Monday, June 2, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Making Mountains Out of Mole-Hills

I've heard this film being called "critic-proof", and I'm not even sure what that means, but it implies that whatever the reviews say, people are still going to line up to see it, as if it's a critic's job to discourage people from going to see something they want to see, like it's part of the job description to trash something on your "Must-See List." And that if something truly acidic and toxic is written about it (and a Big Tall Wish is made) nobody'll see it (And they call this movie unrealistic!) Even Ford, Lucas and Spielberg were all talking (before the film's premiere at Cannes) that it was going to get savaged, and, since these guys are pros who know their stuff, it has been in some circles, mostly by mouth-breathing fan sites where "sux" dominates the descriptors.

So, despite the lowering of the bar of expectations by the film-makers, does it suck?

No. No, it doesn't.

In fact, I have to say I haven't been this delighted with a film in a long time. I will even go so far as to say that "
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" fulfills the promises made by the very fine, original "Raiders of the Lost Ark," something that its two sequels, however enjoyable they are in parts and particulars, never did.***

Before we go further, let us go back and recap what happened in the previous chapters...

This series (like I shouldn't have to tell you) is based on pulp serials in the B-movie tradition--episodic, cheesy, toying with History and making it up as it goes along. This one, being set in the late 50's, has to have more of a sci-fi bent than the religious-themed stories of the past set in the 30's and the 40's. It is, after all, the first adventure we've seen of Indiana Jones in a post-nuclear world. Think on that for a moment. "Crystal Skull" fits the period, at least cinematically, however much it messes with folks' expectations of what the film "should be" about (and let's face it, the biggest obstacle Lucas' films have are people's expectations for the "next" installment, and whether it compares to the film they already have in their head--in that case, you can't compete with what they have in mind*). Indiana Jones' timeline has finally caught up with the memories of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

The filmmakers can't escape the fact that it's been 19 years since the last installment (and they've set it nearly twenty since the events of "Last Crusade"), and Harrison Ford's appearance is the nearly-constant reminder of it--he's broader, shlumpfier, more doughy in the face. But something magical happens a couple times in the film (once at a malt shop, once at a Mayan burial ground). Whether it's some CGI-gauze trick, or Ford's sense-memory playing the character kicking in, but once the dialogue turns to ancient civilizations and archaeology, the lines seem to disappear from Ford's face, and he slots back into the old/ young Indiana Jones the same way the camera "slotted" into the Bogart-drinking-his-sorrows "Casablanca" shot in "Raiders" after Jones has seen Marion supposedly killed in a truck explosion. It's eerie, but like the occasional forays into the transcendent in the series, it's a good kind of eerie.

We've mentioned Marion, and, as the posters tell you, Marion Williams nee Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is back, and she's terrific--a breath of fresh air after Kate Capshaw's and Allison Doody's ingenues (the one too high-pitched, and the other tamped-down into irrelevance). The years have treated her far better than Ford, and she still has that incandescent smile and has been given a lot of "Dr. Jones-take-down" dialogue that suddenly snaps Ford's performance into a higher level of energy. Allen has remained well-versed in what Spielberg informed her during the first film was the "Sam Peckinpah School of Acting," something that Cate Blanchett is equally fine at--she's looser and more fun than she's been in years, and just the sight of her Commie commandant standing in a careening jeep during a bumper-cars jeep chase through the Amazon jungle is one of those things you think you'll never see.

So, Shia LaBoeuf. Is he "Short-Round"-irritating, or made too much a thing of? Neither, though he has a prominent role throughout. For some reason, whether it's the magnitude of the project, or Spielberg directing, LaBoeuf's not as energetic or inventive as he's been--maybe we should call his character "Short-Leash"--but, he's a good foil for Ford and their interaction, especially in one pause in a motorcycle chase deliberately recalls the Ford-Sean Connery relationship in "Last Crusade."** One is never sure if he'll be pulling out a comb or a switch-blade when he reaches into his motorcycle jacket (his aping of Marlon Brando's gear in "The Wild One" is a clever 50's variation of Indy's gear), and there is a great visual joke when he confronts an Amazonian resident with the same hair-cut.

As for director Spielberg, he reportedly re-studied his earlier "Indy" films to recall the way "kid-Spielberg" shot films and there are plenty of his early "headlights-into-the-camera" adrenaline shots (and even one of his "Sugarland Express" pans), but the takes are a bit longer-held, he's not quite so anxious to cut away, and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski brings a new visual beauty that supplants the grit-in-the-lens of the earlier films. The elder Spielberg is also incessantly filling the film with visual ironies--grace-notes--that the younger Spielberg would save for a separate shot. There's an awful lot of stuff going on under the surface of the fire-fights, the explosions--some big ones--that betray the more mature film-maker, and man, Spielberg has become. And unlike the last two, which were short on background, and long on chase sequences, this film is over-stuffed with references, languages and the accustomed meta-recall of the past films.*** Not to say there isn't a lot of action. There is. That Amazon-chase between the particulars (the film is structured like a race--like "Raiders" and "Last Crusade"--with the good-guys and bad-guys all after the same thing and never too-far away from each other) is an invigorating combination of possibilities like a puzzle with every combination of inhabitant in vehicle and opponent in combat possible. It's dizzily constructed. And just when you start to think, "Wait a minute, where's..." your questions are answered.

A lot of the action is outlandish, but, surprise! It always has been. How can you complain about verisimilitude when you've had melting Nazi's from the vampire-angels and God's death-ray of the Ark of the Covenant, or Thuggee priests pulling out sacrificial victim's flaming hearts, and how some victims in a lava pit burn, but the heroine-in-diaphenous pants doesn't, or 700-year old Knights Templar still guarding the Holy Grail. Get real, people. Because the movies aren't. Like Indy in "The Last Crusade" film-goers have to make a leap of faith, and it needs to be done with an open heart. Or at least an uncynical one. Or one open to the possibility of enjoying oneself.****

Okay now, go out there and have fun.

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is a full-price ticket.


* Somewhere along the way I've talked about "Mom's Apple Pie Syndrome"--where our memory of a cherished movie runs counter to the actual quality of the work, ie. "Nothing tastes as good as mom's apple pie," but only because that was your first run-in with the concept, and your impression of what "good" apple pie should be like may include a runny interior and scorched crust (I was blessed with a mother--God love her--who was a lousy cook, so I tend to be immune). So, too, the cherished movies of your youth may actually be crap, though we may delude ourselves otherwise, with our 'gee-whiz" innocent first impressions. The phenomenon became real for a few incredulously chagrined "Man from U.N.C.L.E." fans who, seeing the series for the first time in years on DVD last year, endearingly wondered why MGM chose to run the shows through a "crap filter" making the sets look like back-lot soundstages with cheap "foreign" localization, lousy effects, obvious writing and some horrible performances. Ah, deluded youth. Nothing is so sweet as a young man's fancy for a film of their childhood. And nothing is so rancid as the bitterness that follows a fan-boy's crush.

But it's not the film's fault. Ever. Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.

** And if you haven't figured our the "Indiana" Jones-"Mutt" Williams relationship yet, what can I say? You're either a) five years old, b) this is your first movie or c) "denial ain't just a river in Egypy, honey." Look at their names, kids, and remember where Dr. Henry Jones, jr. came up with the name "Indiana." These films are all about clues.

*** Sometime, when Summer is over and there are no more surprises, I'm going to do a big-old analysis of this movie and why it is the natural sequel to "Raiders." (Hint: It involves the clockwork-intricacies of ancient civilizations as well as the conflicts when a Man of Science is confronted with the "hard rain" of spiritual mythology) It's roots go pretty deep--which is refreshing after the previous two--and bear a full airing of the secrets buried within it. To do so now would give away far too much and contain too many spoilers of large and small varieties.

**** Do I have ANY complaints? Yes, the frankly extraneous character of "Mac" McHale played by Ray Winstone. McHale is designed as an untrustworthy character, but he is so untrustworthy that one wonders why he's not just shot by either party at any time during the proceedings. He's so greedy he's a bit reminiscent of Daffy Duck in a hall of treasures: "Mine, Mine, Mine!" The character is such an unnecessary plot contrivance that he might have earned the name "Aringarosa" if the name hadn't already been taken.

Wilhelm Alert: the book-carrying nerd in the library during the motorcycle chase.

No comments: