Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made


Dr. Jones, I presume.

Dr. Jones, I presume.

(2016) Documentary (Drafthouse) Eric Zala, Chris Stompolos, Jayson Lamb, John Rhys-Davies, Eli Roth, Harry Knowles, Chris Gore, Kurt Zala, Casey Dillard, Rob Fuller, Ryan Pierini, Scott Lionberger, Ernest Cline, Tim League, John E. Hudgens, Karl Preusser, Mark Spain, Guy Klender, James Donald, Michael Mobley, Angela Rodriguez. Directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen

Florida Film Festival 2016

The dreams of our childhood are often set aside in favor of those things that as adults we are required to do; to create a family and home of our own, to earn a living, to raise children. Those dreams don’t die completely; they stay with us, often as regrets which is what unanswered dreams generally become.

For a trio of boys in Mississippi in 1981, that dream was the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas collaboration Raiders of the Lost Ark. This tribute to the serial pulp adventures of the 1930s really captured the imagination of these boys and inspired them. For Eric Zala and Chris Stompolos, the solution was simple; make their own version of Raiders but shot for shot like the one Spielberg directed. And, that summer, they set about doing it themselves.

For seven more summers and several winter breaks as well, they did just that. Stompolos, who played Indiana Jones, aged from age 12 to 19 onscreen; Zala (who played Belloq and was director for the venture) went from 11 to 18. They were joined by Jayson Lamb who also stayed mainly behind the camera and did much of the special effects.

They were aided by many adults who gave the kids serious leeway, allowing them to follow their dream although later on when some saw the results of their labors accused their mothers of “bad parenting,” particularly in lieu that one fiery scene set in the Nepalese bar owned by Marion Ravenwood that they created in the basement of the Zala home nearly burned the house down.

What is striking is how the boys, with zero filmmaking experience, managed to think outside the box to make things work. For example, they substituted the family dog in place of the “Sieg Heil” spider monkey that is used in the Cairo scenes. The boys were too young to drive in the truck chase, so they got someone to lend them a truck without an engine and had someone who could drive (a parental chaperon as it were) haul the truck (you can see the hauling  vehicle in a couple of shots).

The boys eventually got every scene in the movie filmed but one – the scene after Indie and Marion escape the Well of Souls and stop a Flying Wing airplane from carrying the Ark to Berlin, blowing up the plane and creating general mayhem in the process. At seven years in and their friendships frayed to the breaking point (Jayson had already left the project), they decided to call it quits.

But the idea stayed with them and it bothered Zala and Stompolos to a lesser extent that they’d pulled the plug so close to completing their dream. They took the footage they had and edited it together, made a videotape of it, staged a world premiere in their hometown and went on with their lives.

The funny thing about dreams is that sometimes they refuse to die on their own. A copy of the tape made its way to actor/director Eli Roth of the Hostel franchise. He was blown away by what he saw and arranged to have the movie shown during a meal break at Harry (Ain’t It Cool News) Knowles’ annual birthday celebration and film festival the Butt-Numb-a-Thon at the Drafthouse Theater in Austin – Tim League, the influential owner of the Drafthouse was also in attendance.

The audience was so enraptured by the adaptation that they booed when the projectionist stopped the film to prepare for the world premiere showing of a Peter Jackson Hobbit film, no less – and gave the film a three minute standing ovation. League and Knowles were both impressed. The buzz about the movie began to circulate and a cult film was born.

Eventually word got back to Zala and Stompolos, both living separate lives and the two old friends decided to get the band back together again and raised a Kickstarter campaign to fund the filming of the final scene in their hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Even so, it wasn’t easy; Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and the very pyrotechnic-heavy scene proved more difficult to stage than they’d anticipated, even with a professional pyrotechnician calling the shots.

There is plenty of footage from the Adaptation as well as outtakes and interviews (I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Adaptation twice, once in the backyard of a friend’s house and the second time as part of a Raiders! Event at the Enzian) and while it’s true that the footage of the Adaptation is crude, you do get a sense of the love and care that went into it. Because of copyright laws, it is next to impossible to view the Adaptation theatrically, but it can be done so if you’re interested, contact your local art house theater and have them look into it.

The movie is about the heart and soul of a dream. Kyle Smith of the New York Post, who has distinguished himself as being one of the most clueless film reviewers in the country, sniffed that the venture is like “rewriting Moby Dick in crayon.” For one thing, he oversimplifies the difference between copying and adapting. The boys with no training at all proved to be resourceful and persistent, both traits that should be encouraged rather than torn down. They showed their love for a film that by paying tribute to it, putting their own stamp on it at the same time. Both of them, since this documentary was completed, have formed a production company of their own and quite frankly I’m eager to see what they turn out next (Lamb also works in the industry). Either way, this is the kind of movie that may inspire others to follow their dream, be it remaking a beloved movie shot for shot or making a movie of their own.

REASONS TO GO: One of those movies that sneak up on you and lift your spirits. Fascinating story.
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone will get why this story is inspiring.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zala for awhile lived and worked in Orlando for EA Sports as a game developer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burden of Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: March of the Living

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Home at last!

Home at last!

(2015) Science Fiction (Disney) Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, Simon Pegg, Pip Torrens, Greg Grunberg, Kiran Shah, Andrew Jack, Warwick Davis, Sasha Frost. Directed by JJ Abrams

So, no joke, this is the cinematic event of the year – and one of the biggest event movies ever. Certainly it’s box office explosion, mowing down box office records like so many innocent civilians at the hands of Stormtroopers, gives credence to that. People weren’t just excited to see it – they were absolutely insane to see it. Many have gone back and seen it three or four or more times since it opened. But is it worth all the hype?

As the iconic opening crawl informs us, thirty years has passed since the Empire has fallen and the Republic was re-established. From the ashes of the Empire has risen the First Order, run by the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis) who appears via hologram as kind of a gigantic mummified cross between Abe Lincoln and C3PO (Daniels). Who appears later on in the film. C3PO, not Abe Lincoln.

I digress. Everyone is looking for Luke Skywalker (Hamill), the last Jedi Knight who has disappeared after some sort of catastrophe involving training new Jedi Knights that went horribly wrong. The First Order wants to stop him from doing what the Resistance (tacitly supported by the Republic) want him to do – to lead them to victory against the First Order. To that end, they have sent cocky pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) to the desert world Jakku to retrieve a map which leads to Skywalker. However, the First Order led by their Sith-like leader Kylo Ren (Driver) show up and Dameron is forced to give the chip containing the map to his trusty droid BB8 (kind of like a Beach Ball with the top of a droid on it – perhaps that’s what BB stands for) and sends him rolling off to the nearest settlement. He’s captured and interrogated but eventually rescued by Fin (Boyega), a Stormtrooper who develops a conscience.

BB8 discovers Rey (Ridley), a metal scavenger who has been on her own since her parents left her on Jakku to fend for herself. In the meantime, Fin and Dameron get separated and Fin finds Rey and BB8 but with the Emp…er, First Order hot on their heels, they escape in what turns out to be a familiar spaceship.

Once away they run into familiar faces and new ones, and discover that an all-new and improved solar-powered Death Star is getting ready to do its worst. The new Resistance heroes must go to this new weapon and destroy it, but that is no easy task, even with the old Rebellion heroes on their side.

After the prequel trilogy left the Star Wars fandom and moviegoers in general underwhelmed, I can safely say that this had a pretty high bar to meet, but it has done so in spades. Frankly put, this is one of the best movies of the year and I never thought I’d say that about a Star Wars film. As you’d expect, the special effects are marvelous and mostly achieved through practical means. However, there’s more to the film than that.

Let’s talk about the story a little bit. Some have complained that there are too many similar elements to the very first film, which is now titled Episode IV: A New Hope in canon. That’s a pretty fair complaint and it is occasionally distracting, but the storylines aren’t terribly identical. I do wish they’d used something other than a desert planet to open the movie with although I suspect that the universe has more desert planets than those with greenery. But one can have a fairly barren terrain without having the same sand dunes that characterized Tatooine. However, the important thing is that the story has retained that epic quality that characterized the first trilogy (not the prequels so much).

That said, the acting here is marvelous. Ford in particular brings Han Solo back to life, giving him the same gruff, roguish qualities in the first trilogy but tempering it with melancholy – there have been events in his life since the fall of the Empire that have been bitter and some even tragic. Not all of those are gone into with much detail, but let’s just say that as a father and a husband he makes a good smuggler.

Ridley and Boyega, who share the heroic role, both show a good deal of screen charisma and promise as the new kids on the block. They both realize they don’t have to carry the film, but something tells me either one or both could if they had to. Boyega, particularly, has an incredible amount of potential, not just here but in all of the films he’s been in. His character is the most interesting one of the new ones, although Kylo Ren has some definite Daddy issues that no doubt are going to develop into something else.

The movie moves along at breakneck speed; even the pauses are well-placed and well-paced. It’s not a short movie but it never feels long. Considering all the expectations that were heaped on this property that Disney paid $4 billion for, it’s good to see that for once not only were those expectations met but exceeded. Looks like Disney has gotten an excellent return on their investment.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular! Recaptures everything about the first trilogy that made it great. Will appeal to kids and adults as well. Surprisingly good performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Story a little too much like the very first movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sci-fi violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abrams preferred to use actual locations and practical effects over green screen and CGI in order to be more aesthetically similar to the first trilogy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Hitchcock/Truffaut

Strange Magic


Welcome to Fairyland Idol.

Welcome to Fairyland Idol.

(2015) Animated Feature (Touchstone) Starring the Voices of Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Meredith Ann Bull, Sam Palladio, Peter Stormare, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina, Elijah Kelley, Llou Johnson, Tony Cox, Joe Whyte, Gary Rydstrom, Robbie Daymond, Sterling Sheehy, Amanda Jean Young, Nicole Vigil, Brenda Chapman. Directed by Gary Rydstrom

At the risk of making this review about the reviewer – a cardinal sin – I want to preface this particular review with a little bit about me. I try to be fairly lenient whenever viewing a movie. I honestly try to highlight the things about a film that work rather than focus on the things that didn’t. I try to criticize constructively as often as possible, sometimes with suggestions on what I think might have improved the movie. I don’t look for pithy bon mots at the expense of the filmmakers or the cast, or at least I try not to. Sometimes it’s unavoidable; I’m only human after all.

I give out few perfect scores, but I do hand them out, usually about three or four a year. However, up until this point, more than five years into this blog I haven’t ever – not once – given out a zero. Until now.

Strange Magic is an animated feature from LucasFilm, with a story written by George Lucas himself that is loosely – very loosely – based on Shakespeare’s immortal Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s actually a brilliant idea – that’s a Shakespeare play that cries out for being the subject of an animated feature; just not this one.

After discovering her husband-to-be has been cheating on her, fairy Marianne (Wood) turns her back on love, becoming a fairyland version of Xena, Warrior Princess instead. Her younger and blonder sister Dawn (Bull) is boy-crazy in the way that mid-teen girls can be. Her good friend Sunny (Kelley) – who happens to be an elf, which means he looks a whole lot like a garden gnome – would like to take things to the next level, although Dawn has her eye on much better looking guys than Sunny.

Advised by Marianne’s ex Roland (Palladio) to get himself a love potion from the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) under the pretense of winning Dawn’s love for Sunny but in reality so he can liberally douse Marianne with the potion and get her back to the altar so that he can win the kingdom he wants to rule. However, Sunny’s success provokes the Bog King (Cumming), who has a vendetta against love but turns out to be a sweet guy despite the Jewish insect mom (Rudolph). Will true love triumph or will Roland’s plans to win the fairy kingdom end up destroying it?

The filmmakers, in a particularly Baz Luhrmann moment, decided to pepper the soundtrack with pop songs from across the various decades of rock music (the music supervisor from this film also worked on Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge) which ends up making this a cross between an excruciating night at the karaoke bar and a particularly bad episode of Glee. While some of the songs are punchy and/or performed adequately, the bulk of them seem to be thrown in there without regard for whether they fit in with the movie’s plot or atmosphere. While Wood, Chenoweth and Cumming have fine voices, the soundtrack is essentially a hot mess.

The animation is something I’m kind of torn on. The backgrounds are extremely detailed and chock full of interesting eye candy which normally isn’t a bad thing, but scene after scene of overwhelming imagery makes you want to shut down, or at least it did me. There was literally too much going on but at least it provided someplace to look other than at the characters who have that creepy rubber-faced style that made motion capture films so unpopular. At the end of the day the characters look like they sprang from a video game circa 2003.

None of the characters are given much depth and there isn’t much reason to root for anyone. “But this movie isn’t intended for adults,” you might say. “This is meant to appeal to a much younger audience.” You’d be correct in pointing that out, but appealing to children doesn’t have to mean pandering to their lowest instincts. Kids aren’t cretins; they can be very smart and yes, they actually have standards, probably higher than most adults when it comes to animation. After all, they see a ton of it, more than we do since they tune in to Nickelodeon, Disney and the Cartoon Network more regularly than we do.

I can’t honestly and in good conscience recommend this for anybody. I wish I could – I would love to see Lucas hit one out of the ballpark, something he hasn’t done in several decades – but this film is just so terribly made that it gets the absolute bottom of my normal rating scale; the dreaded Zero. Please save yourself the chore of asking for your money back after walking out halfway through by spending it on a different film in the first place – the lovely Paddington comes to mind.

REASONS TO GO: Not a one.
REASONS TO STAY: Poor animation. American Idol-like singing that sometimes approaches drunken karaoke levels. Several steps backwards in animated feature quality.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly scary images that may upset wee tots.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sisters Marianne and Dawn were originally supposed to have long brown hair but in order to save on animation costs, they were given short hair instead with only Marianne retaining brown hair to differentiate her and Dawn’s hair style.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Epic
FINAL RATING: 0/10
NEXT: Black Sea

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Just a couple of hotties.

(1989) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Allison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, River Phoenix, Kevork Malikyan, Robert Eddison, Richard Young, Alexei Sayle, Alex Hyde-White, Paul Maxwell, Isla Blair. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

In the third film in the series Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Spielberg and producer George Lucas wisely returned to the elements that made the first movie great. The movie opens with a prologue that shows Indy as a teenager (Phoenix) trying to foil grave robbers from stealing Coronado’s Cross. Much of his backstory is explained, including how he got the scar on his chin, where he acquired his fedora and the genesis of his phobia of snakes. We also see some of the dynamics of the relationship between Indy and his father, Dr. Henry Jones (Connery) who is obsessed by the legend of the Holy Grail, which he believes to be a real artifact.

After retrieving the Cross as an adult, Indy (Ford) receives a strange package at his office in the University from his father . He is then summoned by wealthy industrialist Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), Indy learns there is an expedition underway to retrieve the Holy Grail itself. That expedition’s leader has disappeared; and the leader turns out to be Indy’s father. Indy and Brody go to Venice, to meet up with his father’s colleague on the team Dr. Schneider (Doody), who turns out to be a she, and together they find the missing information needed to locate the resting place of the Grail.

First, however, Indy is determined to rescue his father, whom he discovers is being held in a castle in Austria. Indy arrives there only to discover that not everyone he has been trusting should be trusted and that some of them are in league with the Nazis (them again). Once again, with Brody and now Sallah (Rhys-Davies), Indy and his father set out to rescue the Grail in a race against the Nazis.

The chemistry between Connery and Ford is absolutely awesome; the two often communicate with merely a glance or a stern look. Their relationship becomes so well defined because of the natural qualities of their by-play. The two spar with each other verbally, with Ford as the son trying to please his father who may well be unpleasable. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (who to that point had done Innerspace and The Lost Boys) gives Ford and Connery a slambang story to work with, and the two run with it. Spielberg provides some stunning visuals, and John Williams provided one of his best scores in any film ever.

Doody is an appealing blonde who may well be the prettiest of Indy’s love interests; she is his intellectual equal and is stronger a character than either Karen Allen’s Marion or Kate Capshaw’s Willie from the first two movies. Rhys-Davis and Elliott turn in strong performances and prove why they were so instrumental to the success of the first movie.

The third installment of the Indiana Jones films is almost as good as the first, and in some ways, better. There are some wonderful action sequences (such as a fight in the canals of Venice, a rescue from an Austrian castle and subsequent motorcycle chase and a daring desert rescue from a tank. At the center of the movie however is the relationship between father and son and Connery and Ford, two of the best in the business, make it believable; touching at times, funny at others but authentic in every moment. It is a little ironic that the measure of success for a big summer blockbuster lay in the details of the relationship between father and son, but it is true here. Hollywood could learn a lesson there in how to make a summer film timeless, as this one is.

WHY RENT THIS: Great chemistry between Ford and Connery. Excellent action sequences. A slambang story that has familiarity to the legend. A lighter touch than the last.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The villains are a little less vicious in some ways than the first film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sensuality as well as a bit of action violence. There are a couple of disturbing images as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The character of Fedora (Young), the character who chases the teenaged Indy through the Utah desert, was originally meant to be Abner Ravenwood, the father of Marion and Indy’s mentor.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $474.2M on a $48M production budget; by any standards the movie was yet another blockbuster in the trilogy.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raiders of the Lost Ark

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Strangers

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The mine train ride from hell.

(1984) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy Quan, Amrish Puri, Rushan Seth, Philip Stone, Roy Chiao, David Yip, Ric Young, Chua Kah Joo, Rex Ngui, Philip Tann, Dan Aykroyd, Raj Singh, D.R. Nanayakkara, Stany De Silva. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom can only be kindly called a miscalculation. With Lucas wanting to go with a darker mood, which served him successfully in the Star Wars trilogy, writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were brought in (Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was unavailable) and came up with a dreadful mishmash that is set prior to Raiders (of course if Lucas had been thinking properly, he might have remembered that The Empire Strikes Back was the weakest entry in the original trilogy). Yes, there were some dark moments in Raiders, but nobody was ripping anybody’s heart out, and in fact because of this movie the MPAA created the PG-13 rating as a stopgap between PG and R ratings which this movie clearly fell between.

As Temple of Doom opens, Indy is in China, trying to sell the remains of the first emperor of China to Lao Che, a Chinese gangster (Chiao). When the gangster tries to kill Indy, the hero escapes, using unwilling accomplice (and nightclub singer) Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) as a shield, and a kid, Short Round (Quan, who also appeared in The Goonies) as a driver. Indy’s agent at the airport (Aykroyd in a cameo) books Indy, Shorty and Willie on a cargo plane which turns out to be owned by Lao Che.

The pilot and co-pilot bail out over the Himalayas, causing the plane to crash in India. After a thrilling bail-out and a ride down a mountain in an inflatable raft, Indy, Willie and Short Round reach an impoverished village where the children have been stolen — along with a sacred stone — by the local maharaja (Singh). Indy takes his team to a palace to try to retrieve the stone, and uncover a hideous Thuggee cult, led by Mola Ram (Puri, one of India’s top actors) which is using children as slave labor to uncover the remaining two Sankhara stones, to become tremendously powerful. Indy is briefly drugged and becomes a slave of Mola Ram, but Short Round saves him and the trio escapes, only to find themselves trapped by Mola Ram’s troops while on a rickety suspension bridge over a crocodile-infested gorge.

This movie never feels quite right.  For one thing, instead of retrieving the Lost Ark of the Covenant, he’s basically after three rocks that have some power that is never really defined. There were other problems with the story; it was evident that without the support system of Brody and Sallah, Indy seemed a trifle lost. Also, having the precocious kid save the hero’s bacon again and again also smacked of cliché. I think all in all that it wasn’t able to capture the feel of the old time serials the way Raiders did.

Capshaw’s character whines so much that she’s become truly despised by many fans of the trilogy. Capshaw is a fine actress who performed better in other films (although she basically left acting behind her after marrying Spielberg whom she met and fell in love with during filming of Temple of Doom) and her chemistry with Ford never really meshes.

While Puri makes a terrific villain (maybe the best in the series in many ways), the way he is dispatched at the end of the film is far too easy and convenient. In fact, the movie’s last reel is a real howler, with Ford telling a village elder “I understand the power of the stones now,” which makes one of us. As MacGuffins go, the stones are pretty weak; both the Lost Ark and the Holy Grail at least have some specific uses. Of course, Hitchcock might have said that it really doesn’t matter what a MacGuffin does as long as everybody is after it.

 That’s not to say there aren’t things to recommend in the movie. The mine train chase scene is frankly amazing (although the special effects are a little bit dated) and there’s a riff on the famous swordfighter scene in Raiders. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shows off Sri Lanka’s natural beauty (standing in for India, where government officials refused to give the production permission to film because of objections to portrayals of Indian culture) to great effect. Although this isn’t his best work of the series, it’s still Harrison Ford (and yes, he takes his shirt off here and he looks pretty good) and while it’s arguable whether this will be the role he’s most remembered for (some will say Han Solo is and I can’t bring myself to disagree) it certainly is in the top two.  

This was clearly the weakest entry in the series (at least before the most recent one). With the participation of Short Round, the writers kind of made Indy a bit emasculated; one wonders if they wanted to make the second film more kid-friendly. If so, why have scenes in which human sacrifices are performed where a heart is torn out of a person’s chest still beating and then have the victim lowered still alive into a lava flow? Not exactly Disney now is it?

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Indy; great action scenes and Harrison Ford shirtless which wasn’t a bad thing back in the day.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much kid saving the day. Dark tone clashes with attempts to make it more kid-friendly than the first. Capshaw whines far too much. Fails to capture the serial spirit of the first film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scenes of intense torture and violence; could be nightmare inducing for wee ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first sequel that Spielberg ever filmed, although technically it was a prequel since it took place the year before Raiders of the Lost Ark was set.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.1M on a $58M production budget; the movie was an international blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Lucky One

Raiders of the Lost Ark


Raiders of the Lost Ark

Harrison Ford is having a ball.

(1981) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Wolf Kahler, Alfred Molina, Vic Tablian, Don Fellows, William Hootkins, Fred Sorenson, Anthony Chinn. Directed by Steven Spielberg

When news came that Spielberg and George Lucas were joining forces back in 1980, movie fans couldn’t help but rub their hands together in anticipation. After all, these guys were two of the brightest flames in Hollywood; Lucas with two Star Wars movies (to that point), Spielberg with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What nobody anticipated was that these two men, along with star Harrison Ford, would rewrite the book on adventure movies. An homage to the great serial movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Indiana Jones, trusty whip on the hip and battered fedora on his head, took the world by storm. The first Indiana Jones movie was the box office champ of 1981 and spawned numerous imitators, clones and wanna-bes which persist to this day (Tomb Raider for instance).

But nobody has even come close to the entertainment delivered by the Indiana Jones series. The first movie of the series, set in the 1930s, introduces Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology and “how should I put it? — obtainer of rare antiquities.” An expedition to South America to retrieve a golden idol puts the tattered archaeologist through fiendish traps and less-than-loyal associates (Molina, in one of his first movie roles, meets a particularly gruesome end) to emerge from the cursed temple, idol in hand – only to have it snatched away by his nemesis, Rene Belloq (Freeman), a French archaeologist with fewer scruples than Indy.

Jones returns home to find Army intelligence waiting for him; they’ve intercepted a Nazi communiqué that is puzzling to them, but makes sense to Jones and his sponsor, museum curator Marcus Brody (Elliot); they realize that Hitler’s minions may be close to finding the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which held the actual Ten Commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Realizing that this was something they had to prevent Hitler from obtaining, the Army sends Jones to go retrieve it.

In order to find the actual location of the Ark itself, Jones needs a staff headpiece that former flame Marion Ravenswood (Allen) has. After going to her bar in Tibet to try to retrieve it, he foils a Nazi attempt to take it by force.

The two head down to Egypt, where they are aided by Indy’s close friend Sallah (Rhys-Davies), who helps Indy divine the correct location. However, Belloq (who is working with the Nazis), manages to steal the Ark that Indy found and takes it and the girl to a remote island, with Indy close behind. There he will learn the secret of the Lost Ark, one that is beautiful and terrifying at once.

Raiders sets the tone as a virtual roller-coaster ride, putting Indy in one perilous situation after another, with little let-up. Spielberg proves himself to be an absolute master of pacing — editors Michael Kahn and George Lucas deserve a lot of credit here as well — knowing when to ratchet up the thrills and knowing when to give the audience a chance to catch its breath. Using devices common to serials and adventure movies from the ’30s and ’40s, Spielberg creates a wonderful sense of the era without forgetting the modern sensibilities of his audience.

The result is a movie that can legitimately be called a classic, one that has lost none of its luster in the 30 years since its release. While Star Wars made a star out of Ford, Raiders cemented him as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His screen charisma is never put to as good use as it is here; Jones is both a traditional adventure hero but also a fallible one – he hates snakes and he has a penchant for getting beaten up. Unlike the heroes of past serials, Indy rarely fights fair – the scene of him shooting an expert swordsman who tries to intimidate him with a series of elaborate moves was both improvised and classic. The ability of the film and its actors to poke fun at traditional adventure movie clichés is part of what makes the movie great.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Karen Allen’s performance although I understand why people adore her. She was supposed to be a strong, bold woman of her era, able to drink big ol’ Nepalese under the table and a woman willing to stand up to the Nazis but at the end of the day she was just a heroine in jeopardy, waiting to be rescued by the hero while whining “Indyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” as she does. The part was a little too schizophrenic for my liking, although it did set the tone for heroines for the rest of the series, for good or for ill.

Freeman made Belloq smooth, suave and pretty much forgettable. He was the more “reasonable” of the heroes, the dark side of Indiana Jones who allowed his own greed to become his driving force. It was the money that motivated Belloq, not the actual artifacts that he was after. Jones wanted the items that he found to be displayed in museums for everyone to enjoy; Belloq only wanted the payday. He makes an interesting contrast to Jones, but Freeman doesn’t have the charisma to really compete against Ford.

It is Lacey who is the villain most everyone remembers. As the eager Gestapo agent, he is both dangerous and disarming. He can torture a young woman with a red-hot poker, or lead a group of thugs to beat up a single aging archaeologist.

This remains to this day one of my favorite movies and I’m not alone in that regard – Raiders has everything that makes going to the movies fun. Even 30 years after the fact, it remains as fresh and fun as it did the day it came out. It is currently only available as part of a four-disc DVD set of the original trilogy which is kind of a shame because this deserves to be part of everyone’s home video collection and the prohibitive price of the multi-movie set may be out of reach for some. I don’t think Indiana Jones would approve of that kind of thinking, although Belloq might.

WHY RENT THIS: The perfect adventure movie. Harrison Ford shows why he’s one of the world’s biggest stars. A roller coaster ride from beginning to end, brilliantly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenswood is a bit whiney.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some fairly scary images and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name of the lead character was originally Indiana Smith, which was an homage to the Steve McQueen character Nevada Smith. The surname was changed to Jones on the first day of production.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a massive global blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Footnote

Red Tails


Red Tails

The Tuskegee Airmen, circa 2012.

(2012) War (20th Century Fox) Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith, Rick Phillips, Ne-Yo, Lee Tergesen, Daniela Ruah, Elijah Kelly, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney, Michael B. Jordan. Directed by Anthony Hemingway

 

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring ones to come out of the Second World War. An all-black Air Squadron in the U.S. Army Air Corps (kind of a precursor to the Air Force which didn’t exist at the time), the group encountered prejudice and the prevailing attitude that African-Americans were incapable of learning the complex workings of the fighter planes and were cowardly in nature, certain to turn tail and run in combat. Spurious studies done by the U.S. Army War College apparently supported that myth.

Most people who saw the brilliant HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen will know that the Airmen shattered that myth, posting one of the proudest records of any squadron in the war. They protected the bombers that were dropping the smackdown on Hitler and saved uncountable lives; not just the men in the bombers but the soldiers on the ground as well for whom the war was shortened because the bombers were able to do their work.

It’s high time that the Tuskegee Airmen got a proper treatment on the big screen and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga, has been trying to do just that since the 1980s. However, studios were reluctant to approve a big-budget movie with an all African-American cast – it seems some battles remain un-won in the struggle.

Unfortunately, the movie that Lucas placed in the hands of first-time feature director Hemingway (who has helmed the justly acclaimed “Treme” series for HBO) falls way short of the mark. I’m not even sure where to begin with it. The script I guess for starters; it’s cliché and full of cut-out characters taken from war movies of bygone times. It’s predictable in the extreme, lacking in either vision or creativity. For whatever reason, Lucas opted to go with a fictional version of the Airmen and these Airmen lack depth and are even worse, uninteresting.

Howard fares best as Maj. Bullard, the squadron commander. He at least has some life in what he does and commands screen attention. Gooding, who was in the HBO version of the story, uses a pipe to distraction, substituting props for creating a genuine character. He sleepwalks through the part, lacking his usual energy.

Lucas is well-known for his dogfight sequences in the Star Wars movies and has said in interviews that the fights in this movie are as close as we’re going to ever come to an Episode VII in that series. If that’s the case, it’s a good thing they cut it off after six. The CGI is not just bad, it’s embarrassing. It never looks very realistic at all; it looks like a ten-year-old videogame.

For some odd reason, it appears that Terence Blanchard, who composed the score, went for a beat-heavy synthesized score rather than something more period-friendly. It’s distracting which is not what you want from a score; it should enhance the film experience, not be noticed for all the wrong reasons.

I can understand wishing to make an action movie based on the exploits of the Airmen; that would expose the squadron to a wider audience, theoretically. That’s admirable, but at least if you’re going to do that, give that wider audience a movie they’re going to want to not only see in theaters but recommend to friends.

There is an elephant in the room about this movie that I guess I’m going to address here. I’m a white critic criticizing a nearly all-African American film. To say that I don’t like the movie doesn’t mean I don’t like the subject, or that I don’t like African-Americans. I have nothing but respect for the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen; I just wish they had a better film that honors those accomplishments.

REASONS TO GO: Howard lends some dignity and restraint.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Poorly acted, amateurish CGI, one of the most annoying film scores ever, a movie-of-the-week plot…the story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of war violence, some of it gruesome and there’s also some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George Lucas has been developing the story since 1988; since studios have not been willing to finance the project, he has put his own money into making the film, almost $100 million for production and marketing.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are bad to mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle at St. Anna

AERIAL COMBAT LOVERS: There are a few scenes in which you get an idea of the chaotic nature of WW2 dogfights.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

TOMORROW: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress