May 25, 2008

Indiana Jones 4

What is the big deal about Indiana Jones? Why did we have to wait 19 years for another movie when the formula is so simple and the result is so effortless? Fans have built up the Indiana Jones movies into something much more Important than they really are. The first one is the perfect adventure movie and the most entertaining movie I have ever seen. Indy 2 and 3 are just fun adventure movies, no different than any other typical adventure movie- the quality is much higher than a typical movie, but Indiana Jones movies aren't a Big Deal.
All of this made Indy 4 such a pleasant surprise. It was far from perfect, and it may be the 4th best movie out of four Indy movies, but it was still very entertaining. The opening sequence adventure sets the tone of the movies firmly in 1957 Cold War America, where it seems we have reason to be scared of the Soviets. No jungle vines or spiders, it's all radioactivity and rockets.
Once Jones gets back into his tweeds at college, Jones travels to South America in search of an old friend who has gotten tangled up in a mystery, much like Jones's father went missing in Indy 3.
I was worried that Indy 4 would include too many references to the previous films, too many 'wink wink' jokes. The bad news is, they're all there, the good news is, they're mostly all in the first 30 minutes. For example, there's no need to point out that Jones's previous Dean Marcus Brody has passed away, and there's no need to linger over a photo of his late father. My wife reported giggles when the camera slowly pushes in on a framed photo of Henry Jones Sr, and I rolled my eyes at the whole idea of shoe-horning in their passing into the plot. Later on, they bring back Jones's fear of snakes into a extremely silly scene which should have been cut out, or even better, never shot to begin with.
My main complaint is with the script in the second half, when the movie really gets bogged down with too many characters and too many plot complications. The screenplay does not need to be complicated or innovative. Simplicity is the key, and this plot was over-complicated, and there were too many characters. A little more finesse, a little smoothing of rough edges would have helped. By the last third of the movie, Indy is dragging four people around with him: perhaps Indiana Jones and Can We Get A Head Count Please? could have been a better title:
  1. Ray Winstone (The Departed, Sexy Beast) is "Mac", a fellow adventurer who may have some conflicted allegiances. His part is completely extraneous. The character is pretty flat, he doesn't act as a real sidekick or assistant to Jones, and he sucks up time with his bad accent and bad moustache.
  2. Shia LeBeouf (Transformers, Disturbia) is "Mutt" Williams, a brainy dropout turned would-be rebel in Marlon Brando's Wild One leather and George Lucas's pompadour. Mutt and Indy do some of the initial investigating together, and we get to see his curious character evolve as they climb through Peruvian catacombs. However, like the other three tagalongs, he gets lost in the shuffle as the movie bloats and bloats. There's a silly "Mutt takes the Indy mantle" joke at the very end, but that thread got dropped a long time earlier. One of the exciting action sequences is when Mutt takes Indy on a great motorcycle chase across his college campus. Nothing like real stunts with no CGI to get the blood pumping!
  3. John Hurt is Professor "Ox" Oxley, Indy's old friend who's obsessed with the Crystal Skull. My main problem with him is that he's dead weight. They have to drag him everywhere, and he simply slows them down to the point where I wondered how the quintet ever escaped any danger? I seem to remember that Abner Ravenwood filled a similar role in Raiders, and he dies before the movie even begins. Instead, Oxley is kidnapped by the bad guys (just like Indy's dad in Last Crusade). A simple rewrite would kill off Oxley before the movie begins, and then, ninety minutes into the film Indy and Mutt could have found his remains in an especially poignant way- not a dry eye in the house!
  4. Finally, and most bittersweet, is Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. We all loved her in Raiders, so it's too bad that she has so little to do in Indy 4. She has two lively spats with Jones, and she gets to drive the DUK in a chase sequence, and the rest of the time she's just tagging along. Allen does look great, though.
My only other major complaint, besides the rough screenplay, was the cinematography: retired English cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shot the first three Indy movies. Indy 4 was shot by the two-time Oscar winner, Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski won those Oscars for shooting Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List. He has also shot eight other Spielberg movies. As talented as he is, he did not shoot Indy 4 to look like Indy 1-3, he shot it like a Janusz Kaminski movie. Besides adding his own feel to the camera work, none of the movie felt like it was shot on location. Indy 1-3 all felt like Spielberg was out there with his flappy desert hat on, getting sunburned, eating Spaghetti-Os out of the can, living rough. You could smell the B.O. on the sweaty extras. Indy 4 felt like it was shot on Lucas's ranch in Marin County.
HEY! It's That Guy! Note: Who was cast in his second Harrison Ford movie, as a federal agent interrogating Jones? None other than Jan Itor himself, Neil Flynn from Scrubs, whom we last saw in 1993, as a Chicago cop trying to arrest Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.
THEATER NOTES: AMC Aviation 12, Linden NJ, is a fine place to see a movie. Too bad the crowds are as restless and chatty there as everywhere. It's bad enough when adults take their 7-9 year old children to the movies. Yes, the kids talk to Mom and Dad in their living room voices, and they ask obvious questions about the plot. It's more frustrating when the adults get restless during the non-action scenes and start talking. I feel like bringing some cat toys with me. Then when a plot-driven talking scenes comes on screen, I can toss the ball with a bell inside down the aisle, and these ADD adults can chase that instead of talking. My sister-in-law reports the guy next to her was playing games on his BlackBerry during the movie, and he paid $10 to sit in that theater. Go figure.

Also On Memorial Day, Through The Years

I have been to the movies on Memorial Day Monday 13 times in 24 years, but it's not a great track record.