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Give It to Me One More Time

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Julianne Moore and Belen Rueda in Savage Grace.  

No mainstream filmmaker since Orson Welles can touch Steven Spielberg when it comes to camera movement and composition—or, more precisely, to composition that gets more vivid as the camera moves. You see that in an early shot in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is held at gunpoint by murderous Soviet soldiers led by Cate Blanchett as an icy paranormal research scientist named Irina Spalko. They’re in a top-secret warehouse, where Spalko orders Indy to locate something precious. The shot is of Indy climbing crates: He’s in the foreground as the camera tracks back and up, and as it does the space opens up behind him; we see Spalko and the soldiers while the warehouse, with its obstacle course of boxes, spreads out in the background. That’s it: Nothing flashy, but it tells you, simply and elegantly, everything you need to know about the setting, the threat, the variables in play. It’s the work of a man with film storytelling in his blood. What a bummer when the story he has to tell is a cosmic nothing.

The period, at least, is resonant. The nuclear age has arrived; McCarthyism has hit academia. Indy’s father is dead, and Indy himself has no offspring—or so he thinks. Cue the motorcycle-riding greaser called Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who says he has been sent by his mother, one Mary, held captive in the Amazon along with Indy’s old friend, Professor Oxley (John Hurt). The kid is a dropout, which would bother Indy if it were his kid. Oh, wait. Mary is Marion (Karen Allen) from Raiders of the Lost Ark …

But what a lackluster quest awaits the aging adventurer and his skeptical young foil. In the warehouse, Indy gets the drop on Spalko and her men, but then they get the drop on him. But then he gets away. But then the Commies have him trapped. But then he gets away but then gets captured but then escapes but then Irina shows up when he’s sure he has lost her. “We meet again, Dr. Jones.” No kidding.

The action is the movie’s raison d’être, of course, but the setups are wittier than the payoffs. A bit in which Indy sinks into a sandpit and in lieu of a vine Mutt throws a snake (Indy’s phobia) has too many beats—it’s laborious. The good guys’ raft plunges over three progressively more epic waterfalls: riotously scary in prospect but with nothing at the bottom but splashing. Only a sequence involving ravenous army ants has the requisite punch, and that’s because it’s gross-out horror. (The eponymous skull, though, is a letdown: In design, it cannibalizes Alien’s H. R. Giger; in execution it looks like Lucite filled with bubble wrap.)

Harrison Ford used to lighten his clenched persona with goofy shrugs that said, “I can only go so far with this hero stuff.” But the years have dried him out; he seems like a peevish movie star who’s too self-centered to interact. When he’s supposed to realize that Marion is the love of his life, he looks as if he’s gritting his teeth to kiss her. Blanchett—a great art object, her satin skin taut over those Asiatic cheekbones—hits the same note with diminishing returns. How many variations are there of “We meet again, Dr. Jones”?

Crystal Skull is more energized than the limp Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was Spielberg’s attempt to atone for making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom too intense, too scary, too good. (It brought outcries from bluestocking critics and ushered in the PG-13 rating.) But even with Spielberg’s pet absent-father-and-son theme, the new movie is impersonal—he has evolved beyond cartoon filmmaking. The computer-generated imagery removes the intangible elements of gravity and depth of field we see in that early warehouse sequence, and the state-of-the-art effects have a way of making the ages of the actors more, not less apparent. As this elderly crew (only LaBeouf is under 56) rushes down a stone staircase to escape a CGI rock slide, you can almost hear their joints creaking. Or is that Spielberg, impatiently drumming his fingers?

Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace recounts the (true) cautionary tale of Barbara Daly Baekeland (Julianne Moore), a not too worldly but socially ambitious beauty whose abandonment by her husband (Stephen Dillane), dwindling finances, and—here’s the singular note—homophobia coalesced into one bad trip for her son, Tony (Eddie Redmayne). Always overmothered, the unambiguously gay young man became the repository of Barbara’s hunger for control. Why, she would convert him to nondeviant sexuality if she had to sidle into his lap and stick his willy into herself.

Kalin lays this out with a touch of Madame Tussauds—the film is archly posed, with a score (by Fernando Velázquez) that’s rich in portentous strings. (Is there a theremin in there? Probably my imagination.) But Howard A. Rodman’s script has a lot of juice, and the rhythms are so pregnant that the air vibrates with something, even if you’re not sure what. Moore is virtuosic when it comes to chewing the scenery while standing stock-still—perfect for the going-to-seed failed movie actress Barbara. Dillane—whose Leonard Woolf was the best thing in The Hours—is infectiously uncomfortable: You don’t entirely blame him for bolting. Redmayne is … queer, in the old sense: physically detached, with only his bulgy eyes signaling his inner panic. In its frigid way, Savage Grace is potent: It makes incest a state of mind.

Sex and the City
Directed by Michael Patrick King.
New Line Cinema. R.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Paramount. PG-13.

Savage Grace
Directed by Tom Kalin.
IFC Films. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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