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The Cynical Optimist 27/05/08

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After seeing “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” I came to a real crossroads over my writing and critiquing of film. I sat in front of the computer for hours staring at a blank word processor page, trying to figure out how I would encapsulate the flood of thoughts and emotion I was feeling toward the film in a single article.

My review fell short of expectations. I wanted it to be some grandiose 3,000-word article encompassing “Indiana Jones” and its history, the Saturday afternoon serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and my thoughts on director Steven Spielberg and creator George Lucas and their latest installment of the series. What I realized is that I simply couldn’t do it. I needed to hammer out my thoughts on just “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and let all this other stuff cluttering my mind fall to the side.

Seeing the film put some things into perspective for me. I’m going to take off my critic’s hat and cast away all my cynical, pretentious film speak for this column. I’m coming from a genuinely optimistic place here, and we’ll see what happens…

Losing My Childhood

Do me a favor. Right now, as you sit starring at this post, reach back into your childhood and grab a memory of a movie you absolutely loved as a kid. Think about a movie that you might have watched back-to-back so much that you drove your parents insane from constantly begging and pleading to see it again.

Got it? OK, now try to think back to why you loved that movie so much. While you try to put a finger on the exact reason, I’ll entertain you with my own personal example. For me as a little boy, “Star Wars” was life. I was so completely engrossed by the original films that it’s all I thought about. While sitting on the floor playing with the Kenner action figures, I might have “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi” in the VHS player – playing over and over again as I acted out my favorite scenes on the carpet.

Films like “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” allowed my imagination to go absolutely berserk. There was an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder contained within those VHS tapes – exotic locales and fantastic adventures to dream about. And call me a nerd if you’d like, but my life was completely shaped by “Star Wars” – and I’m not so ashamed to admit my unconditional love for it.

When I was little and completely enthralled by these films, was it because of the brilliant direction or flawless cinematography? Was it a skilled actor’s delivery of a well-written piece of dialogue? No. I wasn’t sitting with my arms crossed, rolling my eyes at childish humor or poorly done action sequences. I wasn’t scoffing at low budgets or poking holes through plots and pointing out laughable special effects. I was too busy laughing and smiling and mimicking the action I was experiencing on the screen.

In my hands was Indy’s bullwhip or Luke’s lightsaber as I fought my way through hordes of bad guys. I wasn’t looking for which angle or lens the director was using – I was discovering the soul and spirit of the film, the essence of being entertained.

Obviously, this childhood love for movies has grown into a matured enthusiasm and appreciation for film. Now I have the benefit of viewing fine works of art and seeing the brilliance of a director and the fine craftsmanship that comes from well-done cinematography. I can spot a finely tuned story with subtle, powerful acting but haven’t I lost something in the process? Perhaps a little of that awe and wonder that once fueled my passion? Sadly, I think I have.

I’m constantly wrapped up in the trappings of this industry. I’m on the computer for way too long reading reviews and previews, script leaks, spy reports and the typical onslaught of production woes and celebrity gossip. It’s quite hard to be optimistic about movies when you take all of this into consideration. Instead of genuine anticipation and sanguinity for the majority of Hollywood’s latest cinematic efforts, a cynical pretension takes control that is but the first step in a cycle of disappointment.

star_wars_episode_one_the_phantom_menace_ver2.jpgThere are countless examples that could be referenced here, but being as I am a “Star Wars” nerd, I’ll stick with what I know. You have a generation of people who grew up with the original trilogy, who then grew up and started having families by the time George Lucas decided to create the first three chapters of the saga. This generation grew up with the campy fun that “Star Wars” offered – the Abbott and Costello humor between R2-D2 and C-3PO, that big walking carpet Chewbacca and of course, the Ewoks.

When “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” hit screens in 1999, the majority of this generation revolted against what George Lucas had done. According to them, Lucas might as well be “The Destroyer of Childhoods.”

They scoffed at Jar Jar Binks and his foolish ways, neglecting the fact that he, along with the rest of his fellow Gungans, was nothing more than another example of Wicket and the Ewoks – a primitive race that had to rise against a technologically advanced foe.

Maybe they forgot about the Ewoks attempting to trip AT-ST walkers in the forests of Endor while being dragged through the dirt and squealing, much to the pleasure of their childhood counterparts. Perhaps they forgot Chewbacca swinging from vines doing Tarzan yells.

They’d argue that the Ewoks were acceptable because they didn’t talk and they were proud warriors… but the only real difference is that you could understand what Jar-Jar said and you couldn’t understand the Ewoks (well, not until those two Ewok spin-off movies, that is). Wicket and Jar Jar are comically different in comparison to their counterparts. The rest of the Gungans are proud warriors who aren’t nearly as clumsy or goofy as Jar Jar. At least that’s how this Star Wars philosopher feels.

When you go back and watch “The Phantom Menace” you realize that it heavily mirrors “Return of the Jedi” – the whole ending, cutting between a big battle (Naboo and Endor) to a lightsaber battle (Vader and Luke / Maul and Obi-Wan) to a Space battle (Anakin and Trade Federation / Lando and Wedge Vs. Death Star)

Now don’t get me wrong, Jar Jar Binks isn’t the greatest character in the world, and maybe his voice is annoying – but the kids absolutely love him, and that’s the point of his existence. It’s the same reason we got Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi” – cute little teddy bears with funny speech that are clumsy but good-hearted.

Was it a complete disconnect between this generation’s love and acceptance of one thing and their bewilderment and anger with another? Was it the expectation of what a “Star Wars” movie should be that interfered with what it ultimately was? I, for one, love the “Star Wars” prequels for what they are. I don’t try to pretend that they are of the same quality as the original films, but I do recognize the continuation of a story I have loved since I was old enough to crawl.

This leads me back to “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Much like the “Star Wars” prequels, this highly anticipated film never really stood a chance with critics or the more critical fans. There’s that old saying that you just can’t please everybody, and it’s certainly prevalent here.

You’ve read the plethora of reviews on this film, and you probably fall on one side of the spectrum or the other. Critics like Roger Ebert and Richard Corliss of Time Magazine have praised the film, while others have shredded it to pieces. Truth be told, I think we all might be over-analyzing it a bit.

Like it or hate it, one can obviously tell that filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had a blast making this picture. I don’t think anyone was making “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” in hopes of an Oscar nomination or receiving critical praise. This film was as much an indulgence for its makers as it was the audience. I think if you’re sitting there in your seat with your arms crossed, shaking your head at every implausible action sequence – rolling your eyes at computer-generated matte paintings – you’re missing the point, and even worse you’re missing out on all the fun.

I understand people’s criticisms with the film – their dislike of the “Tarzan” homage with Mutt swinging through the jungle, or the unlikely perfect landing of a jeep into a tree, but in the end – what good does it do to so ardently hate on something that was intended as a bit of fun for you?

Sure, maybe the prairie dogs were a bit too much – and perhaps you felt that the “Indiana Jones” franchise wasn’t a suitable place to build a science fiction story based around extraterrestrial life, but haven’t the Indy films always been full of completely unfeasible, supernatural stories? The film’s plot was a reflection of the ‘Red Scare’ and atomic age B-movies of the ‘50s. I also loved the reference to “American Graffiti” during the film’s opening sequence.

To me, the experience was a delight – pure popcorn fun, and to critically scrutinize the campy adventurous fun of it is a bit inane, being as you very well might be taking the film more seriously than those who made it.

Spielberg and Lucas have always had the mystical ability to awaken within me some kind of unexpressed emotion from my childhood. From “E.T.” to “Jurassic Park” to “Temple of Doom,” they have all tapped something deep down inside of me. It’s in this way that I so very much enjoyed Michael Bay’s “Transformers.” Spielberg’s signature heart and childlike awe is very much a big part of that movie. Those fixating on the unbelievability of giant talking robots from another planet which transform into human vehicles were so busy scoffing and rolling their eyes that they missed the fun and spectacle of the movie. They missed out on that yearning for a boy to discover his car is more than meets the eye.

Now I realize this heartfelt rant conflicts with my thoughts on the new “Terminator” trilogy, but I suppose my rationalization for that is the fact this it seems “Terminator 4” is not a dream project, reuniting the original cast and crew but rather an exploitation of the franchise. I will hold a small glimmer of hope, however, that it is careful to respect the previous films’ continuity and will at least be entertaining.

I’m fighting the cynical side of my inner optimist and trying to get back to the real reason I fell in love with movies to begin with – the way they make me feel.

I wonder if this recent emphasis on dark, gritty films is in part to blame for the backlash to campy, more comical films. It seems hard to create a good family film these days without injecting a bit of dark, foreboding imagery and storytelling. As much as I love films like “Batman Begins” and “V For Vendetta,” there is something to be said for those campy, outlandish Adam West days of “Batman,” where instead of getting a brooding, dark knight we got POW! ZIP! BLAM! in spandex tights.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” Review
The latest installment in Steven Spielberg’s beloved adventure series can still throw a punch.

Fedora. Leather jacket. Bullwhip. These are the necessary accoutrements for Dr. Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones jr. to get the job done. A professor of history and archaeology, Dr. Jones has spent his entire life in pursuit of ancient relics. He’s an expert on the occult, an obtainer of rare antiquities – but above all, Indiana Jones is the essence of adventure.

An “Indiana Jones” picture is all about exotic locales, crawling through subterranean caverns seeking out golden idols and other ancient artifacts. Since his first appearance on the silver screen in 1981 with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” We’ve seen Indy in search of the Ark of the Covenant, navigate the crypts of the Temple of Doom, and uncover the secrets of the Holy Grail. And while those past installments were homage to the Saturday afternoon serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Indy’s latest adventure takes us into unknown territory – the atomic age.

Set in 1957, “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” picks up 19 years after “The Last Crusade”, and Indiana Jones is well into his ‘60s. Since his last outing, World War II came and went and Indy’s most-reliable enemies, those power-hungry Nazis, were vanquished.

Now America is fighting a whole new war, the Cold War, and lucky for us there are new enemies for Indy to contend with – the communists. Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko, a despotic femme fatale played by Cate Blanchett, plans to infiltrate a top-secret U.S. government hangar in Nevada.

While we’re at it, Spalko has captured Indiana Jones and intends to use his knowledge to find a particular crateful of contents. I won’t tell you what it is, but the contents of this crate are ultra-magnetic, and its location is easily betrayed after Indy throws some gunpowder into the air.

After leading Spalko and her men to this mysterious crate, an inspiring action sequence breaks out full of shoot-outs and whip-cracks. Jones creates a diversion and eventually escapes into the desert. When our favorite archaeologist returns to his university, he is offered a leave of absence to avoid being fired because of an FBI investigation involving his association with communists.

As he prepares to leave, Jones runs into a greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who reveals that Indy’s old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), has disappeared after searching for a crystal skull in Peru. Much like the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, The crystal skulls are mythic artifacts. These skulls are often attributed to the Aztec or Maya civilizations and are believed to contain supernatural powers.

So now that we have our quest and the principle characters all set, Indy and his sidekick Mutt must journey to Peru to piece together the puzzle left by Oxley. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a fabled golden city, holds the key – and now it’s a race to the prize between Indy and the Soviets.

Quite simply, I loved this film as I have loved every “Indiana Jones” picture. Director Steven Spielberg and creator George Lucas have managed to surprise me with a constant salvo of spectacles and awe-inspiring action sequences.

As a Kid I was fascinated with Area 51, the Roswell incident and the Nazca lines – and now to wrap up all those childhood fascinations with the myth of the crystal skulls is quite a pleasure for me to experience. I sat like a wide-eyed child in the theater, with a huge goofy grin on my face for the duration of the film – and I will let that reflect my rating.

With an “Indiana Jones” film, what good does it do to compare one to the other? In the end they are all entertaining and to critically analyze them is to completely deprive yourself of the fun and excitement they offer. I thought long and hard about this review, and the number of balled-up sheets of notebook paper in my trash reflect the frustration I had in trying to critically review this film. I thought back to being a kid and pondered what made me love Indiana Jones to begin with. Was it the acting or the cinematography? Was it a flawless script or supreme direction? No. It was pure, unbridled fun – and that’s all Indy has ever been – unashamed to be nothing more than a popcorn flick.

I for one love man-eating ants and spectacular jeep chases through the jungle. I love the pure essence of campy fun combined with vine swinging and whip cracking. Is it the best? Far from it – but it’s a welcome addition to the adventures of Indiana Jones. If there’s another expedition up Indy’s sleeve, I’m more than willing to go with him.

Prince of Persia

As you may have heard, Jake Gyllenhaal has been cast as the lead in “The Prince of Persia,” a film adaptation of the popular video game series. The film is being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Mike Newell (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”). The film is being developed for Disney and I have a feeling Bruckheimer is hoping for a “Persia” franchise to replace the box office draw of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

If you’re unfamiliar with “The Prince of Persia,” the best I can do to describe it to you is a cross between “Aladdin” and the aforementioned “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. What’s most interesting is the choice of Gyllenhaal as the lead. Sure he has the acting ability and star presence to headline a movie of this magnitude, but is he the best choice to play a Persian prince? I guess anything is possible in Hollywood but Donnie Darko himself might be a bit of a stretch for an action star.

The announcement of “The Prince of Persia” coupled with the recent news that Gore Verbinski would be adapting the Xbox 360/PC hit “Bioshock” into a film could show a changing attitude toward the legitimacy of video games as a medium for storytelling. Will ‘video game movies’ finally lose the negative stigma that seems to follow them? Let me know what you think!

Did You Know?

The whole atomic bomb test sequence in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” with the lead-lined refrigerator was a gag originally intended for “Back to the Future.”

The original script for “Alien 3″ by Vincent Ward involved a “wooden planet” inhabited by monks who viewed Ripley as sexual temptation and the alien itself as the devil?

Recommendations

I recommend picking up The Complete Making of Indiana Jones: The Definitive Story Behind All Four Films which can be found at your local book store or on Amazon.

Go see “The Strangers,” which hits theaters May 30th. This is one of the first horror films I’ve actually looked forward to in a long time.

E-mail me at thefraze@gmail.com with questions, comments and concerns!

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Author: ADAM FRAZIER
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