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Franchise Review: Indiana Jones (1981-2008)

Four years ago today, the premiere episode of Laserdicks Reviews made its way to YouTube. The first film to fall victim to the satirical critiques was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a film that I have already skewered on this blog. Now, in honor of the fourth anniversary of The Reviewniverse, I present a series of teeny-tiny capsule reviews on all four Indiana Jones movies. Those of you wanting a review of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles can forget it, though!

Note: Due to the endless whining of fanboys, I have opted to bump Temple of Doom to two stars for this franchise review. So shut up already.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

  • Dir. Steven Spielberg
  • Released by Parmount
  • Written by George Lucas, Philip Kaufman, and Lawrence Kasdan
  • Rating: ****

The original Indy film is a great big-budget adaptation of the old matinee serials. The action scenes are all excellent, the plot is interesting without being convoluted, and the acting is spot-on. Karen Allen makes the perfect love interest for our hero, while the Nazis & Co. are worthwhile (if deliberately one-dimensional) villains. A fun ride that knows to not take itself too seriously, Raiders still manages to remain pastiche rather than parody. It needed no sequels, although they’re certainly appreciated…mostly.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

  • Dir. Steven Spielberg
  • Released by Parmount
  • Written by George Lucas, Willard Huyck, and Gloria Katz
  • Rating: **
A major misstep. Despite some thrilling action scenes near the beginning and at the end, and a fun new ally in Short Round, this “adventure” is severely hampered by mean-spiritedness and a lack of the light-heartedness that made the first film so entertaining. The violence and tone are often off-putting, as is some of the humor! The MacGuffin this time is rather unimpressive, so this film rides more on Indy saving the enslaved children than recovering the lost artifact. Even worse, the love interest is so annoying that I have a hard time caring about her. Still, there are a few good scenes buried in this mess of a prequel.
 

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

  • Dir. Steven Spielberg
  • Released by Parmount
  • Written by George Lucas, Menno Meyjes, Jeffrey Boam, and Tom Stoppard
  • Rating: ****
The third chapter is actually an improvement over the original, adding a nice element of humor thanks to Sean Connery as Henry Jones Sr. The comic conflicts between father and son hide some of the minor flaws of the story (the love interest is completely a plot device this time, but why complain?), and the action is no disappointment. The evil Nazis are still shallow, but who cares in a popcorn movie like this? This is the most fun out of the four, and that’s no easy task to accomplish. We can blame it for that silly prequel TV series, though.
 
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
  • Dir. Steven Spielberg
  • Released by Parmount
  • Written by George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson, and David Koepp
  • Rating: ***

The final film places Indy into a new period, and it captures the flavor of the 1950s films as much as the previous chapters did for the pictures of the 1930s and early 1940s. Shia LeBouf is especially good as the Brando/Dean figure, and Harrison Ford does not disappoint as the aging hero. Karen Allen returns to show that no one else can match Marion as the love of Indy’s life. The action is a little cartoony at times, but what did you expect from the era of Commies, aliens, and the bomb? Its only real flaw is its reliance on CGI effects, which clash with the 50s feel.

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Critical Collaborators: Dustin Barnes (Laserdicks Reviews)

Dustin Barnes on Dustin Barnes:

 

M.A. Moreno on Dustin Barnes:

As evidenced by the video above, Dustin Barnes had to overcome a major disadvantage in his filmmaking career. Naturally born with a voice that resembled that of a chipmunk, Barnes had to fight for the respect that he earned. He often chose to manipulate his voice in post-production to sound normal, as he did with our review series, but I think that there is something to be appreciated in his natural tone.

Barnes’s professional career began as a self-declared gonzo journalist in the blip-on-a-map known as Morrilton, Arkansas, following in the path set forth by his idol, Raoul Duke. With a Jack Kerouac novel ever resting on the dashboard of his antique convertible, Barnes explored the Natural State and reported on some of its more bizarre offerings. A friend from the region, actress Elizabeth Gracen, convinced him to turn his efforts from the written word to video journalism, and his modern on-screen persona was born.

I first met Dustin Barnes at a film festival in Port City, New Jersey. I was on the judicial committee for the Short Film Award of that year (2005), and I was quite impressed with the entry that he submitted: a bizarre travelogue set largely in a small Arkansas college town entitled Fear and Loathing in Russ Vegas. The short piece impressed me so much that I decided to propose an eventual collaboration with this young man, a la Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer. We promised to keep in touch.

Two years later, we met again at a Laserdisc Appreciation Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, and he expressed an interest in online movie reviews. Since my wife and I had already separated at the time, I had lost interest in pursuing Cine-Cool Reviews any longer, but his suggestion of a retrospective series covering the laserdisc releases of well-beloved films quite intrigued me. The initial name we conceived for the series was Moreno & Barnes at the Movies: Laserdiscs in Review, but during the filming of the first episode, he decided to dub the show with the far more dubious name Laserdicks Reviews.

I initially resisted the title, but I discovered that the young hipsters on the Internet quite took to the lewd name. As such, I stuck with it until the unfortunate cancellation of the series. Whether or not Laserdicks Reviews would still live on today had I not accidentally stumbled into the home of Claymore Cutlass via temporal warp can never be known for sure, but I will always hold a special place in my heart for this exciting series and my old collaborator, Dustin Barnes. As will those who have snubbed all of my subsequent online series, I suppose…

Rental Review: Charade (1963)

  • Dir. Stanley Donen
  • Released by Universal
  • Based on the Peter Stone novel
  • Rating: ****

Stanley Donen’s resume largely consists of colorful, energetic musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain and Funny Face, and he brought that vivid style to this delightful spy caper. Based on a novel that was based on an unsold screenplay, Charade provides a cinematic charm that seems almost lost by now. Despite the potentially morbid or terrifying developments offered by the plot, the film retains a level of whimsy and fun that keeps it firmly in the realm of delightful romp.

The presence of Cary Grant in a comedic spy thriller immediately draws associations with Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and this movie could almost serve as a spiritual sequel to that film. In fact, some critics have declared this to be the best Hitchcockian film to not be directed by the Master of Suspense himself, but the similarities to another director’s work should not lead viewers to shortchange Donen’s efforts here.

Its arrival in 1963 is fairly significant: Hitchcock had been making witty thrillers of this sort all throughout the 1950s, but by this point, he had returned to darker material such as Psycho and The Birds. Meanwhile, Eon Pictures had just released Dr. No in 1962, and they would be releasing From Russia with Love in 1963. As such, the 60s spy thriller was just starting to form, and Charade serves as the perfect transition film between the two eras. It is as light as a 50s effort and as swinging as a 60s film.

(A side note: Maurice Binder provided the flashy, stylish credits for this movie. Binder also created the credits for the first three decades’ worth of James Bond films. If you needed any more indication that this film works as a shift from the North by Northwest era to the Thunderball era, there you go.)

The film stars Audrey Hepburn (who worked with Donen in the previously-mentioned Funny Face) as Reggie Lampert, a woman who is quite dissatisfied with her marriage until her husband turns up dead. Apparently, he had stolen quite a bit of dough during World War II with his buddies (James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass) and then kept it all for himself. Now that he’s dead, his old pals want it, and they won’t mind taking out his widow to get it. Her two allies (or are they?) in this dilemma are a CIA agent (played hilariously by Walter Matthau) and a man whose alias seems to switch every fifteen minutes or so (Cary Grant, who had previously worked with Donen in Indiscreet). In truth, she cannot trust anyone, as everyone is lying to her and attempting to manipulate their way to the money…but that won’t stop her from falling in love with Grant, no matter what his name is at the moment.

Hepburn is as lovely as ever, Grant plays her love interest (whom she quite actively pursues!) with enough charm for all four of his personas, and the rest of the cast is quite fun, too. The movie has quirkiness to spare, and even when Audrey is on the verge of being snuffed, the movie remains unshakably delightful. The eye-popping Paris locales and vibrant sets add to the film’s addictive fun, as do the sharp repartee, memorable scenes, and thrilling chases offered by the superb script. The catchy Henri Mancini score doesn’t hurt, either. I would have to strive hard to find anything at fault with this film.

Video Review: Jesus of Montreal (1989)

  • Dir. Denys Arcand
  • Released by Koch-Lorber
  • Written by Denys Arcand
  • Rating ****
Original Laserdicks Review:
 
 
Well, the WGA strike is over, so here are my thoughts at last!
 
Quebecian (Quebecish?) director Denys Arcand (creator of the American Empire Trilogy: Le Déclin de l’empire américain, Les invasions barbares, and L’âge des ténèbres) brings us the finest in French-Canadian cinema with Jesus of Montreal, the story of an acting troupe that takes bold liberties when hired to put on a Passion Play.
 
The protagonist, Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), follows his own controversial ministry in presenting a rather secular version of the life of Christ, and much as the Jewish Sanhedrin of the early years A.D./C.E. tried to suppress the anti-conventional teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Roman Catholic authorities decide to silence the performance artists. The film thus suggests that modern Christianity has very much become the hypocritical elitist organization that it was initially formed to oppose, and ironically, the characters who reject the divinity of Jesus are the ones who are truly the most Christ-like.
 
Despite its secular heroes, the movie undeniably has a strong spirituality about it, rendering it much more powerful and moving than stale productions such as The Greatest Story Ever Told. The over-sanitized, holy-to-a-fault cinematic representations of Jesus do no justice to the Real Deal, and only the bolder, more transgressive versions, such as this film and The Last Temptation of Christ, really seem to invest much interest in the emotional complexities of being the Reformer-Messiah figure. A rather sad commentary on the typical Christian view of its own Lord and founder, no?
 
Arcand, a lapsed Catholic who attended Jesuit school in his youth, takes some shots at the Christian establishment throughout the film, but the greater result of the work is a sort of postmodern veneration of Jesus that does not suffer from detachment or white-washing, a Passion Play worthy of the Nazarene. Some viewers might find the movie blasphemous, or at least heretical, but only the most closed-minded of audiences would claim that the film is not compelling.

Rental Review: The Remains of the Day (1993)

  • Dir. James Ivory
  • Released by Columbia
  • Based on the Kazuo Ishiguro novel
  • Rating: ***

Howards End II, anyone? The similarities are hard to deny: a Merchant Ivory Production starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. However, whereas that 1992 film was based on a E.M. Forster novel from 1910, The Remains of the Day takes its plot from a 1989 novel by Japanase-British author Kazuo Ishiguro. We’re still firmly in British territory, though, no matter when the book was written (it is set largely before World War II, so the release date doesn’t quite matter).

Ishiguro’s novel is nothing short of excellent. Both the book and the film follow Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), a butler obsessed with professional dignity. He serves as the narrator of the novel, and his worldview is often quite amusing; the first-person perspective gives the book a wry sense of humor that plays well against its more melancholy elements. The film fails to replicate the book’s tone and thus comes off as very much a solemn period drama, unfortunately.

This is what I like to call the Lolita remake mentality of the 1990s. Anyone who has read the Nabokov novel or the Kubrick film knows that the material has a sharp wit that plays against the unsettling subject matter. The remake removed that humor, and thus the disturbing romance had no tonal counterweight. The same thing occurs here with Stevens’s failure to value his personal life, which in the book is alternatively funny and tragic.

However, the movie captures the parallels between Stevens’s personal delusions and the wrong-headedness of British aristocrats negotiating with the Third Reich in the years preceding the war quite effectively, and the performances by Hopkins, Thompson, Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant, and James Fox nail their literary counterparts well enough to leave little room for complaint. Scenes from the novel reach the big screen with little alteration (except, as previously noted, the absence of the humor that accompanied them).

Audiences unfamiliar with the book will likely enjoy the film, and Ishiguro fans will be just as happy with the film’s strengths as they will be disappointed with its weaknesses. The Remains of the Day is a decent movie based on a truly great novel, and I would more strongly recommend the source material over the motion picture. Even so, the movie is extremely well-made, so there is really little reason to avoid it.

Video Review: Barton Fink (1991)

  • Dir. Joel Coen
  • Released by 20th Century Fox
  • Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
  • Rating **
Original Laserdicks Review
 
 
The fourth film by the Coen Brothers almost works. No, seriously: it’s almost worthy of a recommendation. It certainly shows off their skill for narrative and visual storytelling, and the performances are consistently solid. So, why did it get the negative reviews from M.A. Moreno and Dustin Barnes?
 
Mr. Subtitle: Because you two idiots didn’t know what you were talking about, clearly. This is a four-star movie, without a doubt.
 
Ah, Mr. Subtitle, don’t you think that this film’s climax pushed the whole film to a level of silliness that is not supported by the tone of the rest of the film? I mean, this isn’t Raising Arizona. It has a sense of humor about it, but it’s far too straight for such an over-the-top climax.
 
Mr. Subtitle: First of all, the movie has a strong satirical current from beginning to end that allows it to flow between realism and surrealism whenever it wants. Second, the ending is not silly–it is chilling and twisted!
 
You mean it’s pretentious and hokey. And this nonsensical, pseudo-symbolic conclusion is really unfortunate, too, since this movie would almost be a four-star review for me otherwise. John Turturro (sporting the Harold Ramis look, I must say) is entertaining as the titular playwright who becomes the victim of Hollywood flakiness, John Goodman is indeed creepy until the groan-worthy ending, and John Mahoney (Frasier fans rejoice!) steals the show as William-Faulkner-in-all-but-name.
 
Mr. Subtitle: And you haven’t even mentioned the memorable performances of Michael Lerner, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, and Steve Buscemi!
 
Yes, yes, they’re all good. And much of the film is quite entertaining, even if it drags in spots…
 
Mr. Subtitle: I didn’t think that at all. Was Miller’s Crossing too slow for you, too? Or True Grit? Or The Big Lebowski? Or Fargo? Or No Coun
 
Let me ask you this: do you prefer Barton Fink over any of the movies you just listed?
 
Mr. Subtitle: Well, no, but that’s beside–
 
Discussion over. With so many solid films from this duo, why stick with one that falls short when you can pick a stronger entry? I suppose that if you’re hooked on the Brothers, you should check this out as a completist. Also, if the premise of the plot appeals to you, you should find it okay, if not great. Otherwise, skip it!
 
Mr. Subtitle: Don’t listen to M.A. Moron here! It won the Palme d’Or! What more do you want?
 

Rental Review: The House on Sorority Row (1983)

  • Dir. Mark Rosman
  • Released by Film Ventures
  • Written by Bobby Fine and Mark Rosman
  • Rating: **

The Golden Age of Slashers was nearing its end by the time that this picture was released, and slasher films of the late 1980s would focus more on solidifying the new pantheon of iconic monsters rather than merely attempting to emulate the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). With the subgenre preparing to enter its transitional phase, much of its product by 1983 was either substandard or passé. Mark Rosman’s The House on Sorority Row is nowhere near the worst slasher of its time, but it also falls short of truly distinguishing itself as a notable entry.

Part of the problem is that Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) had already set the standard for sorority slashers nearly a decade earlier, and most of Row‘s other ideas resemble plot points from movies such as Paul Lynch’s Prom Night (1980). Almost nothing in the movie feels fresh, and the few bold decisions made for the movie appear too fleetingly to save the overall project from its own mediocrity. Even the murder scenes feel uninspired, lacking either the emotional impact or Fangoria thrills necessary to grip the audience.

However, the movie has one great strength: Kate McNeil as the final girl, Katey Rose. As the only character reluctant to go along with a prank that leads to the den mother’s death, and the only one unwilling to endorse the hiding of the body, and the only one who displays any semblance of reason or dimension, she obviously should be the most likable character, but McNeil portrays her with enough honesty to make her genuinely worth our sympathies.

Katey also serves as the source for the best moments in the film, which occur when she is drugged in the third act and begins hallucinating. Her compromised state raises the tension considerably, and if the film had dared to be more surreal, it would have been far more satisfying. Rosman also considered using a genre-defying ending in which all of the characters died, but the producers’ insistence that the ending be more ambiguous (once again, a la Black Christmas) was probably wise, as such a conclusion would possibly eclipse all other merits of the movie.

As a dead teenager movie, it is rather bland. As an exploitation flick, it is rather tame. As a slasher that strives for a compelling final girl, it is actually not bad at all. Bolder experimentation and overall better execution might have resulted in a movie that would have something to offer non-fans of the subgenre, but as it is, only slasher devotees can hope to be anything but bored throughout the largely by-the-numbers whodunit horror.