Late to the game, as usual

So, I hear there’s this new Indiana Jones film on. What’s that? It’s been out for a month or so? Aw shucks…

I’m probably exactly the right age for the Indy movies. I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at the cinema when I was 14, and I got Raiders of the Lost Ark on video later that same year. As a teenager I enjoyed the hell out of these films – except for Temple of Doom, which I already didn’t particularly like at the time. It’s got fantastic set pieces but doesn’t hold together very well as a film. (And it’s the one Indiana Jones movie, in my opinion, where the stereotypical natives do become offensive and racist… but that’s not my beef here.)

My favourite one of the films was always Raiders. It had a magic, a rawness and an energy that the others don’t match. Last Crusade is the funnier film, but it comes dangerously close to self-parody – added to which, well, it’s pretty much a rip-off of Raiders. So many of the scenes made me think, “Yeah, cool, but haven’t I seen this one already?” You get the same type of intro sequence, followed by scenes at Barnett College, followed by the story proper. You’ve got rats instead of snakes. You’ve got the wrath of God visited on those undeserving. And all of it tries just a bit too hard to be funny.

Last Crusade fares worst when it comes to the side characters that were introduced in Raiders. Both Sallah and Marcus Brody are turned into jokes – and they aren’t particularly good jokes. If it wasn’t for the interplay between Indy and his father, Last Crusade wouldn’t be much better than, say, The Mummy or any other Indiana Jones rip-offs.

Now, finally, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford got their act together and made a fourth film. Lots of fans hated it. Correction: lots of fans hated it on the internet. There’s something about Web 2.0 that brings out the extremist in fanboys and nerds. Something can’t be pretty good or sort of bad – it’s all either perfect, worthy of geekgasms, or utter shite of the “George Lucas raped my childhood!” ilk.

Crystal Skull is neither. It’s the third best Indiana Jones film. It’s enjoyable but forgettable. And it makes a couple of very unfortunate mistakes:

  • There’s little to no motivation for Indy. He’s only reacting to what’s happening. For a hero, he’s pretty damn passive. Compare that with Raiders, where something is actually at stake for him. Here the baddies have ten times more of a motivation to do what they do. Indy’s just along for the ride, really.
  • What happened to the guy who got shot, who bled, who looked worse for wear after his big scenes? Indy’s always survived things that no real human being would survive – but he was never indestructible. Here, one of the first things we see the man do is survive an atomic blast. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it’s one hell of a cool image. But if a hero isn’t touched by a nuclear explosion, well, are we supposed to be thrilled when he’s being chased by bumbling Russian soldiers?
  • David Koepp, the script writer, didn’t really know what to do with his characters. Many of them are utterly unnecessary for the plot and take time away from one another. Was Mac necessary? Not really. The Russians could have done what they did without him. Oxley? He was basically a talking version of Last Crusade‘s Grail diary. Even Marion, although she had some nice scenes, was basically wasted, as was Mutt. There was no urgent reason why any of these characters were in the film – and if you’re making what should be a rollercoaster ride of a film, superfluous characters slow you down.
  • I don’t have any problems with aliens instead of religious artefacts – if they’re intriguing. The Ark of the Covenant had mystery, it felt positively alive. (It was also helped by John Williams’ wonderful score, which I’ll talk about in the next bullet.) The Grail was already much less interesting, but Last Crusade didn’t focus on it: it focused on Indy and his father. The crystal skull? It’s a pretty uninteresting gizmo. It doesn’t have much character. And the ending pretty much lacked awe… which the Ark had in spades.
  • I don’t remember a single one of the new tunes Williams penned for Crystal Skull. All three former Indiana Jones movies had memorable tracks, and the Raiders March is one of the most iconic pieces of film music there is. I can’t remember the last time Williams wrote music that didn’t feel like B-sides. The man wrote some of the most memorable film scores – but from what he’s been producing in the last, say, ten years, he should finally retire.
  • The villains… Raiders had its iconic Nazis, and it had Belloq, to date still by far the best adversary Indy ever had – because he wasn’t actually that different from the man. Belloq had a great introduction, his interactions with Indy were well written and acted, and he actually had charisma. Cate Blanchett tries hard, but the script doesn’t know what to do with her. Is she evil? Driven? Obsessed? Is she actually a tragic figure? I don’t mind ambivalent characters, but I mind scripts that seem to have an attention span of five minutes. Koepp didn’t really seem to have much of a concept of any of the characters… which is probably why the film feels mostly like a string of episodes, none of which are really terribly compelling. And what’s Indy without a good adversary?
  • And what’s with the horrible over-exposed wedding at the end? It looked like Heaven in Always! Walk into the light, Indy…

Anyway, the film’s had enough of a critical pummeling. All in all, it was entertaining enough, but not much more so than a competent Indiana Jones knock-off. And somehow mediocrity is almost worse than an out-right bad Indy movie. I just hope that Lucas and Spielberg won’t try to keep flogging this almost-dead horse. At some point it becomes terribly, terribly undignified.

And talking of undignified: have fun with this! 

Airborne, tumbling down…

I resisted watching Band of Brothers for a long time, just as I still haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan and am not planning to do so any time soon. While I acknowledge Spielberg’s skills as a director, I tend to mind those films of his that purport to be “important”, because usually he mistakes pathos for importance. (I’m excluding Schindler’s List from this, though.) Band of Brothers came out in the wake of Spielberg’s Omaha Beach Party, and I assumed that it would be more American WW2 pathos.

When we watched the first episode, I was afraid that my expectations would be proven true. The main theme of the series, without the context of the actual episodes, dripped with solemn, righteous pathos, like a particularly constipated John Williams on Fourth of July. The episode itself neither confirmed or rebutted my fears, though: it concentrated on the battalion’s training in England, so there was little space for outright heroism. The episode was interesting enough, although it was hampered a bit by casting David Schwimmer as a bullying instructor. Schwimmer did a good job, but it’s more or less impossible to look at him without thinking “Ross! From Friends! and wanting to smack him in the gob.

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It was only in the second episode, “Day of Days”, that I came to realise that my fears were unfounded. Yes, there may still be lots of soldierly pathos in the remaining eight episodes, but there was little to none of that here. It’s extremely difficult for a war movie – even for a supposed anti-war movie – not to make scenes of warfare exciting, so the implication is “War is hell… but it’s a bloody adventure, innit?” Instead, the first scenes we get of the characters involved in an actual battle is them sitting in the planes, waiting for the jump, as flak fire shoots several planes to bits. The soldiers are powerless, and whether they live or die isn’t down to their heroism but rather to sheer luck.

We were eating lunch when we started watching the episode, but both of us stopped digging into our sandwiches pretty soon as horrible, frightening, saddening things started to happen on the screen: as a plane went up in flames, and you saw little human specks on fire tumbling from the conflagration to fall to their death. The surviving soldiers’ first direct encounter with the enemy was no more heroic, as they shot a group of Germans on a horse cart from the safety of an ambush, riddling the horses as much as the enemy troops with gunfire. At this point, you got the impression, wartime reality for these men was probably not that different from that of the German soldiers: you point your gun at the guys in differently coloured uniforms and you hope that they die before you do.

This impression that even the Good Fight is a pretty crappy fight became even stronger when Sgt. Malarkey gets to talk to a prisoner of war, a German-American born in the States whose parents decided to move back to the Fatherland. Just after he stops chatting to the young man who, but for the accident of family might have been wearing the same uniform as him, all the POWs are rounded up and shot. Can’t waste time and men on protecting these prisoners.

Right now I’m impressed at the lack of “Rah, rah, Allied Forces!” pathos and very curious as to how the series will continue. After a pretty gut-wrenching second episode, will it be able to maintain this level of intensity?

And, perhaps more importantly, will I manage to remember the names of all the soldiers (looking so similar under their over-sized helmets, where you haven’t even got hair colour to go on) before we get to the end?

P.S.: Talking of distracting cameos by TV comedians – there was this little guy in one of the scenes in the first episode, and I thought, “Man, he looks just like Shaun from Shaun of the Dead… but it can’t be him, because why would they want to cast a Brit for an American?” Well, turns out that Simon Pegg is far from the only Brit playing a US soldier in Band of Brothers. Is this payback for all of those villainous Germans played by British actors?