Why Did It Have to Be Aliens? (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,2008)

Indiana_Jones_Crystal_Skull_PosterOr…Indy Gets Old. Lucas envisioned a new Indiana Jones trilogy, with one change.  Where the first three films focused on religious and supernatural artifacts, the new films would focus on science fiction themed artifacts.  Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set in the 1950’s for this reason, and instead of Nazis, the villains are Russians.

The film opens with Indy and his friend Mac as prisoners of the Russians.  They are taken to Area 51 to locate a potential weapon.  Jones mounts an escape that leads to one of those narrow escapes that got a lot of ridicule…hiding in a fridge to avoid a nuclear explosion.  I am not sure this is really any more outrageous than his other exploits in other films.  Is it crazier than jumping from a plane in an inflatable raft?  Indy returns to his college job, only to find himself pursued by the CIA and the Russians.

He runs into a kid named Mutt…Mutt wants his help to save his mom…Marion Ravenwood.  What follows is an adventure involving the Crystal Skull.  The real Crystal Skulls are carved human skulls.  People believed they were ancient creations, but all the skulls studied have revealed to have been made in the 19th century and there does not seem to be any mythology that corroborates the claims of being Mesoamerican or even Native American.

The film ignores this and posits that there is a hidden city in the Amazon jungles.  And the skull is not human, but rather an elongated alien skull.  The film indulges aliens and psychic powers.  But a lot of the action harkens back to the earlier films.

At the same time, there is little room for anything resembling an emotional resonance…this is because the film relies heavily on goofy moments.  The action is full of it.  During an overly long chase (where the Crystal Skull keeps leaping between Indy’s crew and the Russians) Mutt gets caught in a tree.  He ends up swinging Tarzan style through the trees surrounded by monkeys.

The film also never really surprises.  From the moment Mutt appears, you can see where his storyline is leading.  Mutt is also kind of annoying.  I mean, he is less annoying than Sam Witwicky in the Transformer films…but he gets irritating none the less.

On the other hand, it is really great to see Marion back on the screen.  And she gets some real good moments within the action scenes.  She is not just there to be saved, but does the saving.  And the cast is a high point.  You have Cate Blanchett as the lead Russian, John Hurt as an old mentor of Indiana Jones, and Jim Broadbent in a small role as Indy’s boss.

And John Williams provides the score.  John Williams has created many iconic themes from Star Wars to Superman.  And his soundtrack in all the Indiana Jones films is top notch.  As the main Indy theme plays in every movie, it makes you anticipate excitement.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a disappointing return for a cinematic hero.

The Adventure Begins (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)

Indiana_Jones_Raiders_Poster1981 was the meeting of two titans.  Steven Spielberg had thrilled the world with Jaws and two years later George Lucas had started to take over the world with Star Wars.The two teamed up to create the ode to pulp novels and action serials of yore.

Dr. Henry Jones, nicknamed Indiana is a professor of Archaeology and adventurer.  He is not a treasure hunter, at least not in the traditional sense.  He locates artifacts in the belief that they should be shared with the world for education and discovery.

Jones is contacted by the Government regarding the Biblical Ark of the Covenant.  Teaming up with an old flame, Marion Ravenwood, Indy must stop Nazis from getting their hands on the Ark.  What follows is a series of exciting near misses at getting the Ark.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a roller coaster ride of a film.  It has the adventure, heart, and humor that engages the viewer throughout. Indiana Jones instantly has an iconic feel.  He is rough around the edges, without being a neanderthal.  He is good at thinking on his feet (especially handy in attempts to escape sticky situations.  But he is not alone here.  Marion is the daughter of his mentor Abner, and she is every bit the adventurer.  She is smart and clever, Indy’s equal.

Of course, in a story like this, villains matter.  Indy is really dealing with two foes.  One is Belloq, who is his greedy counterpart.  Belloq is a fortune hunter and seeks the Ark for his own lust for power.  He has teamed with the Nazis, led by the creepy Major Toht.  The Nazis, of course, seek the Ark to consolidate their power.

Lucas tends to be good at ideas, but a bit goofy on execution, so giving the story to Lawrence Kasdan to write and having Spielberg direct brings all their unique skills together to create one of the best adventure films of film history.  It brings the sense of the old serials to a vibrant modern life with terrific characters fighting near impossible odds.

He’d Like to Come and Meet Us (Starman, 1984)

starman_1984_PosterStarman is a whimsical tale of an inquisitive alien who adopts a human identity.  Of course, he chooses the form of a grieving widow’s dead husband.  This is one of the rare contributions of Carpenter that is about hope.

At first widow Jenny is horrified and frightened by the naked man in her home.  But she cautiously trusts him.  As they run, Jenny starts to help the Starman understand what he is experiencing.  He is perplexed by our human insecurities.  He is full of kindness, but finds  our unkindness to be senseless. Starman is trying to show a better path, but mankind rejects this, seeing him as a threat.

Starman is remarkably upbeat for a guy who has an Apocalyptic Trilogy.

And yet, in spite of this…it is like this little bit of hopefulness slipped out.  And I like it.  Carpenter is a lot more thoughtful of a storyteller than some might think, but he often often slips it in beneath buckets of blood and goo.

It is a heartwarming film, much because of Jeff Bridges’ performance.  He plays the Starman in a kind way, as a child just discovering that life is not fair.  Allen is terrific in a potentially thankless role.  She brings heart to Starman’s goodness.  More than one film since has aped Starman’s inspiring behavior.  Starman is not one of Carpenter’s more talked about films, and that is a shame.  It is not a common film for him, but it is touching and a good little film.

What a Scrooge Part 8 (Scrooged, 1988)

 In 1988, Richard Donner and Bill Murray brought us a totally reinvented the tale in a modern setting. They kept the main idea, but found a new way to express it. Scrooged focuses on Frank Cross, a self centered, egotistical, power hungry uh…narcissist. He has no concern for his hard working assistant, his long suffering but loving brother or his earnest employees. It’s all about power and ratings. When he airs a dark add to promote his network’s live presentation of “Scrooge”, one employee (a surprisingly sympathetic Bobcat Goldthwait) suggests he should not air it. Frank plays sympathetic, but as Eliot leaves, Frank calls security and has him fired (the film heaps tragedy on Eliot something fierce).

While going through a gift list, he has his assistant send his brother a towel (the other option is a VCR-which goes to the “important” people on the list). That night Frank is stunned by a visit from his old boss who died seven years before, Lew Hayward (Played by John Forsythe). Lew is a big departure from Marley, oh, he’s tortured with a wicked streak, but there are no chains, rather a decayed body (with a mouse!).

He warns Frank of a visit from three ghosts. Unlike the traditional tale we know so well, this story takes place in the waking hours, causing Frank all sorts of embarrassment navigating from his adventures with the ghosts to the real world.

Add the stress of a younger power hungry narcissist (Brice Cummings, played by one of my favorite actors, John Glover) and pressure of a live show, and that puts Cross near the edge. The real brilliance of Scrooge is the three Ghosts.

Former New York Doll member David Johansen plays the Ghost of Christmas Past. He is a witty, sarcastic cigar chomping elfin cabbie. He loves to trip up Frank and clearly thinks Cross is to undeserving of the good things from his past. We see that as a child, Frank’s home was a bleak one. On Christmas Eve, the Cross household is the only one lacking a Christmas theme. Frank’s Father (played by Bill’s brother Brian) is bitter and cold towards his family. A butcher, he gives his son some veal, and heartlessly ridicules four year old Frankie who had hoped for a “choo choo”. They jump ahead to Frank’s early career and also his intro to the love of his life, Claire (Karen Allen) in a cute little sequence, and then we get to see a year later, another Christmas which shows how happy Frank was with Claire. And then we see his misstep. He is so determined to further his career, he pushes Claire away. When invited to dinner with the president of the network (Lew) he is ready to brush off plans he and Claire have. When the Ghost points out that he was crazy, of course, Frank gets defensive, noting that sure, maybe he has made a mistake or two. But he’s not as clueless as the Ghost believes.

Frank goes to locate Claire for emotional support/help. He finds her running a homeless shelter/soup kitchen. Three homeless people join him, and all seem short a few pennies. They believe Cross to be Richard Burton. After pretending to be Burton, he is found by Claire, who offers help, but also has to take care of some things at the shelter. Frustrated, Frank tells Claire to not bother, and offers the advice to get rid of the freeloaders. Scrape em’ off. It a nice echo of the original story when Scrooge is approached by men seeking help for charity.

The pixie like Carol Kane gleefully plays the Ghost of Christmas Present…and she’s quite a little sadist, getting Frank from location to location with copious amounts of physical abuse. She takes him to his assistant’s house (played by Alfre Woodard) where he discovers minor facts like her youngest son doesn’t speak and it’s due to seeing his father killed. This comes as a shock to Frank. “Grace’s husband died?” He believed the year she was wearing black was just a fashion thing. They visit his brother (Played by Real life brother John Murray) and his wife (Wendy Malick), allowing Frank to see how much his brother cares for him.

While one might doubt the love of Frank’s father, the love and adoration of his brother is never in doubt. In a nice play off of the original Dickens story, Frank gets to eves drop on a TV Trivia game (which has a cute payoff in the end). Frank is left by the Ghost in the sewers of New York. There he discovers one of the homeless bums he brushed off, Herman. Frank finds himself frustrated by Herman’s death…angry at himself, at Herman…

Frank once again finds himself stumbling through his set, disrupting things once again. Frank is shuffled off by Brice to his office, under the guise of concern from Frank’s mental well being (it becomes increasingly clear that Brice is after Cross’ job). While resting at his desk, we see the immense Ghost of Christmas Future appearing on the bank of TV screens behind him. Suddenly, in bursts Eliot, who is clearly drunk and has a shotgun in hand, interrupting the Ghost, who backs off. After being chased through the office by Eliot, Cross attempts to get away by ducking into an elevator. There he finds himself face to face with the Ghost. I should note, of all the presentations of the Ghost of Christmas Future, this is my favorite. The Ghost is already haunting because you see little of its face. And it never utters a word (In any variation of the story). But Donner and his team create a unique look, built on the classic “Hooded Ghost”.

You see inside the cloak, but the head is a TV screen. And it has jarring images, jumping images. Often you see flashes of Frank in the screen. In one neat moment, Frank is looking up at the Ghost and you see Frank from the Ghost’s perspective. The images are, again mirrors of the original Dickens’s tale. In one genius moment however, Frank’s words are harshly thrown back at him by, not one of the Ghosts, but rather a future vision of Claire. She has some hungry kids chased away. She is clearly upper crust now. When her friends suggest she is being too harsh, she boldly proclaims that she wasted years on people like those children. “Thankfully” a friend set her straight. Cross becomes very sullen, seeing what his words have done.

He quietly turns to the Ghost, commenting “That was a lousy thing to do” (There are moments in the film that seem to foreshadow Murray’s later roles from films like Broken Flowers or Lost In Translation). Of course, the Ghost shows him his inevitable fate. Frank sees the only people to show were his younger brother and his wife. In a rather frightening sequence, Frank finds himself trapped in his coffin, being sent to cremation.

Frank comes to back in the office. He joyfully overpowers Eliot, and starts to apologize and offers a better pay and a nicer office. And he needs Eliot’s help. This leads to a lengthy speech from Cross on National TV, in which he confesses his failures and screams to the heavens of his newfound spirit. This also opens the door to reconciliation for him as people stare in stunned awe as a Frank they have never seen apologizes to friends, family and co-workers and makes promises of a newfound hope. It’s a sequence that skirts the fine lines of schmaltz and touching.

Murray as the stand in for Ebenezer brings that dry wit that only he has. Frankly, I can’t think of many actors who could have played this role with out leaning either to much into the comedy or being over dramatic. As I mentioned, there are hints of the quieter, more sublime Bill Murray we’ve seen in more recent years, though clearly still the Bill Murray of Ghostbusters. The Ghosts are clever and fresh takes on the original classic motif. In fact, Past and Present are pretty much complete revisionist ideas. I found the use of “Put a Little Love In Your Heart” as an interesting switch from relying on a holiday standard.

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