INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

After almost twenty years of waiting, Indiana Jones is back and once more on the trail of an elusive artifact. Harrison Ford reprises the character in the fourth movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The time frame has been moved to 1957 and the movie opens up with Elvis Presley blasting “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” Ironically, the song was written with a female singer in mind who would be singing about her boyfriend. The singer didn’t quite fit the song, but it still made a big hit.

That’s kind of what’s happening with Indiana Jones this time. I think Indiana has a hard time fitting into the 1950s. I much preferred him in the 1930s and 1940s. The world was still so big and so raw during that time. By the Cold War, we’d become aware of how small the world was getting, and how everything seemed to be about the coming days instead of the past ones.

The pulp magazines and serial movies that Indiana Jones had more or less sprung from were dead by this time. It was the end of a fantastic era for heroes.

So, in a way, maybe it’s fitting that the last Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones movie would be set in this time frame.

Harrison Ford is simply an amazing actor. After twenty years, he swaggers back into the role and leaps into the saddle. My God, but it was fun watching him square off against the villains, against overwhelming odds, and figure out clues to archeological mysteries. No one could have ever done this role as well, nor will they ever do it again. Harrison Ford is the epitome of a down-to-earth hero rising to meet outlandish circumstance. His facial expressions alone are with the price of the ticket.

In previous movies, Ford did most of his own stunts. This time around, he didn’t have that luxury. But I was surprised at how lithe and spry he was as he performed the ones that didn’t risk significant injury. He leapt and climbed and ran with grim authority, if not with the alacrity of his younger years. The man is in fantastic shape. Again, the sheer beauty of the Indiana Jones character is that, like Batman, fans can aspire to do what he does. Even when he’s a senior citizen.

Ford still delivers the stalwart hero, the wisecracks, and the tough guy patter. When asked for final words while facing dozens of guns and certain death, Indiana says, “I like Ike.” Of course, I had to explain that Ike was President Eisenhower to my ten year old, but the sentiment fit the time period. The whip action, though not as much of it as I wanted, was in place. During one cool sequence, we see that Indy knows he’s not quite the man he used to be when he swings after a fleeing truck and ends up short of the leap.

One of the best bits about the movie was the nostalgia of seeing Indy toss bad guys from the vehicles he commandeers during the action sequences. The action is still over the top, and I’m still a sucker for it.

Shia LeBeouf stars at Mutt Williams and does an outstanding job of following in Indy’s shadow while at time stepping out and seizing a scene. I’ve constantly admired LeBeouf’s acting, and he gets better every year. (Now that trailers for Eagle Eye, his new film, are breaking, I’m even more interested to see what he can do in a serious thriller.) LeBeouf carries the role well, first as a greaser then as Indy’s progeny because they exhibit a lot of the same traits.

Cate Blanchett is terrific as the Russian villainess. She seems spooky and ethereal from the moment she steps into the scene, and she’s a definite challenge for Indy and company. I liked the look she had. The hair bob was a really nice touch, and the choice of a rapier as a personal weapon was great. She has outstanding stage presence in the movie and looks as relentless as a Terminator in her pursuit of Indiana and the ultimate goal.

The film plays fairly with the 1950s as well. There’s an atomic explosion, paranoia about Communism, and the rivalry between Joe College and the greasers, which I feel certain George Lucas wanted in for nostalgia of his own. But once America is left behind, the timelessness of foreign countries sets in.

The settings looked authentic. The sequence where Indy and Mutt find the final resting place of the “lost” Spanish explorers is well-done. Those scenes are eerie and scary at the same time, and the action is breath-taking. The river sequences were well done, even if though expected.

The special effects guys must have had a blast. Not only on the settings, but on the action as well. The army ants looked and sounded chilling as they took their victims, and the camera work that incorporated all of those elements was superb.

I was particularly enthralled by the “solution” of the puzzle at the hidden city at the end. I thought it was ingenious, but I wish I’d been given a little more time to study the puzzle, been offered more clues, and gotten to think onscreen with Indy. However, not even he solved this one, though I don’t doubt for a moment that he would have. I just wish I’d had a better chance at it.

A lot of people might not be happy with the film. I had some problems with it. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) was given really short shrift in the movie. She doesn’t come on stage till really late, and by then the plot and story are moving so fast that she’s almost eclipsed except for some important reveals. We get no sense of how she’s spent the last twenty years. She was stunning in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and I’d always wondered what it would have been like if she and Indy had hooked up for more adventures.

Another problem for some, me included, involves a spoiler (so here’s your warning) that seems to already be out there on the internet. Even before the film wrapped, there were several rumors that the fourth Indiana Jones film would involve out-of-this-world archeology. In short: aliens.

We got that message loud and clear when the movie beginning more or less starts in Area 51. In minutes, we learn that Indy assisted in the recovery of the alien bodies from the wreck back in 1947.

I personally don’t think aliens and Indy belong in the same movie. However, given Lucas and Spielberg’s affinity for aliens (Star Wars and E. T.), I can’t blame them for wanting to lead Indy that way to tie him into the other worlds they’ve created. But they lost me a little. I was suddenly reminded I was watching a movie, a cool movie, but a movie nonetheless. I ended up being outside of the film in a way that jarred me, and the final scene with the flying saucer taking off was almost anti-climatic at that point.

That being said, Spielberg once again proves himself to be the master of the action movie. The two-hour long film sprints unflinchingly across the screen. There’s hardly time to draw your breath before Indy is thrown pell-mell into some new danger. The motorcycle chase was great, the fight scenes were enthralling, and the scene in the library when a student asks Indy an archeological question after he and Mutt slide across the floor is priceless.

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PRINCE CASPIAN

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian hit theaters with a lot of expectation. The book series has been popular since they were first published nearly fifty years ago, and they’ve never gone out of print. Earlier movie versions, animated and live-action, have been made of them. But after the success of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, fans hoped for more and Hollywood banked on another success.

I had a good time with the first movie. Taking my son with me enhanced the experience, though. His innocent glee stripped years away from me and eased me right back into my own childhood. The sights and sounds of the world were amazing, as they would have to be in order to grab the audiences lying out there in wait now. And the pacing of the movie was well done.

However, Narnia purists are going to have a problem with this version of the novel. Hollywood has strayed far from the path in making this sequel. Yes, it’s true, Narnia has been Hollywoodized and given the big box office treatment. Which means that more has been left out of the book than was kept in, and even more new material was shoveled into the story. In fact, a whole rivalry sequence between Caspian (Ben Barnes) and Peter (William Moseley) has been tossed into the mix, as well as Susan (Anna Popplewell) “crushing” on Caspian.

Also, the battle scenes are definitely more hardcore than they are in the book. And protracted. The novel dealt with them in a straight-forward manner and moved into the characters and the spirituality of the book.

But I have to give Hollywood its due. I’d wager most of the people buying tickets haven’t ever read the books, just as they hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings. They’re there packing the seats because they want to see adventure, excitement, and royal battles between good and evil.

I’d even read Prince Caspian to my son shortly after we watched The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. We’d read that book before the movie and he knew everything that was going to happen. He kept throwing hints to his mom during the movie. This time he really believed we hadn’t read the book because so much was different.

Hollywood chose to change the story, and I accepted that within a few minutes and simply enjoyed what was on the screen without proprietary interest. The special effects are awesome, the mythical beings are amazing, and the landscape is lush and incredible. My son was bowled over as Narnia once again unfolded before us. I have to admit, I was too.

Despite the differences in character and motivations, and the way the final battle was staged when Peter undertook single combat against Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), I had a great time. Susan stepped into the battles and became an amazing warrior (okay, I had to swallow hard at that one when I saw her first shooting men with her bow then using it as a staff to battle again in the thick of the fighting while wearing no armor). Peter was even more courageous than before, and naturally stepped into a leadership role. Edmund (Skandar Keynes) was a fierce fighter as well, and the young actor has certainly grown into the role. There is a fantastic scene where Lucy (Georgie Henley) blocks the retreating Telmarin army that had the audience laughing and cheering at the same time. The kids have changed.

The assault on the castle at night was terrific. My son and I sat on the edges of our seat and watched as the battle progressed and finally turned deadly. And when Aslan (Liam Neeson) stepped onto the screen, we were in Narnia fighting the good fight at the sides of the Narnians.

Maybe this isn’t a faithful interpretation of the original novel, but you’re not going to be able to find a much better early summer offering. I question the rating a little, because I would have bumped it up a notch due to all the physical action, the evil intent, and the PG rating isn’t warning enough.

With all the fantasy and superhero movies hitting the screens this summer, finding one that stands out head and shoulders above the others is going to be hard. I’ve decided not to stress over figuring out which one is the best, and instead concentrate on enjoying the feast!

LAKE PLACID 2

Back in the 1970s, Betty White and Cloris Leachman starred in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was at the top of the heap in sit-coms. Both women played solid comedic roles and helped shape the series by giving Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) someone to play off in different scenes. White was a Jekyll and Hyde homemaker show hostess and Leachman was the crabby/occasionally soft-hearted landlady.

Never in any of those episodes did viewers learn that both women harbored secret alligator fetishes. It wasn’t until Lake Placid and Lake Placid 2 that we discovered this. I have to admit, watching White feed her “precious” alligators in the first movie went totally against everything I’d ever seen of her, and it made the movie even more twisted. Watching Leachman perform the same function in this made-for-SciFi TV sequel just didn’t have the same impact. I expected it, and because of that seeing Leachman onscreen was a bit disappointing.

In the original movie, Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, and Oliver Platt end up trapped in the area as the alligators stalk them. The CGI was well done and the acting was solid. There was a lot of comedy and off-hand remarks that make these kinds of creature horror films work – the movie just didn’t take itself too seriously. The capper, though, was when they lowered the cow into the lake to use as bait. At best, the movie was uneven, though, and had trouble finding an audience. I enjoyed it because I didn’t have any high expectations.

When I found out there was going to be a sequel, it wasn’t cause for intense celebration, but I figured it would be worth a look. Sadly, the sequel misses the boat nearly all the way around. The movie in no way feels “fresh” or different. Its more like a rendition minus a lot of the interesting and comedic parts, and definitely without the budget for special effects. But it’s twice the alligator-killing frenzy because there are four predators this time instead of two. If you saw the first movie, just remember the final scene where Betty White is feeding the young alligators and you’ll realize this film was set up then.

In addition to Leachman, the film also stars John Schneider (The Dukes of Hazzard, Smallville) as Sheriff James Riley. The rest of the principal cast is rounded out by Sarah LaFleur playing Riley’s romantic interest Emma Warner, Sam McMurray playing big-game hunter Struthers, and Chad Collins playing Riley’s son Scott. I looked at those names and couldn’t think of a single thing I’d seen them in. I knew the prospect of a break-even sequel was dimming.

The budget for the original show, probably because producer David E. Kelley (Boston Legal) wrote the original script, was just short of $30 million. The sequel’s budget was $2 million, and it shows drastically. Kelley’s lighthearted and twisted approach to the material is also MIA.

The movie quickly devolves into predictable action and special effects, really weak special effects. The cutting one-liners, almost asides to the audience, are missing. And the tension just never really exists. It’s a vapid chomp-fest from beginning to end, and just never comes close to the original. Everyone, monsters included, simply go through the paces.

Interestingly enough, the film was made-for-television but at some point had nudity shot to add into the Unrated version of the film. That accounts for about four additional minutes of naked soon-to-be ‘gator bait that harkens back to that old horror standby: get naked, have sex, and die.

I didn’t care for Lake Placid 2. I never once got involved with the action or the characters. The presentation is purely paint-by-numbers with few saving graces. Watching Cloris Leachman take over the Betty White role was funny, though, but I think by that point I was desperate for anything that even came close to funny. If you’ve seen the first movie, you might want to see this one, but once you’re finished I doubt you’ll ever want to see it again.

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