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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Over Labor Day weekend, we got to see Raiders on the Lost Ark on the big screen, at Chattanooga’s wonderful old Tivoli Theatre. They started a film series that I didn’t know about as early as I should have – we missed The Goonies, and wouldn’t that have been a fine movie to see in a theater? – but I’ll be paying attention to what they announce for the Bobby Stone Film Series next year.

I mentioned that I’m very glad that we reacquainted our son with Raiders, so that the characters played by Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies would be fresher in his mind. You can never tell with kids. After we finished, I asked him whether Last Crusade was a million times better than Temple of Doom and he had to be reminded what happened in that one. I also reminded him of a couple of key moments in Young Indiana Jones, particularly the end of his relationship with his father.

But yes, Last Crusade is a million times better than its predecessor. It ticks all the boxes that Temple didn’t, especially the one where a movie like this needs a charismatic bad guy, this time played by the wonderful Julian Glover. Most importantly, it’s a fun movie, never dark or frightening. The kid couldn’t decide what his favorite scene or favorite line was. He jumped for joy throughout practically the whole film. Castles on fire, underground crypts, boat chases, motorcycle chases, tank chases, Flaming airplanes passing cars in tunnels… this movie’s got it all. It’s nearly as good as the original, and Sean Connery’s wonderful as Indy’s grouchy father.

I really enjoyed our son recognizing a famous landmark, but not for the same reason I did. The treasure hunt takes our heroes to an ancient city, the same one seen in 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. But our son leaned over and whispered “That’s a real place!” because he’d seen the facade – Al-Khazneh in Jordan – in a documentary recently. Some things register a little more strongly than Sinbad movies, I suppose!

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Young Indiana Jones 3.10 – Chicago, 1920 (part two)

Because Indiana Jones has to meet everybody, here he is at the funeral of Big Jim Colosimo. From left to right, that’s Indy’s old pal Ernest Hemingway, played again by Jay Underwood, along with Ben Hecht, Al Capone, and Eliot Ness. At this stage in his time in Chicago, Capone is going by the name Al Brown and nobody yet suspects that he might possibly have been the gunman who carried out the hit on Colosimo.

Our son enjoyed the second half of Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues far more than the first. Indy, Hemingway, and Ness team up to solve Colosimo’s murder, and run afoul of another Chicago gangster, Dion O’Bannion, while also finding the local cops to be completely corrupt and in the pocket of the mob. No wonder Ness would end up forming the Untouchables about ten years later.

The story’s huge fun and it features a terrific sequence where our heroes bumble their way out of a warehouse with vital evidence while avoiding about ten thousand bullets, ending with wrecked cars and crates of illegal hooch spilled everywhere. It’s played for laughs and our son howled all the way through it.

The story ends with a far, far too short bookend back in 1950 as Harrison Ford’s Indy finishes his story and uses his newfound saxophone to get out of trouble. It sure could have used another minute or so with Indy telling his friend a few more details of what became of the players, and confirming that Colosimo’s murder is officially unsolved to this day, but it’s hard to complain when Indy gets to exit the scene to his familiar theme tune!

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Young Indiana Jones 3.9 – Chicago, 1920 (part one)

I can tell you exactly where I was on March 13, 1993, when The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles started its third season on ABC. Like millions of other people, I was stranded by a massive winter storm. ABC had given the show its biggest publicity blitz yet for its new Saturday night home, hoping that bringing Harrison Ford in for a couple of “bookend” scenes set in Wyoming, 1950 would get audiences interested.

Then the snowstorm hit, and everybody was stuck at home, and ratings were massive. 18.2 million people tuned in. They lost half the audience the next week, because the ice had melted and Harrison Ford wasn’t in it. And as for me, I didn’t see it for several days. I was stuck at my parents’ house without any power. I had to ask somebody to tape it for me.

The first half of Jule Selbo’s Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues is a slow and entertaining introduction to jazz and gospel. Jeffrey Wright, who later played Felix opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond, plays Sidney Bechet, who befriends Indy and helps him stop being a gushing jazz fanboy and learn how to play soprano sax. Not much else happens in this hour. The music drove our son bonkers. He hasn’t learned to appreciate much music, and certainly not this. I thought it was all quite wonderful myself. There will be some gunplay in the next hour, he’ll be relieved to learn.

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

When I wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark a few months ago, I retold the circumstances behind my first trip to see the movie, because I remember it very well. I also remember going to see 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom very well. We missed about the first half of the movie.

This time, it was the mom of one of my younger brother’s friends who arranged the trip to the theater with her two boys. She was a well-meaning woman, but kind of a hopeless dingbat. Three years previously, she’d taken the four kids to see the 3-D western Comin’ at Ya!. I’ve never seen a frame of that film since. All I remember was a topless woman jiggling in 3-D mere minutes into the movie and being dragged out with the other three kids. I don’t remember what we ended up seeing instead. Possibly Raiders.

So anyway, Atlanta once had a theater across the road from what used to be called Crawford Long Hospital. It was built in the 1920s and was renamed the Columbia in its final decade. It boasted the largest screen in the city, an 80mm screen larger than the Fox’s. (Astonishingly, Skips Hot Dogs, now in Avondale Estates, used to have a location on the same block!) I don’t know why Mrs. P wanted to take us downtown instead of one of the many theaters in our li’l suburb, but I’m glad she did, because it was my only trip to this piece of Atlanta history. And I didn’t mind walking in so late that the first thing we saw were the heads of monkeys being placed in front of the guests at some banquet or other. Suddenly there were chilled monkey brains and the same four kids who got shoved to the exit of that one theater were jumping up and down over the grotesque but awesomely cool spectacle of nasty food before we even got to our seats.

Mrs. P talked to somebody in charge and we got to see the movie in full after finishing the half we saw. We got to see the chilled monkey brains twice and were still talking about them when school started and they served us jello.

The gross-out factor of Temple of Doom remains its greatest calling card. Hours later, our kid was still wondering what animal gave up the eyeballs in the soup, and when he let out a typical “blech” when Indy and Willie embrace in the catacombs, he quickly clarified “I don’t think it’s gross because they’re smooching, I think it’s gross because of all those bugs!”

However, if you read the story about Raiders, you’ll recall that my Concerned Dad gene activated at the end of that movie. I couldn’t ignore it this time. When Mola Ram pulled that victim’s heart out of his chest, my hand was clamped over my son’s eyes.

Convention has it that Doom was the weakest of the first three Indiana Jones films. I absolutely agree. In fact, apart from the terrific opening scene in Shanghai (that diamond, by the way, is the Peacock’s Eye), Indy and Willie’s “five minutes” flirting, and the fantastic scene on the bridge, I don’t care for this one. It’s too long and too brutal. There’s too much glee in the torture, and no glee anywhere else. Kate Capshaw is wonderful and Harrison Ford gets to be memorable in a few places, but if I was in the government of India, I wouldn’t have wanted this patronizing, ugly, violent movie made in my country either.

But that bridge scene… I could suffer through a worse movie than this for that bridge scene. I was looking forward to the bridge scene a couple of days ago and it didn’t disappoint, which is more than I can say for the rest of the film.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The calendar tells me that I must have been nine when the mother of my school friend Sean phoned my mother and asked whether I wanted to go see a movie with her boy that afternoon. I’d never heard a single word about Raiders of the Lost Ark, or seen a TV ad, and spent the next couple of hours ready to see my buddy but very skeptical about the film. I’d half-convinced myself it was going to be an old documentary about Noah’s Ark shown at Sean’s church. That ended up being possibly the best movie-going experience that anybody’s ever had.

I almost pulled off the same blind spoiler for our son last night. I was slightly foiled by Lucas’s decision to quasi-rename the movie on the DVD menu – mercifully not on the print of the film itself – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. So since we’ve been watching Young Indy (we’re halfway through and will pick back up in a couple of weeks), he knows who the character is and I did tell him some time back that at some point we’d meet the adult Indiana Jones.

Of course, as entertaining as Young Indy often is, there’s little in that show to prepare anybody for what a mad, wonderful rollercoaster this movie is.

It would be about accurate to say that Raiders blew our kid’s mind. He jibbered and jabbered when it finished, after having spent giant chunks of the previous two hours with his jaw on the floor, and couldn’t decide what his favorite part was. He eventually settled on the fight at the airplane – that scene does, of course, feature explosions – but I think he loved practically every minute of it. Even after having watched this movie something on the order of forty or fifty times, I remain so impressed by the pacing. Not one of the exposition scenes – call ’em “talky scenes” when you’re looking at them through a kid’s eyes – goes on too long for a typical child’s attention span. There are spiders and snakes and truck chases and blood and skeletons and one delicious fight after another.

I confess that the “overly concerned parent” gene came out toward the end. I suddenly worried whether that climax was finally going to be the scene that was far too gory and shocking for our kid. Was I, at last, being a downright irresponsible dad letting this poor innocent baby see Ronald Lacey melt into a puddle of candle wax and red nail polish? I dismissed the thought, but it took a minute. Then when those angels turn into eighties ILM skeletons, I diverted my eyes from the screen and watched him. Ronald Lacey wasn’t the only one who melted. I use the phrase “jaw on the floor” a lot. I’m not kidding this time. I also think the word “melt” is remarkably appropriate. His eyes were open wider than I’ve ever seen them, his mouth open wide in shock, and when it ended with Paul Freeman exploding, the kid turned into liquid and slid off the sofa and onto the floor, absolutely stunned. There was a gasp and a “Wh – WHOA!” and he stood up, shaking his head, mind as blown as mine was, yours was, everybody in 1981’s was.

It was a sight to see.

Anyway, this silly blog wouldn’t be this silly blog if I didn’t praise some actors and point out an odd coincidence or two. One of the most curious things about the casting of Raiders is that among the Nazis, you’ve got Ronald Lacey as the black-suited Toht and Tutte Lemkow as the fellow with the eye patch. They also play two of the obsessed treasure hunters in the Avengers episode we watched last weekend, “Legacy of Death.” The actors do not share any screen time in either story. And because George Lucas enjoys working with the same actors, we have seen Paul Freeman, who plays Belloq, twice in Young Indy in the role of big game hunter Frederick Selous. And we’ll see John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, and Karen Allen again in some of the other movies.

Incidentally, the rumor was that had Young Indy continued as far as our hero starting his university career in 1922, we were supposed to meet the young Belloq as a recurring foe. That’s an awful missed opportunity. But we’ll look at a few more adventures of the younger Indy before we get to the next film a few months from now.

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The Force Awakens (2015)

Before we get started, I really, really encourage you all to read a criticism of The Force Awakens that my friend Matt Murray wrote. You can check it out here; it’s not a very long read. Matt’s a very good filmmaker. He’s been making independent movies of all shapes and lengths for decades. He understands cinema better than most people, and his criticism of TFA is absolutely correct. I can’t disagree with a single point that he makes there. And yet at the same time he’s completely wrong. TFA is indeed a tame and safe corporate-led rehash without an original idea in its skin and a desperate need to appeal to a diverse audience without doing anything to challenge either its characters or that audience.

But it’s fun. It’s actually fun. It’s the first time a Star Wars movie actually did anything to entertain me in more than thirty years. It was made by a director who doesn’t seem to have lost his sense of wonder, and the performances that he brings from his actors convince me that they’re genuinely people. The prequels created some nice environments that seemed extremely interesting, but even the heroes in those movies are so repellently wooden that I can’t envision what they’re doing when they’re not servicing the needs of the plot. Imagine having dinner with Finn or Poe. Now imagine having dinner with Amidala. You can’t even imagine Amidala eating.

And so, with life and joie de vivre restored to the set of a Star Wars movie for the first time in a long time, I didn’t mind this being a cover band retread. It’s fun. The previous four installments were not. That’s all that matters. Certainly I’d prefer they have gone with something more original, but they did with the next movies. TFA is the back-to-basics restatement of principles. It’s the Beatles working simple with the Get Back/Let it Be sessions before they did Abbey Road. Each of the three films that followed TFA are superior, but all four movies are better and more entertaining than the four that preceded them. I like Let it Be and Abbey Road better than Sgt Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and the white album too.

Our son is hardly a reliable critic, but he was also pretty impressed. We teased him afterward about whether he likes movies or he just likes explosions. But despite his oddball protest that the only thing he really liked was Starkiller Base blowing up, we certainly saw him bouncing with glee at the various chase scenes and gunfights. The death of Han Solo didn’t move him much. I honestly really loved that experience when the film was first released. Kind of appropriate that an actor who’s said variations on “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” as often as Harrison Ford has would get to bow out here in a scene that put a lump in my throat for about ten solid minutes before his inevitable end, feeling that bad feeling so strongly that I hoped against hope that I was wrong.

Rewatching it, sure, the missed opportunities stand out. Some of the concessions to “cinema” over reality grate. Wouldn’t this have been a more thrilling experience if the First Order was a zero-budget terrorist organization instead of yet another galaxy-striding, who-the-hell-is-funding-this super-army with yet another Big Gun? Having felt the horrible shift in the Force that came with Ben/Kylo’s final fall and Han’s death, why does Leia choose to ignore Chewbacca when they return so that she can embrace a complete stranger?

I could go on, because, sure, it’s a movie that gets a lot wrong. But it’s also a movie that gives Max von Sydow such an overdue chance to join this universe, and which introduces us to so many interesting characters and some really fine actors. As nice as it is to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher casually being extremely good, my interest is in Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. As I keep saying, we see very little contemporary film and television, but I’d be willing to see them in anything. I’m a little less sold on Adam Driver, but that’s arguably a credit to how horrible a person Kylo Ren is.

I dunno how episode nine is going to end. I really prefer not to speculate much. But I can’t help myself and I really do hope it isn’t Rey who finally kills this villain. I want Chewbacca to bring him down. I’m not going to place any money on it, mind.

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Return of the Jedi (1983)

There used to be a magazine that I enjoyed called Sci-Fi Universe. In 1997, they published a story called “Fifty Reasons Why We Hate Return of the Jedi.” Most of it was the sort of nitpicking that gives Star Wars such a splendid reputation, but it was all really funny, especially one key problem that I had with it when I was twelve: “It’s just a bunch of Muppets.”

And so, when I was twelve, I didn’t watch this movie. I’ve mentioned how insufferable I was as a twelve year-old before; basically, take my present levels of obnoxiousness and ramp them up to eleven. And twelve year-old me saw publicity photos of Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks and the green pig guards and that piano-playing elephant and said “Nope, not for me.” I didn’t see this film until the early nineties. I didn’t buy a single trading card, and not one action figure. And it wasn’t like I had suddenly turned against kid-friendly sci-fi. I was addicted to DC Comics’ Legion of Superheroes in 1983, and was about eight months from discovering Doctor Who. I just had absolutely zero interest in Star Wars.

Not one frame of this boring movie has shown that I was wrong.

Regurgitating at length what I think is wrong with this movie would just be counter-productive. Overall, it just feels like a contractually-obligated hangover. I enjoy the scene where they go out to the Sarlacc, and nothing else. But this is supposed to be about evaluating or reevaluating movies with a six year-old and seeing what he sees, and he really enjoyed everything he saw.

All that physical comedy that seems like it was made for kids? It was, and it worked for him. He thought Jabba’s posse was full of frightening and menacing aliens, and the Rancor was scariness incarnate. The speeder bike chase amazed him, the space battle had him on the edge of his seat and furiously kicking his legs. I asked him to tell me more about what he thought.

“I really liked the Death Star exploding and the big fight, yeah, I loved those. And I loved that blue elephant thing, because it’s blue, and I like blue, and I like elephants, he was funny. The scariest part was when the Emperor was shooting out like, electric out of his hands. I did not like that at all, it was too creepy. The old characters were my favorites, but I also liked those furry things that were in the big fight, those little ones? I really liked those because I like furry things! The furry things caught everybody in a net, and R2-D2 cut the net and they went falling out of it!”

I would absolutely rather watch Message From Space or Starcrash than this movie. I’d rather watch any of the other Star Wars installments, even the prequels, which also suffer from Ian McDiarmid stinking up the place with his awful line delivery. But that’s great that the kid loved it. I’m glad he got to see it before he got jaded.

Actually, I will tell you what might annoy me most of all. The end of this film was likely to be the last time that the major characters ever appeared. For six years, they were just about as popular and identifiable as any characters in the popular culture of the time, parodied and imitated in equal measure. Star Wars wasn’t just some thing for children or nerds, it was mass culture and deserved its success. You might could argue that the toxic elements of fandom, along with Jar Jar Binks, eventually turned that around. Most people don’t care who or what General Grievous is, but every adult in the western world could identify Darth Vader in 1983.

The characters deserved a sendoff. We should have been able to say goodbye to them and share their final conversation together, their last words.

But we can’t hear a thing they’re saying because George Lucas figured we needed to hear the Ewoks singing their jub-jub song instead. Damn, I hate this movie.

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The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Our son told me “I can’t wait to watch the next Star Wars movie! It has Imperial Skywalkers in it!” I think he’s been getting peeks and hints from Angry Birds tie-in games. Forgetting, briefly, that they’re also called Imperial Walkers, I told him that they were AT-ATs and AT-STs. “Well, I want to call them Imperial Skywalkers.”

And speaking of things being called one thing and not another, I never realized that Boba Fett is never actually named in this movie. We all knew it in elementary school – we had the toy, we saw the Holiday Special – but here he’s just “the bounty hunter.” How odd.

But the anticipation buildup for this film was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen from our son. There have been times where he’s not entirely gung-ho to watch what we’ve selected, but he’s been on pins and needles for two weeks. This morning, he appeared at the top of the steps and announced that he was too excited to brush his teeth and wanted to start the movie right now. He didn’t want breakfast. We insisted. You’ve never seen anybody resent peanut butter toast so much in your life.

Like all of us, I love this movie. I love how the cast is full of familiar faces like Julian Glover, John Hollis, Milton Johns, and Michael Sheard. Apparently John Ratzenberger is in it somewhere, too, but I never spot him. Our son agreed, full of energy and excitement and worry about the oddest things – he grumbled that he hoped that Luke brought an extra oil can for R2-D2 when they land on Dagobah – and he was scared out of his mind by Luke and Vader’s duel. I made a rare intervention as he hid his eyes under a pillow and said “You better watch.” There are certain moments you’d never forgive yourself for missing.

Spoilers are strange things. When we were kids, the news that Vader was Luke’s father spread like wildfire, and we all went “OhmyGodREALLY?!” I lost that desire or need such a long time ago. I can’t stand having anything spoiled. I was in a grocery store checkout line about three weeks before The Phantom Menace opened and flipped open a children’s tie-in book to see the artwork. The book landed on “Qui-Gon was dead, but his–” and I darn near threw the book across the store. Our son seems to be one of the few who didn’t learn that Vader is Anikin beforehand. It didn’t blow his mind, but it’s a good hook to talk about before we watch the next film in four months or so.

I did try and talk him out of it. I don’t actually like the next four films. The most recent two have been great fun, but I’d honestly rather watch many other movies before Return of the Jedi. I’ve been overruled, though. He insists on seeing Darth Vader defeated, which somebody somewhere seems to have told him happens in “the last movie,” even if nobody told him who Darth Vader actually was.

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