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

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The Expendables


The Expendables

Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone and Randy Couture are all puzzled by the awful smell coming from the ceiling.

(Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Giselle Itie, Mickey Rourke, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Charisma Carpenter, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Zayas, Gary Daniels. Directed by Sylvester Stallone

When we reach a certain age, we have a tendency to say things along the lines as “they don’t make them like that anymore” more and more often. In some cases, it’s just our memories of things from the past that color our perceptions. Once in awhile, we’re actually right – they don’t make them like that anymore.

Case in point, The Expendables. This is the kind of action movies that filled theaters with cheering, chest-pounding men and the women who put up with them. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to cook some meat on an open flame, use power tools to make things that needed to be fixed even more broken, and drink several beers while watching football. You know, man things.

There’s a plot here but really, do you care? You’ve got Stallone leading a bunch of mercenaries into a fictional South American country to rescue a brave woman (Itie) with his besties at his side – mostly Statham and Li but also including Couture and Crews – against some rogue CIA agents (Roberts and Austin).  We’ve seen it more than once already this summer alone.

One of the big draws is a single scene in which Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger gather together in a church to essentially set up the story. It’s early on in the movie, last only a few minutes and then Willis and Schwarzenegger disappear forever from the movie. Still, you get an insane kick out of seeing these three action icons of the 80s and 90s together for the first time, with Stallone even getting in a jab at Schwarzenegger’s political aspirations.

Then there’s Mickey Rourke. Having seen his career resurrected in The Wrestler and further enhanced by Iron Man 2, he plays a semi-retired Expendable who runs a tattoo parlor slash garage where his old merc buddies get together to reminisce. He has a scene that he talks about why he got out of the game and gives at least a little insight into the toll of war on old warriors. Stallone, to his credit, centers the camera on a tight close-up on Rourke’s face except for a brief reaction shot, but essentially the entire speech is shot that way. It’s a stunning moment, one you wouldn’t expect to find in an action film like this and it serves to elevate the movie all by its lonesome.

Mainly though, this is about blowing things up, stabbing people every which way, kicking, punching and shooting people with guns, rocket launchers and whatever else is handy. The action is way over-the-top, loud and aggressive – in short, the way it used to be. You don’t have time to really think about how hurling an artillery shell at a helicopter with your bare hands isn’t likely to do much damage, let alone blow it up but Crews does just that and you pound your chest and grunt like a good monkey when he does.

Some of the fight scenes, particularly during the last battle, were difficult to follow. Stallone chose to use a more modern handheld camera approach, not realizing perhaps that the style was something of a novelty to begin with; combined with quick cuts, you get the sensation that the entire battle scene is hurtling by your head without really sticking onscreen. At times, you can’t tell who’s battling who, and it’s a shame because you wind up missing some of Jet Li’s martial arts moves which are unbelievable to begin with.

Still, this is a movie that will quell that action Jones you may have been craving for years now. I could actually feel my testicles swelling up while the movie was going on. Not an unpleasant sensation, let me tell you.

REASONS TO GO: A throwback action movie that gives you more bang for your buck than any action film this past summer.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the fight scenes (particularly in the climactic battle) were filmed with handheld cameras and were insanely difficult to follow, so quickly were they cut.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of action, lots of violence, lots of things go boom and lots of hand-to-hand mayhem. A few swear words too; probably older teens will be fine with this, but the very young should stay away.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene with Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis was filmed on October 24, 2009 and took six hours to film. Willis was in the midst of filming Cop Out and was given a pass by director Kevin Smith to appear in The Expendables; Schwarzenegger declined to accept any pay for his role, doing it as a favor to his longtime friend Stallone. It was Schwarzenegger’s first movie appearance in six years, since Around the World In 80 Days.

HOME OR THEATER: Big explosions should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Taking Woodstock

The Losers


The Losers

Jeffrey Dean Morgan knows that two sub-machine guns are ALWAYS better than one.

(Warner Brothers) Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe Saldana, Chris Evans, Jason Patric, Idris Elba, Columbus Short, Holt McCallany, Oscar Jaenada, Peter Macdissi, Ernesto Morales, Peter Francis James, Tanee McCall, Krissy Korn. Directed by Sylvain White

When you want to send in a fighting force, you send in the Marines. When you need a tougher job done, you send in the Navy Seals. When you need the impossible done, you send in the Losers.

The Losers are one of those elite fighting forces who can get just about any job done. They are commanded by Hannibal….err, Colonel Clay (Morgan) who is a cool customer except when it comes to the ladies. His right arm is Roque (Elba), a lethal weapon on two legs. Their technology expert is Jensen (Evans) who has a mouth that just won’t stop, while Cougar (Jaenada) is their quiet and intense sniper who is as deadly with a rifle as anyone you’re likely to find. The man who gets them from place to place is Pooch (Short) whose wife is about to give birth. He gets his name from the Chihuahua bobble-head he takes with him for good luck on the dashboard of every vehicle he drives or flies.

They’ve been sent to South America to paint the home of a drug dealer with a laser target so that it can be targeted with a missile. It all seems pretty routine, although Roque wonders why a team as elite as they are would be sent on a mission that nearly any reconnaissance team could do. Then, as the jet with the missile is approaching, a busload of school children arrives at the hacienda. Clay gets on the radio to abort the mission, but a mysterious voice identifying himself as Max (Patric) tells the pilot to deliver the payload as instructed, then blocks the communications of the Losers. The team goes down to save the day and does, but not before Clay kills the drug dealer (Morales) they were sent to take out. Unfortunately, when the helicopter comes that is meant to fly them to safety, there’s not enough room for all of them. Without hesitating, Clay puts the kids aboard. Then, before the horrified eyes of the team, the copter is shot down and everyone aboard is killed.

Clay realizes that they were meant to be on that chopper and that the world believes they’re dead. In order to avoid becoming that way for real, they need to let the rest of the world go on thinking that. Of the team, only Pooch and Jensen have families although in Jensen’s case its siblings and a niece whose soccer team he follows like he’s got money on them in Vegas. The team is working  menial jobs trying to get back home when Clay is approached by a mysterious but beautiful woman named Aisha (Saldana) with an offer he can’t refuse – she’ll get the team back to the States as long as they help her take out Max. Clay is more than willing to accept the offer, but he quickly realizes that Max has a more insidious agenda on his mind and Aisha’s own motivations are questionable. It will take a good deal of firepower and skill to get out of this situation alive but then again, they were dead to begin with.

This is based on a DC/Vertigo comic series of the same name and yes, there are more than a few similarities to the A-Team and other movies of that ilk; in fact, I can think of three like it coming out this year alone (besides the A-Team feature there’s also the all-star action flick The Expendables coming out later this summer) that have a similar plot. Frankly, I didn’t realize there were that many elite teams being sent to South America only to be betrayed and forced to fight powerful forces in order to clear their names. It would sure make me think twice before joining an elite fighting unit eh?

I really like Morgan in his role as Clay. He’s tough as nails but not without character flaws. His relationship with Roque and the triangle that is formed with Aisha is at the heart of the movie and with Elba, another excellent character actor the heart is beating nice and strong.

Evans is making a career out of the smart-talking team member (he plays Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies) and will be Steve Rogers in the upcoming Captain America movie, which just means he’s comfortable with comic book adaptations. He is one of the highlights here.

I liked Patric as Max, although Da Queen disagrees with me strongly here – she felt Max was the weak link in the movie. I think the character is way over-the-top but let’s face it, the movie really needs someone like it, someone so obsessed and drunk with his own power and sense of rightness that he can casually shoot someone for stumbling while holding the umbrella that was shading him. Now that’s just evil, you know?

Director White has little experience with action movies, but showed himself to be more than capable here. The action sequences are well done, but most importantly paced so as not to give the audience a whole lot of time to catch their breath. There’s enough quirky humor to balance the testosterone-fueled action sequences and there’s a style that gives homage to the film’s comic book roots and makes it a little slicker than the average bear.

Clearly this is meant to be the starting point for a franchise but the opening weekend box office numbers were disappointing so there’s little chance of that happening, which is a crying shame but in some ways perhaps inevitable – as I mentioned earlier there are far too many movies with similar plot points in the pipeline and far more that have come out in theaters and on television over the past five or six years. Still, this is one of the better representatives of the genre and those of you who turned away from the movie last weekend would do well to reconsider, particularly if you’re out for a little mindless entertainment, because this so fits the bill on that score.

REASONS TO GO: It’s big, it’s dumb, and it’s a whole lot of fun. No real new ground is broken but the characters are well-drawn, the action is spiffy and the pacing is breakneck.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is kind of old hat and while the characters themselves are well-thought out, they are nonetheless a bit on the cliché side as elite Special Forces teams go.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of shooting, a good deal of things blowing up real good and one scene that’s on the sexy side. In other words, pretty much what you’d find in your standard broadcast TV show.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story is somewhat loosely based on the arc published in the comic book series’ first six issues, collectively called “Ante Up.”

HOME OR THEATER: Sure, there are some big bangs and action films tend to work better on the big screen but quite frankly I think it would be just as swell on a good home theater system.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Shotgun Stories