, with Angus, Mike, Pete, Phil, and Tom. Ilan bought tickets for Friday night by mistake, so Ilan and Brian went to a later show.)