Monday, May 26, 2008

Indiana Jones Sees Reds; "Prince Caspian" Suffers Growing Pains


directed by Steven Spielberg
starring Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent

Indiana Jones...I always knew some day you’d come walking back through my door. I never doubted that. Something made it inevitable.

–Marion Ravenwood, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Like a good friend, visiting after a long absence, who still knows your home and your habits of old, Indiana Jones slips back into his franchise as comfortably as he dons the trademark fedora—older, undoubtedly, and a little worse for the wear, but still hardy, and still with a roguish twinkle in his eye. Has it really been almost two decades since we last tried to keep up with the Joneses? The newest installment of Indy's adventures deserves credit for managing at once to comment on that fact with suitably deadpan wit and at the same time to make us feel like hardly any time has passed at all.

Set in 1957, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” opens with a new villain in town: the Nazis have given way to the Soviets, led by the formidable female colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, in full statuesque mode with a faintly S&M-ish edge). Spalko, hell bent on collecting archeological objects with paranormal powers—for Commie mind control purposes, natch—attempts to conscript Prof. Henry Jones, Jr. to aid her in her quest. After an opening standoff in a top secret U.S. government compound (which should look familiar to anyone who’s seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), Indy spends the rest of the movie in a cat-and-mouse pursuit with Spalko & co that eventually hones in on the titular crystal skull and a mysterious lost city in Peru that may or may not be the original El Dorado. Along the way, he picks up an outspoken but spunky, knife-wielding young greaser called “Mutt” (Shia LaBeouf), an old scholarly colleague (a practically unrecognizable John Hurt) driven loony by the skull’s powers, another colleague (Ray Winstone) who may or may not be double crossing them, and, of course, the lovely Marion (a seemingly ageless Karen Allen), Indy’s ex-flame from the “Raiders” days.

Par for the course in an Indy movie, in between breathless chase and hand-to-hand fighting sequences (which serve as a reminder that no one but Spielberg can direct an action scene with his mix of energy, fluidity and playfulness) there’s a lot of faux-historical, archeological and linguistic mumbo-jumbo that takes on a pleasantly familiar, if somewhat rusty feel, as do the winding trails, deep ravines, cobwebby tombs, and secret passageways that lead our adventurers closer to their ultimate destination. There isn’t quite as much in-joking as there was in “The Last Crusade,” but there are bits of homage to the earlier films sprinkled throughout, from a quick glimpse of a particular crate in the government compound to a rather silly jungle scene involving an extremely large snake, to an exchange of looks between Mutt and Indy—one gleeful, the other disapproving—and the latter’s muttering of “Intolerable!” under his breath as they speed along on Mutt’s motorcycle. That last wink and nod, taken together with Mutt’s nickname, is a huge tipoff (at least for anyone who’s seen “The Last Crusade” as many times as I have) as to a major plot point that’s already predictable enough as it is.

All this is cake for the die-hard fan. But “KCS” is no mere exercise in Indy nostalgia, in that it embraces a totally different cultural context and zeitgeist from the earlier movies. If the original trilogy took on the pace and rhythm of the action-adventure serials of the 1930s, “KCS,” with its references to Communists, the Reds scare, double agents, mind control, the paranormal, and (in the film’s most hilarious sequence) nuclear testing, has the feel of a ’50s film, albeit a somewhat zany and disjointed one, with what look like outtakes of “Grease” thrown in for good measure and comic value. It’s important to understand this background as the film ultimately ventures into territory that some viewers may be tempted to dismiss as “not Indiana Jones” and that, to be honest, isn’t really explored to any degree of depth or precision.

For the movie, to be sure, has its flaws. The plotting is looser and more muddled than that of its predecessors; some scenes could definitely have been axed, and some of the characters are severely underwritten: only Indy and Mutt really emerge as fully dimensional human beings. But the great accomplishment of “KCS” is how seamlessly it brings Indiana Jones into a new era even as it salutes his past experience. Harrison Ford is clearly enjoying the return to his most iconic role, and though his Indy may be more grizzled and move a bit more slowly than he used to, he’s still the man schooled in hard knocks, who can both throw and receive a mean punch, and withal a sentimental softy under that gruff, tough facade. One of the film’s more charming moments is Indy’s giddy, half-dancing delight when he sees Marion again for the first time in twenty years.

Further bridging the gap between “then” and “now,” of course, is Indy’s new protégé, who quickly proves to have more than a spark of Indy’s pluck and gumption. LaBeouf is likable and engaging as Mutt, even if his swaggering bravado doesn’t exactly evoke Brando. Is the young pup the next Indy in training? Looking at the long term, it’s hard to tell. But “KCS” goes out of its way to suggest, in a slyly humorous final moment, that rumors of any imminent torch-passing may be greatly exaggerated. As long as our favorite globetrotting professor is still alive and ambulatory, he’s still Indiana Jones for both his times and ours. And “KCS,” if nothing else, is fresh proof of why that’s a good thing. It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.


Also saw:


directed by Andrew Adamson
starring the kids from the first Narnia movie, Ben Barnes, Peter Dinklage, others

Even more so than its predecessor ("The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"), "Prince Caspian" walks a tenuous line between family-friendly entertainment filled with cute kids and talking animals and fierce, battle-rific epic fantasy in the vein of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The film takes C.S. Lewis' rather placid, largely drama-free original story of the Pevensies' first return to Narnia and liberally adds narrative complications, tensions between characters, ethnic shadings, and fighting and infighting fit to sustain a Jacobean drama. The result is a much darker and more brutal tale than that imagined by Lewis, albeit one that shows not a drop of bloodshed. That feeling of being caught between two phases is also, interestingly, reflected in the young actors, who seem to be making their way through adolescence, and yet are constantly thrown either up against or together with the older, clearly adult Prince Caspian (played by 27-year-old Ben Barnes).

That's not to say the revamping is ineffective, exactly. It succeeds in drumming up a level of suspense that never existed in the book, and adds a measure of gravitas that was entirely missing from the spotless, almost plastic quality of the first movie. There's one particularly haunting scene in "Caspian" (admittedly, this *was* in the book) in which Tilda Swinton briefly reappears as the spirit of the White Witch and in the course of less than five minutes proceeds to outact every other person in the movie while creating an atmosphere of suspended dread. The film's main problem is how tonally to reconcile the disparate elements of a political plot involving a murderous, treacherous usurper to the throne and a woodland tale of friendly, dispossessed talking badgers and mice. This, to be both fair and frank, is a problem inherited directly from the source. The difference, which is not necessarily to Lewis's credit, is that except for a few very brief scenes, the murderous usurper never appears long enough in the book to register as a serious threat. In his onscreen incarnation, he does, and as a consequence this "Prince Caspian" may be a little too intense for young children while remaining a little too bloodless for the LOTR-loving crowd.



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