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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Raiders of the Lost Poligrip, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Viagra, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Regular Colo-Rectal Check-Ups… ah, yes, with so many years since the last Indiana Jones adventure it has given us lots of time to make funny with possible names for a fourth film in the series, especially since the longer the gap continued the older star Harrison Ford kept getting. Finally, after nearly twenty years, George Lucas and his pal Steven Spielberg got their act together and actually put together a real sequel, this one actually called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

My Aunt Evelyn, who’s not really my Aunt at all, came with me to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Thursday at the
Essex Cinemas. Evelyn was my landlady back in my sordid youth, long before I was married, and she insisted that everyone who lived in her building call her “Auntie.” The building itself was full of young singles and around town had the “affectionate” nickname ‘Vaseline Flats’, though Aunt Evelyn didn’t seem to realize that. She appeared to think she was running a co-ed convent or something akin to it, with six floors of celibate 20-somethings whose evenings were spent in Bible study and chaste conversation. The only time she ever actually got a hint otherwise was during the Christmas season when she would put a nearly life-sized crèche scene in the lobby and find that somebody in the building had rearranged the shepherds and the sheep into compromising positions day after day until she’d finally give up and put the whole thing back into storage until the next year. Every year on January 1st when I’d drop by the office to pay my rent, she’d confide to me that she had compiled a list of potential culprits and suspected it was either “the Jew on 4, the homo on 2, or possibly the art student on 5.” I never had the heart to tell her that despite her best anti-Semitic, homophobic guesses, the truth is the person behind the prank didn’t even live in the building. It was actually her own ex-husband, Benny, who still had a key and dropped by nightly to do the deed, a “secret” that was known by everybody in the building but Evelyn herself.

I thought she was in her 70s back then, but that would make her well past 100 now, so who knows how old she really is. All I can tell you is she is mad for Harrison Ford and has had the deluded idea that because one of her tenants in the 1980s was Billy Dee Williams’ mother she has a ‘personal’ connection to Mr. Ford. I know, it makes about as much sense as buying a chicken because you want to make a cake. Yeah, you’ll need some eggs, but what a circuitous route to get them. It’s the same with Aunt Evelyn. She figures if Billy Dee’s mom, Loretta, was a tenant of hers and Billy Dee appeared in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi as Lando Calrissian opposite Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, then he is as good as family to her.

Since Aunt Evelyn is so tight with Mr. Ford, she has been waiting not-so-patiently these nineteen-plus years for this next chapter in the Indiana Jones franchise to arrive. She doesn’t think I know, but I have a friend at Lucasfilm who told me they used to circulate her letters jones-ing for a new Indiana around the office because they were so strangely entertaining. Eventually, though, they became a tad disturbing, and, after she started sending more than three or four each day, some with nude photographs of herself included, they quit opening them all together. That was more than a decade ago. I hate to think how many more letters and offers of herself Aunt Evelyn wrote in the intervening years, but, perhaps, with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finally here she can take a break, at least for a bit, before she begins her campaign for the next installment.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is everything a fan of Indy films might hope for and more. It has the essential chases and thrill-ride scenes that the first three movies offered as well as brief glimpses into the professorial life of the title character, and, most of all, it has the requisite hunt for a lost relic. In this case, it is the skull (duh!) of one of the alien creatures snatched by the government during the infamous crash landing of an alien spacecraft near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947.

The mysterious properties of this skull seem to include transferrable psychic abilities as well as an innate magnetism which is why it becomes the target of agents sent from Russia to steal it from the government warehouse in Area 51, where all notorious UFO secrets go to be housed. Enter Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) as Irina Spalko, Soviet super spy. I think Cate took the budget course in learning her Russian accent by watching reruns of “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle” as she sounds exactly like Natasha Fatale, of Boris and Natasha fame. She even wears a straight, black wig and gobs of eye make-up to complete the look. I kept waiting for her to say something about “muss und skverril” somewhere in the movie, but, alas, she never does. Still, she makes for a fun villain, although the reason for her desperate desire to possess the crystal skull is as vague as what motivates Indy to feel compelled to keep her from getting it, but he does.

Somehow the skull gets from the Nevada desert to Peru and so Indy and his newly-obtained
partner/sidekick Mutt (Shia LeBeouf; Transformers) are off to retrieve it and rescue Mutt’s mother, who has been kidnapped along with Indiana’s old friend and colleague, Professor 'Ox' Oxley (John Hurt; V for Vendetta). By now it is no secret that the damsel in distress in this chapter is none other than Karen Allen, the long forgotten Marion Ravenwood from 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. It shouldn’t take a PhD to figure out that Mutt is a chip off the old Indiana and that neither father nor son is aware of that fact until Marion spills the beans at just the most inappropriate of moments (like when she thinks they are seconds from dying).

The family tie-in is perfect for heightening the enjoyment factor in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. With three “good guys” at play during the outrageous fight and
chase scenes the action is more than tripled. They fend off their enemies individually as well as together in some of the wildest stunt driving I’ve ever seen in a movie. I can’t begin to describe it here or it would ruin the surprise of the when, where, and how of the scene, but you will be impressed. Trust me. It is a hoot.

There are a lot of “hoots” in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, my favorite being when Indy and his crew eventually reunite the skull with its body. When I saw those scrawny bones sitting in the chair I immediately thought that Harrison must have felt he had gone home for the night because the skeleton looked a lot like Calista Flockhart, but then I realized it couldn’t be Calista because it actually kept its mouth shut, which was a sure giveaway.

Anyway, despite a sometimes convoluted script (David Koepp; Zathura: A Space Adventure) from an equally convoluted story by executive producer George Lucas (Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith) and Jeff Nathanson (Rush Hour 3), the performances are first rate. Ford is still in fine form at 65, whip-cracking and wisecracking his way across the screen with the same ease he did when he first put on his famous fedora 27 years ago.

Karen Allen has been remarkably untouched by age in the last couple of decades. She returns to
the part of Marion as if she had played it yesterday. Allen, who has for the most part given up her acting career, now owns a retail knitting shop called Karen Allen Fiber Arts in her hometown in Massachusetts. Despite being away from the cameras, her return to the role that made her famous is seamless and she appears as comfortable as ever as the feisty, take-no-crap adventurer. Her additional responsibility as a mother in this film seems an extension of the earlier Marion, with her maternal instincts as fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants as she lives her life in general. Every time she is on-screen the film becomes buoyant just from her terrific smile.

The heaviest load in this installment is Shia LeBeouf’s. With the news leaked early on that he would
be playing Indiana Jones’ grown son, LeBeouf had a huge burden to live up to both in equaling the cinematic legend of the original Indy and ensuring somehow that fans would accept him as a potential new Indiana in the wake of Ford’s eventual retirement. Remarkably, LeBeouf has done just that. From his first appearance riding in on his motorcycle, looking exactly like Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One (right down to the very same cap), Shia creates a persona of a rebel with a cause, and he finally breaks free of his teenager roles to become a (young) leading man for a change. Granted, Ford remains the leading man here, but LeBeouf is now in a whole different league.

By the time the movie came to an end it looked to me like Aunt Evelyn was asleep, but when I shook her shoulder to ask what she thought of the movie, she shushed me and told me she was just praying that there would be another sequel sooner than it took to get this one to the theaters. She wasn’t too sure she wanted to see an 82-year-old Indiana Jones traipsing through the jungle with his walker. Worse yet, if it does take that long they might just really name it Indiana Jones and the Search for the Dependable Adult Diaper.

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