Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 05/25/08 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Much like the second coming of the Star Wars franchise, the latest release of a new Indiana Jones film is for many, many people, an opportunity to step back to their excitement and enjoyment of some time ago.  It’s been nearly 20 years since the last film, but much as with Star Wars, the John Williams orchestral soundtrack kicks in and the heart starts a-pitter-patterring…

I have to say, I love Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  I think it’s a terrifically fun movie that manages to deliver exactly what it intended to: an adventure yarn like something from the early film serials or the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard.  The stunts, the gags, the invetiveness, Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, great villains.  The car chase.  The fist fight by the airplane propellors…for me, it still works.  It still looks great.  And John Williams score actually does inflect a heightened sense of the popular adventure.  For this film, I am not a cynic.

But for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which I saw moderately recently, the quality level dipped seriously.  It may have been nearly 20 years since I saw the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), but I remember it fondly, for Sean Connery’s bantering with Ford.  I haven’t seen it recently.

But now, the new one.

The bottom line is that I did enjoy it.  It was fun.  I’m not so cynical as to not have enjoyed it.  It has its qualities.  Ford has aged, but has aged well.  Karen Allen is back and her lovely smile is as lovely as ever (even though her role is less cleverly written).  Cate Blanchett makes a sultry Russian vixen (even though her accent is not even as good as Natasha Fatale).  There are some great moments, good stunts, clever devices and, heck, I didn’t even dislike Shia LaBeouf.  I liked it.

But the “wow” factor wasn’t there.  There was nothing that was truly exciting, ennervating, thrilling.  The car chase through the jungle was perhaps the best set piece, but it’s nothing compared to the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And then there are the weird and bad things.  CGI gophers?  What the hell was that?  Did Spielberg want to tip his hat to Caddyshack (1980)?  I was waiting for Kenny Loggins to come blasting over the soundtrack.  The CGI monkeys were also bizarre but they at least played into the action.  But actually, when they teach LaBeouf to swing like Tarzan through the jungle, the credibility factor was sinking kind of low.

Actually, I think that is true for several of the narrative tropes in the film.  Their believability is a tough thing to swallow.  And then I thought back to the other films, the hearts pulled out of the chest, the spirits from the lost ark, the ancient knight protecting the chalice…  It’s not like they were based in hard science.  But maybe there is something much, much less believable here, like how quickly Indy and Marion reconcile and make up their adventure family.

It’s bizarre.  I was going to take Felix to see this, but when his mom realized that the film was PG-13 and saw the violence and frightening segments, she demurred.  I saw it at the Castro Theatre, which is interesting because I think a lot of more “classic” movie houses got to run this film in its first run, perhaps to add to the mystique, perhaps to open more seats for a big-ass cash weekend.  Still, it was kind of cool.

I feel almost like a bit of a jerk for not liking it more.  But who knows.  There is that cynic again, cringing at some of the film’s more corny moments.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 09/28/07

My ongoing push to expose my son to the better parts of children’s films continued here with this second helping of Indiana Jones, the first sequel to the far better and much more classic Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which he and his friend enjoyed, cowering behind pillows through much of the action.  The funny thing is that this movie actually pretty much sucks.  It’s not only a shadow of the first film, it actually lacks any of the spontaneity and panache that the original enjoyed.  And it features the absolutely horrendous Kate Capshaw, who even my kids couldn’t stand…or understand for that matter.  At one point, one asked, “Why does she hate him?  He saved her life!”

Anyways, it had been a long time for me with this movie.  Little of it remained fresh in my mind, but the film comes off as cornball and ludicrous.  Capshaw gets the worst of it, and to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) when she says, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”  Well, Capshaw’s character of Willie may be able to say that she was just “written” that way, but somebody thought she had brilliant comic timing.  Somebody thought wrong.

The film has its moments, and even little Jonathan Ke Quan, aka Short Round, actually retains his somewhat annoying charm.  I’d always remembered the mine cart chase sequence as the film’s best moment.  That may be so but when compared to the chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark as Jones captures the Nazi caravan…well, it’s pretty contrived and cheaper-looking to boot.

The story is a mess.  It’s outright ridiculous. The bad guys kidnap a village’s children to enslave them as miners digging for some lost stones.  And the villain’s ability to reach into someone’s chest and pull out their still-beating heart?  Well, that works.  But the whole thing is just goofball.  The meant-to-be-hilarious opening showdown in Shanghai in which a vial of antidote poison and a huge diamond are kicked about a dancefloor while Capshaw and Harrison Ford scramble to grab them…it’s lame.  I guess Spielberg can’t really manage villains that aren’t essentially Nazis.  Then again, this child kidnapping and enslavement…

The whole film has a kid-centric-ness.  With Jones’ sidekick Short Round to the freeing of the kidnapped children who rally round Jones for one of the film’s final images, there is a lot of this focus going on.  Still, it feels contrived, like a marketing plan than a real narrative arc or thematic intent.

The kids didn’t even like it half as much.  It’ll be interesting to see the 3rd installment with them sometime in the near future.  If they’ll touch it with a 10-foot pole.  I’ll just have to make sure they know that Kate Capshaw doesn’t show up in it.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) movie poster

(1981) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 08/03/07

As a film guy, such as I am, I am always trying to direct my kids to see movies of better quality (in my opinion) from the myriad spectrum of random choices they might make at the video store or just whatever is the latest kids flick to hit the big screen (I apologize ahead of time if I end up writing about Underdog (2007) here).  Of course, my son is now just shy of 6 years old and my daughter is 3 1/2 so they aren’t quite ready for a lot of things.  We ended up exposing him to Star Wars films when he was younger than I would have, but I am of the mind that most films rated PG will probably be okay.  So, after some prompting and promotion, we rented the fantastic Raiders of the Lost Ark, sat back, and enjoyed.

Actually, my son and his friend who is a six year old girl not exposed to this type of film spent almost the entire film intensely cowering behind pillows with my son eventually joining me on my lap.  They were more frightened by the action sequences, prompted by the musical score that set the tone for moments of tension and suspense.  I was most worried about the final sequence, when the spirits zoom out of the Ark and melt and burn the Nazis.  I remember that as being pretty scary when I was 12 when I first saw the film and I warned them that that part was going to be the scariest.  They were expecting more, I guess.  They had fun.

The film is perhaps Spielberg’s best.  The whole thing is utterly brilliant and fully fun and wonderfully cast and executed.  Style and panache and charm exude from the film at almost every turn and the set pieces and action sequences feel totally classic.  Karen Allen is perfect as Indiana Jones’ love interest: tough-drinking, cute, wily.  And Harrison Ford, in his prime.  He just fit the bill to the “T” for this role.  He played so many great popular characters in his prime and was utterly spot on.  This is definitely the best of the three Indiana Jones films, and likely will remain so even if they do make a fourth one.

This is my favorite of John Williams’ scores.  I had a professor in grad school who referred to the telescoping of emotion in Williams’ music akin to an “aural rape”.  While there is something amusing in this, and Williams has a knack for poppy classical scores, this one really has the great Indiana Jones riff: “da ta da ta, da ta da/da ta da ta, da ta da ta da”.  You know that you hear it even now.

And while there is this critical retrospect about how the birth of the summer blockbuster films of Spielberg and George Lucas ruined American mainstream cinema, well, I have to say that they also helped to redefine it, and the reason was because they were excellent at leading these types of fun adventure narratives.  In many ways, it doesn’t get much better than this.