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2008 in Review – The Year the Audience Sat Still

Best of 2008

There seems to be plenty of division over whether 2008 was a successful year at the cinema. Certainly, as the world collapsed around us in all other respects (or so it seemed), the movie world kept up a steady output and, at least in Hollywood terms, continued to turn a profit.

There were enough films to both keep minds racing and allow them to shut down, and films from either side of this divide fared as well as one another.

There was plenty more comic book nonsense in cinemas, but also some of the best films of that newfangled sub-genre thus far came out in 2008.

At the Oscars and the various other award shows, there were few surprises, but also few cries of films being undeserving of their awards as in other recent years.

Even here in Ireland the Irish film industry reacted to one musical award success by producing some of the best Irish films in over a decade, slowly beginning the long crawl out of the gutter of inadequacy.

There were losses of course; Heath Ledger died early in the year and left expectant fans gobsmacked, while Paul Newman and Sydney Pollack – to name but two – passed after tremendous careers in cinema.

There were films I was sorry to miss; I was too cowardly to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days alone, and couldn’t find anyone who dared accompany me. Waltz with Bashir came out when there was simply no time available to see it. Man on Wire also passed me by. These and many more will be caught up with in the coming months.

There were disappointments as well, mostly in films by reliable filmmakers, and indeed in reliable franchises. Hellboy 2 smacked of fanboyism instead of relishing in the same beautiful darkness of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Indiana Jones returned; needlessly. And James Bond’s 22nd outing was so sloppy it sadly undid much of the greatness of Casino Royale.

As for me, I personally had a great year, cinematically speaking. The highlights are numerous; watching Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm as the centenary of David Lean’s life passed by (I also saw Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Brief Encounter for the first time over the year); stumbling upon Wings of Desire, Amores Perros, The Leopard and many others for the first time; watching Crank with a selection of my closest, and most sugared-up, friends at an absurd hour of the night. Laughing til I could no longer breathe at Robo Vampire. These are the sort of films you never forget not just because of how great (or terrible) they are but because of where and how and who you were at the time you saw them.

Similarly there were other special, more personal moments. I had the privilege of interviewing both Will Ferrell and Michael Palin in the space of just a few months. At the Irish premier of There Will Be Blood I had a remarkable – if utterly terrifying – encounter with Daniel Day-Lewis. Jeremy Irons invited me to dinner, though never followed through.

As well as all that, this blog was begun.

Thus far in 2009 the crop of films looks tantalising, and one can easily look forward to Milk or Revolutionary Road as much as one can to Watchmen or even the sequel to Transformers. Here’s hoping for as memorable a 2009.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for, here’s my personal selection of the best films I saw in 2008.

(Note: this list is made up entirely of new films released in Ireland in 2008, that I saw. Thus, certain films released internationally in 2007, such as Juno, are present here. In turn, late 2008 international releases, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will not appear until next year.)

20. Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s follow-up to Brokeback Mountain was somewhat of a letdown, and was undoubtedly overlong, but the photography, taking in countless greys and greens, was beautiful, and the central performance by Tang Wei was superb. A shot late in the film, of a diamond-laden ring representing betrayal finding its equilibrium on a hard wooden table, was one of the year’s most impressing images.

19. Things We Lost in the Fire

The American debut of Susanne Bier was disappointing for reasons somewhat out of her control. The script’s abandoning of its fractured storyline after the first act was unsettling, and the casting of Benicio del Toro in a film so similar in feel to 21 Grams was a mistake. But it was shot in a very personal style that felt distinctly un-American, and for which it went largely unrecognised by critics and cinemagoers. The performance by Micah Berry (no relation to Halle) as the young son was notable, while David Duchovny gave what may stand to be the performance of his career.

18. Kung Fu Panda
Dreamworks may not have broken the mould with this latest animal caper, but it certainly moved into a more mature, less spoofing area of family comedy with some clever gags and superbly arranged action. Sweet in nature and low on character development, it took delight in its own silliness and provided some splendid animation, particularly in its opening sequence.

17. Lars and the Real Girl
Sweet may not be the word, in fact, Lars and the Real Girl was at times undeniably creepy, but it had buckets of wit to support itself on. The story of a man so awkward and retreated that he can only express himself through the love he shares (romantically, only) for a life-size sex doll is so inventive that it could hardly be anything less than charming.

16. Juno

Perhaps lacking the ambition of Thank You For Smoking, Juno certainly had heart, a solid script by Diablo Cody and an adorable cast. Ellen Page got the majority of the credit, but really it was Michael Cera as the stupefyingly realistic teen dad-to-be and JK Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s reluctantly supportive parents who deserve the most credit. The quirky soundtrack and dialogue added to the fun of the proceedings and let the film skirt around its unwillingness to genuinely tackle the issue of teen pregnancy.

15. Iron Man

Comic book mayhem got a whole bag of cool dropped on it this year. Robert Downey Jr played Tony Stark/Iron Man like a father hastily unwrapping his son’s new train set on Christmas morning. Gwyneth Paltrow emerged from who-knows-where to play his long-suffering and ignored love interest with more class than the film deserved. Yes, it was all a little rushed, the villain was terrible and the final action sequence was a mess, but – hey look! Another explosion! Fun!

14. Cloverfield
Seriously, who needs well-developed characters when you have nauseating camerawork and a giant alien crab-lizard tearing up Manhattan?! The night vision subway sequence was superbly built-up and executed, while the whole film gave off a 9/11 but with popcorn feel.

13. Caramel

As sweet as its delicious title, this Lebanese delight from all-round talent Nadine Labaki was the film most deserving of out-the-door queues of chick flick-eager women. Beautifully acted and shot, Labaki chose to ignore the politics and strife of her country and focus on the simple pleasures and sadness of everyday life.

12. Mamma Mia!

Not what one would consider a true piece of art, Mamma Mia! burst at the sides with so much energy and fun that even the dire karaoke singing of most of its leads couldn’t hold it down. Much prettier to look at than it ever needed to be, few were able to resist its cheeky charm.

11. Wanted

For years we’ve waited for a film in which two bullets, shot by two characters at one another, would collide in slow motion and fall to the ground. But who knew we were waiting for a keyboard, shattered across a man’s face, to spell out “Fuck you”? It turns out we were! Hectic, noisy and decidedly over-the-top, Wanted showed enough ‘mad as hell’ attitude to make it more memorable than your average blockbusting tripe. A cautiously curious squeak from a doomed rodent may have been the year’s funniest sound.

10. In Bruges

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s feature-length debut was as dark as dark can be. Obvious targets for humour, such as overweight American tourists, were made funnier by Colin Farrell’s violently disrespectful delivery of lines we’ve all thought and bottled up inside. Brendan Gleeson also brought a feckload of fun to the proceedings as a simple hitman with a fondness for historical architecture. The duo were unfortunately outgunned and outclassed by the scenery-devouring Ralph Fiennes. The profanity was wonderful, though the ending attempted a philosophical sentiment that the film couldn’t really support.

9. Gomorrah

Violent and gritty, the underbelly of the criminal world has never been portrayed quite like this. There were times when it felt like the cameras were intruding on real events where it was dangerous to be filming. Amazingly, if simply, realised.

8. Persepolis

From Marjane Satrapi’s bittersweet graphic novel came a film that dared to change little from its source material. The growth of little Marji’s confidence in the film’s first act was reflected by her subsequent disillusionment with life in Iran and the world as a whole. Iraqi gasmasks became alien faces and burka-clad fundamentalists became snake-like nightmares through the simple but mesmerising animation. Honest and full of wit.

7. The Orphanage

At the same time clichéd and yet utterly original, The Orphanage was that rare joy – a horror film where nothing really happens. Using the simplest tricks of the trade – a motionless child, creaking floorboards, never-resting cameras – Juan Antonio Bayona created a house of largely unseen horrors, where everything you feared was only what you assumed you should fear. Likely to become a classic of the genre.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

A late release in Ireland allowed this gem to make the cut for 2008. Harrowing and beautiful, the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s stroke-imprisoned body allowed for a rich story of hope and sentimentalism while allowing director Julian Schnabel to experiment with camera trickery, light and inventive editing. Mathieu Amalric gave one of the year’s best performances as Bauby, so full of life at one moment, the next, frozen.

5. The Dark Knight

Building on the back of Batman Begins, already a pinnacle of comic book movies, Christopher Nolan drew back on Bale’s Batman and allowed other characters to move to the fore, particularly Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent. Though hindered by a necrophiliac curiosity, Heath Ledger’s Joker was certainly one of the most impressive performances of the year. Broken up by clumsy plot holes and an at times overly complex narrative, The Dark Knight thrilled and impressed on several levels, and deserves much of the acclaim it has received.

4. There Will Be Blood

As grandiose in its scale as is the figure at its centre, this beast of a film could not be ignored in 2008. Violent in tone, like many of the best films this year it sought to look at what makes a man, and what a man can be at his worst. Succeeding through Daniel Day-Lewis’s authoritative and terrifying performance (one should not overlook the quality of the writing however), the finale answered that question of what happens when an unstoppable force hits a formerly immovable object. Paul Dano can easily be overlooked due to the towering Day-Lewis, but gave a truly impressive performance as Eli Sunday, a young man twelve fathoms out of his league. The music kept the viewer on edge, while the shocking photography echoed the greatest films of American cinema, from Greed to Gone with the Wind.

3. Hunger

More of an experiment with the possibilities of the camera than a political eulogy, Steve McQueen’s biopic-of-sorts of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands is slow, contemplative and utterly intense. From the beautiful yet ghastly art of a faeces-smeared prison wall and the wasting away of Sands’s body (Michael Fassbender is a revelation in the lead role), to the lighting of a cigarette by bloodied hands and the slow and haunting washing a prison floor, Hunger is nothing less than a work of art. It may become more famous for its exhausting single take sequence in which Sands debates his fate with Liam Cunningham’s priest, but the shot that sticks with you is a blinding beam of sunlight blasting through a bus window.

2. No Country For Old Men
The Coen brothers’ returned to their best this year, again taking a dark and twisted look at humanity, but this time with less wit, and a greater awareness of the potential of the story they were telling. Using Texas in 1980 as a wilderness representative of man’s emptiness, the story injected a pulse-pounding thriller into this void that never stopped pumping til the last minute. Eschewing a musical soundtrack in favour of fear-drenching silence, No Country took several thrilling set-pieces – a river escape from a vicious dog, a darkened stand-off at a hotel door – and divided them with moments of simple reflection that asked no deep questions but invited you to contemplate the answers. The decision to remove some of the most important sequences from the film adds to its sense of chaos and disorder. The stellar cast acted it with such honesty you might believe they were in fear of the script itself.

1. Wall·E

Arguably Pixar’s greatest achievement to date, Wall·E demands to be taken seriously. Almost utterly-dialogue free for the duration of its first act, the film builds a romance between two robots in a future where mankind has lost all sense of humanity. Building on the great debates of science fiction; what does it mean to be human?; what are the effects of our unending obsession with commercialism?; how will our relationship with nature affect the future?; Wall·E repackages them in a new form that is a glory to behold. Spellbindingly beautiful and sickeningly sweet, this animated marvel can appeal to anyone of any age, and will forever have something to say to those who watch it. That there is even a supply of heart-warming gags to boot only seals this as one of the most wonderful products of American cinema in a generation.

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And now, as an extra treat, here are the five worst films of 2008, in my embittered opinion.

5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Great talent wasted on a cacophony of wretched melodies, the clever production design couldn’t hide the hideous CGI nor excuse such a great collection of actors (Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter) reduced to their very worst. The one amusing joke – an unexpected light-hearted slicing of the throat – is a gag, if you’ll forgive the pun, that gets utterly done to death.

4. Be Kind Rewind

An unpleasant and confused little oddity that sees two capable actors (Jack Black and Mos Def) compete for the title of most irritating. It not only never quite gets its tone right, it also came out about 10 years too late to be of any real relevance. The adoration it attempts to show for the cinema really comes off as a pornographic irreverence.

3. Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem

Two once-dominant franchises reduced to teen horror nonsense. One earnestly suspects that no-one involved knows what the word ‘requiem’ means.

2. The Other Boleyn Girl

As ugly as it is dull, this film forced two hours of the most horrid characters upon its unsuspecting victims. Eric Bana appears utterly bemused by where he is and what he is supposed to be doing, while Johansson and Portman repeatedly do their bests to out-bitch one another. The ending hilariously draws you away from the story to focus on the future Queen Elizabeth, as if to try and make you leave the cinema thinking fondly of a far superior film.

1. Ghost Town

A wretchedly nasty little film, an attempt at a comedic The Sixth Sense, sees the talents of Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni squandered in what just might be the most blatant victim of the writers’ strike. One moment of genuine sweetness is so heavy in saccharine after an hour of hell that it feels violating and manipulative. The open-ended finale may have seemed original and smart, but makes it feel as if those involved had no real idea of where they wanted this aimless mess to go.

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Mmmm… Caramel…

Caramel

When one might expect audiences to be utterly abuzz with Indy 4 mania, it cannot be ignored that the Sex and the City film is really what people, and by that I mean women, girls, their boyfriends and gay men, are talking about the most, despite its release being a week behind the latest Jones adventure (Indiana that is, not Samantha).

It might seem odd therefore that while the 19-year wait for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has given audiences a flavour of nostalgia, Sex and the City is still fresh enough for the story to be picked up right where it left off after its 3 year absence. Certainly a dead horse is still being flogged here, but this one has suffered far less decomposition and is wearing Manolo Blahnik hooves.

Not for a moment do I have any faith that the Sex and the City film will be worth seeing; although familiar with and regularly amused by the show I find it hard to believe that this will be any more than an exercise in commercialist audience-driven drivel. SatC lost its appeal when the three interesting girls (Carrie being too despicable a human being to deserve life support after a motor accident) all entered relationships with men who were far better written than they were, and far too good for them.

It is sad therefore that women in Ireland and Britain will be flocking in gaggles and gangs to SatC when what is likely to be the sweetest girl’s movie of the year, Caramel, is still in (albeit selected) cinemas.

Caramel, or “Sex and the Lebanon” as I’ve dubbed it, is a gorgeous little story about the effects of Lebanese culture and society on the women within it. Centred on a Westernised beauty salon, the four women whose story it tells bear their own similarities to the HBO girls on the other side of the world. Layale has dreams of finding the perfect combination of love and sex, but with a married man who can never really be hers. Nisrine is a sweet girl excited about her forthcoming marriage, and so willing to please her husband that she will go to extreme lengths to disguise that she is not a virgin.

With less crassness but just as much bite as SatC, Caramel is as much a satire on the cultural landscape of Beirut as it is on the strengths and weaknesses of women; all wrapped up in a sweet little package that looks absolutely gorgeous in sun-drenched natural colours.

Adding an extra layer to the film is a parallel storyline about a local elderly seamstress, Rose, who embarks on the first romantic episode of her entire life having spent her whole life looking after her sister, who is somewhat unbalanced but sweetness personified.

The story lacks any of Carrie Bradshaw’s pathetic puns and philosophical waxings (the only waxing done here is of leg hair), it is simply what it is, a lovely slice of women’s lives.

The soundtrack also adds a great texture to the film, and the considerable wit on display (a bickering couple in their car at night are arrested for indecency, a splendid moment of editing makes light work of a cringe-inducing medical procedure) is of a kind rarely seen in English-language features these days. Many of the finest moments centre on policeman Youssef, who is enamoured of Layale; in one scene he watches her on her phone through a window and imagines it is him on the other end of the line, later, having been shaved by her in the salon, he strokes his upper lip where his moustache once was with the delighted expression of a young teenager who, having shaved for the first time, remembers the softer skin of their childhood.

Perhaps most impressive of all is that the film was written and directed by the 34-year-old Nadine Labaki, who also plays the lead role of Layale. A remarkable achievement for her first feature film.

While the hordes can surely not be dissuaded from rushing to see Carrie and Co.’s feeble attempts to still be young, fabulous and relevant, perhaps some can be convinced to make a trip to see this too. So soon after Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, it looks as though honest stories from the Middle East may have more to say about women globally now than the collected adventures of a woman whose sole talent is to match her shoes and dress with a hat that looks like a triffid.

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Review

Indiana Jones

There is no doubt about it, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had a lot to live up to. Like similar franchise revivals – Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free or Die Hard over the pond), Rambo 4, Rocky Balboa – it is not fair to say that “the audiences were begging for it” as if this permits a substandard film, the blame for which can be entirely shifted onto the audience.

But the question can be asked why now, why not earlier? One of this new film’s vital flaws is that it repeatedly hints at the amazing adventures our very favourite doctor of archaeology has had in the interim between this film and 1989’s The Last Crusade. With the entirety of World War II skipped, as well as the early days of the Cold War, audiences might feel acceptably cheated.

The film however makes terrific use of its 50s setting, applying the music and dress perfectly. A fight between Greasers and college boys is particularly emotive of the era’s subcultures, as indeed is Shia LaBeouf’s costume homage to Marlon Brando in The Wild One. More interesting however is the political issues dealt with; nuclear weapons tests, alien paranoia, and anti-communist rallies – Jones himself is accused of being a supporter of the Eastern Bloc in a McCarthy-esque scene.

But these are mere details, excellent ones at that, but it is not the detail that people come to see Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford is back on relative form. He plays the character older, gruffer and grumpier than before. As much time has passed onscreen since Crusade than has passed in our lives, and it certainly feels that way. Believably less-athletic than before, Ford plays the role with the same keen sense of subtle wisdom that Sean Connery brought to Henry Sr. So it is surprisingly like father like son, then. But he still looks good in the now heavily worn jacket and hat (which he tilts downward to sleep as ever), and that’s what really matters.

He is still teaching in his unidentified university (Jim Broadbent replaces Denholm Elliott as the new dean, and rather carelessly wastes away a poor role, once again playing a college professor) and occasionally relic-hunting. Captured by a superfluous Russian villain straight out of a Raiders-reject Nazi group and a slightly more interesting villainess, played by a delightful though insufficiently-menacing Cate Blanchett, the first action sequence brings us back on form, with Indy whipping and punching his way out of danger.

As an aside, and I may be wrong on this, it appears that although he regularly points a variety of different firearms, Indy never actually fires a single bullet in the entire picture, suggesting that the PG-minded Spielberg and Lucas have once again let themselves self-censor.

The plot surrounding the skull and the eponymous kingdom is long and overly-complex, but has a lot to do with an ancient pseudo-Mayan civilisation and psychic weaponry – a Mezzo-American Ark of the Covenant if you will. Indy is aided in his quest by the charming LaBeouf, even more on form that he was in his film-saving performance in Transformers, as Mudd, a wild young rebel without a cause but with a good sense of humour and a fancy handle on a knife and or sword. Ray Winstone plays the other would-be sidekick, and seems so confused by his character’s allegiances that he, and indeed the audience, seem simply not to give a damn. Meanwhile John Hurt takes on the older adventuring academic role, but is a babbling mess for the majority of the picture, while Karen Allen, returning to the franchise after 27 years, is actually quite charming as Marion, though the character is not given the same strength she had previously in Raiders.

As for the action, there are some great set-pieces, particularly the jungle chase, during which a fencing duel is performed across two moving vehicles and a number of characters are devoured by ants (in Raiders it was snakes, Temple bugs, Crusade rats, now ants!). Understandably, these scenes are marred on occasion by the intrusive use of CGI, new to the Jones series, which really takes one out of the action. Some the these effects, especially when LaBeouf swings from tree-hanging vines, are particularly poor. And as for monstrous insects, 3 years after the “bug pit” sequence from King Kong it’ll take a lot more than ants to get most audiences riled-up, I suspect.

Dialogue is relatively strong throughout, with a few hiccoughs along the way. The Russians, like the Nazis before them, never speak any Russian, while some of the exposition is somewhat hackneyed – although that said the story is rather complex. There are some excellent moments of comedy right from the moment the 80s-style Paramount logo fades into the movie, and even the most preposterous escape from certain death is so tongue-in-cheek one can’t help but grimace. There is also a very sneaky reference to the Ark early on in the film, which is a pleasant nod to all the original Indy fans. The only slightly tasteless joke on show is a disappointing nod to the character of Marcus Brody from Raiders and Crusade, which pays no respect either to the character or to the memory of Denholm Elliott, and will likely annoy a Indy purists and film fans alike.

The films sense of energy and buzz keep it going, but alas this is all undone in the film’s last 15 minutes, which is marred heavily by over-reliance on Spielberg’s true popcorn entertainment love; science fiction. This is not something the Indiana Jones series demanded. A sci-fi feeling runs through much of the film, but it always seems comfortably on the periphery until the concluding scenes, when the film begins to feel like a fusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark with E.T. and a splattering of A.I..

The ending will do the film few favours, and may even alienate viewers (pun noted but unintended) who wanted a semi-mythical adventure/romp with an old friend. This sequence also features the film’s weakest line of dialogue, a turkey only Lucas could have written, which echoes strongly the infamous “You only love me because I’m beautiful” “No, you’re beautiful because I love you” from Revenge of the Sith.

Thankfully the very last scene comfortably ties things up and a clever little gag hints at a sequel. The Indiana Jones franchise has returned, it has not been killed off as some might have feared. However, despite the film’s definite sense of fun, it does essentially fail to justify itself as a delayed sequel.

That said, there is a lot to enjoy here provided you like your action/adventure with a ladle of salt. There’s no reason any fans of the original should shy away (although that does not mean there won’t be some die-hards upset), and it will likely win the franchise a few new fans as well.

Alas however, once again, the cinematic event of the year is just a tiny bit too under-whelming for its own good.

3/5

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Indiana Jones and the Tempting of Fate

In anticipation of the newest instalment of the Indiana Jones series, I elected to view the original trilogy back to back last night, to fully remind myself of what a young me, and indeed several young others across the globe, had fallen so in love with, and whether they still stood as strong works.

It seemed strange that I cannot remember having seen an entire Indy film straight through in maybe 12 years, I would always be catching snippets when they were re-shown on the telly, but I never did seem to watch a whole Indy film through. So this was both an experiment and a long-overdue reunion of sorts.

There was some debate over what order to watch them in; their release order (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), or a chronological order (Temple being a prequel to Raiders). This opened up a whole can of worms such as what to do about the River Phoenix sequence from Crusade and how to avoid mentioning The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (which I seem to recall as being charming but then it has been a very long time). Release order was thus opted for.

Raiders requires no defence, it remains a perfect gem of fun. If anyone could be accused of over-acting in it, then everyone can; it’s too brilliantly silly to take seriously, yet the actors never betray their characters for a moment. What is perhaps most notable is that after the opening sequence there are in fact only two relatively brief action sequences; the streets of Cairo with the swordsman and the baskets, and the removal of the Ark by truck from the Egyptian city. Thus, for a blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark must be almost one-in-a-kind in that there is no major action sequence in the final 20 minutes (albeit a major special effects sequence in which the Nazi stooges get their comeuppance). Indeed, for such an impressive heroic figure Indy doesn’t even do away with the villains – their arrogance undoes themselves. And yet from the moment the film ended in 1981 Indiana Jones was instantly considered one of the greatest screen heroes there ever was, based not just on his athleticism and bravery, but on his intelligence, wit, style and grouchy demeanour. These are the markings of a true popular hero.

Temple of Doom gets a lot of stick, being the weakest of the trilogy, and it deserves a lot of it. There seems to have been a misunderstanding over what made Indy so popular in Raiders; Lucas, Spielberg and co. went for the purely action adventure with comic asides and cut all the academics, a move that might have helped popularise Indy further, but rather made him appear more of a substandard 1930s James Bond, a mercenary boy scout who simply stumbles into adventures, each more daring, thrilling and sexy than the last. Adding insult to injury is some of the least subtle slapstick in the series (a ludicrous “bong” sound is heard when a villain is struck on the head with a mallet, for example), and two leads, Willie Scott and Short Round, who seem to showcase everything wrong with George Lucas characters, and in their own terrifying ways foreshadow Jar Jar Binks. The first half of Temple is inexcusably dull, but the second half features some terrific sets and sequences and should be lauded for that.

The third film, The Last Crusade, tends to challenge Raiders as people’s favourite. It is the most globe-trotting of all the Indy adventures, features the most subtle villains (including Hitler) and while it reduces Sallah to a smaller role than he had in Raiders (although Rhys-Davies continues to revel in it as he is known to do), it gives a lot more time to the wonderful Marcus Brody (to be one of Denholm Elliott’s last performances) while also introducing Connery’s Henry Jones Sr, a remarkable addition to the series that has alas been unavailable for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The finale, in which Indy tackles three progressively preposterous (though evidently progressively less potentially fatal) booby traps only to meet the most British of 12th Century Frenchmen is a terrific ending to the series. The disintegration of the villain after drinking from the wrong grail is followed by the borderline-droll comment by the knight, “He chose… poorly.” – one of the best lines in the entire trilogy.

So as we welcome the fourth film in the Indiana Jones franchise, what have we left behind us? Temple is an enigma in that the events told in it are neither mentioned ever again nor do any of the characters ever reappear. We can only hope Indy dumped Willie at the first opportune moment, though we can only fear that he sold Short Round into child slavery on reaching Delhi (wouldn’t you?). Aside from the charisma and bombast of the series (summarised utterly in John Williams’s main theme) what really stands out are the superb sets (particularly in the latter two films), the casting, and some great-for-the-time special effects. Yes, the deaths of the villains in Raiders and Last Crusade look terribly dated now, but that didn’t stop them from scarring the childhoods of thousands of young boys and girls! Mola Ram’s death in Temple is accompanied by the dire editing decision to intercut a leaping crocodile as he plummets off the cliff face. That said, the death of the body of Nazi extras in Raiders by Ark-induced lightning looks superb even by today’s standards, while a moment such as that in Last Crusade where Indy shoots three Nazis through with one bullet rivals the uber-stunts of today’s action films.

Regardless of the reception of Crystal Skull, which may reinvigorate or kill off the franchise for good, the series has earned its pop-culture status and quite frankly, when viewed as a whole, is a must-see in both cinematic exercise as well as being an important event in film history.

Indiana Jones may be the only human character in any blockbuster movie who alone was more of a crowd-pleaser than all the stunts, explosions and special effects that money could buy.

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