Friday, June 29, 2012

“My boy we are pilgrims in an unholy land.”

1989 brought the closing act in the Indiana Jones trilogy with The Last Crusade. It brought back Nazi-punching, and artifacts buried in the desert and expanded the cast. And proved to be a difficult one to write about because while I love it dearly, there are some things that really bug me about it.

The Story
It begins with…Utah in 1912 with a group of boy scouts, including a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) exploring the wilderness. Indy wanders off and spots some goons digging up the Cross of Coronado. Noting that it belongs in a museum, Indy takes it upon himself to steal it from the people stealing it, and a merry chase ensues that involves horseback riding and a circus train full of wild animals. Indy escapes the bandits, tries to show the cross to his preoccupied and distant academic father, and the guy who hired the goons shows up to reclaim his item because he’s bought off the cops. The head thief though, admires Indy’s moxie and gives him his hat. What does this have to do with the plot of the rest of the movie? Absolutely nothing, because even when it fast forwards to the present day of 1938, where Indy finally gets the cross back from the guy in a Panama hat, the boat sinks and the villain dies. Raiders at least had the villain outwitting Indy in the beginning be Belloq, who remained a villain throughout the film. But I digress.

Anyway, the real movie begins in 1938 with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) approached by a wealthy art patron named Walter Donovan (Julian Glover, hey its General Veers from Empire Strikes Back!) Donovan’s obsessed with finding the Holy Grail and shows an incomplete tablet with clues to its whereabouts. He says that he had an expert in the field who’s gone missing and wants Indy to find it. Said missing expert? Professor Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery). After a little chatting with Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and finding his Dad’s house sacked, the two agree to help find Professor Jones. Along the way, Indy goes to Venice where he hooks up (in more ways than one) with Austrian archeologist Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), runs into some guardians sworn to keep the Grail hidden, led by Kazim (Kevork Malikyan), takes a blimp ride, gets shot at by Nazis, fights over possession of his dad’s Grail journal with the Nazis, finds his father, gets betrayed by Donovan and Schneider, ends up in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Hatay, reunites with Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), fights a German General Vogel (Michael Byrne) on a giant tank, and has to survive several death traps to prove his worthiness and find the grail.

The Sights
Once more, Directed by Steven Spielberg with Douglas Slocombe as Director of Photography. And once more the movie looks fantastic. The grittiness is dialed back a lot compared to Temple of Doom and the tone is largely more lighthearted. The requisite creepy-crawlies in this movie are the rats in the Venice sewer/catacomb, and aren’t really focused on like the bugs or snakes of the previous movie. The effects, both practical and composite continue to be top notch, and the action scenes continue their ambitious stunts. There are quite a lot of great set pieces in this movie. The Venice boat chase, the one-sided dogfight, the motorcycle chase, and of course the Tank Fight are all fantastic scenes that just scream ADVENTURE. Even the train scene with Young Indy, as much as I rag on it not being essential to the film, is well done and exciting. Just gratuitous. And we also get a suitably gruesome and supernatural villain death, as all good Indiana Jones films should have.

The Cast
Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr.: Harrison Ford continues to nail his role, bringing more of that humor, charm and indestructibility that made him an awesome movie hero. This time around, he’s also got awkwardness to play with, since he’s often overshadowed in events by his almost equally active estranged father. The relationship between them starts off essentially nonexistent, but over the course of the movie, both learn about each other, gain respect for each other, and finally show some heartwarming familial love. Indy continues to get beat up quite a lot by goons before triumphing, but he’s also outwitted a couple times too, which is a nice flaw (and way to keep the tension flowing). Also, and it’s a completely minor but appreciated detail, we see more of Indy teaching class, and his extensive time in the field causes his academic career to get out of hand. Since he’s hardly on campus and such a popular professor, whenever he IS around, he is completely swamped by students with questions about their coursework and is stifled by a tiny office and is WAY behind on class and paperwork. And so he does something only a professor with tenure can get away with: sneaking out of his own office hours to play hooky. Which, while horribly irresponsible of a professor, is also kind of awesome.

Professor Henry Jones Sr.: Sean Connery brings a tremendous amount of charm to the role of Indy’s father. When we finally meet him, he’s been captured by the Nazis, having fallen for the same honey pot that Indy just fell for. Brilliant but aloof and condescending to Indy, the two have an incredibly rocky reunion and their antagonistic banter is a highlight of the film’s dialogue.

Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies): Its good to see both of the characters back in action. Sallah remains the boisterous and jolly digger that he was in the first movie, but Brody has transitioned into a full comic relief character. Which makes sense, after all, it wouldn’t make much sense to keep him as a father-figure when Indy’s father shows up.

Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), General Vogel (Michael Byrne), and Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody): Our 3 villains hit some interesting points. First, the General is our requisite military man since somebody needs to command the Nazi goons in the movie. Vogel is professional but has a sadistic streak, and there’s not much to the character. Donovan is obsessed with finding the Holy Grail because he wants immortality. He’s already a wealthy man and is quite respected as an art collector. He’s even contributed a lot of pieces to the museum Indy & Brody work for. But Donovan is completely driven to find the Grail and is willing to make all kinds of shady deal and arrange bad things to get it. Dr. Schneider is, like Belloq, a dark mirror of Indy. Like the Joneses, she’s driven by the search for antiquities for the improvement of mankind, and like Belloq, she is completely willing to compromise her ideals to find said artifacts. At one point she professes that the Grail is all she cares about, not the Swastika, and at a Nazi book burning/rally she seems to be full of regret at witnessing the destruction of history (ie books). But the fact remains that she’s working with the Nazis. This obsessive drive causes all kinds of other problems for her and others as well.

The Script
Characters created by George Lucas & Philip Kaufman, Story by George Lucas & Menno Meyjes, Screenplay by Jeffrey Boam. Like I said above, the entire beginning sequence is unnecessary to the actual plot and could be excised. Cut that bit off and you’ve got a much more tightly-contained, roller coaster-fast movie with a lot of heart. I think what really sinks the Young Indy sequence is that they load Indy up with all of his accoutrements in the course of ten minutes. Indy gets his whip, his chin scar from said whip, his fear of snakes, and his hat all in that sequence. Its pretty farfetched, especially since all of these traits aren’t really anything close to character development, they’re just accessories that make the character recognizable. At the end of those ten minutes, Indiana Jones’ personality is exactly the same as it is in the movies. From 1912 to the 1930s, there is no change in Indy except for the actor wearing his stuff and the fact that he‘s punched more Nazis in the intervening years. I’m not knocking that, per se, since Indy is a heroic archetype more than a fleshed out character, but if Young and Adult Indy are identical in character, I’d much rather have more of Adult Indy. That’s the reason why I never felt the need to watch the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, because I had no interest in watching an Indiana Jones that wasn’t Harrison Ford. Watching something about Indiana Jones before he became a two-fisted professor would be like watching a Philip Marlowe movie not about his Private Detective activities but instead about his frustrating life at the District Attorney’s office. Backstory belongs in the past.

That complaint aside, and I guess it is a pretty major complaint, the script does other things brilliantly. When the movie gets going the pacing and dialogue are both whip-smart, and the way it builds a relationship between Jones Senior and Junior out of thin air is great, as is how the healing power of the Grail heals their broken relationship. There’s even a great Ark of the Covenant throwback joke. The script works so well that by the final shots of the movie, you feel a satisfying completeness to the story and the characters. The heroes triumph (as they always do in these) and their brush with the unknown has left them better people. The excellence of the ending is good enough that it makes up for 10 minutes of gratuitous introduction to a character that needs no backstory.

The Sounds
Original Music by John Williams and its another hat trick of fantastic music. This movie’s particular contribution is the Grail Theme, which is grand, sweeping and a bit melancholy.

The Verdict
If it weren’t for the 1912 stuff, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would be my uncontested favorite of the trilogy. It polishes off some of the rough edges that Temple of Doom has but just can’t quite hit the efficient perfection of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That said, its full of heart and ends the trilogy with the perfect note of finality. The filmmakers leave with Indy and a crew of beloved characters riding into the sunset, not because Indiana Jones is done having adventures, but because they were done filming them. The further adventures of Indiana Jones are effectively handed off to the audience to imagine for themselves, where he can search for mystical artifacts, bed beautiful women, and punch Nazis in the face in the hearts and minds of you and me forever. That’s what’s perfect about the ending of Last Crusade.

And then 19 years later they made another one.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

“Biggest trouble with her is the noise.”

The second Indiana Jones movie came out in 1984 and wound up getting some mixed responses. Up until 2008, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was widely regarded as “the bad one” of the trilogy, which I honestly think is an unfair epithet.

The Story
We start in Shanghai in 1935, making this a prequel to Raiders. After a musical number (of all things) to open the credits with, Indy is in a nightclub to meet a gangster to make a transaction, a diamond for the remains of his ancestor. The gangster, being a gangster, double crosses Indy and poisons him. A fight breaks out over the antidote, Indy escapes and flies off in a plane owned by the gangster. While Indy and his companions sleep, the pilots bail out and our hero crash lands in India, where the real plot begins.

The real plot is that a modest village they come across is plagued by horrible things. The land is blighted, and a cult has taken away all of their children in the night, and all this because the cult stole their sacred stone. Indy is dragged into the quest to recover the stone because A) it might be one of the fabled Sankara stones and worth a LOT of money, and B) the god Siva himself seems to be nudging him to do this. So its off to Pankot Palace where the stone is, because there lies fortune and glory. And a reborn Thuggee Cult that worships the dread goddess Kali.

The Sights
The visuals by director Steven Spielberg and director of photography Douglas Slocombe continue the trend of “beautiful grittiness.” Temple is actually more gritty than Raiders even, and was considerably darker thematically, so much so that it helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating. Darker how? Well, there’s lots and lots of bugs in this, a gross-out dinner scene that ends with “chilled monkey brains” served in monkey skulls, child slavery, and, oh yeah, a guy gets sacrificed to Kali by being locked in a cage, having his heart removed from his chest and not killing him, then being lowered into a pit of lava that kills him and causes the heart to burst into flames. I guess you could call that dark. Its pretty awesome too as a villain-establishing moment.

That said, its not all blood sacrifices and deathtraps, and Temple features a hell of a lot of lighthearted scenes as well. The intro musical is a glitzy, glamorous and upbeat rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” that sets the mood for the rest of the movie. From the Shanghai sets to the jungles of India (well, Sri Lanka), there’s a great sense of anything can happen. Indy has not one but TWO comic relief characters following him along, and the action scenes ooze just as much ADVENTURE! as the rest of the series. For set-pieces, this one’s got a raft used as a parachute (not advisable to try in real life), a moving ceiling deathtrap, a bareknuckle brawl with a big Thuggee on a conveyor belt, and the famous mine car chase. The Mine Car chase is a literal roller-coaster made even more impressive when you realize most of it was done with miniatures instead of real people. I’m sure the heavy shadows and lighting helped cover that up effectively, but for years I had no idea there was so much miniature work done in that scene. Now that’s awesome effects work.

The Cast
Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones: Harrison Ford is pretty much our only returning cast member (not counting the stuntmen). Since this is set before Raiders, this is a slightly different Indy. Yes he’s still the daring, charming, highly intelligent adventuring archeologist, but he’s considerably more mercenary in this. After another fantastic character introduction (walking in wearing a tuxedo and speaking Chinese to Lao Che and making sure he gets his payment while oozing cool), we find out he’s bargaining a rare antiquity (the ashes) for another (the big diamond). Then when he gets to India, he really has no interest in helping the village. He just wants to get to Dehli and go home. It takes an escaped slave child with a scrap of ancient scroll identifying the lost rock as a Sankara Stone to get him in gear. And even then he’s not doing it for the village, but for the money. It takes even more events to actually propel him into actual altruism.

Wilhelmina “Willie” Scott: Kate Capshaw plays the love interest this time and, well, Willie is Willie. She’s a very “girly-girl” who is completely unsuited to any kind of ADVENTURE! She complains constantly, hinders Indy’s progress more than helps, and is basically an attractive comic relief sidekick that Indy makes out with occasionally. She’s not completely useless (I counted two times where she does something that legitimately helps Indy. See if you can find them!), and the scene at Pankot Palace where Indy and Willie are flirting then arguing then pouting in their rooms waiting for the other to cave in and come to bed is actually good comedy (and feels like it was lifted out of some older 60s comedies).

Short Round: Ke Huy Quan plays Indy’s OTHER comic relief sidekick. He’s considerably more resourceful and helpful than Willie. He’s also been with Indy for a little while. I know some people hate Short Round, but I never found him annoying. Hell, he’s got some of the best, most memorable lines in the movie.

Chattar Lal: Rushan Seth plays the Prime Minister of Pankot. A Western-educated, bespectacled man, at first glance he seems like a reasonable regent for a child Maharaja. But of course he’s not. He’s a high-ranking member of the Thuggee cult, but aside from a few later scenes, he fades to the background when the real villain arrives.

Mola Ram: Amrish Puri plays the real leader of the Thuggee. Mola Ram is one hell of a crazy villain. He wants to conquer the world in the name of Kali, and is trying to collect all of the Sankara stones to do so. He’s got an impressive hat, is physically imposing, has an army of fanatics backing him up, and manages to elevate himself from a two-dimensional villain through sheer force of hamminess. He is, essentially, a James Bond villain (complete with molten lava pit headquarters).

The Script
Story by George Lucas, Screenplay by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz. Darker mood notwithstanding, Temple of Doom continues the breakneck pacing and excellent dialogue that Raiders started. The intro sequence even plays into the direct sequence of events this time, unlike in Raiders where it serves as an independent episode that only introduces the hero and villain. Character development is also well done. Indy’s an archetype, drawn in broad strokes to allow a wide audience to imagine themselves in his shoes having crazy adventures, but here (and a little less so in Raiders) he DOES have character development. He starts out as a slightly amoral treasure hunter, and after going through a metaphorical Hell (seriously, it would suck to go through everything that happens at Pankot), he emerges as a much better person. And the way its done is fairly subtle. By the end of the conveyor belt fight, Indy is actually trying to help his opponent (a particularly brutal cultist) from not dying a horrible death. Of course it happens anyway, the guy’s a miniboss after all, but that Indy even tries to help the guy stands out as being more benevolent than he was at the beginning. The darkness of the mood is brightened by two comic-relief characters, and the villain is just as memorable as any other in the series.

But the voodoo doll thing? I can’t think of any way to defend a Haitian/West African thing being worked into the Indian subcontinent. That’s just kind of dumb. At least its barely in the movie.

The Sounds
Original Music by John Williams again, and again it is top notch. In addition to bringing back The Raiders March, new themes are added, the most noticeable ones being Short Round’s theme, which is suitably Asian-influenced, and the harsh, percussive theme of the mines. The soundtrack is a fine addition to the series. Also, the musical number with “Anything Goes” sung in Chinese is catchy as hell.

The Verdict
Temple of Doom is a very good movie though. Its got great action, memorable characters, and is a worthy continuation/backstory for Indiana Jones himself. More than that, the dialogue is some of the most quotable of the series, and the movie as a whole is a lot of fun. And that’s what this series is about. Fun. Okay, fine. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not as perfect of a movie as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but then again, few movies are, even the other Indiana Jones films. It may be the runt of the Indiana Jones Trilogy, but that’s like saying it’s the smallest of three grown wolverines: it can still maul larger game with frightening power.

Yeah, it’s a weird analogy, but I stand by it.