Friday, June 30, 2023

Guest Post: Renfield (2023)

Renfield Offers More Bite Than the Buzz Implies

By Jonas Schwartz-Owen

The action-comedy-horror hybrid Renfield opened a few months ago to middling reviews and poor box office. But with fresh eyes, audiences will find director Chris MacKay has helmed a fun, boisterous homage to the old Universal creepers of the '30.


In modern time, the bug-munching familiar Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has reached the breaking point with his master, the count Dracula (Nicolas Cage). He finds solace in a co-dependence therapy group and finds a way to serve two masters (his boss and his conscience) by offering the vampire the necks of classmates' abusers. Renfield clashes with the city's overlords, a crime family led by the elegantly vicious Bellafrancesca Lobo (Academy-Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her idiotic, narcissist son (Ben Schwartz). Renfield teams up with a struggling anti-corruption cop (Awkwafina) to bring down the family. However, being pure evil, Dracula has no interest in sloppy seconds and chooses to go full rampage by exploiting the crime family to his own advantage. 

Director MacKay and the three writers (Ryan Ridley, Robert Kirkman, and Ava Tramer) all come from the comic book adaptation and adult-animation worlds of The Lego Movies, The Walking Dead and Rick and Morty, amongst others. The chaos and extremity of the fight sequences are all part of the film's charm — but they also highlight its limitations: Body limbs are utilized as sharp weapons, heads explode, necks are ripped apart, which leads to a campy style that also distances the audience from the action. The creators, though, subvert the audience's assumptions, particularly in the climax, where fake outs, musical manipulation, and some innovative choices have the audience looking to the left, only to be sidestepped from the right. Audiences beg to be surprised by filmmakers and Renfield does a great job of twisting expectations. 


Another issue with the script is, unfortunately, it crosses into a well-soiled territory of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's inventive What We Do in the Shadows, which also targets the fragile relationship between a familiar and his masters. As a result, what may have felt fresh a few years ago, now feels like an also-ran. The use of voiceover sets a comic tone, but also becomes so superfluous that the film may have flowed better without it. 


The filmmakers give their protagonist a power-up token similar to the video game heroes like Mario Bros, which ingeniously factors into the Dracula legacy. Renfield here doesn't eat bugs because he's a sniveling human rodent (as in the original lore), but to give him super-human strength — a clever conceit that's utilized well throughout the film. Also, in the introduction, MacKay mimics famous shots from the Tod Browning film with Hoult and Cage subbing in for Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. Side by side, those shots are precise and let the audience know the director has done his homework.


The cast is perfect. Hoult always makes an earnest protagonist and he's winning as the slave desperate to free himself from the evil deeds he's forced to do. Cage, a master ham, keeps those instincts at bay and gives a frighteningly pathological portrayal of the ultimate bloodsucker. He chills the blood with his amorality and never winks at the audience. Awkwafina is always a blast, and she gives humanity to her role. Plus, unlike EVERY cop in every television show and movie who chases a driver on foot and then attempts to shoot at the windows to stop the car, she SHOOTS the TIRES!!!  I've lost more iPhones throwing them at the screen on episodes of The Rookie or 9-1-1, demanding "Shoot the tires" that it was a rush to finally see someone make that smart decision. Ben Schwartz, who has built a career on as the sleezy opportunist on TV comedies like Parks & Recreation, eats the scenery as the cowardly, self-involved bully who shoots off his mouth then hides behind his powerful mommy. Aghdashloo brings surprises to every role she plays and here she gleefully destroys a city like a posh Godzilla.


From its errors, it's clear why critics pounced on the uneven tone of Renfield, but the filmmakers have hardly concocted a cheap knockoff. There's enough originality and charm to warrant renting or streaming this unwashed gem. 


Thursday, June 29, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Although it remains a perennial source of ridicule and scorn for many disenchanted fans, the fourth, much-delayed installment in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) franchise is, overall, a charming throwback to the other entries in the long-lived adventure series. 

In fact, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull serves up  -- in almost identical proportions -- the same mix of dedicated swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek adventure that made Raiders, Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) such pleasurable and memorable cinematic rides.  

Beyond carrying on established franchise tradition, however, this 2008 Indiana Jones adventure also bristles with originality because the filmmakers have moved from the 1930s (and the influence of 1930s movie serials) to the “new” atomic age of the 1950s.

This shift in creative background or “inspiration” permits for a fresh series of visual and thematic influences, and helps to foster a sense of surprise about many of the proceedings.  In short, this is the movie that takes Indiana Jones into the “new” era of 1950s adventure tropes, including flying saucers (or “saucer men”), Tarzan movies, rampaging army ants, and nuclear mushroom clouds.

I appreciate that this Indiana Jones movie takes place in that “new” space, and furthermore, has something positive to say about the process of growing old.  Old age doesn’t have to be about losing people and things…it can be about gaining “knowledge” of one’s self, and one’s family too.

Whatever misgivings I have about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I would not give up the chance to see Indiana Jones, twenty years later, and see what the adventurer has made of his life.

In 1957, a caravan of vehicles heads to Hangar 51, the predecessor to legendary Area 51. This caravan is made of up not of U.S. military men, but rather of Russian soldiers, and led by the diabolical Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). These foreign soldiers are on a quest for a specific artifact…one that could grant Stalin the power to control the minds of all Americans: a crystal skull.

To help them locate this artifact in the vast Hangar 51, the Russkies have captured archaeologist and war hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford).
 In 1947, he was part of the team that investigated the UFO crash at Roswell, where the alien skull was first tagged, and Spalko believes he can locate the corpse.

After being betrayed by a colleague, Mac (Ray Winston), Indy escapes Russian custody in an experimental rocket sled, but ends up on the grounds of a nuclear bomb testing site.  Again, he barely escapes death when a test bomb is detonated.
Sometime later, Indy teams up with Mutt Williams (Shea LeBeouf) a young, rebellious man who reports that Indy’s old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has disappeared somewhere in Peru.  On suspension at his college, Indy agrees to help the lad find “Ox.” 
 Locating the missing archaeologist however, will not be easy, and the journey involves solving the riddle of the legend of the crystal skulls, and locating a lost city of gold called Akatar.
When Indy and Mutt are captured on this quest by Spalko, they find Oxley and also Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt’s mother. 
Indy realizes that Mutt is actually his son, but has little time to contemplate the revelation, for he must keep the secret of the Crystal Skulls and Akatar out of avaricious Soviet hands.

Okay…so why is there so much enduring, vehement, non-stop hate for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?  

In part, some fans don’t wish to welcome “aliens” into this particular movie universe. For those fans the inclusion of extra-terrestrials in an Indiana Jones film feels like a creative misstep, perhaps even desperation.  Is this an adventure franchise, or a sci-fi franchise?  

(The answer: it’s both.  Raiders of the Lost Ark opened up, just a crack, the idea of non-human intelligence in the notion of the Ark of the Covenant as a “radio transmitter” to beings not of this Earth.)

Others, it must be said, simply cannot get past Harrison Ford’s advanced age here, though many fans -- this one included --  will be lucky indeed to be in such good physical shape at age seventy.  

I still remember reading a series of posts at Ain’t It Cool in which sarcastic talk-bakers devised geriatric-sounding titles for the next Indiana Jones adventures.  The titles were funny, but the tone was disrespectful and unnecessarily harsh.  It’s strange, isn’t it, how fans can demand that William Shatner return to the role of James T. Kirk at his advanced age, while complaining when Harrison Ford gets the opportunity to play Indiana Jones one more time?

Even more fans tend to find Kingdom’s action scenes -- like the trademark “nuke the fridge” moment -- preposterous and even a bit campy.  (And this criticism fits in with a popular narrative about George Lucas “losing it” vis-à-vis his blockbuster movie-making instincts).

The real underlying issue with all those complaints, however, stems from just one problem.  

To put this bluntly: our pop culture had clearly moved on in 2008 in terms of what it demanded from films, vis-à-vis “realism.” 

To wit,  in 1984, Indiana Jones jumped out of a plane on an inflatable rubber raft, survived the fall, raced down a snowy mountain, and then successfully navigated a waterfall…all without getting a scratch, or even losing his hat.  

The “nuke the fridge” moment in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is absolutely no more ludicrous than that inflatable raft scene in Temple of Doom.   Yet audience tastes have changed dramatically, and modern audiences don’t buy the “nuke the fridge” set-piece in the way that viewers in 1984 accepted the raft cliffhanger.  Nor do they buy “aliens” in an adventure film, or a geriatric hero defeating bad guys.  “Realism” is not served by these creative choices, and so these choices are, widely in some cases, derided.

To some extent, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s most serious genre competitor at the box office in the summer of 2008 bears out my theory. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight re-imagines Batman as a “realistic” superhero to an extent never seen before in film history.  In this vision, Gotham City is a real metropolis, not one created with CGI effects or matte paintings and the Batmobile is an experimental military vehicle, built in war-time. Even the sense of movie romance is gone: Batman doesn’t save the film’s damsel in-distress…she gets blown up!  This is another reflection of 21st century “realism.”  Gazing at the film objectively, it’s fair to state that virtually every imaginative and fantasy element has been shunted from the Batman format so as to make it feel “real” (and very unlike the “camp” 1960s TV series, or the Schumacher movie entries).

I’m not saying that this development is bad, per se, or that The Dark Knight’s interpretation of the Batman myth is invalid.  Rather, I’m pointing out that the great sweep of film history is away from theatricality and artifice and towards naturalism and realism. 

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is -- in broad terms -- a movie that achieves the same things in the same ways as the previous movies of the Indiana Jones cycle.   Yet this time -- and largely for the first time – some audiences weren’t with the filmmakers for the ride.  Movie-goers had moved on to a new and more “realistic” movie paradigm, the very paradigm expressed by The Dark Knight and in the new, grounded interpretation of James Bond we saw in Casino Royale (2006).

In short, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull arrived when old movie franchises were being re-booted and updated to appeal to modern sensibilities, and even at the same time that the horror film genre was moving in an identical direction: towards ever-more realism with found footage movies.  

But the creative approach of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull didn’t take any of this into account. The film is made in the exact same style as the earlier pictures, and with the same creative conceits in place.  Instead of being lauded for consistency, however, the film is despised for failing to “live up” to modern expectations.

When people complain that this fourth Indiana Jones film boasts the wrong tone or is somehow campy, they are both right and wrong in the assertion.  

Yes, the film is campier than The Dark Knight or Casino Royale, if by the term “campy” one means that the film knowingly “stretches” reality for purposes of fantasy and humor.   

But at the same time, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull carries on with the very approach that made Raiders of the Lost Ark so popular in its day.  It is canny and clever about how it deploys movie influences, and how it operates as a pastiche of those influences.

One way to gain a better appreciation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its relative value within the Indiana Jones franchise is to watch all four Indy films over a period of days.  In that regard, Crystal Skull hardly stands out as being of a lesser or even different quality.  In fact, it’s remarkably of a piece with the other three films.  

It’s just -- plainly -- not in step with the kind of films being made now.  I leave it up to you, individually, to judge which approach you prefer.  I’m not trying to champion one film or one approach over the other, only illuminate why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a betrayal of the Indian Jones series, only, perhaps, out-of-step with “modern” Hollywood filmmaking.

I will go out on this limb, however. Personally, I enjoy Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more than I do The Last Crusade (1989) because of the new and different 1950s context.  Spielberg and Lucas had already shown us the 1930s movie serials universe ably in the first trilogy and by the last film in the original cycle, I felt ready to move on. 

Well, this film does move on, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull benefits from a whole universe of new influences.  Just as Raiders of the Lost Ark did, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull contains visual allusions to our communal past -- and to our beloved movie traditions and history -- in a very deliberate and specific way. In short, the movie pulls visual “quotations” from popular films of the 1950s, and weaves them into the narrative so that audiences realize they are seeing not a “real” story of 1957, but rather a story set in the universe of silver screen adventures from that span, or that decade.

The ants of The Naked Jungle (1954)
The ants of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
In brief, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features a deliberate homage to Charlton Heston’s The Naked Jungle (1954) in its march of man-eating ants. In the film's central premise, and in a cool bit of production design, one will detect resonances of Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) and Earth versus the Flying Saucers (1956). 
The saucers of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956).

The saucer of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Additionally, in Mutt's "juvenile delinquent" world, and Indy's reaction to it, there are traces of teen or “juvenile delinquent” films of the day such as Rebel without a Cause (1955), and motorcycle films like The Wild One (1953).

Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953)

Mutt Williams in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Even the detonation of an atomic bomb and Indy's survival of a nuclear blast with no deleterious side-effects from fall-out also alludes, tongue in cheek-style to such "educational" films as 1952's Duck and Cover, which implored "You must learn to find shelter!" (like a refrigerator?) during a nuclear attack. Thus, one way to enjoy this film is simply as a time capsule of 1950s influences.  And again, one must note that the film is not meant to be “real” but a fantasy set in the world of Hollywood 1950s movies.
The “nuke the fridge” moment has been widely ridiculed by fans, and even become an Internet meme, but again, one must consider the world of 1950s film that Crystal Skull emulates.  Those movies were constantly -- as in the case of Duck and Cover -- undercutting the danger of atomic warfare.  In this “movie” universe, that blasé approach to nuclear attack and the dangers of fall-out represents reality, itself, and that fact helps to explain why Jones survives in the movie.  He is not defying the laws of science.  He survives according to (1950) movie laws of science.

Nuked Refrigerator
Despite all the criticism of the “nuke the fridge” sequence in the film, I find it powerful and worthwhile within the context of the Indiana Jones films.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1936) we saw man humbled before God’s wrath in the finale, and a kind of “storm of death” sweep away the remnants of Belloq and the Nazis.  
In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull we get a book-end visual: Indiana Jones facing a tempest of a different sort; a man made “storm of fire” in that nuclear mushroom.  

Man’s technology has reached a dangerous place in Jones’ life-time and now man is “playing God” with Earth and the environment.  In other words, Indiana Jones goes from living in a pre-nuclear world of relative innocence and “faith,” to the “apocalypse mentality,” technological world, post-Hiroshima. 

The Age of God, and Indiana Jones is there.

The Age of Man, and Indiana Jones is there.

Man’s irresponsible use of the atom bomb is directly compared in the film with the power of the alien beings.  They created a city where their “treasure” is “knowledge.”  Yet mankind does not see “knowledge” as a treasure for its own sake.  Spalko seeks another weapon of mass destruction -- like the atom bomb -- that can bring the Western powers to their knees. Spalko (and by extension the Russians) see knowledge as the opportunity to create terror, not as an end itself. 

Outside all the visual allusions to films of the 1950s, I appreciate that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t attempt to pretend that no time has passed.  

This Indiana Jones is a very different man than the one we last met in 1938.  He has lost his father and Brody, and he broods that he’s gotten to the point where life doesn’t give him things.  It only “takes them away.”  

Then, throughout the course of the film, Indy’s observation is proven determinedly wrong-headed as life gives him a wife…and a son.  Those things he thought were lost forever are not lost at all, but within his grasp.  The film acknowledges the melancholy nature of growing older.  You know more than you once did, and are perhaps wiser, but your channels of opportunity are also narrower.  Here, Jones swings across that chasm, and finds a happy ending.  Who wouldn’t want that for him, and what’s so wrong with him finding that happiness?  Not dark and angsty enough?

When I watched this film again recently, I came to the (surprising...) conclusion that Crystal Skull features the same weaknesses and the same strengths as other series entries. If you liked those films, there's no particularly compelling reason not to like this one too. All the Indiana Jones films are essentially non-stop roller coaster rides and pastiches that hop with cinematic dexterity from jaunty dialogue scenes to exaggerated, over-the-top action sequences.

That pretty much describes Kingdom of the Crystal Skull too.

You know, I've even heard people complain about the two-dimensional nature of the Russian villains in this film. 

Like the Nazis were really handled with three-dimensional maturity in Raiders and Last Crusade?  They, like the Russians here, are treated in Hollywood fashion as pure movie villains. seems clear that Lucas and Spielberg aren't in the realism business here.  Instead, they're playing the same stellar game they did in 1981, 1984 and 1989.  They’re creating an adventure within the context of a beloved movie past (in this case the cinema of the 1950s), and they’re doing it with a sense of robust, larger-than-life style.

In other words, sometimes, they do make 'em like they used to.

But some of us can’t appreciate this fact, because the new productions don’t have the warm glow of nostalgia upon them. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

As I hope my previous reviews of the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg franchise make abundantly plain, I am a resolute admirer of the Indiana Jones film series from start to finish.  Raiders of the Lost Ark is an absolutely perfect movie in my opinion, and Temple of Doom casts a long shadow as a work of dark genius and perhaps even madness.

I like and enjoy the third film, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but harbor some misgivings about the film on a few simple grounds, which I shall enumerate below. 

First and foremost, the third Indy film literally removes “shadow” from the world of Indiana Jones, and the film-noir-type photography of both Raiders and Temple is wholly missing here.  Instead, every frame looks bright and well-lit, and subsequently some sense of visual layering or depth is absent from the proceedings.  The film feels Disney-fied, or at least visually sanitized in comparison with the previous two entries.

Metaphorically speaking, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also subtracts “shadow” from its creative equation in other significant ways.  

In particular, it removes the shadow or blot over Indiana Jones’ very humanity -- his soul itself -- by sweeping under the carpet his morally questionable nature,  To wit, the movie ret-cons this great hero -- literally -- as a boy scout.  This very square incarnation of Indiana Jones doesn’t jibe with the hard-drinking, dissolute, shoot-first-ask-questions-later, womanizing man we met in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981; the man “fallen from faith” who could have been a mirror image for Rene Belloq.

Similarly, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade dramatically hedges its bets by attempting to appeal to nostalgia and sentimentality instead of by pushing the franchise into new terrain the way that Temple of Doom so relentlessly pushed it. The film unnecessarily plays like old home week. It resurrects beloved supporting characters from Raiders of the Lost Ark such as Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Brody (Denholm Elliott), but then puts them to use that makes them appear silly, even ridiculous.  Specifically, these characters are shoe-horned into shallow comic-relief roles that, again, make mincemeat out of series history.  Brody has gone from being a wise elder and mentor to Indy to a living Looney Tunes character, in particular. 

I suspect Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s s strong accent on gimmicky comedy -- as well as the attempt to transform Indiana Jones from Fred Dobbs-like dissolution to Boy Scout-styled righteousness -- is a direct response to the darkness some critics and audiences apparently perceived (and disliked…) in Temple of Doom.  

But it is a calculated over-response, and so something about the film’s sense of balance is wrong.  Steven Spielberg once noted that he had “consciously regressed” in order to create this film and that he did so as an apology for the quality of the second film. Accordingly, there is a weird diffidence to aspects of this movie that aren’t apparent in any of the other Indiana Jones films. It’s as though Spielberg is unsure of himself here, and constantly lightening the mood with shticky comedy, thus questioning: is this too dark?  

Again, I must stress, however, that I feel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a worthwhile film in spite of these faults. It is absolutely entertaining, and the action scenes, for the most part, are nail-biters.  But the primary value I pinpoint and would note in this sequel arises from the overall metaphor of the Holy Grail.  

The search for the Grail is not the search for the divine in all of us, as Brody might declare, but rather, the search for the “father” figure that so many people seek in life. The search for Jesus, or God, is thus mirrored in the film by Indiana’s search to really, truly know his own father, Henry (Sean Connery).

Even the Nazi characters such as Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) are contextualized in terms of a relationship with questionable or unavailable father figures, and so the film boasts a nice artistic cohesion, with an emotional pay-off.

What I enjoy and appreciate most about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is that it suggests Indy’s hunt for “fortune and glory” originates from his desire to please a father who, in essence, can never be pleased. This helps us to understand the man in a way that the continuity-heavy but pat Moab Desert scene does not.

The movie sees father and son Jones reconcile, and the hero move, at last, past his life-long quest to fill the emptiness inside through the acquisition of relics.  The Last Crusade thus moves the Indy character forward and helps to explain the more at-peace man he we meet again in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I only wish that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had told the same meaningful story without rewriting elements of the character’s history, and without removing so much of the “shadow” hanging over a great cinematic hero.

“If it is captured by the Nazis the armies of darkness will march all over the face of the earth.”

In 1912, boy-scout youngster, Indiana Jones (River Phoenix), attempts to recover the Cross of Coronado from a group of mercenaries.  He fails, but the failure sets the course for his life, and in 1938, an adult Indy (Harrison Ford) finally recovers the artifact that so impacted him as a youngster.
Soon, however, Indiana Jones becomes involved with a wealthy American industrialist, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) who is hunting the Holy Grail with the help of the world’s greatest Grail scholar: Henry Jones…Indy’s remote and emotionally-unavailable father.
Unfortunately, Henry (Sean Connery) disappeared in Venice while working with Dr. Elsa Schneider (Doody), and now Indy must keep the grail out of Nazi hands and rescue his own father, a man he has never been able to relate to, or even talk to…
The quest for the grail takes the Jones family, plus Marcus Brody (Elliott) and Sallah (Rhys-Davies) to a cave in the canyon of the Crescent Moon, where an ancient knight guards the treasure, and hides it among several false grails.  
The one who chooses the right grail will become immortal, at least within the confines of the cave.  The one who chooses unwisely…will die a horrible death.

“You're meddling with powers you can't possibly comprehend.

The first sequence in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is quite memorable, mainly because of the late River Phoenix’s persuasive and confident turn as a young Indiana Jones. The young actor virtually channels Harrison Ford in his mannerisms, expressions, and even sense of body/motion.  The performance not only passes muster, it looks stronger on every re-watch. It’s a tour-de-force, for certain.

The problem with the splendidly paced and exciting sequence is two-fold, however. 

The first is that -- in what is essentially a half-hour of his life -- Indiana Jones picks up every formative experience that makes him “who he is.”  He finds a style of clothing and hat to wear; he gets his first (bloody…) experience with a bull-whip, and he battles enemies for possession of a treasured relic.  

One of the great joys of the Indiana Jones movies, in my opinion, however, is the fact that the films don’t reveal too much biographical information.  The 1930s-1940s serials didn’t, either.  Their business was getting to the cliffhangers and fisticuffs.  This sequence -- introducing the leather jacket, the hat, the whip, the scar, and the obsession with relics/archaeology -- feels a little too pat because we recognize it as unrealistic. In life, we don’t pick up all our important influences in one day, let alone in a half-hour.  

How many people do you know who cemented their identity at age 13…and it never changed?  This Indy has college, his first love affair, his first job, his friendship with Abner, and other landmark life experiences ahead of him, but everything we need to “understand” him comes from this afternoon in the Moab Desert.  It’s just a bit lacking in nuance and verisimilitude, despite the impressively-mounted stunts and Phoenix’s praise-worthy efforts.

More significantly, however, this sequence is book-ended by a specific and troublesome quotation.  Young Indy and Adult Indy both utter the words, vis-à-vis The Cross of Coronado: “it belongs in a museum!”

This is an intentional and wrong-headed ret-conning of the character as a kind of square, fuddy-duddy.  The ret-conning is assumed because Indy’s opinion doesn’t change at all, apparently, in the intervening years between thirteen and thirty-something. He has the same opinion through all those years, thus encompassing, even, his time in Temple of Doom and Raiders.

Again, this is taking a bit too much of the edge off of Indiana Jones for my taste, and part and parcel of the over-response to Temple of Doom that impairs much of The Last Crusade.  

Let’s be blunt about this. Our own lying eyes tell us Indy doesn’t collect gold idols and relics because “they belong in a museum.” He does it, at least partially, for the money.  Jones collects the relics, and then sells them to Brody’s museum, or, presumably, to his clients, like Lao Che. He doesn’t just give over the relics because they should be on display in museums.

The “it belongs in a museum” dialogue suggests a high-minded altruism that doesn’t seem a legitimate part of this man’s character; at least this man’s character as we saw it and knew it in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

For example, in the latter film, he was depicted trading a relic for a diamond -- from a gangster -- in the opening sequence, and he considered keeping the Sankara Stone for reasons of “fortune and glory.” 

Does this sound like a guy who sees a relic and knee-jerks “It belongs in a museum!”

The whole “it belongs in a museum” ret-con seems not only two-dimensional and inaccurate given the history of the character as we’ve witnessed it with our own eyes…it seems developmentally arrested, psychologically-speaking.  

In terms of its characters, I also find that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusades boasts highs and lows.  Sallah was used as comic relief in Raiders, no doubt, but he was also a serious-minded fellow who felt “real.”  We got to know his family, at least a little, and his sense of commitment to Indy. Here, Sallah obsessively collects camels for his brother-in law. But okay, it’s nice to see him.

Marcus Brody shifts roles more dramatically, however, from the first movie’s “old-timer” to over-the-top comic relief.  In Raiders, he was a man who declared that if he were a few years younger, he would have gone after the Ark of the Covenant himself. Those are his own words!  Here, here is a ninny who once “got lost” in his own museum, and sticks out in the field like a sore thumb.  

Again, much of the sense of nuance or maturity is drained out of the proceedings for the purpose of easy laughs.  Brody has gone from being an interesting, layered guy to being a convenient joke, and I don’t feel it reflects well on the film.

The film’s villain, however, is one that I can and do appreciate. Donovan (Julian Glover) is a perfect example of the “brains heavy”-type of villainous character featured frequently in serials of the 1930s and 1940s. He doesn’t play a big role in the story, but shows up at the end, essentially, to reveal his nasty machinations.  Of all the main characters in the film, Donovan is also the only one for whom human connection like family, friendship, and patriotism mean absolutely nothing. He desires immortality, but is loyal to no man and no country in his quest to attain it.  If the Cup of Christ is about the glory of God, Donovan is about the enrichment and glory of himself, and that’s not a bad message for the Yuppified, conspicuous consumption 1980s.

In my opinion, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade reaches its zenith, however, when it adheres to the theme about father and sons.  Indiana Jones has felt alienated from his father his whole life. Indeed, that is the informing issue of Indy’s existence.  He has been forced to seek out external validation -- “fortune and glory” in pursuit of relics -- because he has never had the approbation, or even attention, of Henry Jones.  Indy has attempted to outdo his own father by acquiring those relics but has never been able to live up to him in his own mind.

This leitmotif is excavated and illustrated perfectly in the quest for the Holy Grail.  The film thus asks: what is immortality?  Is it fortune and glory, as Donovan and Elsa believe, or is it something else?  Does real illumination come, finally, from understanding your connection to those you love? To humbling yourself before someone you love because that emotional connection is more important than ego?

Certainly, the tests Indy faces are all about being humbled in the presence of a “father.”  Only a penitent man can pass the first test.  The second tests requires following in the foot-steps of God, as a pious man (like Henry) would.  And the last test is the most important of all.  It involves taking a grand leap of faith, and here one might contextualize that leap as not believing only in God, but believing in your father’s love…despite his foibles and flaws.

This conceit reaches its apex in the Grail cavern at the end of the film, when Elsa dies to acquire the Cup of Christ rather than safeguard her own life.  All she cares about is what she can acquire, and the status she gains from that acquisition.  

But delightfully, Spielberg repeats Elsa’s death scene, virtually shot-for-shot, this time with Indy playing her role.  He reaches out to grab the Grail, and won’t give it up, just as Elsa refused to give it up.  But then Indy hears the soothing words and voice of his father, and is literally pulled back from the precipice.  

And, it is not only his body perched on that cliff, but his soul too.

As a father (and as a son too…), I love this leitmotif, but submit that it would have carried even more resonance, without the “it belongs in a museum” refrain.  If we legitimately believed Indiana Jones might choose wrongly at the end of the filmLast Crusade would generate much more tension and suspense.  Instead, this moment -- despite the great staging -- is not all it could be. It should carry even more emotional power than it does.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s leitmotif of children seeking and finding a father recurs throughout the film…even in terms of Elsa.  Her symbolic father, it is clear, is Adolf Hitler.  Indiana Jones bumps into this frightening historical figure at one point in the film, and his visage is terrifying; monstrous even.  Germany of the Nazis was also known, incidentally, as “The Fatherland” and is referred to as such in the film.  So while Indiana Jones passes his test in the Grail Cavern, Elsa -- lacking a suitable father figure -- fails hers.

Elsa's Father.

Indy's father.

There’s a great deal to love about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. River Phoenix gives the performance of his career, and Sean Connery is impressive as Henry Jones. If George Lucas and Steven Spielberg planned Indiana Jones to be a “new” James Bond figure for the 1980s, then it is appropriate and wonderful to cast the original action star and 007, Connery, as Indy’s Dad.  The action is as harrowing as ever, too, and it’s also a refreshing twist that Indy’s romantic interest is not a girl with a heart of gold this time, but rather a girl with an eye for it.

Yet as I’ve noted above, some elements of the film simply don’t cohere. The entire story about Indy’s choice between “fortune and glory” and his soul would be stronger without the “it belongs in a museum” preamble, which is blatant revisionism, and paints him as true blue to the core, not someone whose soul is in question. 

And the film could use some of the shadowy, noir visuals that made the other films such remarkable visual treats.  

As it stands, there’s something sanitized and a little cartoonish about this entry in the franchise, and so while I like and enjoy Last Crusade just fine, I can’t bring myself to love it as passionately as I do Raiders, or Temple of Doom. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

I still vividly recall the summer of 1984, and the reviews and chatter about Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. In particular, there was much talk about how on earth George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could possibly “one-up” their previous cinematic blockbusters.
This was actually a popular parlor game of the age.  First came Jaws (1975), then Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters (1977), then Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Between them, Spielberg and Lucas were responsible for the most successful and beloved genre pictures of the age, and they seemed to keep upping the ante in terms of action, special-effects, and sheer spectacle each time at bat.
Next out of the gate came….Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)....
To this day, both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas relentlessly talk the picture down.  
It was “too dark,” they insist. 
Or it was a silver-screen reflection of their personal troubles and bad mood at the time.  Lucas was undergoing a bitter divorce, for example. 
Spielberg even calls Temple of Doom his “least favorite” Indiana Jones film.
However, Spielberg and Lucas aren’t alone in their condemnation of the film.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has also been termed racist, culturally inaccurate, a wrong-headed defense of colonialism, anti-woman, and even compared to “child abuse” in term of its impact on young eyes.  It is one of the films, along with Gremlins (1984) that caused the M.P.A.A. to develop the PG-13 rating, after all. 
And one mustn’t forget, either, that some movie reviewers were certainly out there looking for Lucas or Spielberg -- or two for the price of one -- to stumble and fall from their perch as princes of Hollywood.  

Too dark?!
All the critical arguments against Temple of Doom are debatable, of course, but all the intense and varied criticism of the film tends to obscure the fact that this 1984 film stands as the finest and most creative of the Raiders of the Lost Ark follow-ups.  Temple of Doom is a film that thrives on its own unique (sinister…) energy without feeling the need to re-hash familiar scenes or re-introduce “repertory” characters for reasons of nostalgia or sentimentality.  Instead, the movie is lean and mean, relentless and driving.  Delightfully, it also picks-up on Raiders' leitmotif of Indiana Jones as a man conflicted over his path or destiny.  Should he pursue "fortune and glory" or do what is right?
In fact, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom remains defiantly and audaciously a picture in which -- as the title sequence explicitly warns audiences -- “anything goes.” 
Not many sequels or prequels can live up to that billing, but Temple of Doom is a thrill-a-minute, non-stop action masterpiece, that -- like its predecessor -- pays homage to Hollywood tradition and history while simultaneously blazing a new path.  Buoyed by both outrageous humor and Hellish visions straight out of a nightmare, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a screwball comedy/horror/fantasy/adventure film, and one finely tuned to produce audience gasps and guffaws in equal measure.

“Fortune and Glory”
In Shanghai in the year 1935, a business transaction between American adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and the local gangster Lao Che (Roy Chaio) goes awry at the Club Obi Wan.  Indy escapes with his life, but also with a ditzy nightclub singer, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), and his eleven-year old Chinese side-kick, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) in tow.
The trio escapes from China aboard a small cargo plane, only to learn that it is the property of Lao Che.  When the pilots bail out of the low-in-fuel plane over the Himalayas with the only parachutes, Indy, Willie, and Short Round evacuate the craft in an inflatable raft. 
After a harrowing landing on a mountainside and a race through choppy river waters, Indy and his friends realize that they have arrived in India.  An old man (D. R. Nanayakkara) leads them to Mayapore, a village where the sacred Sankara or Sivalinga Stone has been stolen by a “re-awakening Evil.”  The stone’s absence at its shrine has caused the river bed to dry up, and crops to wither on the vine.   
The same evil -- which makes its home at distant Pankot Palace -- is also responsible for abducting the village’s children and making them slaves.
At the request of the villagers, Indy, Willie, and Short Round make the long and dangerous trek to Pankot Palace, and soon realize that the Maharajah is the puppet of a sinister Thuggee leader, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).   
This menacing individual has acquired several Sankara Stones, and is seeking the last one, which he knows is buried deep within the surrounding mountains.  When he possesses all the stones, this Thuggee believes he and the Goddess Kali will dominate the world.  Mola Ram also controls his minions through pure terror, ripping out the hearts of human sacrifices with his bare hands.
When Indy and his friends are captured, Jones is forced to drink the “Blood of Kali,” a potion which apparently turns him evil.  Short Round is able to save his friend from this “Black Sleep,” and a re-awakened Indy commits himself to freeing the slaves, recovering the Sankara Stone, and destroying Mola Ram…

“Anything Goes”

George Lucas receives a great deal of criticism because he often attempts to recreate or pay homage to Hollywood and movie history, even when that Hollywood and movie history happens to be controversial.  

For instance, Lucas was widely panned for featuring aliens that speak “Pidgeon English” in The Phantom Menace (1999).  In some sense, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom showcases the same brand of political incorrectness (or perhaps, more accurately, tunnel vision).  Specifically, much of Temple of Doom is modeled directly on the popular 1939 Hollywood effort, Gunga Din. That film from director George Stevens is revered by many, but also derided by others as being insensitive to Indian culture and history.  

Gunga Din depicts the story of an Indian camp worker, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) in 1880.  He aspires to serve in the British Army, and along with three British officers, he investigates a British outpost at Tantrapur that has mysteriously fallen silent.  It turns out the facility has been attacked by the Thuggee, and late in the film, the Thuggee leader orchestrates a trap for Gunga Din and his friends at a temple of gold. Gunga Din dies in the battle, but is remembered, finally, as being worthy of a British uniform.

To put a fine point on the matter Gunga Din depicts the British Army in India as heroic and righteous, Indian culture as savage or heathen, and suggests that the highest aspiration of the Indians should be to serve the Queen.   

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom purposefully apes this world view.  It features a “cavalry comes over the hill” moment in which the heroic British soldiers -- occupiers? -- dispatch the Thuggee.  Similarly, the depiction of Kali as Evil in the film does not square with Hindu beliefs regarding the God as a deity of empowerment.  And the much criticized-dinner scene at Pankot Palace does not accurately reflect Indian cuisine, to say the least.  

On one hand, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom could be said to trade in stereotypes, but on the other hand, the film is set in 1935 and, to a great extent, it makes that date feel absolutely “real” by mirroring the Hollywood world view of that age.  

It would be weird, to say the least, to see Indiana Jones -- a man of the 1930s -- evidencing 1980s beliefs and opinions, and that simple fact seems to be lost in the complaints over the film’s Western-centric approach to a non-Western culture.  Who can argue truthfully that a 1930s serial on the same topic wouldn't take the same approach as this film?  So if we stop to view Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a time-specific “fantasy,” there’s no reason to be offended by the specifics its “imaginary” world.  In other words, the film doesn’t take place in real India, in 1980.  It takes place in 1930s Hollywood-ized India. That's a crucial distinction.

One can even state for a fact that Lucas and Spielberg were influenced by Gunga Din because of similar visual flourishes. Most notably, both films open with a similar shot...of an over-sized gong.  Thus, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's game is not to offend, but to pay tribute, as noted above, to movie history.

Another example of 1930s films providing an influence on the aesthetic of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom also occurs in the opening sequence.  Here, Willie Scott sings Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," and wanders off-stage (through a dragon's head stage prop...) into an "alternate world" of chorus-line dancers. 

Notably, this kind of  fantasy setting was featured all the time in the films of Busby Berkeley (1895-1976), such as Gold Diggers of 1937.  There, for instance, a tune called "All's Fair in Love and War" segued into a bizarre musical "number" outside of the film's traditional back-stage narrative.  Overall, the film was grounded in reality, but then it veered suddenly into a weird, expressionist dance number that didn't preserve the realism of the stage itself. The audience was carried into an abstract world beyond the confines of normal narrative structure.

The same approach is mirrored here.  We leave "the real world" of the Shanghai Club, and travel into a Busby Berkeley dance number of dancers, glitter, and music. Then we slip back into the real world, and the filmmakers offer no commentary about the detour.

My point here is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom deliberately evokes again the voice, feel and world-view of the 1930s in terms of presentation and structure. The over-arching idea here, as it is in terms of Gunga Din, is to re-create a "lost world" for audiences: a world of Hollywood movies circa 1935 - 1940.  It is wrong to perceive the film as taking place in the "real" world.  It takes place, instead, in the world of Hollywood; of movie serials and musicals.

Gold Diggers of 1937: "All's Fair in Love and War."

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: "Anything Goes."

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has also been criticized frequently as being anti-woman in nature because Willie Scott screams in the movie…a lot.  There is a simple and clear response to this argument.  

Raiders of the Lost Ark featured a brilliant, capable female lead in Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Marion could out-drink, out-fight, and out-think many an opponent. The makers of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thus found themselves in the position of either presenting a female character that would be dismissed by critics as a “pale copy” of Marion, or going in a new and original direction.  They chose the latter approach, but were clearly in a can't-win situation.  If they re-did Marion, they'd be criticized.  And we know they were also criticized for choosing a different path. 

But once more, it is fruitful to examine Willie Scott and her role. If one looks at the details of the story, Willie’s aversion to danger isn’t representative of any anti-woman stance, but reflective again of the time period, movie history, and even the character's situation.  She’s a pampered American singer who, after living the good life in Shanghai, suddenly finds herself riding elephants, handling snakes, and crawling through bug-infested caves. 

 Hell, I might find myself screaming in the same situation…

Another way to put this:  Is the depiction of Marcus Brody as a hapless ninny in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also sexist because it portrays a man as incompetent and incapable?   If the answer is simply that Marcus functions within that story as comic relief, then we must, in good conscience, apply the same answer to Willie Scott in Temple of Doom. 

Similarly, it's easy to see that Willie Scott in Temple of Doom screams approximately as much as Fay Wray did in King Kong (1933).  Once more, we must accept the premise, then, that this Lucas film is deliberately evoking a time, a place, and a world-view; that of the silver screen in the 1930s.

Two movies, two different women: Marion Ravenwood is capable and tough.

Two movies, two different women: Willie Scott...not capable or tough. At all...

I don’t intend this review to be a point-by-point rebuke of critics of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but some of the criticisms do seem truly absurd. Those who claim that the film is equivalent to “child abuse” because of the scene of Mola Ram ripping out a victim’s heart seem to have forgotten the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark, wherein a man’s head explodes on screen, and two other men are melted alive on camera, their flesh transforming into bloody puddles.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a darker film than Raiders, but one can’t really argue in good faith that there is actually more on-screen gore in the 1984 film than its predecessor. The heart scene, actually, is fairly bloodless, despite the action that occurs there.  

And the point must be: is the darkness justified?  

I would argue that it is.  That the sheer darkness of Mola Ram's world view is the very thing that turns Indy from mercenary to savior, that turns him away from fortune and glory so he can reunite grieving families. Jones experiences the darkness of the Thuggee world view in himself when he drinks the black sleep potion, and so realizes how horrible Mola Ram's reign could be.  

From a certain point of view, Temple of Doom actively concerns the idea that you can't run away from the darkness; that you must stay and fight it where it lives.  The film features very little in terms of globe-hopping, and thus Indy must face the consequences of all his actions.

Isn't this actually gorier..

...than this?

My affirmative case for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom involves the fact that the film knowingly and meaningfully attempts to separate itself from Raiders of the Lost Ark in virtually every way.  It doesn’t return to Africa and the Middle East, but spends its time in the Far East and South-East Asia.  As I wrote above, it doesn’t “globe-hop” to the extent that Raiders did either, instead settling in one major location after the first action scene or set-piece.  Similarly, the characters are not reruns, but new people with individual voices.

In virtually every way imaginable, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thus escapes Raiders of the Lost Ark’s gravity well, and thrives as its own unique story. 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is also the last Indy picture that features Jones as an occasionally mercenary, occasionally narcissistic individual.  As this film opens, he bargains with Lao Che for a relic he has successfully recovered.  Significantly, Indy doesn’t even discuss putting that relic in a museum.  No, this is a transaction: the relic for payment, for a diamond, specifically.  The details of Indy’s deal with Lao Che suggest that the original vision of the character -- as a man fallen from faith -- stands.  He’s a hero, but he’s also a man with foibles.

In fact, it is this film that originates the phrase “fortune and glory” in the saga, and it is clear that Jones has competing interests in taking down Mola Ram.  He wants to free the children, and defeat the Thuggee “evil,” but Indy is also in search of the “fortune and glory” that comes with the recovery of the Sankara Stones.  It’s clear that he is in this quest, at least partially, for himself…out of avarice.  This Indiana Jones is more Fred Dobbs (from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948]) than in later installments, and this is the mode that I, personally, prefer.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, while staking out original characters, new locations, and a new “grounded” structure in one main locations, nonetheless adds meaningfully to Raider’s leitmotif about the Third World providing the First World with a new sense of spirituality and belief.  Here, Indy learns for himself the power of the Sankara Stones, and once more finds that “magic” can exist in the technological, on-the-verge of war world of the 1930s.  

What this means is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom tells a new story in a way that one can nonetheless recognize as being “of a piece” with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Perhaps the simplest reason to laud Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is that it remains one of the most exciting action pictures ever made.  In terms of the one-upmanship I discussed in my introduction, Temple of Doom actually one-ups itself, moment after moment, scene after scene, throughout its entire running time.  The opening set-piece in the Club Obi Wan is a perfectly-balanced presentation, one that escalates into a bizarre musical number, one ingredient at-a-time.  

The escape from the plane in an inflatable raft, the mine-car chase, and the final battle on a suspension bridge are similarly unimpeachable in terms of imagination, choreography, and execution.  These set-pieces are sustained ones -- lasting for several minutes each -- and just when you think they can’t get any more frenetic, brawny, or exhilarating, Spielberg cranks everything up another notch.  

In these moments, "anything goes," and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's creators do the seemingly impossible.  They one-up their already impressive blockbuster history.

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