Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Hot Take: The Indiana Jones Movies Are Good

A fun thing about Letterboxd (follow me!) is that I was able to see a few other people I know decided that last week was a good time to dig into that new 4K box set of the Indiana Jones movies that Paramount put out last month. There is, of course, never a bad time to watch them and the issues Paramount had getting enough discs pressed meant that some folks might just be getting them now, as my pre-order originally slated for mid-June got pushed out a month before winding up just a week or so late, but maybe it was just rainy enough up and down the East Coast without enough other things going on that folks said, yeah, I can commit to this for a few evenings.

As an aside, I'm trying to not read too much into the delays of this box set, the 4K Scott Pilgrim disc, and likely a few others beyond there still being a pandemic out there and that doing a number on manufacturing and transport, but I'm nevertheless hoping that places are being caught a little bit flat-footed by the demand for physical media going up, especially with people noting that Blu-ray looks better than most 4K streaming services and 4K discs looking almost theatrical at times. I've been reading stories about vinyl manufacturing not being able to scale up to the recent demand, and I'm hoping that the situation with Blu-ray discs and 4K discs might be similar, if less drastic.

The set itself looks fantastic, by the way, although I can't voice for the Raiders disc yet, as Paramount gave that one a 40th Anniversary theatrical re-release that maybe served as a reminder to order this box set and I went for that even though it meant going out in 95-degree-Fahrenheit weather. The joke about how I keep buying that one on disc but don't know why because someone will put it on the big screen still holds, apparently. I'm not invested in this sort of thing enough to see if Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are the sort of upgrades over the previous editions some people are raving about, but they do feel a bit different, like the lighting is a bit more subtly sinister than it was before. On the flip side, either my Last Crusade disc is defective or there's something up with my player (a Sony UBP-X800), because it consistently froze right around the halfway mark, almost surgically removing the motorcycle chase. I power-cycled, jumped straight to the chapter, hit fast-forward/rewind… Nothing. Just lost those three minutes. I gather almost every player has layer-change issues, but this one was a real bummer.

As for the movies themselves, there are folks who will argue against the premise that the four Indiana Jones movies are, collectively and individually, good, partly because people get weird about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in general, and partly because a lot of folks have little room between "great" and "awful", which combined with how Raiders of the Lost Ark is an all-time classic skews expectations for the sequels. People want different things from sequels anyway - more of the thing they liked, finding something else you can do with the same pieces, an explicit continuation of the story that builds on prior events - and what's kind of fascinating about this franchise is that they've done a little bit of each, especially when you include The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Even if you figure that the folks involved executed the plan well each time (which is about where I fall), there's a lot of room for people who loved Raiders to just not like the plan.

I must admit, of the other movies, I found that Last Crusade went down easiest for being the most like Raiders, I found myself more intrigued by Temple of Doom and Crystal Skull, for how they took Indy to different places and poked around the history of the sort of pulp/adventure fiction that inspired the character. There's a part of me that would be interested in them pushing against it a bit - both the Thuggee Cult and ancient astronauts are things that should probably be approached with a lot more care and skepticism even if there are fun stories to be built around them - but it's genuinely nifty how everybody involved takes a character who was designed for a fairly specific milieu and figures out how he fits into others, and also finds ways to give him history and future without destroying everything behind him the way so many others tend to.

Watching these made me a lot more enthusiastic for what James Mangold is doing with the new (and almost certainly final) movie shooting now. I'd kind of checked out, seeing as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were only going to have arms'-length involvement at most and how Harrison Ford is celebrating his 79th birthday on its set today, but if it takes Indy to a new place and era, and gives Ford a chance to wrestle with a man of action nearing his end (something director James Mangold has done before in Logan), there could be something there. My only worry is that the very fact that so much is different right down to a new director will lead Disney/Lucasfilm to be too cautious about going off-template.

In the meantime, we've got these four, they look great, and they're all pretty darn good.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 June 2021 in AMC Boston Common #10 (Fan Favorites, DCP)

Do I really have more to say about this movie that I didn't say eight years ago and multiple times since (and, heck, probably before)? Probably not. If it's not quite perfect in its construction, then the parts that are flawless are also the ones that help move one past missteps. The cast is terrific. Everybody involved seems to get what sort of a throwback it is but, unlike what would often be done in later years, doesn't necessarily need to underline it. I loved Ronald Lacey's Toht long before I had any idea that he was doing a bit of a Peter Lorre riff, and now appreciate how that's not the whole joke.

There are things you can nitpick about this movie, and the whole series, but part of the reasons why it goes well beyond "working anyway" is that the films play as being as nimble and improvisational as their lead character; they'll run into something that should stop things dead, but quickly work out a way around it or shake it off and move onto the next thing. Big action/adventure movies can't actually be like that, of course, but it helps when you've got Steven Spielberg at the helm and he's so good at seeing all the things that need to work together that it doesn't get weighted down.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

It's been a while since I've seen this one, although not quite such a length of time that the way it has not aged well on a pretty fundamental level takes me aback. Although... yeesh, has this not aged well.

That's the thing about this sort of pulp, though - it's tremendously fun, and part of it is the simplicity of its constructs and the purity of the emotion that comes from encountering something lurid and strange, but there's not much room left to feel that innocently, if there ever was. The imagery still works, though, as Indiana and his friends dive into a seemingly insane world.

But, man, that last half hour or so. The set-up doesn't always make sense physically, but Spielberg makes each little bit sing and moves from one to the next with smoothness and confidence that gives a viewer just enough time to breathe without the opportunity to look away. The climax sings after an opening that's not quite all it could be and a middle more reliant on gross-out bits.

Which isn't to say the rest of the movie's without merit. I think it's actually got my favorite characterization of Indiana Jones in some ways, with more James Bond in him than the other movies, with Ford playing a sly adventurer whose amorality is closer to the surface than it would be "later" (after Raiders). We see "Professor Jones" as a part of him he's able to weaponize as opposed to just a secret identity or the safe place he returns between adventures. It's a side of Indy that would have been fun to see more in the other films, the dark side he often as to explicitly overcome and also a reminder that he's smart and resourceful rather than just well-read and light on his feet.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

Last Crusade is a bit of an over-correction toward what people liked about Raiders of the Lost Ark after the flawed Temple of Doom, bringing back a lot of familiar faces and style while also kind of full of shortcuts to get from one bit of fun stuff to the next, though occasionally teasing a couple of ideas that never quite get fleshed out, in part because they're contradictory. Watching Indy smash through the Venice catacombs like a bull in a china shop, just desecrating the heck out of bodies among other things, it feels like there could be more of a contrast with Henry Sr. and Marcus Brody as academics who, if they do go into the field, are setting up careful grids and excavating with toothbrushes. There's a part of me that really wants the theme of #5 to be Indy reckoning with how his treasure hunting has probably set actual archaeology back, because it feels like the sort of thing both creators and fans become more aware of as time goes by, with a smart franchise integrating that growth into the work.

Nevertheless, there's good reason for going back to basics - Raiders is near-perfect and the reasons why aren't exactly hard to get a handle on. Crusade takes that, shuffles it into new arrangements, and layers a story about Indy's contentious relationship with his father onto it that makes him more relatable even without being ordinary.

It pays off, too; I'm not necessarily sure that either Harrison Ford or Sean Connery have ever been as purely entertaining as they are in this movie, partly because they rarely seemed to have equals to play off once they achieved a certain status. They're enough fun to render almost everyone else unnecessary, although it's generally a nifty cast, from Alison Doody channeling period bombshell traits that I appreciate more now than I did back when I first saw it to Robert Eddison's grail knight who has something like two scenes in which he suggests his long time alone has made him a bit peculiar without undercutting the basic honor and dignity of what he represents.

Plus, obviously, Spielberg chases, which may just be the best things in cinema. Having read that the director was a big video game fan, I wonder a bit how much that bit on the train was him having fun with platformers while other pieces had the feel of the then-popular point-and-click adventures. There's also a nifty balance between the freewheeling and the grand throughout as Indy solves this problem he can get his hands on even though it's part of something bigger. For all that folks remember Indy's "Nazis; I hate these guys" and how Spielberg probably couldn't do cartoonish Nazis again post-Schindler's List, Henry's utter disgust at collaborators feels much more pointed than one might think. Henry telling a Nazi that goose-stepping morons should try reading books instead of burning them is pithy; the way he lights into Elsa as she cries while watching those books burn is harsh, nastily undercutting where a lot of movies would try to make this character looks conflicted or painted in a shade of gray. Henry's not having it.

It would be great if the film had a little more to say toward the end about some of its themes and wasn't so seemingly built to shut off the possibility of dealing with the Grail in the world, but the muddle is kind of appropriate - both Joneses are drawn to the past while having trouble dealing with the present, the tactile relics easier to deal with than intangible feelings, and that's a part of them that can't be resolved completely, even if they're in a better place afterward.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

As much as I liked Crystal Skull when it first came out, I wondered how much of it was just "holy crap, new Indiana Jones!" at the time, even as I loved the idea of how it was moving Indy from 1930s swashbuckling adventures to paranoid 1950s sci-fi (with nods to the wartime/Cold War adventures they skipped), something I hope tracks to the new one. Happily, I still find myself quite fond of it. The film is flawed, but flawed in the same way the others are, from Indy maybe not being quite so active as a critic's instincts say he's supposed to be to how the ancient astronaut stuff doesn't sit quite right these days with more talk about how it's often been a way for Europeans to deny the capability of other cultures historically. We just got older and wiser, and a film series not keeping up in some areas can be disappointing, plus or minus digital backlot being a little easier to spot than matte paintings.

Anyway, I still kind of love this one. There's a part of me that wonders if David Koepp just writes "Spielberg Chase" in some scripts and then lets the master take over or if he gives Spielberg more to work with than others (they also collaborated on Jurassic Park and its brilliant set pieces), but there are two or three very nice bits like that in here, and you can't go far wrong with Steven Spielberg doing chase scenes. It's nifty how the film both circles back around to Raiders to bring back Karen Allen but also serves as an interesting reflection of Last Crusade, with Indy both becoming his father by being more at home at the school and striving to be better when he finds he's now the elder.

And say what you will about what happens right before it - I love the twisted audacity of "nuking the fridge" and how Indy doing something kids were specifically advised not to goes right along with razing the plastic nostalgia Spielberg is mocked as loving too much - but that shot of Indiana Jones in front of a mushroom cloud is fantastic, a brilliant take on how pulp adventure changed in the Fifties. I'd forgotten the extent to which one of the last scenes in South America is a reflection of it, almost literally, with Indy on the other side of the screen as another cataclysm takes place around another defining image of Twentieth Century mythology and adventure. Tradition says he doesn't belong there, but he's an icon, so he fits, even if the world is moving on from hidden cities and ancient artifacts.

What I wrote 13 years ago

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