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

Haywire


Haywire

Gina Carano finds that Michael Fassbender makes a nice stool.

(2012) Action (Relativity) Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Michael Angarano, Mathieu Kassovitz, Eddie J. Fernandez, Aaron Cohen, Maximo Arciniega. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

Trust is a hard thing to come by and shouldn’t be given lightly. However at some point you have to at least hope that those in the same boat as you are going to watch your back. Sometimes though the people in that boat might have differing agendas.

Mallory Kane (Carano) is an operative working for a private security agency, the kind that takes care of things that government agencies can’t or won’t. After a hostage rescue in Barcelona doesn’t go quite according to plan, Kane and her fellow team member Aaron (Tatum) hook up before going their separate ways.

Mallory’s boss Kenneth (McGregor) next assigns her to a quick job as eye candy to MI-6 agent Paul (Fassbender) in Dublin as they pursue a French asset named Studer (Kassovitz). In a barn on the Frenchman’s estate, Mallory finds the hostage she rescued with a bullet in his brain. That raises her suspicions. When Paul turns against her and tries to kill her in their hotel room, that makes her downright paranoid.

She now has to escape her own operatives and law enforcement as she tries to get to the bottom of things as to why she was double crossed. She’ll have to discover who was behind it – Kenneth, the government official who employed him (Douglas), the diplomat (Banderas) who isn’t all he appears to be and the only person she can trust is her father (Paxton).

Stephen Soderbergh has done action movies before (The Limey) although he is best known for the Oceans 11 series. He makes a noble effort here but it falls a bit short of the mark. The problem here lies mostly in the writing. For one thing, there is no real suspense; most of the betrayals and double crosses you see coming. They’re not just telegraphed, they’re on digital video on demand.

Also, I found the pacing kind of uneven. The movie jerks along like it has sugar in the carburetor. There’s a scene of action, then a flashback, then exposition, then more action…there isn’t the kind of flow that makes a movie like this work. There’s also a distinct but odd lack of energy, like the cast and crew didn’t eat their Wheaties or something. It’s extremely laid back.

There are some good performances here. Carano, a MMF superstar, carries the load here and she shows a great deal of potential. She has one romantic encounter with Tatum and she looks like she felt awkward doing it but otherwise she handles herself well, not to mention she’s very attractive. Some female reviewers have expressed some satisfaction at watching her kick the asses of every other guy in this movie, but badass women are no stranger to Hollywood – maybe those reviewers should watch a couple of Pam Grier movies for future reference. Carano, a trained professional, is an excellent ass-kicker it must be said.

There’s lots of action for those who are into that, from car chases to occasional gun fights. I do like that Mallory works for an independent contractor and not a shadowy government agency, that is more in line with modern sensibilities. However, the pros and the cons of this film break just about even. I’m leaning towards a very slight not recommended, but I could be pushed either way.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action. Carano is easy on the eyes.

REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is kind of choppy. The plot is kind of predictable. Lacks passion – felt more like a payday than a movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots and lots of violence. Then lots more.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gina Carano’s voice was digitally altered to make it deeper sounding after the studio decided her voice was too-feminine sounding for the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic

EUROPEAN LOCATION LOVERS: Won’t be loving this. Most of the location shots could have been filmed anywhere. You never get a sense of place in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Girl on the Train

Contraband


Contraband

Kate Beckinsale won't bring up The Happening if Mark Wahlberg won't bring up Underworld

(2012) Action (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Caleb Landry Jones, Lukas Haas, Diego Luna, .J.K. Simmons, William Lucking, Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, J. Omar Castro, Olafur Darri Olafsson, David O’Hara. Directed by Baltazar Kormakur

 

Heist films can be a diamond in the rough when they’re done right or a dime a dozen when they’re not. It isn’t easy getting them right. By their definition they need to be complex and light, a snowflake of a film that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with too many details but yet must have those details worked out in order to retain its own internal logic.

Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) is a family man who owns a home security installation company. He used to be a smuggler but got out of the business (which is dad (Lucking) is in jail for) to raise his sons and provide a stable existence for his gorgeous wife Kate (Beckinsale).

Then Kate’s screw-up of a brother Andy (Jones) does a drug smuggling run, even though he promised Chris he wouldn’t and has to dump the cargo, which leaves him $750,000 in debt to a ruthless drug dealer named Tim Briggs (Ribisi). Drug dealers are not known for being compassionate, understanding sorts and Andy is hospitalized after Briggs tries to run him down.

Chris immediately realizes that Andy’s life expectancy has decreased dramatically and tries to make amends with Briggs. However Briggs is not a man to be reasoned with and Chris realizes that he has no choice. He has to make another run. Just when he thought he was out…

The problem here is that the plot is only superficially complex. There are some scenes in Panama that include a crazed drug dealer (Luna) that seem to come from another movie. There’s no cleverness here; it’s got the touch of a blacksmith where it needs the sure hand of a surgeon. None of the characters have much dimension to them. The big plot twists are telegraphed and Da Queen guessed it about 10 minutes into the movie, which even for her is pretty early.

Wahlberg is a capable lead. He’s got an innate decency that makes him a great everyman hero. He also is capable of action hero snarkyness  – witness his line “Did you think you’re the only guy with a gun?” which is perhaps the best moment in the movie. He isn’t particularly impressive here but he isn’t a disgrace either. Beckinsale is essentially a designated victim, a far cry from the Underworld movies.

While Foster has a great deal of potential, this is essentially the same role he played in The Mechanic and he’s way better there than here. He is still fascinating, but his performance here doesn’t continue his forward movement in his career. This is an Oscar nominee who deserve better than second banana.

There are a lot of inconsistencies from the casting  – Caleb Landry Jones is to Kate Beckinsale as Lyle Lovett is to Julia Roberts – to the cinematography, which is wonderful in Panama but kind of dreary in New Orleans. The action sequences are pretty nice, when they do come but they often feel like something added on rather than something germane to the plot.

It’s innocent enough entertainment mind you – you will not feel cheated of your ten bucks admission. However, it isn’t much more so you won’t feel like you got a bargain.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice action sequences and Wahlberg is now a more than capable lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Really predictable plot and characters. Telegraphs plot points, shows signs of lazy writing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, a whole lot of cursing and a little bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on the Icelandic movie Reykjavik-Rotterdam which director Kormakur starred in, the same role that Wahlberg plays here.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone in 60 Seconds

PANAMA CANAL LOVERS: Some very nice overhead shots of the canal are on view.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Soul Surfer

Drive


Drive

Ryan Gosling doesn't handle any movie role with kid gloves.

(2011) Action Thriller (FilmDistrict) Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Kaden Leos, Jeff Wolf, James Biberi, Russ Tamblyn, Joey Bucaro, Tiara Parker. Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

Some people use their cars to get from one place to another. Others use them as a status symbol. Still others use them as a means of self-expression and self-identification. Then, there are the very few who just…drive.

The Driver (Gosling) – who is never given a name throughout the movie – does just that. He acts as a getaway car driver for criminals by night, and as a part-time Hollywood stunt driver by day. His agent is Shannon (Cranston) who did what the Driver did once until his knees were shattered. Shannon owns a garage that the Driver works as a mechanic for when he’s not driving. He’s quite good with repair, but he seems like a fish out of water when he’s not behind the wheel.

His neighbor Irene (Mulligan) is raising a small boy (Leos) by herself – her husband Standard (Isaac) is in prison but wants to go straight. The Driver takes a liking to Irene and Benicio (the boy). He is not an emotional sort but something about the boy’s unconditional acceptance and the woman’s quiet sweetness touches him. He begins to spend more time with them.

Shannon has a dream of owning a stock car racing team. He needs some cash to do it, so he visits mobster Bernie Rose (Brooks) who watches Driver behind the wheel and knows that this kid can be a racing superstar. Bernie’s partner Nino (Perlman) is skeptical; he’s a brutal and nasty customer who is as greedy and savage as Bernie is clever and murderous. Still, it looks like a pretty straight deal.

However, Standard gets out of jail and returns home. He wants to go clean but he owes some protection money from jail. He needs money fast – and Cook (Biberi), the man he owes money to, is willing to wipe the slate clean in exchange for Standard robbing a pawn shop. Standard really doesn’t want to do it but he’s backed into a corner and agrees to do it. Driver, smelling a rat, insists on being Standard’s driver. Cook wants his girlfriend Blanche (Hendricks) along for the ride.

When things go south – waaaaay south – Irene and Benicio are placed in harm’s way and it looks like the only one who can get them out of there is the Driver. However, with all the forces arrayed against him, even someone as skilled as he might not be able to drive them out of the way fast enough.

While there are those who might mistake this for an action picture, it isn’t – although there’s plenty of action. There are those who might mistake this for a thriller but it’s not – although there are plenty of thrills. Then again there are those who might mistake this for a drama but they’d be wrong – although there is plenty of that too. It’s something of a hybrid of the three.

Refn is a talented Dutch director who was hand-picked for this movie by star Gosling. He’s done things like Valhalla Rises, the Pusher trilogy and Bronson. This is his American movie debut and he acquits himself well. This is very much like Bullitt if it had been directed by Michael Mann in 1986. There’s definitely an ’80s noir look to it, with lots of neon and an 80s-esque soundtrack. This could well have been the lost episode of “Miami Vice.”

Gosling has been compared to Steve McQueen and in many ways that’s a very apt comparison. Gosling is very much the strong silent type, and this role fits him like a glove. In some ways it reminds me of Eastwood’s Man With No Name – a man who follows his own moral compass without minding much that it isn’t necessarily what society believes in. Gosling’s Driver views the world much as an alien does – without complete understanding or buy-in. He cocks his head oddly, as if viewing the world  like someone observing it for the first time.

Brooks is a revelation. Known more for his comedic work, he is surprisingly menacing and dangerous as the mobster. He is disarming and charming, sure but at the core this is a ruthless, amoral killer who would as soon knife you as he would shake your hand and he’s not above doing the dirty work himself.

Perlman is one of my favorite actors and here we see him in a role we don’t see him in often – the psychotic villain. He snarls and is kind of a Jewish goombah. Sort of like Tony Soprano with a yarmulke. Perlman actually sustained some serious injuries, shattering a knee during his final scenes in the movie. That’s dedication.

Mulligan, so good in An Education, plays against type here as the mousy wife. There is definitely an undercurrent of smolder between Irene and Driver, but never anything more than that. Mulligan doesn’t pull off the young wife as well as she pulled off the teenager; that doesn’t mean she doesn’t do a good job, it’s just a good job though.

The action sequences are well done. As you’d expect in a movie like this, the car chases are nicely done. The first one is a bit of a change of pace – it’s less muscle cars roaring through the streets a la The Fast and the Furious so much as a very smart man playing cat and mouse with the cops. It’s more hide and seek than grand prix.

This is definitely more of  a thinking person’s movie rather than the visceral action movie junkie’s film. There’s plenty of gore – Refn is known for his intense bloody style – so those who have issues with it to give this movie a miss in the theater. However, it is so intelligent that you might go ahead and see it anyway. It’s a different kind of movie and with Gosling leading the way, it’s good entertainment as well. If I were you, I’d drive right down and see it straightaway.

REASONS TO GO: Gosling pulls off another terrific performance. Great action sequences. Brooks is a surprisingly adept mobster.

REASONS TO STAY: Not enough action sequences; could have used one more car chase. Gore might be off-putting to some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and blood. There are also some breasts here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Irene was originally meant to be Hispanic but when the producers were able to cast Carey Mulligan in the role, some minor changes were made to make her Caucasian.

HOME OR THEATER: There is some sense in seeing this in the theater, particularly for the driving sequences.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Moneyball