Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" -- * * 1/2

The heart (not to mention nostalgia) has a way of clouding one's view of all forms of art, most emphatically movies, and more specifically, sequels. Innumerable moviegoers' hearts/sentiments made them think they enjoyed the "Star Wars" prequels, simply based on the visceral pleasure of re-entering this beloved movie universe they'd dearly missed. Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is going to have much the same effect on people, mark my words. A year or so from now, dozens upon dozens of cinephiles will shake their heads at the time when they so foolishly thought/said/wrote that they "loved" the latest Indy movie. Just to be clear about my implication, rest assured: though a bit underwhelming, this is a much, much better movie than any of the "Star Wars" prequels. It's fun enough, and it's nice to see Indy back on the big screen again, but it's hard to ignore that the whole affair reeks of unnecessary... 'funnecessary,' if you will.

Wittily set in 1957, 19 years after the last film in the series (which came out 19 years ago), "Kingdom" opens with Indy (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) being captured by evil Russians led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who are all seeking the mysterious Crystal Skull. After narrowly escaping those dastardly ruskies, Dr. Jones is accused by his government of being a Commie, and the dean of his college (Jim Broadbent) is pressured into firing him. Before he can skip town, he meets hair-obsessed greaser, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who needs his help. He's searching for his and Indy's mutual friend/mentor Professor Oxley (John Hurt), as well as his un-specified mother. Aw, who am I kidding? His mother's former Indy girl Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and turns out Indy's his dad. The plot's just an excuse for some fun stunts and adventure sequences, but it all revolves around the remains of an alien and everyone's desire for the titular skull and the secrets it holds.

"Crystal Skull's" greatest asset is that even despite some going-through-the-motions moments, it's largely retained the series' sense of fun and exuberance; sure, the nostalgia feels a bit forced, but it works nonetheless. Starting off with a drag-race set to "Hounddog," Lucas's '50s-loving influence is indulged in some enjoyable ways, including a diner brawl scored to "Shake, Rattle and Roll" later on. But like any "Indiana Jones" film worth its salt, the best moments to be had here are the action-adventure sequences. It certainly helps that the movie opens with two great ones, an extended chase between Indy and the Russians in a contained warehouse, and our hat-befitted hero struggling to find a way out of a nuclear testing village. Despite some obvious green-screen work, a LaBeaouf-Blanchett swordfight with each balancing on a different moving vehicle is a lot of fun to watch. But perhaps the most effective sequence in the film is a relatively old-fashioned (i.e.: non-CGI equipped) one involving Mutt and Indy being chased through the pristine college campus on the back of Mutt's motorcycle, and ending up in the library. It couldn't be less important to the movie, but you'll have difficulty not smiling, I guarantee it. The movie's ridiculousness cuts both ways (more on the negatives in a bit) but a sequence involving man-eating ants is just one of a handful that makes you roll your eyes while chuckling at the same time. Logic or realism has never been this series' strong suit, so when the group, in their torn-apart truck, falls down a series of three waterfalls and pops back up, we don't question it.

Thankfully there's more to like than be annoyed by, but virtually every moment that falls under the latter category has the fingerprints of George Lucas all over them and vaguely recalls his "Star Wars" prequel trilogy of suck. I've seen the film twice now, and both times it was almost startling how increasingly silly the film gets in the second half, making one wonder if maybe Spielberg/Lucas split directing duties. In my eyes, there's a difference between whimsical and goofy, and when "Indy 4" goes for the latter, it has the effect of making you shake your head. I had a feeling something was awry when Spielberg cut to shots of cartoony prairie dogs three times in the opening 20 minutes, but the second half features far too many moments when the movie smacks of silliness, such as Indy steadfastly explaining the intricate process of quicksand to Mutt as he sinks. Shia unfortunately gets stuck with two of the films' dumber moments; one where he Tarzan-like swings on vines with hordes of CGI monkeys (I shit you not), and one where he has each leg balancing on a different moving vehicle and he keeps getting hit in the nuts by branches. Again, this reeks of Lucas, and someone should have just told him 'no.' However, without spoiling it, the film's single recall of Indy's fear of snakes is arguably the worst scene of the movie, and one of its prime examples of evoking misguided nostalgia. I can imagine audiences laughing/clapping at it ("Ha! He's scared of snakes! I remember that!"), but when looking back on it a few days/weeks/months from now, they'll have difficulty ignoring how stupid it was. Even the die-hard fans might also get restless during the film's exposition-heavy middle section-- there's lots of explaining of myths, hieroglyphics, etc-- but that's easier to forgive when the movie picks up the pace again in the third act.

Turns out the worries about Ford being too old were for naught. He's as spry as ever, and his age isn't ever a roadblock at all-- in essence, that's part of the problem (more on that later). Sure, it's ridiculous that a man of 65 could repeatedly bounce back up after enduring all this, but in the context of this series, we buy it. Purely in terms of performance, he's a delight, and this is the most fun he's been to watch in years. As an actor who frequently looks miserable and/or bored on screen, it would appear playing Indy again gave him a rejuvenation of sorts, whether that's the actual case or not. It's amazing, almost impressive, that over the course of four movies, this character has never been given a single ounce of definition, so emotional registering isn't really on the agenda; charm and physical prowess are the main standards of assessment here, and in both respects, Ford does the character proud. Similarly, Blanchett seems to be having a supreme amount of fun, and the feeling is infectious. As a thickly-accented psychic (or does she just think she's psychic?) from Eastern Ukraine, she's an over-the-top blast to watch, and I couldn't help chuckling at everything she did or said. Whether giving oh-so-intense glowers, or grabbing Indy's knees when interrogating him, reinforcing her dominatrix vibe, Spalko is a ridiculous character and Blanchett embraces that without becoming a cartoon. Okay, she's not intimidating at all, and never a real threat, but she's fun as shit to watch.

Given the "And" slot in the credits, and a wildly silly entrance riding a motorcycle out of a cloud of smoke looking exactly like Brando in "The Wild One," LaBeouf is just fine, even if he seems out of place in this world and you never, ever believe him as a knife-toting greaser. Performance-wise he does okay, but it doesn't help that almost every 'silly' moment in the film involves his character. Then again, giving Indy a sidekick/son was a contrived idea to begin with, so prospects from the outset weren't promising. When Allen re-appears as Marion at the 65-minute mark, it's a genuinely nice moment (Indy's reaction upon seeing her is one of the movie's high points), even if she ends up contributing nothing to the movie. Boasting a frozen smile worthy of Laura Bush, she's a likable enough presence, but she mostly just stands aside and watches things happen. Winstone, Hurt and Broadbent all go through the motions in different ways, and have little-to-nothing to do.

Nostalgia has a tendency to go a long way, and this is a movie that's going to get by on a lot of good will and nostalgia, not exceptional storytelling. After hearing that George Lucas had, at the last second, nixed Frank Darabont's supposedly-great "Indy 4" screenplay, "Hot Fuzz" director Edgar Wright joked that apparently Lucas felt the script "wasn't disappointing enough." Wright was joking, but after the prequels and now this, it would appear Lucas almost has a penchant for letting down people. Credited with co-writing the story, Lucas has contributed to a film that's entertaining despite its underwhelming story and script (by David Koepp), not due to it. The fact that our action hero lead is about to turn 66 seemed to offer endless possibilities in terms of how it was dealt with in this movie... except that it's not really dealt with. There's two or three throwaway lines about Indy being old ("What're you, like 80?"), but that's about it; aside from that, it's the same old spry Indy that we remember and love from the original movies. It's not majorly problematic, but it feels like a missed opportunity. And that's emblematic of the movie's shortcomings. While Spielberg/Lucas deserve credit for not trying to make this the "ultimate" Indy movie, pulling out all the stops ad nauseam, it all feels like this was carefully tailored to be "another" entry in the series rather than something special. It's difficult not to think of the possibilities of how good (or at least interesting) Darabont or M. Night Shymalan's screenplays would have been if carried through. I won't delve too much into the finale here, other than to say that it represents new territory for the franchise (if familiar for Spielberg, Lucas and Ford), and I didn't like it. Like the finales of all the Indy movies, it enters a mystical realm, but to me, it seemed like too much and particularly jarring compared to what came before it.

Spielberg's directorial approach saves the movie from itself, and makes it as fun as it is; we haven't seen him direct a film like this in a long time, and there's a construction and choreography to the stunts and shot maneuvers that's a delight to watch. He may be able to direct a movie like this in his sleep, but that doesn't sap the fun out of it (it's a lot like "The Lost World" in that respect, though I'd argue that's a better movie than this), occasionally offsetting whatever grumbling we may have with the context. The movie looks and sounds great too; Spielberg's regular D.P., the usually flashy Janusz Kaminski tries his best to re-create the clean, straightforward look established by Douglas Slocombe in the first three films, although he occasionally lets his flashes-of-light impulses seep through. Spielberg's been talking up the lack of visual effects, and he should be; the practical adventure-driven stuff is the movie's strongest material. However, it's awfully noticeable that much of what we're seeing is CGI or in front of a green screen.

Careful measures have been enacted to make "Kingdom" not feel like a modern day Indy movie; effort has been made so it feels just like one of the old ones. As such, the nostalgia and memories of the older films set in rather effectively, and work to the movie's benefit. A big deal is made of Indy's initial putting-on of his trademark hat, and it's a nice moment, and the references to the other films are usually well handled. There's a visual gag of that gold thing from the end of "Raiders" towards the beginning that got applause from my audience, and it's quick enough to not be distracting. As for where this movie ranks in the Indy pantheon, I think it unquestionably places third of four, between "Last Crusade" and "Temple of Doom." The movie shares "Temple of Doom's" chief problem-- its numbing forward momentum-- but it doesn't succumb to it, and balances it out with what was strong about "Raiders" and "Last Crusade:" their sense of intrigue, mystery and plot mechanics. While I couldn't help feeling that "Last Crusade" was a nice send-off and maybe should've stayed that way, this doesn't tarnish the brand name.

Despite there being more to say about the negative, there's ultimately more to like than dislike here. Before it gets irredeemably silly, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is a tremendous amount of fun, even if it's more of a treat to see the character again than anything else. Though its "thoroughly-fun-with-flashes-of-stupidity" first half clashes considerably with its "thoroughly-stupid-with-flashes-of-fun" second half, there's at least eighty minutes worth of enjoyment lurking within this 123 minute beast of a movie, and that alone spares it from the franchise-denegrating suck of the "Star Wars" prequels. It isn't the Indy film you hoped for, nor the one you feared. It's just another one, with nineteen years of wear and tear on it, and that's... alright.


Anonymous jesse said...

Don't you find it somewhat condescending to talk about the Star Wars prequels as if it's physically or psychologically IMPOSSIBLE for anyone to enjoy them? I enjoyed the hell out of those movies, and the idea that anyone who likes them is only "convincing" themselves to do so based on nostalgia is pretty suspect. I find it's just as often that the opposite happens: people who might've enjoyed the movie when actually watching it are sort of convinced by a critical tide or their friends or whatever that it was a huge letdown. Of course, it would be condescending to imply that no one actually *disliked* those movies, either. So I'd settle on some people liked them; some people didn't.

I even experienced this myself. I'd see the Star Wars prequels a couple of times and really enjoy them. Then I'd read some long rant about the myriad reasons that they are the worst thing ever, and I'd think, hmm, wow, maybe I really was just fooling myself -- I mean, these people *really* hate these movies; maybe I was just blinded by my excitement. But actually *watching* them again would put me back: nope, I really do like this.

In other words, hindsight is not always 20/20. Fading hype and delayed-reaction critical opinion (since in fact all of the Star Wars prequels got okay-to-decent reviews during their actual release) is not necessarily more reliable than deafening hype. They're both outside circumstances.

I mean, I didn't like (say) 27 Dresses but I wouldn't go as far as to say that people who did only "thought" they did. I'd rather be told I'm wrong than told I'm lying to myself.

10:46 AM  

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