Monday, May 21, 2012

“Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This? This IS history.”

I’ll admit, taking a critical eye to the Indiana Jones movies is an intimidating thought, because so much has already been written in praise of the trilogy that what could I possibly add except more praise? Well, hopefully it’ll be reasonable, thoughtful, and insightful praise in what turned out to be a super-long update. And it provides an excuse to watch 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark again.

The Story
Its really rather simple. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones is an archeologist in 1936 who does extensive field work and gets recruited by the US Government to track down the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do because the Germans might find a way to weaponize it. What follows is a globe-trotting, two-fisted race against time ADVENTURE!

No, really, that’s it. That’s the plot right there. Two sentences and we’re good to go. Beautiful, isn’t it?

The Sights
Raiders is beautifully gritty. What do I mean by that? It means director Steven Spielberg and director of photography Douglas Slocombe take us from dank South America to frozen Nepal to Egypt (well, locations meant to be those places at least) and give us all kinds of incredibly well-shot and lit harrowing situations. There’s death traps, golden idols, a giant boulder, tarantulas, a creepy Gestapo agent, and a bar brawl that ends with a tavern burning to the ground. And that’s just the first half hour. Then there’s chase scenes, Nazis getting punched in the face, ancient tombs and riddles, more chase scenes, a Nazi monkey, the finding of the Ark, Indy having a semi-belligerent relationship with an ex-girlfriend, an aristocratic French archeologist working with the Nazis, a fistfight against the backdrop of a flying wing on an airstrip, Nazis getting punched in the face, a U-Boat, and the constant struggle between Indy and the Nazis over who will claim the Ark. The movie is loaded to the gills with awesome stuff that happens. It clocks in at about two hours, and the pacing and content is just so damn good that there’s really not a single bit of fat that could’ve been trimmed from the finished product. It is, in essence, a perfect example of an ADVENTURE! movie with perfect pacing. And Nazis getting punched in the face.

Some highlights: The South American intro to Indiana going through incredible effort and avoiding all kinds of death traps (and the iconic giant boulder) only to have the idol taken from him at spear point is a fantastic character introduction. The digging in the desert that leads to the discovery of the Well of Souls and the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant is suitably majestic and epic. Even the expository scene at the University between Indy and the Feds who recruit him is incredibly well done. Its straight up exposition, but all of the things mentioned come back around and happen by the end. Its fantastic.

Then there’s the action sequences, and what action sequences they are! The fight with the German mechanic and the flying wing stands out as a great miniboss fight filled with great escalation, tension, and choreography. What makes it awesome is that they essentially made it up as they went. The truck chase through the desert that follows it is also incredible. And these action scenes are done in the traditional “stunt men & pyrotechnics” method. All of its as real as it can be.

The special effects are also damn good. The Ark is mystical/magical, and in addition to the famous melting/exploding Nazis, there’s all kinds of mystical stuff throughout the film. The Ark burns the Nazi logo on its crate. Even more subtly, as the movie progresses, whenever characters even so much as mention the Ark, it causes strange localized atmospheric changes, like a gust of wind or a thunderstorm during a dig. The subtle touches are just as important as the blatant ones, and this does both well. Okay, sure, some of the blue screen effects are certainly showing their age, but honestly, it detracts nothing from the viewing experience because the rest of the movie is so visually amazing. Besides, there’s stuff that was made in the last ten years which has aged much worse in the effects department.

I think part of the reason why it works is because it’s a movie set in 1936 made in 1981 using filmmaking techniques that were not impossible for the 1930s (as in computers and stuff). Lots of locations, soundstages, props, stuntmen, pyro, models, camera tricks, stop-motion. All of it was really done in front of cameras and recorded on celluloid. It adds a…plausibility to it. It’s a direct line to that old Hollywood craft tradition and wears that heritage proudly.

The Cast
Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones: Harrison Ford completely nails the two-fisted pulpy charm of the character. And Indy’s not even a character so much as an archetype to hang the ADVENTURE! on. What’s Indy’s character? He’s a brilliant, handsome, tough-as-nails archeologist who’s students all love him, hates villains, loves beautiful women, and is terrified of snakes. He wears a fedora and is great with a bullwhip. And that’s Indy in a nutshell. He gets introduced as a take-no-shit guy who doesn’t hesitate to bullwhip a guy who tries to shoot him in the back, so he’s clearly a man of action. But despite this, Indy’s not a Mary Sue character because he has incredibly spotty luck. He always manages to get the ever-loving crap kicked out of him, he gets captured all the time, and the bad guys are frequently able to trick or outwit him. About the only thing that consistently goes right for him is that he’s doggedly persistent and really good at surviving things that should kill him. In short, he is an everyman hero. The only actual character development he gets in the movie is: “Learns to respect the power of the supernatural as it pertains to legendary artifacts.” Aside from that, he’s just an awesome professor who punches Nazis and hates snakes.

Dr. Marcus Brody: Denholm Elliott plays Indy’s boss at the museum. He’s highly intelligent, well-connected, and rather paternal, but he’s past his adventuring prime and has to deal with negotiations and red tape at home. A staunch and charming ally, but not someone who can back Indy up in the field. He, like most everybody else in the archeology business in this movie, has respect for the Ark, and warns Indy to be cautious and respectful of it should he find it, because who knows what kind of forces are at work within it?

Satipo: Alfred Molina in his first movie role! He’s a cowardly and ultimately treacherous sidekick in South America and really only noteworthy for having a long and successful career after appearing in Raiders.

Sallah: John Rhys-Davies is great as Indy’s Cairo contact. He’s a jolly man with a big family and prone to singing merrily who runs a digging crew that gets hired by the Nazis to dig for the Ark (along with every other digger in Cairo). Another staunch ally, he gets a lot of choice dialogue bits. He too gets very respectful when discussing the Ark.

Marion Ravenwood: Karen Allen from Animal House is Indy’s love interest in this movie. She’s the daughter of Abner Ravenwood, an old mentor of Indy’s that was tracking the Ark. He died before the movie, but Marion has a medallion that’s the key to finding the Ark. She runs a bar in Nepal and wants to get back to the states. They have a rocky history together, and she slugs Indy one on their first reunion. Marion’s a great female character. Smart, tough, independent, feisty, handy in a fight, brunette, and capable of drinking most men under the table. God, she’s like my ideal woman. She does tend to get captured a lot, but so does Indy and that’s one more thing they have in common.

Major Arnold Toht: Ronald Lacey plays the creepy Gestapo agent with oily perfection. Sinister, weasely, and sadistic, he conveys enough menace that he doesn’t even really have to do anything physically evil on screen to get across the threat of it. It culminates in a great gag where he enters a tent with a captured Marion and brings out a chain with sticks attached that looks like a torture device but turns out to be a coat hanger. It’s a great gag.

Colonel Dietrich: Wolf Kahler plays the German officer in charge of the expedition. He’s more of the “I’m doing my job but I’m still a jerk” brand of secondary villain. And provides someone who can logistically provide all the Nazi goons that get killed during the movie.

Dr. Rene Belloq: Paul Freeman plays an incredibly sophisticated villain. He is an incredibly intelligent, cultured, and resourceful French archeologist who is a rival of Dr. Jones. He’s the one in the beginning who snatches the idol out of Jones’ hands. I think he’s possibly the best villain of the series and likely a standout one for movies in general. He’s a smug, traitorous bastard, but he’s never uncivilized about it, he’s perfectly willing to be reasonable and possibly even compromise at times. He certainly compromises by helping the Nazis (whom he doesn’t personally like, but they have the logistics and manpower to find the Ark and is ready to disagree with them on various issues). He, like Jones, is superhumanly motivated in his quest for antiquities. Similarly, he’s also got a thing for the ladies, but he’s a bit more lecherous about it (he pervs on Marion when she changes into a nice dress by looking in a mirror at her). And like Jones he also wants to find artifacts for the betterment of mankind. The difference is his hubris. He not only wants to find the relic of the century, but also to attach his name to the finding of it. Glory is his goal, and perhaps he’s also intrigued by that mysterious association with “Power” that the Ark has. He certainly wants to know what it is. He’s an absolutely fascinating character and frequently likable.

The Script
Story by George Lucas & Phillip Kaufman, Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. Being a plot-driven ADVENTURE! I’ve already discussed a lot about what makes the movie work, but there’s still room to discuss things. Dialogue is outstanding in this movie, with some excellent one-liners and exchanges (Sallah gets a lot of them). Pacing again should be praised, because everything in the movie furthers the plot and characters and nothing is extraneous. There’s nothing that doesn’t relate to either the next scene or a bit of information that was or will be revealed. It all fits together into a watertight package. Sure some of the characters might be drawn in broad strokes, but they’re all memorable and incredibly well executed.

The Sounds
Original Music by John Williams and it is, naturally, exceptional. Of course there’s The Raiders March main theme (or as closed captioning liked to call it “Rousing Adventure Music plays”), but the other major themes are excellent as well. The Love Theme is sweeping and tender and the Ark Theme is magical, mysterious and carries a hint of danger. Like everything else in this movie, the sounds (including the sound editing by Ben Burtt) are exceptional. Oh, and throughout the trilogy, keep an ear out for the Wilhelm scream.

The Verdict
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an amazing movie. This is common knowledge. It stands up to thorough analysis. That’s like proving its good with Science! Hopefully my pretentious little insights give you an excuse to revisit the movie again and look for stuff you might’ve missed. Hell, this viewing made me look at Belloq with newfound appreciation.

And if you haven’t seen Raiders yet, what is wrong with you?? Go and correct this right now! Its only two hours long, and those are hours well-spent on every viewing.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

“It's too bad Mothra has no alarm clock.”

1966. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster AKA Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no daiketto. Godzilla fights a giant prawn on an island owned by spy movie villains.

So, we open with a ship getting sunk by…something. Next, the brother of one of the missing sailors wants to go search for him. He and his generic, interchangeable buddies sneak onboard a fancy yacht and run into a shady fellow who doesn’t admit to being, but pretty clearly is, a famous jewel thief. They wake up the next morning out at sea since the brother decided to take the boat looking for his missing brother and they reach an island ruled by the terrorist group Red Bamboo. The island also has a giant prawn named Ebirah that sinks ships when they come close. Our heroes get stuck on the island but hook up with a slave resistance movement. And for some reason Godzilla is asleep on the island. The big guy wakes up eventually and fights the sea monster, the island, which is volcanic, becomes unstable and the giant moth Mothra shows up because the good guys need some kind of way to leave the island.

Directed by Jun Fukuda. There’s not really much to recommend this movie. Godzilla vs. Megalon has better production values. Ebirah isn’t exactly A-Class when it comes to Godzilla foes because, let’s face it, there’s little intimidation to be had from a giant, delicious-looking prawn. And then we get Mothra, one of the other Major kaiju, but she just kind of feels tacked on as a deus ex machina to get the humans to safety. The monster fights are also fairly dull, with Godzilla and Ebirah tossing a rock back and forth at one point.  I’ve read that originally this was supposed to be a King Kong movie, so a shift in the production of the film probably didn’t help either.

Written by Shinichi Sekizawa and there’s quite a few dashes of James Bond in this movie. Secret island stronghold run by a terrorist organization? I’d say it qualifies. Easily the most interesting character is the jewel thief, because he’s a competent crook who gets thrust into a position of leadership and ends up rising to the challenge. It’s rather neat and he is essentially the only character to get some actual characterization. The rest of the movie though…rather forgettable and rather random. Mothra’s presence? Random. Godzilla’s presence on the island? Also random. Godzilla fighting a giant condor? Very random. Godzilla kind of taking a fondness to one of the main females? Random and creepy.

Original music by Masaru Satô (who worked with Akira Kurosawa on, lets be honest, much better films than this). The music channels the James Bond vibe, which is actually kind of cool hearing a groovy spy-sound in a Godzilla movie.

The few interesting moments in Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no daiketto don’t really overcome the general blandness of the film. I had to watch it twice to really figure out the plot, and even then a lot of stuff doesn’t make sense (Mothra is on the island Because, for instance). Certainly a lesser Godzilla film.

*Note* Classical music not actually in the picture.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

“How many preachers you know carry a six-gun?”

Find A Place To Die AKA Joe…cercati un posto per moriere! is a rather somber Spaghetti Western from 1968. It opens with a man and woman defending a mine from bandits, but the man gets caught in an explosion and trapped under some rubble. He gives his wife a bag of gold and tells her to get help and/or start a new life without him. Her name’s Lisa Martin (Pascale Petit) and she at least has the decency to leave her dying husband a Winchester and some whiskey.

After a travel montage (the movie has several) she arrives at a town that translates to “Eagle’s Nest.” It’s a crummy town full of scum and villainy, and a lady of negotiable affection named Juanita is singing the grim theme song. Lisa enters and finds a drunk American wearing gray named Joe Collins (Jeffrey Hunter, who played Captain Pike on the original Star Trek pilot), a disgraced cavalry officer. She eventually convinces him to help her rescue her husband from the gang of Chato (Mario Dardanelli). After a bar brawl, Joe agrees, but needs help fighting Chato’s men. They assemble a motley gang of shady types that include: Gomez (Gianni Pallavicino as Gordon York) a crook who buys guns from Joe and sells them to Chato; Paco (Reza Fazeli), Juanita’s pistol favoring lover/pimp; Fernando (Nello Pazzafini), a big dumb lug of a goon with a sidekick (that he leaves behind) and along the way they pick up the shady Reverend Riley (Adolfo Lastretti) who’s obviously some kind of lecherous con man. Actually, they’re all pretty lecherous and greedy men interested in Lisa’s body and the 2 thousand in gold she’s promised. The band rides out to the mine and toward a violent showdown over the gold with Chato and lots of betrayals along the way.

Giuliano Carnimeo (as A. Ascot) also directed the (arguably better) Sartana films. Still, he’s got a good eye for scenery and mood here. The mood here being “Bleak.” Visually this is a rather stark film right from the beginning, where the camera focuses in on an iguana, which…I don’t think is actually native to the American Southwest. Ah whatever, these movies were all made in Spain anyway. The brawls and shootouts are all solidly done as well. If there’s anything the movie does wrong, is pad out a lot of the plot and action with long montages of people riding places without particular impetus.

Story by Lamberto Benvenuti and Hugo Fregonese. Screenplay by Lamberto Benvenuti, Giuliano Carnimeo and Hugo Fregonese. I will hand it to this movie, it certainly commits to grimdarkness. The only character who isn’t sullied or bad in some way is Lisa. Chato is a murderous bandit who displays corpses of people he’s killed. Fernando is a brute who doesn’t seem to care about the meaning of the phrase “bad touch.” Gomez is a sneaky, backstabbing bastard. Riley’s skilled in medicine, clearly a false preacher, and apparently very, very good at torturing information out of people. Paco’s loyal to his woman, but he’s still a murderous pimp. Even Joe is tainted because he was court-martialed, is wanted in Texas for killing a man, and in Mexico selling a cache of stolen military guns. From his clothes, he also looks like he was on the losing side of the Civil War too. Like I said, grimdark.

Original music by Gianni Ferrio, the music’s actually quite good. Lots of haunting acoustic guitar and the “theme song” sung in the bar continues the dark mood since its all about finding a place for a gunfighter to die. Thematically consistent.

There’s not a whole lot to Find A Place To Die. It’s a competent movie that is coherently told and committed to telling a dark tale of frontier greed and betrayal with a few rays of hope scattered throughout. It is grim and violent, and rather mirthless, and slightly dragged down by frequent sequences of people riding. Ultimately a decent movie with a few interesting characters (Joe, Paco, and Riley come to mind). Certainly not essential viewing, but if you’ve got a boxed set like I do, it’s a pleasant little surprise.