Friday, May 23, 2008

We Named the Blog Indiana: You're insulting them and you're embarassing me, now eat it

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crustal Skull is really several movies at war with each other. It's a for hire job to get the fans back on the side of it's creators, it's the actors chance to redeem or prove themselves to audiences and it's David Koepp's burden to patch together several different drafts in an attempt to satisfy a number of master's. Only one group really succeeds.
In his review of Indy 4's Devin Faraci remarks that the film is definitive proof that Steven Spielberg could direct a movie like this in his sleep and did. While I wouldn't go that far I will say that Spielberg's direction feels very removed. There are flashes of brilliance but he never attains the sense of awe that is the Spielberg hallmark. It feels very by the numbers and the film loses the organic, analogue feel of it's predecessors. It may have less CG than the average summer blockbuster but it never quite blends seamlessly into the world. I'd rather have the green screen or matte paintings of the previous film, it gave them a sort of unified feel. DP Janusz Kaminski, a great cinematographer in his own right, feels a bit lost and the opening scene has the sort of distance and feeling of unreality found in the Star Wars prequels. The script, while loaded with inventive action sequences feels bloated and mismanaged, a case of not enough fine tuning and editing. Characters are introduced and then given nothing to do, problems are solved through luck or convenience and Indiana Jones spends a great deal more time explaining rather than doing. The problem is that there are huge swaths of the film that aren't really about anything other than going forward (oftentimes with little more motivation than "because I have to"). That said the film does at time's return to the groove and feel of the previous films and consequently a good hour stretch of the film is purely enjoyable without any reservations.

The film continues the Indiana Jones tradition of never repeating the same type of opening twice. This time it's a lively bit of drag racing between Nevada teens and an army convoy (secretly Communist agents in disguise). The Communists destination is a secret army base that is both a storage facility as well as a nuclear testing site. It is here that the villainous Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett channeling Natasha Fatale from Rocky and Bullwinkle) releases our nineteen years older, but not at all worse for wear Dr. Jones from the trunk of a car. Say what you will about the film but Harrison Ford is the most alive and in the moment as he's been in a motion picture in over a decade. He's having loads of fun and it shows. The Communist want Jones' expertise to help them find something in the warehouse, something magnetic. Jones however, isn't having it and wants out. Unfortunately this opening warehouse sequence is ridiculous in the extreme. Jones was always an adventure hero but Spielberg has him jumping, swinging and fighting like a super-hero instead of a mortal man. The dialogue is a bit stilted and awkward as we're filled in on Jones' relationship with OSS agent Mac McHale (Ray Winstone) and Indy's past as a Colonel in the US army. Then Mac, Indy's long-time friend mind you, goes and betrays him to the Russians. But no matter because even with as good as an actor as Winstone in the part Mac is so thin that the betrayal means nothing to the audience.
As Indy escapes he makes his way to the aforementioned nuke testing site and but for a lead-lined refrigerator would certainly be killed. When Indy makes it back to civilization the US government (as embodied by a suspicious FBI agent played by Neil Flynn aka The Janitor from Scrubs) worried about his possible affiliations with both the reds and Mac basically black list him. Indy returns to Marshall college where the new Dean (a well-intentioned but wasted Jim Broadbent) informs him that he can no longer teach at the school.
It's HERE that the movie I loved begins. There is a nice somber scene where the movie really becomes about something, notions of legacy and mortality that it pursues for a bit until the effects once again take over in the film's final third. As Jones ponders a life without teaching he discusses the losses of both his father and Marcus Brody. Here the scripting becomes almost elegant. "You reach a point in your life where life stops giving you things and starts taking them away." Had the film revolved more about the fallacy and truth of this statement it might have a bit more "oomph." Just as Indy is about to leave the campus, life gives him something instead of taking it away and that something is Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). The introduction of Shia LaBeouf, of Mutt really, kick-starts the film into high-gear. He's an enormously fun character, a curious adventurer who's hair-obssessed greaser veneer hides an uncertain Mama's boy. He and Ford have wonderful chemistry. Mutt relays to Indy that his Mom and their mutual family friend Professor Oxley (John Hurt, as thinly characterized as the other Brits in the movie) have been kidnapped by the Russians and he needs Jones' help in deciphering the clues Oxley has left behind to find his family and the mysterious Crystal Skull of Akator. Unfortunately Mutt's acquisition of a note from Oxley was an ellaborate trap by the Russians and soon Mutt and Indy are locked in a thrilling motorcycle chase through the campus as the younger and older man impress each other with feats of daring-do. Then it's off to Peru where Mutt and Indy bond over unraveling the clues Oxley left behind. There's plenty of fun catacomb exploring and native fighting but the pair are eventually captured and the Russians want Jones to decipher Oxley's insane ramblings. He's compelled to do it when they reveal their prisoner (and Mutt's mother) Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, lovely but not given much to do except for some cute bantering). Yes, that means EXACTLY what you think it means, Mutt is really Henry...Jones...III. Indy's reaction to seeing Marion after so many years is so great that it almost makes the entire film worth it. I loved the early scenes with these two actors. Marion truly was Indy's perfect partner and had the film been about this newly discovered family unit and the legacy of the Jones' we'd really have something. This idea begins to carry over as Jones goes from cool contemporary to Mutt to basically the reincarnation of Henry Sr (going so far as to shout "This is intolerable" as Mutt drags him through an escape). We get the start of a cool Indy chase as various vehicles race through the rain forest as all the characters scramble for the skull. It's very exciting until a derailed Mutt has to pull a Tarzan, inexplicably mastering swinging on conveniently placed vines in seconds.
From here the film dips back from exciting, fun Indiana Jones movie to silly, over-stuffed with characters, by-the-numbers puzzle solver. Indy spends a lot of time explaining to us what's about to happen and then Oxley uses the titular crystal skull (easily my most hated MacGuffin EVER!) to do all the work. Oh that Crystal Skull. Whether it's repelling army ants and natives, opening doors, reading minds or turning a temple into a spaceship, the crystal skull is a lazy screenwriters dream. Oh how I yearn for the days when Jones solved problems through ingenuity, elbow grease or luck, here all problems get crystal skull-ed away. The end is never really in question but still there is enough promise shown in the Mutt and Indy's relationship that I wouldn't mind seeing a Last Crusade-esque follow up. Then again, maybe enough is enough and it's time for Dr. Jones to give it a rest. Regardless of the years the mileage may be too high.


Football Chick said...

Ok I have to say it, this movie was BAD. Everyone was old, the entire genre seemed out of date, the clich├ęs were charmless, and rather than modernizing a classic they just filmed it again with aged actors and better cameras. Cate Blanchett was shockingly misused. It was tired to the point of awkward. And also there were aliens. I was embarrassed for everyone involved, and for the theater full of people whose faces slowly drained of joyful anticipation. For shame.

El Gigante said...

Katie, I love you when you're critical so much it is not even funny. Seriously.