Friday, May 23, 2008

Todd's Indiana Jones Movie Round-Up

Well, I had to miss a large chunk of the Pistons game last night to do it, but this week I sat down and re-watched the full Indian Jones trilogy. It's been a few years since I last watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and even longer since I really sat down and watched Temple of Doom or The Last Crusade. How do I think they held up? Let's dig in:

Raiders of the Lost Ark

This one, to me, still stands out as the best of the series. It's also the only one that really takes itself seriously (at least, successfully). I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that this was a story that just happened to have Indiana Jones as the lead character rather than a vehicle to support Indiana Jones. It wasn't Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was just Raiders of the Lost Ark. (To be clear, I could care less about Lucas/Spielberg re-titling it to the former on the DVDs. I'm just saying that's not how it was conceived.) This is by far the most balanced of the movies as well. It's got action, but it's not wall-to-wall (a good thing). It's got drama, but it never feels slow and plodding. It's got a sense of humor, but it doesn't try to be a comedy (like the Last Crusade). But most importantly, in the midst of the seriousness of the overarching plot, it's a got a real sense of fun and that comes out most in the performances of Harrison Ford, who is at his absolute best, and Karen Allen (as Marion Ravenwood), who is a strong female lead that is played with a lot of heart. This really is a wonderful movie.

Temple of Doom

I remember, as a teenager, thinking this was the weakest of the series, but I really hadn't seen it since. I figured, going into watching it again, that I was probably overly harsh on it and that a fresh look would turn up some under appreciated aspect of the film.

It didn’t.

This is supposed to be the "dark" Indiana Jones movie. But while I like "dark" movies (Empire Strikes Back and Star Trek II, for example), this one isn't dark. It's just bad, almost from start to finish. And I don't blame the vacuous female lead, Willi Scott (played by Kate Capshaw) or comic relief of kid sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). They do what they can with the work given them. And even if they're both played a little over the top (for example, Capshaw being enamored with the diamonds in the Sankara Stones mere moments after watching a ritual human sacrifice), I actually kind of enjoyed what the characters brought to the film. They were totally 2D, but they served a purpose.

Likewise, the plot could truly have been interesting if they had bothered to do anything interesting with it. If you can accept the fantastical powers of the Ark then there's no reason to poo-poo the existence of magic rocks. I also think the notion of exploring India's religious history is very fertile and fascinating ground. Instead what we got was a half action, half horror/thriller that doesn't do either of them particularly well. The gross out scenes, of which there are far too many, are simply childish and often diminish whatever scene they're in, rather than amplify it. The dinner scene (complete with chilled monkey brains and eyeball soup), in particular, completely took away from the intriguing dialog between Indiana Jones and the court of the Pankot Palace. (They also wasted two intriguing characters in the li'l Maharaja and his advisor.) The human sacrifice scenes are built to be high-tension and drama and they are, instead, just dull. It's so bad that there were multiple points during the movie during which I just wanted them to move on because they so thoroughly fail to build any tension. The villain is a blank slate on the level of a Darth Maul. And worst of all they reduce Harrison Ford to being Dirk the Daring (from the Dragon's Lair game). The amount of time he's forced to dedicate to ill-conceived Indy emotes is just embarrassing. In the future, when watching Indiana Jones movies, I may just skip this one and instead pretend that it never existed.

The Last Crusade

This is the movie about which I'm a bit conflicted. I really do enjoy it. I think it's a fun, entertaining and humorous movie. But then, I'm also a sucker for a good father-son bonding flick. But there's an extent to which this movie makes me think of Return of the Jedi in that for all the good stuff in it, there's some horrible miss-steps as well.

Some of the plot points don't make a lot of sense (like why evil-genius Donovan thinks Hitler is going to just give him the Grail). And as much as they seemed to want to make Temple of Doom a cheap horror flick, this one falls dangerously close to just being a screwball comedy and that's no good either. In particular, bringing back the wonderful characters of Marcus Brody and Sulla only to turn them into a bad C3PO and R2D2 side act is just shameful. Brody's character especially just gets raped in the second half of this film. (Perhaps that blow to the head he took from the Brothers of The What'sHisName Sword did some lasting damage?)

On the other hand the dynamic they create between Indy and Henry Jones is wonderful. Ford and Sean Connery play so incredibly well off of each other that there isn't room here to detail the number of both little and big moments between them that make me adore this movie, despite its shortcomings. I also like the female lead, Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), who shows all kinds of range in the film and is probably the only Indy "villain" since rival archaeologist Renne Belloq (in Raiders) to be fleshed out in any meaningful way. I also liked the pre-story that let's us get a glimpse of Indy's coming of age moment as a kid. I think it's extremely well done and the transition to Indy's acquisition of The Cross of Coronado is a great change of pace just because it's the only Indy pre-story in which he actually acquires the object of his search. Finally, they really brought back the fun that was missing in Temple of Doom, especially in the action scenes. I don't think this is a better movie than Raiders, but it is more personal and, for me, a more enjoyable film to watch.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
My dad and stepmom are coming into town tonight so I'm getting tickets to a late showing for my dad and me. It's only fitting since my dad was the one who took me to see all these movies when I was growing up. Based on reading a lot of early (but spoiler-free) impressions, I'm not expecting another Raiders (as much as I'd like to get one). Honestly, I'm expecting something in between The Last Crusade and Temple of Doom, which I can live with. It sounds like, similar to Crusade, they got a lot of stuff right in this film but that it also has some glaring problems. We'll see. I'll definitely post some impressions of it next week.